Was Gandhi a racist?
That's the question the Ghana government is basing its decision on, to relocate a statue of Mahatma Gandhi off a university campus, after professors launched a petition claiming that he was "racist".
The institution in question is the University of Ghana and interestingly enough, the statue was unveiled in June at the campus in Accra by President Pranab Mukherjee, symbolising a close tie between the two countries.
A petition was launched in September by a group of professors who called for the removal of the statue. They said that Gandhi was racist and besides, the university should be giving importance to "African heroes and heroines, first and foremost".
"It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super-power," said the petition, which quotes passages written by Gandhi that say Indians are "infinitely superior" to black Africans.
Ghana's ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement that it has followed the controversy with "deep concern" and that it wants to relocate the statue. "The government would therefore want to relocate the statue from the University of Ghana to ensure its safety and to avoid the controversy," it said.
"While acknowledging that human as he was, Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws, we must remember that people evolve," said the ministry, emphasising that Ghana and India have "championed the struggle for the liberation of oppressed peoples around the world".
"Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws." This is just one of the many sentences that have egged on the debate of Gandhi's legacy.
In an interview with Gouri Chatterjee for Firstpost, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, perhaps one of the very few to have explored the Mahatma's life in great detail, said that "Gandhi was a racist", but only in 1883 when he "first reached South Africa". It would be pertinent to note that Gandhi was in his early 20s and filled with the prejudice of "his Indian and British upbringing. He then thought Africans inferior to Indians and whites, and said so in public," according to Guha.
As Ghana's ministry of foreign affairs then insightfully notes, Guha echoes a similar viewpoint: that people gradually overcome their prejudices and flaws and that Gandhi
slowly shed these prejudices. He came to appreciate the quality of African life, to admire their moral sense, and the beauty of their languages and culture. By about 1908 or so, he was advocating the equality of all races.
However, Guha was quick to point out that Gandhi's views changed after he returned to India, asking Indians in South Africa to unite with the Africans against the white regime. The historian said that those who still consider Gandhi a racist are those who are "cherry-picking from Gandhi’s own writings" and those who are "judging the 19th century by the canons and values of the 21st century".
Those in Ghana or elsewhere who damn Gandhi as a racist are misguided and misinformed. That said, I do not think the Government of India should be funding and installing statues of Gandhi in other countries. That is patronising; besides, would it not be better for the Government to honour and practice Gandhian principles at home?
Perhaps the South African academics do have a point. Soutik Biswas, writing for the BBC, says that the authors of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (also South African academics, but of Indian origin) believe so. The duo spent seven years researching for the book and observe that Gandhi was unconcerned about the plight of the Africans, held a firm belief that power should be with the whites and also addressed the Africans as 'kaffirs', which is a derogatory term.
The duo wrote that Gandhi, in 1904, wrote to a Johannesburg health officer, feeling quite strongly about the mingling of the "Kaffirs with the Indians", referring to a slum known as 'Coolie Location'.
Another BBC report mentioned that the hashtag #Ghandimustfall was being circulated on social media in South Africa, during April 2015, as was a statute vandalised by a group bearing placards that read: Racist Gandhi must fall.
But before we look outwards, we must look into our own backyard first.
The Dalit movement, which is gaining momentum in the country, has given fuel to the debate of Ambedkar vs Gandhi. The debate isn't a new one though, as Arundhati Roy wrote in The Caravan, in a long-winding essay titled, The doctor and the saint.
Both men were their generation’s emissaries of a profound social, political and philosophical conflict that had begun long ago and has still by no means ended... Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally.
Even though Gandhi famously campaigned against untouchability — professor Mridula Mukherjee, who criticises Roy's view, was quoted by The Guardian as saying that Gandhi devoted his life to fighting prejudice, and being a social reformer bringing about social transformation — it's Ambedkar we look to when we talk about caste annihilation. (It's a shame that Tamil Nadu's own EV Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, is lesser known, even though he was Ambedkar's contemporary. But that's a topic for another day.)
Guha, in the interview to Chatterjee, has a fitting reply to why when it comes to emancipating the Dalits — who have politically suppressed and culturally oppressed and marginalised in India — Ambedkar is the icon and not Gandhi. He says,
It is just and inevitable that Ambedkar should be the great icon of the young Dalits today. He was their emancipator. At the same time, it is a mistake to discount Gandhi’s own lifelong fight against caste discrimination. Upper caste Indians should take inspiration from it, since caste prejudice is still so prevalent today.
— With inputs from AFP