First Person: Satish Kumar

I was sitting in a café in Bangalore with a friend reading a newspaper, waiting for my coffee. It was 1961, and I saw a photo of the philosopher Bertrand Russell being arrested at an anti-nuclear protest outside Whitehall. I said, “Here is a man of 90 going to jail for peace. What am I, a young man, doing sitting here when he is putting his life on the line?”

I was 25, and living in a Gandhian ashram at the time. I had been raised in Jainism, an Indian religion of non-violence, but by this point I was a former monk. I had left monkhood because I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He said spirituality is not only for the saints, it’s for ordinary people too. This has been my life’s work, and in 1973, I moved to England, where I run the eco magazine Resurgence.

But back then, Gandhi was already gone and I was living alongside one of his followers, Vinoba Bhave. We were already walking for land reform in India so my friend and I came up with an idea. Why don’t we walk for peace? Let’s go to England and support Bertrand Russell. But why stop there? Let’s go to Moscow, Paris, London and the fourth nuclear capital, Washington, DC. The idea became clear. We must walk from Gandhi’s grave in New Delhi to protest against nuclear weapons.

We went to see Vinoba Bhave, who said, “What a wonderful idea. But I want to give you some advice. Go without any money.” I said, “Without any money? But sometimes we may need a cup of tea or to make a telephone call.” He said, “War begins when you have fear in your heart. Don’t preach peace, practise it. Trust the world.” That was a very big idea. So we set off in June 1962, 50 years ago next month.

We walked 8,000 miles in two years. We carried small maps but mostly we depended on the advice of local people. Often people would walk with us for a day or two. There were times when we did not get food and that was difficult.

In Georgia, a woman gave us four packets of tea. “These packets of tea are not for you. One is for our president in Moscow. The second for de Gaulle. The third for the prime minister of England. The fourth for the president of the United States. Please give them a message. ‘If ever you get a mad thought and think of pressing the nuclear button, please stop for a moment and have a cup of tea.’”

In Moscow we were received by the leader of the Supreme Soviet, Tikhonov, on behalf of Khrushchev. He told us, “The real problem is not the Soviet Union, it is Washington.” In Paris, de Gaulle would not meet us, so we demonstrated outside the Élysée Palace. We were arrested and threatened with deportation, so we gave the peace tea to the head of police.

In London, Harold Wilson, the PM, asked Lord Attlee to receive us on his behalf. He said, “We are for peace. It’s the Soviets who are threatening.” We also met Russell. He said, “You wrote to me and I thought I would never see you because by the time you walked here I would be dead and gone. But you walked fast!”

Russell helped raise money for two tickets on the Queen Mary to New York. From there we walked to Washington, DC, where we were met by representatives of President Lyndon B. Johnson. “We are negotiating,” they said, “but the Soviets will not listen to us.”

We also met Martin Luther King. He had an aura of energy and passion, a great soul. It all ended at the grave of John F. Kennedy. From grave to grave. To make the point that if you trust in the gun, the gun not only kills a bad person but it can also kill a Gandhi or a Kennedy.

On our journey, all the governments told us the same thing: they all blamed each other. But 50 years on, I have hope and optimism that things can change. When I met Martin Luther King black people had few rights. All these years later, there is a black man in the White House. If that can happen, other things can happen.

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