Gandhiji’s US fan sets himself on fire in India

In 2009, he stood at New Delhi`s memorial to Gandhi and ripped up his US passport, symbolically renouncing his American citizenship.

Last Updated: Jan 28, 2011, 19:31 PM IST

Jaipur: On a cold night in a quiet town, 71-year-old Jeff Knaebel crept into the ruins of an ancient Buddhist meditation center in northern India, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself alight to protest what he called cruelty in the United States and India.

It was a political ending for a political man: an admirer of pacifist freedom fighter Mohandas K Gandhi and a retired mining engineer who had railed against the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in speeches and blogs.

In 2009, he stood at New Delhi`s memorial to Gandhi and ripped up his US passport, symbolically renouncing his American citizenship. "I am not a citizen of any government. I renounce all of them," he said in a statement. But later efforts to gain Indian asylum and then citizenship were denied, and he spent his last months wandering northern India, moving frequently to avoid arrest for not having legal documents, friends said.

"Citizenship denial and harassment by police ... made him a very desperate person, but he continued to believe in the principles of Gandhi and often said he would never return to the US and would die in India," his friend and fellow engineer VK Desai said.

He remembered Knaebel as an intelligent and honorable man who delighted in nature, gave his money to the poor, and worried increasingly about inviting police action against his friends if he stayed with them on his travels.

On Wednesday afternoon, villagers found Knaebel`s charred remains in an ancient Buddhist chapel in Virat Nagar, a town 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of Jaipur, Rajasthan`s state capital, police said.

No one had heard any screams or seen the flames. Knaebel apparently staged his death to coincide with India`s Republic Day, which celebrates the signing of its constitution. His choice of the hilltop Buddhist retreat also may have been meaningful. Self-immolation has been used by Buddhists as an act of protest, including Vietnamese monks who set themselves on fire during the Vietnam War.

Knaebel had arrived in the town three days earlier and was seen by villagers wearing an Indian-style long cotton shirt, woolen sweater and a scarf.

"I am killing myself because of cruel incidents in both the US and in India," Knaebel wrote in a suicide note that gave no more explanation, police said.

But he had written for years in essays, a self-published book and on his website about his beliefs and despair over the world`s poverty, environmental degradation and corporate-led economic development.

He alluded to his plans for death in a letter addressed to President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which he called America "the world`s leading merchant of death and destruction." The letter, dated this month, also said that India had "denied my right to exist" by refusing him citizenship.

"By my death I send my answer to the rulers of the Corporate State who value property and profit more than human life. ... They will no longer control me," said the letter, given by Desai to The Associated Press. Desai said he received the letter a few weeks ago but did not know Knaebel had any immediate plans to die.

The suicide note _ attached to a shoulder bag holding Knaebel`s eyeglasses, books on Gandhi and 48,000 rupees (about $1,000) wrapped in paper _ asked that police handle his body and that the money be given to poor widows and farmers, according to police superintendent Mohan Singh.

Police identified Knaebel from a "passport" issued on July 23 by the World Government of World Citizens, a utopian organization based in Washington, DC, Singh said. It listed Knaebel`s address only as San Francisco.

Knaebel said in a 2009 video interview that he began his soul-searching in his 40s in the U.S. after being pushed out of a company he had helped build, going broke in litigation and watching his marriage fall apart.

"I began a very serious spiritual search," testing various religious traditions, until "I finally found myself in India, looking for the seed core of spirituality," he said in the interview, conducted while he was living at the foot of the Himalayas and posted on the Internet.

He lived with a woman for several years in Pune, near Mumbai, and then traveled north in 2009, living for a while in the western state of Jharkhand and then in the far-northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where he lived with a Buddhist lama and worked for the Gandhi Ashram in Shimla, Desai said by telephone from Rajkot, Gujarat.

India itself has a long history of people killing themselves, or threatening to, as an act of political protest. Gandhi famously protested by fasting to the point of emaciation. In 1990, a student, Rajiv Goswami, set himself on fire to protest quotas for lower-caste Indians, sparking similar acts by other students. Goswami survived.

Knaebel`s body now lies in a hospital morgue, police said. The US Embassy declined to comment for privacy reasons.

Bureau Report