Beneath The Saintly Legacy Of Gandhi

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
Njuki Githethwa

Njuki Githethwa is a Kenyan writer and activist

The saintly legacy of Gandhi is being questioned.

In 2016, the University of Ghana owing to widespread protests from students and faculty members who accused Gandhi of racism towards black Africans pulled down his statue at the University. The protesters railed against the statue terming it as ‘homage to a racist who thought of Africans as naked savages who were beneath both Britons and Indians’, using Gandhi’s early writings from his two decades in South Africa to bolster their arguments.

In 2018, the High Court in Malawi suspended the erection of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital, after a petition by over 3,000 Malawians saying he had done nothing for their country. The petitioners claim that Gandhi, who early in his career practiced in South Africa and fought against apartheid-era segregation laws, was a racist. Earlier on, in 2015, the statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa was vandalized by a man who painted it white. The man was part of a group who had demonstrated near the statue with placards exclaiming: ‘Racist Gandhi must fall’.

The protests against Gandhi are not limited to Africa:  In 2016, a group of protesters in Davis, California, USA, voiced their displeasure to the erection of Gandhi’s statue by Davis City Council. In early 2015, erection of Gandhi’s statue at Parliament Square in London was also met with opposition.

His legacy is even being questioned by some radical scholars of Indian origin. Arundhati Roy, the acclaimed writer from India in an essay titled, The Doctor and the Saint, refers to Gandhi as the Saint of the status quo’.  She asserts, ‘To generations who have been raised on a diet of Gandhi hagiographies (including myself), to learn of what happened in South Africa is not just disturbing, it is almost stupefying’.

G B Singh in his book, Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity, challenges the image of Gandhi as a saintly, benevolent, and pacifist leader of Indian independence, as told through Gandhi's own writings and actions over the course of his life. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015) depict ‘a man who actually supported the British Empire, stayed true to the Empire while showing a disdain for Africans.  For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bonded by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African’. Gandhi's racism was matched by his class prejudice towards the Indian indentured.  The book, ‘punctures the dominant narrative of Gandhi and uncovers an ambiguous figure whose time on African soil was marked by a desire to seek the integration of Indians, minus many basic rights, into the white body politic while simultaneously excluding Africans from his moral compass and political ideals’.

Gandhi’s legacy is being questioned in Africa largely on accusations that he exhibited racist inclinations towards black Africans, especially during his time in South Africa. 

Gandhi as a household name

A friend in Kenya has named her son Gandhi in recognition of the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi in the local struggles for freedom, justice and equity. In early 1990s, the movement against one party dictatorship was in top gear in Kenya. The movement was peaceful and nonviolent. It was drawn from the experiences and practices of non-violent struggles elsewhere in the world. Gandhi’s Satyagraha, meaning spiritual warfare, was a key inspiration of this struggle. Another source of inspiration was that of Cardinal Sin against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Mandela in South Africa also featured in this inspiration.  The writings of Dr Gene Sharp on nonviolent warfare were a constant companion in the struggles.  

But Gandhi reigns supreme. His long walks, boycotts, prolonged fasts, protests, sit-ins, collective vigils, among other techniques are forms of non-violent struggles that are tried and tested in non-violent pro-democracy movements globally  - soul force as a substitute for physical force. His biopic, Gandhi, by Richard Attenborough is a must watch collectively and privately in activist circles. Books about him are shared widely, some reaching out in worn out copies and photocopies. His quotes are commonplace: ‘My life is my message.’ Other quotes are attributed to him: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’

Martin Luther King counted Gandhi as the source of his inspiration. Gandhi’s portrait hung prominently in his office. Mandela was also greatly inspired by Gandhi, so are many others such as the Dalai Lama in the struggle for the independence of Tibet.

Questioning Gandhi is to question the pool of inspiration of non-violent struggles for freedom, peace and justice all over the world.

Accusations of being a racist

His accusations of being a racist are largely drawn from his statements, practices and encounters with black Africans while living in South Africa for more than two decades, 1893 – 1914. 

His struggles while in South Africa were largely focused on the recognition of Indians as worthy subjects of the British Empire. He did not seem to recognize Africans as fellow victims of the British Empire. He did not consider the struggles by black Africans to be of any significance to the overall struggle for liberation.  His complaints were that the Indians in South Africa were being placed on the same level with Kaffirs, black Africans.  In an open letter to the Natal Parliament in 1893, he protests that the ‘Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir’.

Even when he engaged with Africans, it was as ‘a missionary of peace’ when he was part of the Indian section of the Ambulance Corps. This group of Indians who worked as menials and stretcher bearers, feeling that it was their responsibility as imperial subjects, volunteered their services to the British. Gandhi was enlisted in the Ambulance Corps during the 1899 Anglo-Boer War, as it was called then, and known more properly today as the White Man’s War, and again in 1906 when the Zulu chief Bambatha led his people in an uprising against the British Government’s newly imposed one pound poll tax.  Four thousand Zulus were killed, thousands more flogged and imprisoned after the uprising, capture and beheading of Chief Bambatha by the British the same year.

