Was Gandhi a racist? Debate over his role in South Africa is reignited

M.K. Gandhi, center, with his secretary, Sonia Schlesin, and his colleague Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1905.

Much before historian Ramchandra Guha published “Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-48” in September last year, a sequel to his “Gandhi Before India,” two academics in South Africa sparked a major controversy with a shocking revelation — Mahatma Gandhi was a “racist” throughout his stay in that country.

Such a claim would normally be dismissed as a publicity-grabbing exercise but for the fact that it was made by two South African university professors — Ashwin Desai, professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahed, an associate professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal — in a book titled “The South African Gandhi, Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.”

As India and the rest of the world, including the U.S., celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019, events and opinions showing Gandhi in a bad light for what his critics see as his “failings” have not been totally absent from the public discourse in the run-up to the Gandhi celebrations.

A few years ago, Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winning author, accused Gandhi of discrimination and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed. Speaking at Kerala University in Thiruvananthapuram, Roy described the generally accepted image of Gandhi as a lie. “It is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system … Do we really need to name our universities after him?” Roy asked.

The 344-page book, “South African Gandhi,” by Desai and Vahed, published in 2015 by New Delhi-based Navayana, revealed “shocking details” about Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 before he returned to India.

According to the book, Gandhi described Black Africans as “savage,” “raw” and living a life of “indolence and nakedness.” The book, which some felt was “a serious challenge” to the way one has been taught to think about Gandhi, won the prestigious Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title in 2016, given by the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association.

In 2016, the same year “South African Gandhi” was published, a group of academics, students and artists in Accra, Ghana called for the removal of a statue of Gandhi from a university campus, on the ground that India’s ‘Father of the Nation’ was racist towards Black people. In an online petition, the protesters cited Gandhi's writings during his time in South Africa to illustrate his “racist identity.”

And in 2013 in Cerritos, Calif., a few dozen people, including African-Americans and Caucasians, joined South Asians from the Organization for Minorities of India in a rally at Cerritos City Hall demanding removal of the statue of Gandhi installed by the city. The demonstrators displayed banners reading “Gandhi: A Child Molester” and “Gandhi: Friends With Hitler,” and held signs with slogans like “Gandhi: Father of Apartheid,” and “Gandhi Was a Sex Offender.”

The rally was addressed by Jada Bernard, an African-American liberty activist from Sacramento who said they did not hate Gandhi. “We are not here because we hate Gandhi. We are here because we love the truth,” Bernard said, alleging that Gandhi hated Blacks, and fathered the multi-tiered apartheid system in South Africa and brought the caste system in India that brings so much injustice to the Indian people today.

Was Gandhi a racist? Debate over his role in South Africa is reignited

Do Black Americans in the U.S. believe, in light of the revelations in the book, that Gandhi was indeed a racist and hated Black people?

Academics like Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University historian who himself is black, told India Abroad that it is better to ignore such tags because there have been many such people who have unfortunately sought to spread negative messages about both Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s life and philosophy, in the past and even after their deaths.

Lynn Cothren, former aide to late Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and founder the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said while he is aware of the book and has read newspaper reviews of the work, the so-called controversy surrounding a “racist Gandhi” seems to have passed by.

“I don't think there has been much discussion about Gandhi's “racism” in South Africa issue as far as the Americans here are concerned. I don't know if most Americans fully understand the complexity of a continent like Africa,” Cothren told India Abroad.

Both Cothren and Carson said “the book was no revelation” to them as such because charges have been made against people like Gandhi and King in the past by people looking at a person in the previous century from modern day perspective, which they said is a fallacious approach to judging a person.

In the wake of the controversy about Gandhi’s racism when the book was published, author and academic Rajmohan Gandhi, who is a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in an opinion article in Indian Express, admitting that the younger Gandhi at times was ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s Blacks, especially when provoked by the conduct of black convicts who were among his fellow inmates in South Africa’s prisons.

“After all, Gandhi too was an imperfect human being. However, on racial equality, he was greatly in advance of most, if not all of his compatriots and the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle for black rights,” Rajmohan Gandhi wrote.

He said the “imperfect Gandhi was more radical and progressive” than most contemporary compatriots, adding that today, in India, South Africa and the U.S., Gandhi’s legacy provides hope, not an obstacle, for the equality of races and castes.

