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An Open Letter to President Putin

                  cc: President Biden

Esteemed President Putin ji,

Warm greetings from the Shanti Sahyog Centre for Nonviolence, India (CFN)! 

Allow me to address you with the suffix, ‘ji,’ a gesture of deep respect and courtesy that reflects our cultural norms. I trust this message finds you in robust health and indomitable spirits. As a keen observer of global affairs, I am acutely aware of the critical juncture that you and your nation are passing through. In this challenging time, my heartfelt empathy extends to you, the resilient people of Russia, and all the victims affected by the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.  

Amidst the complexities of geo-political machinations, your decision to engage in war with Ukraine has ushered in an era of bloody conflict of epic proportions. Your assertions articulate your stance, and while I may not fully grasp the intricacies of your perspective, I wholeheartedly acknowledge your nation’s sovereign right to safeguard its vital interests. Your resolve to thwart the encroachment of NATO’s influence and to secure the eastern territories via proxy forces culminated in the deployment of 200,000 soldiers in Ukraine, on the fateful day of February 24, 2022. While initial aspirations to swiftly seize Kyiv might not have been successful,  the sustained military campaign, the ensuing conflict, and bloodshed remain etched in global consciousness.

Yet, amidst these deliberations, we must take into account the toll exacted in lives and livelihoods, the unfathomable sacrifices borne by the people of Russia and Ukraine, families torn apart, the fabric of communities and infrastructure rendered useless – these indelible marks will remain etched on a nation’s soul. The scars of war shall serve as a stark reminder of the magnitude of such conflict. No wonder, Sun Tzu cautions us, in his magnum opus on war-craft,        The Art of War:

        “He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. Anger may in time                           change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a                           kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into                           being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. There is no                                 instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”

Further, the theatre of war begets immeasurable suffering, whose reverberations resound long after the final echoes of gunfire faded into silence. The suffering of the combatants of the ongoing Russo- Ukrainian war, as well as of innocent infirm senior citizens, women, and children has been streaming daily into our living/dining/bedrooms, for the past 544 days, affecting the appetite and sleep of many sensitive souls. Add to this, the colossal expenditure incurred in this war. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy – a German research institute – the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine. So, as much as I understand where you’re coming from, a weighty question haunts me: 

              Is the human & financial price of war, indeed, worth paying for?  

Here, as a Gandhian scholar, I was wondering if you would agree with Gandhi’s following views in your heart of hearts?

To begin with, how do you resonate with the opening lyrics of one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymns, ‘Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye je, Peed paraayi Jaane re….’ which in essence, means, ‘A godlike man is one, who feels another’s pain, who shares another’s sorrows.….’ 

Further, since Gandhi’s heart bled for the poor masses and was so much pained by their suffering, one of the terms he used to describe God was, Daridranarayan (God of the Poor); the intent being true worship of God implies caring for the poor and needy. 

Another important guidance for all, especially relevant for those who are at the helm of affairs today is Gandhi’s Talisman – one of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought.

Gandhi's Talisman

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spriritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and you-self melt away.”

  • Source: Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), p.65

Gandhi’s Talisman provides an ethical test to judge everyday actions and champions the cause of Gandhi’s Talisman provides an ethical test to judge everyday actions and champions the cause of ‘sarvodaya through antyodaya’, implying the welfare of all through the weakest person in society. Its essence is that, whenever one is in doubt, think if (your) decision would empower the marginalized and the poorest. 

Another favourite hymn of Gandhi, “Ishwar Allah tere naam, sabko sanmati de Bhagwan.” beseeches God to empower all beings – especially rulers, since their policies affect the multitudes, “to instil good sense/wisdom in all.”

Finally, the main tenet of Gandhi’s nonviolent conflict resolution is, ’to protest against the wrong-doing, but in love with the wrong-doer’, akin to Jesus Christ’s injunction to, ‘’Hate the sin, but not the sinner’.  Gandhi is confident that when we protest against any wrong action, but with love and compassion for the person who has done wrong, one appeals to the kernel of goodness inherent in all human beings, which stirs their conscience, impelling them to repent and right the wrong.

Leadership, as history teaches us, stands often as a crucible of agonizing choices, a realm where national interests can dictate a ‘just war’ or invasion of another country.  But even a so-called ‘Just War’ leads to unfortunate, unintended and devastating outcomes even when fought for seemingly justifiable ends.  In this context, Gandhi’s views on the means-ends question are worth considering:

                 “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all                             everything’. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation                                 between means and end …Realization of the goal is in exact proportion                         to that of the means. This is a proposition that admits of no exception.”

            “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there                                    is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the                                 end as there is between the seed and the tree. …means and ends are                             convertible terms.

                                       “Impure means result in an impure end.”  

The difference between Marx and Gandhi is that whereas for Marx the end justifies the use of violent means, for Gandhi, only nonviolent means are to be used to achieve a just end. 

As an observer from afar, I am deeply moved by the profundity of the human cost of this conflict. In the pursuit of peace, it is crucial for all parties involved to seek avenues for dialogue and understanding. True strength lies in defending one’s interests through negotiation and finding diplomatic solutions that can lead to lasting stability and prosperity.  No wonder then that Gandhi points out, ‘the beauty of compromise’.  He avers, “The truth that we see is relative, many-sided, plural, and is the whole truth for a given time.” He goes on to acknowledge: “But all my life through, the very insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise.” Compromise, for Gandhi, seems to be when two individuals/parties, despite their differing points of view or ‘truths’, attempt to find an acceptable, common ground that enables and empowers them to live and work together.  

I am writing to you to express my genuine concern about the human cost of war. A concern etched in understanding that the path to progress lies in fostering cooperation, building bridges, and finding common ground between nations, even in the face of adversity.  Otherwise, as Gandhi warns:  

                             “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind!”

I would also like to share with you Gandhi’s rationale for why human beings should always choose nonviolence to resolve conflict. In his own words:

     “The Law of Nonviolence, which is The Law of Love, is The Law of Our Species.” 

Let me conclude with three famous quotes from Gandhi, which serve as a torch-bearer for all individuals – notably leaders who aspire to be authentic human beings:  

        “Nonviolence is not a weapon of the weak. It is the weapon of the strongest                                                                                         and the bravest.”                  

                                   “Be the Change you wish to see in the World.”

                                                     “My life is my Message”

The last quote was written on a wall in Gandhi’s original handwriting at his Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. 

Finally I’m also appalled by the helplessness of the International Community in finding a solution to the ongoing Russo – Ukrainian war through nonviolent means. Deeper reflection reveals that this is perhaps, because we lack the tools and skills of nonviolent conflict resolution. CFN, therefore, has launched an international initiative to learn nonviolence; and to Politically Legitimise Nonviolent Conflict Resolution through the introduction of Nonviolent Defense in defense systems worldwide. Here is the link to the petition:  Petition · A Global Initiative (Satyagraha) for #ChooseNonviolentDefence · . Hoping that you will be a signatory to the petition!

May my letter, which is cc’d to President Biden, resonate, not as a critique or judgment passed, but as an appeal to the shared humanity that binds us all. For within that shared humanity, in the corridors of nonviolence, understanding, compassion, and empathy, we shall uncover the dormant seeds of enduring peace and unrivalled advancement. 

With sincerest regards,

Suman Khanna Aggarwal Ph.D.

Former Professor, Delhi University

Founder and President:

Shanti Sahyog – a Gandhian NGO


Shanti Sahyog Centre for Nonviolence, India (CFN)

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