Gandhi was well educated and knowledgeable.  He knew the world and the struggles for the civil liberties of blacks in Africa, America, Europe and elsewhere in the world. This was at the same time as his contemporaries in England were engaged in various causes of freedom and rights for Africans. WEB Dubois had published then the Souls of the black folk.  By the time Gandhi was called to the bar in 1891 in London, he might have been well aware of the struggles of Africans but chose to turn a blind eye to their plight and to treat blacks as inferior beings, just as they were being treated by the colonialists.

The nationalist script in India

India is in the grip of anti-colonial struggles by the time Gandhi arrives into the country in 1915 at the age of 45 years. The Indian National congress, the mass party coalescing demands and struggles against colonialism is without a clear unifying leader. Gandhi steps into that gap arising from his struggles for the rights of Indians while in South Africa. He becomes the most recognizable leader of the movement for India’s independence.  His struggles are however not revolutionary, meant to overthrow colonialism and its pillars of capitalism; they are reformist, seeking for India’s independence within the confines of constitutionalism through what he sees as morality and nonviolent civility.

His struggles are nationalist, focused only on the freedom of India, just as he had struggled only for the rights and freedom of Indians in South Africa. They are not internationalist or in outright solidarity with other colonized and oppressed people elsewhere in the world. He does not see the internalization of the struggle and conquering racism and its mindsets as the first frontiers in the struggles against colonialism and for decolonization. Only a few years later, Kwame Nkrumah would be shouting himself hoarse that the independence of Ghana is meaningless without the independence of all Africa.

Besides, Gandhi is still ambiguous on the struggles of the black people in Africa. He issues statements in solidarity with the struggles for Africans against apartheid in South Africa, but these statements are anodyne, not affirmative and practical from a fellow practitioner in the struggles for human emancipation, especially from him who had daily encounters with black Africans while in South Africa.  Gandhi is known for his frequent fasts, boycotts, hunger strikes and other acts of self – denial in the quest for the rights and freedoms of Indians, but not for the colonized masses in Africa, his adopted home for two decades. He emerges as darling of the western media covering India’s struggle for independence. Talat Ahmed avers that ‘compromise was the hallmark of Gandhi’s tactics’. Gandhi succeeded into reducing the Indian struggle for independence to an accommodative, pacifist and non-revolutionary struggle.

Lack of internationalization and grounding the ideology of India’s struggle for independence portends the partitioning of the country. India and Pakistan are created out of one country. The colonial mission is triumphant. Gandhi is beyond himself with fury. But his fury has no wrath. His struggles were less for a united and a classless India. ‘What would have prevented the partition was to redirect politics in a class direction,’ argues Talat Ahmed. ‘Gandhi’s concern was with moral indignation and limited social reform delinked from any systematic analysis of the structures of power and class. So opposing untouchability did not mean advocating the abolition of caste. The biggest irony of Gandhi’s life was perhaps that partition and independence gave birth to a capitalist state like any other, in fact two states with the capitalist features he detested – immense poverty and obscene wealth, wars and nuclear weapons.’ Gandhi’s struggles were conformist to colonial and neoliberal paradigms. India remains a divided, most unequal and caste grounded country since independence to date.

‘An unexamined life is not worth living’

Not a single street in Cuba bears the name of Fidel Castro, not a single statue was erected in his honour after his death on 25 November 2016. Instead, the opposite happened: laws were enforced keeping his name, and of any other living leader, off public sites such as statues and streets. 

Perhaps this is how personalities involved in people’s struggles should be remembered. Their struggles are ingrained in people’s memories and practices, not in monuments. Monuments and other artefacts connote a sense of completeness, an attribute that is anathema to people’s struggles that are never final, never complete, just a process. Intense scrutiny of the heroines and heroes of people’s struggles underlie serious flaws in their character that can undermine their legacy.

Think of anyone involved in people’s struggles, historically and present, put him or her under close scrutiny, private or public behaviour, ideological commitment, prejudices, and other instances when they have lowered their guards and see how they will be badly scathed by their failings.

A lot of failings of many personalities involved in people’s struggles can be excused or brushed away as normal human frailties. This is in so far as these frailties did not extend to instances of betrayal or delay of collective struggles for human emancipation. Questions would be asked: Did these failings lead to a demeaning or putting down of the struggles of some oppressed people, identities or condition in a manner that would have led to a disregard of these struggles and prolonged oppression? Are Gandhi’s statues being used as a tool for making Indian exploitation in our region more acceptable? The Malawians dismissed Gandhi’s statue for the same reason. Is the memorialization of Gandhi through monuments a part of the larger ‘hindu-fication’ project of the Modi regime? Is the memorialisation of his non-violent ideology a deliberate project by western imperialism?

Gandhi occasionally lowered his guard on the question of racism, caste and other forms of oppression in a manner that downplayed attention to the overall struggle for human emancipation. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living,’ argued Socrates, the ancient Greek Philosopher. Undertaking scrutiny and peeling off the masks of public figures such as Gandhi, questioning his legacy, is a case worthy of attention.

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