Gandhi, a 'Mahatma'?

In June 2020, an online petition to remove Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in the British city of Leicester was filed which had garnered 6,052 signatures, as of July 30, 2020. The bronze statue in Leicester, which captures Gandhi in his walking stride, was unveiled in the city in 2009. The petition titled ‘Remove the Gandhi Statue in Leicester’ accuses him of being “a fascist, racist and sexual predator”. It further says, “For years he has been idolised and taught in the school curriculum. For many people in my community, he has brought inconsolable suffering against my people. As a result, I do not wish to see a statue and praise of that kind of character. Therefore, I want to take action to remove it”. According to the Leicester City Council, the petition hasn’t been submitted to the authority.

A similar online petition was filed in the Canadian city of Ottawa in June 2020 calling for the removal of Gandhi’s statue from the Carleton University Campus. As of July 30, 2020, it had garnered 2,563 signatures. Echoing similar sentiments as the Leicester petition, it says, “Why should an institution continue to yield the statue of an individual who was publicly anti-black, referred to Africans as savages, likening them to animals, and slept naked with his grandniece to ‘test his willpower’? It is inexplicable and inexcusable. As an institution, we cannot claim to champion diversity and seek to eradicate institutionalised racism as long as symbols like this are still present on our campus. The time for action is now”.

These petitions come after a series of statues of racist people being removed. On May 25, 2020, an African-American man, George Floyd, was murdered in Minneapolis by a white Police officer. His death sparked a series of protests against police brutality and racial inequality all over the world. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement of 2020, has put the past to scrutiny by targeting the monuments and statues of people who carry the legacy of slavery and colonialism: the Confederate General Robert E Lee in Virginia, Theodore Roosevelt in New York City, Christopher Columbus in many US cities, the Belgian king Leopold II in Brussels, the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV and author of the infamous Code Noir in France, Indro Montanelli, and so on. Their statues are being toppled, defaced, destroyed and vandalised.

Gandhi is known as the renowned Indian lawyer-turned-activist who led India to independence. However, he, too, was an imperfect human being. Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi’s biographer, and grandson has previously admitted that his grandfather was “at times ignorant and prejudiced towards South Africa’s blacks”. Several academics have noted reports of Gandhi’s derogatory views towards native Africans while he lived in South Africa in the late 19th century. Gandhi wrote to the Natal Parliament in 1893, “A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”.

In 1904, he wrote to a health officer in Johannesburg that the council “must withdraw Kaffirs” from an unsanitary slum called the “Coolie Location” where a large number of Africans lived alongside Indians. He wrote, “About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly”. The same year he wrote that unlike the African, the Indian had no “war-dances, nor does he drink Kaffir beer”. During the Durban plague in 1905, Gandhi wrote that the problem would persist as long as Indians and Africans were being herded together indiscriminately at the hospital. The term *kaffi*r is considered a racial slur used to refer to indigenous Black South Africans.

In the book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, Ashwin Desai and Goolam H Vahed wrote that during his stay in Africa, Gandhi kept the Indian struggle separate from Africa’s, despite the fact that the latter was also being denied political rights based on colour. Further, Ashwin Desai, professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, described Gandhi as a man who “supported more taxes on impoverished African people and turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Empire on Africans”.

However, owing to his work during the Indian independence struggle, many people have come to defend the statue. Leicester East Member of Parliament Claudia Webbe called the petition a “massive distraction” from the BLM movement. Comparing Gandhi to Martin Luther King, the Labour politician said, “Gandhi, too, created a movement the same way Martin Luther King did, which became a force for change”.

Faisal Devji, a professor of Indian history at Oxford University, described the debate to remove the statue as absurd. He added, “He’s a fallible man as all men are, but to lump him in with slave owners, that’s a bit much”. Citing the importance of the statue, he calls it a representation of the large refugee Gujarati community in the city.

This protest is not the first time people have called out Gandhi’s racist beliefs. London had witnessed protests against Gandhi’s statues in 2003 and 2008. Similarly, American states like California, San Francisco, Michigan and Texas have witnessed such protests in 2013, 2011, 2010, and 2014, respectively. Johannesburg too witnessed one in 2015.

In September 2016, an online petition started by professors at the University of Ghana called for the removal of Gandhi’s statue from the university’s Legon campus. The statue was erected in June 2016 at the Recreational Quadrangle and is the only statue of a historical personality on campus. Supporting the BLM movement, Dr Obadele Kambon, the creator of the petition, told BBC, “At the end of the day, we need images of ourselves for our psychosocial well-being and not images of those who called us savages. May Gandhi fall that Africa may rise!” In 2018, this statue was removed.

In October 2019, students from Manchester called for a similar statue of Gandhi given to the city by Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur (SRMD) to be removed because of his “well-documented anti-black racism”. In an open letter, the students demanded the Council acknowledge his vile comments and issue an apology.

Statues of historical figures don’t help people learn about history, but merely place certain figures on pedestals. While the past can no longer be changed, and society evolves to become more cognizant of other identities, we need to take a stand about whom we place on a celebration. The protests against these statues do just that. For instance, in the city of Bristol, England, a statue of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid was placed on an empty plinth where a monument to a 17th-century slave trader had stood.

Thus, while the statues in Leicester and Ottawa still stand tall, we must also question the actions of those whom we glorify. Additionally, to what extent shall we pedestalise these people? If you focus on only one part of their life, are you ignoring their other work? Does their noble work negate their wrongdoings? Can we hold them accountable for their wrongdoings? And if so, what is the best method?

While discriminating against any section of people is unacceptable, I hold the opinion that we cannot view our ancestor’s actions with a presentist lens - the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. We all too often colour history with our lens of current prejudices. Fritz Fischer, a German historian, was against presentism as it allowed people to skew history in a way that would validate their own political beliefs. Thus, a 21st-century inclusive society must also take note of the attitudes and cultural values that existed in the past. Gandhi grew up in an orthodox Hindu family. Thus, his actions were a product of his time and a manifestation of the attitudes that existed then. This, however, is not to say that we should let him off the hook. Instead, we shall create a space where all of his actions can equally co-exist, instead of seeing him in the binary of a good or a bad person.

Our forebears will always fail to measure up to our modern standards, but it is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant. While bygones will be bygones, we can accept the past and readily evolve ourselves, as a society, to ensure we no longer make similar mistakes. This also encompasses being tolerant of diverging opinions, especially those which stem out of lived experiences.


Devyani Arora

I am a nineteen-year-old student in Delhi University, pursuing bachelor's in commerce. You will find me having an existential crisis almost every two days and listening to The Local Train on loop.

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