Criticisms not withstanding, Gandhi in America and elsewhere continues to inspire people and to fight for equality and justice in a nonviolent and peaceful way and is a role model for many to follow, including in America.

A testimony to Gandhi’s enduring influence on America and Americans is the lives of people that he has touched or impacted. When Steve Jobs of Apple Computers went to India during his early years, he read a lot about Gandhi and his philosophies. He was so much inspired by Gandhi’s vision that he featured him for the much-celebrated “Think Different” ad series for Apple computers.

Some scholars believe Gandhi’s deeply serious legacy of pacifist protest needs to be revitalized. “In his thorough index of Gandhi’s activism, the historian Leonard A. Gordon reminds us of the depth of Gandhi’s political influence on American culture. The connection to American civil disobedience is a given: Most know that Gandhi was a reader and follower of Henry David Thoreau. But many different political circles, fellows in the struggle for independence, also looked to Gandhi,” according to a 2016 article in Daily JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources.

Gandhi, Carson said, is still present in peoples social and political consciousness despite such allegations and criticisms against him. “I wish Black Americans were really well-informed about Gandhi as also of Dr. King and studies more about the principles and values they stood for,” Carson said.

Was Gandhi a racist? Debate over his role in South Africa is reignited

He said one of the problems in trying to judge a historical figure such as Gandhi is lack of holistic perspective and people’s tendency to attribute saint like qualities on him.

“There is always a problem of trying to turn a human being like Gandhi into a saint. I think people like Gandhi and Dr. King have nothing to apologize because of their historical importance in India’s Independence movement and in America’s civil rights movements. No matter what, you can't take their accomplishments away from them,” Carson said.

Among other prominent Americans who by their admission have been influenced by Gandhi include former president Barack Obama who had hailed the ‘Father of the Nation’ “as a hero” to the world. “I am filled with hope and inspiration as I have the privilege to view this testament to Gandhi's life. He is a hero not just to India but to the world,” Obama wrote in the visitor's book at the Mani Bhavan in Mumbai in 2010.

Last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was present in New Delhi as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, paid tribute to Gandhi and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known to all as Madiba.

Noting that the two serve as beacons of hope for many who continue to suffer race, gender, class, ethnic, religious and other forms of oppression, Ramaphosa said while this year India marks 150 years since the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, it coincides with South Africa’s celebration of the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

“We are privileged to claim these two icons as our own and to know, as we do, the deep impact and influence that Gandhi had on Mandela. As president of South Africa, I am particularly proud that the seeds of Gandhiji’s political awareness were sown in my country,” Ramaphosa said.

To mark the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, the Indian government is expected to hold a number of commemorative events throughout 2019 both in India and abroad through its consular posts.

The Indian government had launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a “clean India” campaign that Prime Minister Narendra Modi said would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150-birth anniversary in 2019.

Was Gandhi a racist? Debate over his role in South Africa is reignited

Mahatna Gandhi, second from right, Kasturba Gandhi and Sonia Schlesin, extreme right, on Tolstoy Farm, June 1912. 

In the U.S., community organizations across the country are planning to hold special events throughout the year, besides official events hosted by Indians consulates and the embassy in Washington.

In Houston, a multi-media museum called Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum is being built as a tribute to the life and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi which is set for completion in 2020. The privately-funded project has raised $2.25 million, although it was not originally planned to coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi.

Atul B. Kothari, trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Library, who is involved with the project said that Mayor Sylvester Turner, the second African American mayor of the city, has taken keen interest in the project and it is being supported by the mayor’s office.

Turner visited Rajghat last November when he led a trade delegation to India, and he came back with greater interest in the museum project for which the Aditya Birla Group is donating a lot of artifacts from Birla Bhavan, now called Gandhi Smriti Bhavan where Gandhi fell to assassin’s bullets.

“The Mayor is calling it as the city’s project,” Kothari said, adding that recently The Dalai Lama has sent a letter, endorsing the creation of Eternal Gandhi Museum in Houston.

“The Dalai Lama’s support for the Eternal Gandhi Museum in Houston is a huge boost to this exciting project, with the potential to give it the global attention it deserves, even before its doors open,” Mayor Turner said.

“The kind words in his letter will also help us show that here in the nation’s most diverse city, we live the values of tolerance, inclusion and pluralism, which were among Gandhi’s most important teachings. We are a welcoming city, where one of every four residents is foreign-born and where we build relationships rather than walls.”

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