Washington's newest statue, a larger-than-life figure of Mahatma Gandhi, was officially dedicated yesterday by President Clinton and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a small park across from the Indian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
The ceremony was short, about 10 minutes, and quiet. There were no microphones, no musical fanfares, no speeches. But the symbolism was strong as Clinton and Vajpayee, who conferred last week on nuclear arms testing and religious and political conflict in South Asia, threw rose petals at the feet of the man whose name has become synonymous with civil disobedience.
"It's very important for the United States to make a memorial to Gandhi," Clinton said after the dedication. "Gandhi provided the inspiration to Martin Luther King, which spread to the civil rights movement and brought an end to the business of slavery and brought integrity to the democratic ideal."
The statue, just under nine feet tall, stands on a 16-ton block of rough-hewn granite from India. It shows a lean, bespectacled Gandhi in full stride, pushing forward against a walking stick in a scene recalling his 1930 march to the sea to protest an increased salt tax by the British.
The robed, sandaled figure faces north, toward the British Embassy about a mile away. The inscription below it is spare: "My Life Is My Message."
The president said that last week's visit by the prime minister enhanced the relationship between their countries and that he hopes "this chain in partnership goes beyond my service into a whole new era of U.S-India relations."
No other country "has been more influenced by India than the United States," said Clinton, who learned about Gandhi at 17 or 18 through King's writings about nonviolent resistance.
In 1947, India gained its independence, largely as a result of Gandhi's success in uniting millions of people across India in a mass movement of civil disobedience. Assassinated the next year, the spiritual and political leader remains a symbol of hope in India and for Indians who have immigrated to other countries.
To have Gandhi's statue on Washington's Embassy Row is "a dream come true," said Achamma Chandersekaran, who conceived of the idea 13 years ago and chaired a coalition to create a national memorial. She said it is natural that Gandhi be honored here, both because of his desire for peace and unity among all people and because he was so influenced by two American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The small, triangular park on Massachusetts Avenue at 21st Street NW is owned by the federal government. Congress passed a bill, which Clinton signed last year, authorizing the government of India to create a memorial garden. The Commission of Fine Arts approved the design and inscriptions last February.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), a sponsor of the bill, said it was appropriate that Gandhi's be added to the dozens of other statues of great leaders in Washington. "Mahatma Gandhi was one of the great spiritual and inspirational leaders," said Pallone, whose central New Jersey district has what he said may be the largest Indian American constituency of any, 30,000 to 40,000.
An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Indians live in the Washington region.
Embassy officials would not reveal the cost of the statue, which was sculpted by Gautam Pal of Calcutta and donated by the Indian government. But Indian Americans, some contributing up to $10,000, paid $250,000 to cover the cost of the pedestal, landscaping and marble plaques with sayings from Gandhi, including: "Freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life. What would a man not pay for living?"
Other statues of Gandhi have been erected at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta and in several other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Houston and St. Louis.