A diplomat remembers Mandela…: ‘Gandhi of Our Time’

mandela-pixMadiba, as South Africa’s national icon and liberator was fondly called, has said his final goodbye to this world where he scripted a new anthem of liberation for his nation and the humanity. Mandela may not be amidst us any more, but his luminous spirit and the indomitable human will to triumph over all forms of oppression and persecution continues to shine as a beacon in a world scarred by prejudice and violence.  

For those who were lucky to meet him, it was a deeply spiritual and ennobling experience. Rajiv Bhatia, director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and India’s former high commissioner to South Africa, has had the privilege of meeting him many a time in the course of his decades-long diplomatic career. He remembers vividly his meeting with Nelson Mandela, what he calls the “magical Mandela moment,” on March 29, 2007.  That meeting will remain forever etched in his memory: much to his surprise, Mandela asked him about Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. And when he was told that he was hanged, an incredulous Mandela had said that hanging would be a negation of Gandhi’s principles and recalled that Nehru was opposed to it, underlining Mandela’s life-long belief in the redemptive power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ibhatia-rajivn a conversation with India Writes (www.indiawrites.org), Mr Bhatia tries to encapsulate the essence of Mandela, the talisman of his nation, the deep impression he made on him and his special connection with India.  

 Q) What do you think made Mandela such a world historical figure?

A) He was a giant among men, a leader among leaders. He wore his greatness lightly. What moved me personally was his sense of deep humility. In his life as well as in his thoughts, he exhibited a rare blend of greatness, humility, vision and courage. What struck me was that while living in the present, he thought about the future, with a radiant hope that made you think that all the problems could be resolved with sincerity and right thinking. Above all, he came across as a luminous human being who could talk and relate to people of all types and classes. And he wore his greatness and humility so lightly.

In a classic diplomatic understatement, Baso Sangqu, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, has beautifully described Mandela’s fabled humility.  When the UN declared his birthday as `Nelson Mandela International Day,” on November 2009, he underlined that Mandela was “not a god, or a saint.” “He is simply a man who has acted in manner that is a little wiser, a little stronger, a little better than the rest of us,” he had said.

Q) Madiba had a special regard and affection for India. What do you think of this deep connection between Mandela and India?

mandela-gandhi1A) For people of my generation who had never met Mahatma Gandhi, when I met him in the 1990s I thought I had seen Mahatma. We felt that we had seen the Gandhi of our time. Talking to him, one could sense a great deal of empathy for India and deeper bonds that tie India and South Africa. He always acknowledged India’s contribution to the struggle against the inhuman practice of apartheid and the ideals of satyagraha and non-violence that inspired him. In a sense, South Africa’s triumph over apartheid was as much as a triumph of India and the ideals that Mahatma Gandhi represented. When Nelson Mandela became the first mandela-indiapresident of post-apartheid South Africa, there were some difficult and sensitive issues in bilateral relations that emanated from the process of transition. But given his special connection with India, these issues were resolved amicably, and paved the way for stronger relations between India and South Africa in the days to come.


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