Interview with Mani Shankar Aiyar

Member of Indian Parliament

Emma Fladeboe

The depth of the conversation with Mani Shankar Aiyar today was incredible. After reciting 200 plus years of historical content both adeptly and articulately, he addressed many issues facing India, the U.S., and the world as a whole. Every concept or example he used he would later apply on a broader or global scale. We asked him about democracy in India and he said that unlike America or the United Kingdom, “India promptly translated independence into freedom for its people” and that, “I would regard democracy as India’s single greatest achievement”. He then went on to talk about the need for a “world democratic order”. The way he spoke made me want to know, want to read, want to travel. He could take a historical event, pull a concept from it, and then using his ideas and philosophies, apply it to a greater historical context. It was amazing to follow the progression of connections his mind made.

For example, we asked him about the situation between India and Pakistan. He traced the issue to the conflicts of post World War II and the onset of the Cold War. As the U.S. and Soviets made their distinctive divergence, other countries were faced with the dilemma of alignment with either side. Pakistan got involved in what he thought as several messy military pacts with the United States, while India joined the supposedly “immoral” nonalignment movement. According to Mr. Aiyar, after the Soviet threat was eliminated, the U.S. began to accept India as the secular non-aligned country that it was becoming. Pakistan, on the other hand, was a Muslim state that remained militarily involved with the United States and began to have religious splits within its own state. His proposed concept around these historical connections was that we all need to be independent. We can work together when we have mutual interests and not work together when we don’t. He echoed the ideas of Nehru’s “peaceful coexistence”. I agree with Mr. Aiyar in that I think countries in the world today need to focus more on their own on goings on rather than that of others abroad. At times this seems impossible to me. Why? Because humans have inherent self-interest, they want things, and in much the today’s world they need “power” to get those things and they often find political justifications to get them.

Aiyar and students

Mr. Aiyar gave an example through a personal experience. He told us how he attended the premier of the movie Gandhi with Coretta Scott King. There was a scene where police on horses were chasing Gandhi and his followers. Gandhi instructed his people to lie on the ground and to be still. When the horses approached they then stopped. Mr. Aiyar told us that he expressed to Dr. King’s wife that he though that scene unrealistic. She replied that, on the contrary, it was the most realistic. She told him a story of how when her husband and some of his followers were protesting, police dogs were set on them. Martin Luther King then instructed them to stand perfectly still, and the dogs backed off. “Man is the only animal that attacks without being attacked.” Mr. Aiyar said. I believe this and his beliefs on this human concept of power to be both interesting and dynamic.

Aiyar with Mount Madonna School hat

Aiyar said, “There are many problems in trying to solve world issues mostly by the misuse of force. What is power?” he asked us, “What is meant by power? Why do we pursue power?” Is it the ability to kill other people? Force others against their will? Influence others? With a strong stance on nuclear disarmament, Mr. Aiyar gave the example of the nuclear weapon as the ultimate example of lunacy that occurs with human desire for power and dominance. He concluded the discussion of power with a focus on the people and a redefining of what power has become in the minds of many humans today. “If you empower people as they are and where they are, that is how you become a powerful country.” He emphasized the significance of being an individual when he said, “You don’t have to follow the crowd. If you are doing something that’s good for the world, people will follow you.” He ended our time together with an allusion from a favorite Robert Frost poem of mine. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Emma Fladeboe

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