For many years intellectuals in India have asked one question repeatedly: How relevant is Gandhi today? The question is asked more in India than abroad, more in our cities than in our villages. There is a sub-question to this: If Gandhi is relevant for us, is he at all relevant for the world? This sub-question is asked because often for the questioner the world is 90 per cent America and a few European countries, while the rest of the world is stuffed together to form the remaining 10 per cent.
But Gandhi's pivotal role in India's independence, and thus her modern history, is beyond question. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru knew this. Pandit Nehru’s worldview was much broader than that of these intellectuals. He called the Inter-Asian Relations Conference in March 1947, before India had attained independence. The conference had been in meeting in Delhi a week before Gandhiji reached Delhi. Nehru had requested his presence by a telegram sent to Patna. Gandhiji combined this invitation with Mountbatten s request for a meeting. Nehru, who dreamt of the future, was sometimes plagued by doubts about Gandhiji and his relevance, but so far as India’s relations with the external world were concerned for Nehru nobody could have been more relevant than Gandhiji.There might have been some element of truth in Jinnah’s criticism that the conference was a sign of Nehru’s Asian ambitions. But it was equally true that for Nehru, India’s leadership in Asia could not be without Gandhiji.
On 31 March, Gandhiji met the viceroy for two and a half hours. On 1 April, he attended the Asian Conference. Delhi is one of those rare capital cities in the world where one can traverse through a history of 2000 years in a ten-minute ride through the city. The Asian Conference met in the Purana Qila of Delhi, which is associated with many legends of the Mahabharata.
The conference began on 23 March 1947 and was attended by 250 delegates from 22 countries. The conference was attended by most of the Asian countries and five Russian republics; many non-Asian countries had sent their observers. Japan was an exception, as it was under American occupation and its citizens were not permitted to travel for such purposes. The representatives of the Muslim League had abstained, though invited. The Muslim League dubbed the conference as a “thinly disguised attempt on part of the Hindu Congress to boost itself politically as the prospective leader of the Asian people” and regretted that, “a number of organisations in Muslim countries should have been beguiled ... to participate in this conference
The conference was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs, a non-political organisation, and not the Congress. None of the governments of the countries participating in the conference were involved in it. No political problems of a controversial nature concerning any participating country were included in the agenda of the conference. It was made clear at the outset that the conference would not adopt any formal resolutions. It was hoped that the conference would lead to friendly relations between the people of Asia. That Jawaharlal Nehru was the spirit behind the conference was beyond doubt.
By the time Gandhiji entered the shamiyana, it was filled with about 20,000 persons though it could accommodate only 10,000 or so.The whole gathering stood up and clapped when Gandhiji entered the conference venue and when he exited from it.
Gandhiji made no formal address on the first day he attended the conference. Though he did say: "But, for Asia to be not for Asia but the whole world, it has to relearn the message of Buddha and deliver it to the world." This, when heard by Dr. Ambedkar, made him quite happy, and was one of the few times that the two agreed on anything in these later years of knowing each other. In fact, Ambedkar would convert to Buddhism 10 years later in 1956, having given up on Hinduism and its entrenched caste system. He died soon after.
The first day Gandhi invited the delegates to put questions to him. It was a good way of finding out the quality of the audience, their attitudes and the way their minds worked.
The first question, posed by the Azerbaijan delegate, helped establish a link between Gandhiji and the audience. He had to answer the question whether he believed in the theory of one world and whether it would succeed under the present conditions. The delegates had come together with a hazy ideal of unity. An “ideal” is not something which is within immediate reach, but it is attainable. An ideal that is not attainable leads to futile effort. The delegate wished to know if the ideal of one world was a desirable ideal; they wanted hope from an old, experienced man known for his pious life. Gandhiji responded with simple words that rang true with clarity and experience and found a kindred response from not only the delegate from Azerbaijan, but also from all those gathered for the conference. Gandhiji declared:
I would not like to live in this world if it is not to be one world. Certainly I should like to see this dream realized in my lifetime.... If you work with fixed determination, there is no doubt that in our own generation we will certainly realize this dream.