Gandhiji was a racist, says new book endorsed by Arundhati Roy

An explosive new book portraying Gandhi as a rabid racist and an unashamed flag-bearer for the British Empire has provoked a heated debate, pitting his admirers against his critics, even before it is out.

Hasan Suroor September 07, 2015 13:10:04 IST
Gandhiji was a racist, says new book endorsed by Arundhati Roy

An explosive new book portraying Gandhi as a rabid racist and an unashamed flag-bearer for the British Empire has provoked a heated debate, pitting his admirers against his critics, even before it is out.

What’s more, it comes with an endorsement from author Arundhati Roy, who has riled Gandhi-tes in the past by calling him a defender of the caste system and an upholder of oppressive gender relations. She has hailed the book as a “serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi’’.

"This is a wonderful demonstration of meticulously researched, evocative, clear-eyed and fearless history-writing. It uncovers a story, some might even call it a scandal, that has remained hidden in plain sight for far too long,’’ she writes.

Gandhiji was a racist says new book endorsed by Arundhati Roy

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Authored by two prominent South  African academics of Indian origin , The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, casts  him as a white supremacist who spewed hatred against native Africans  during his time as a lawyer in South Africa between 1893 and 1914.

Ashwin Desai, Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahed, Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal, have mined Gandhi's own  writings to back their claims. They say that he called the natives  "savages" and "Kaffir" and lobbied with the British not to club  Indians with them.

“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and 'Satyagraha in South Africa,' it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.' He was effectively rewriting his own history,” they say.

Gandhi considered Indians as  “far superior’’ to the native Africans, and “never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Empire, with a particular penchant for war’’.

“He served as stretcher-bearer in the war between Brit and Boer, demanded that Indians be allowed to carry fire-arms, and recruited volunteers for the imperial army in both England and India during the First World War,” they say.

Gandhi, the  book claims, had only white friends and native Africans were not allowed to be members of his “Phoenix of Tolstoy Farms’’, a cooperative he set up near Johannesburg, inspired by the Russian writer’s ideas

Being promoted as an authoritative refutation of conventional assumptions about Gandhi and his saintly reputation, it says: "Leaders like Mandela have lauded him as being part of the epic battle to defeat the white regime and prepare the way for a non-racial country. Against this background, The South African Gandhi unravels the complex story of a man who, throughout his stay on African soil  remained true to Empire while expressing disdain for Africans."

A video, released by its publishers Navayana and Stanford University Press, starts with Albert Einstein’s famous tribute to Gandhi (‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth”); and then rhetorically asks: “But did Einstein know what Gandhi did and said in South Africa?”  See the video:

So, how bad was Gandhi’s “racism”?

Here are some of the more cringingly racist quotes published by The Washington Post:

1. One of the first battles Gandhi fought …was over the separate entrances for whites and blacks at the Durban post office. Gandhi objected that Indians were “classed with the natives” who he called the kaffirs.

“We felt the indignity too much and … petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction, and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans."

2. On another occasion, expressing concern over a lower legal standing proposed for Indians he wrote in a petition in 1895 that this would result in degenerating "so much so that from their civilised habits, they would be degraded to the habits of the aboriginal Natives, and a generation hence, between the progeny of the Indians and the Natives, there will be very little difference in habits, and customs and thought."

3. In an open letter to the Natal Parliament in 1893, Gandhi wrote:

“I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”

4. In  a speech in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1896, Gandhi said that the Europeans in Natal wished “to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

5. Protesting the decision of Johannesburg municipal authorities to allow Africans to live alongside Indians, Gandhi wrote in 1904:

“ Mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians,  I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”

6. About his prison experience in 1908: “We were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs… our garments were stamped with the letter “N”, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up with.”

Pretty unpleasant stuff.

The reaction has ranged from chest-thumping we-told-you-so to incredulity; and attempts to rationalise, understand and contextualise his actions.

Faisal Devji, Oxford University academic and author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence  who has endorsed the book, distanced himself from its conclusions.

Devji said that he had conveyed his reservations to the authors when he read the manuscript and got them to make a number of changes, but was still "not satisfied".

"Yes I did endorse it, but not for the argument about race. The authors don't seem to get the point that Gandhi was doing his job as a lawyer when he made most of the comments they criticise.

"He was hit red to defend Indian merchants in a racially defined society, and could only do so in those terms. And these terms were in fact very familiar all over Africa, with Indians, Arabs and Africans making similar arguments to upgrade their status within racial hierarchies in East Africa, for instance,” Devji told me.

Critics, however, dismiss any defence as "political correctness". Whether or not Gandhi was racist, his actions did smack of racism for which a lesser person would have been hanged and quartered.

There are several controversial books on Gandhi’s personal life but this one is different in that it raises uncomfortable moral questions. After all, morality was Gandhi’s USP. He drew his authority from the moral positions he took on difficult issues of the day earning him the sobriquet "Mahatma".

It will be interesting to see the reaction in India. Is another round of fireworks between Roy and the rest in the offing?

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