Following the recent incident in which professors at the University of Ghana won a petition for the removal of a statue of Mohandas Gandhi from the Accra campus, I wanted to open up a space which will allow for a more accurate representation of what Gandhi actually stood for.
Many of us know Gandhi for the key role he played in the India independence movement during the British rule of India including the Salt March and the Quit India campaign of 1942. However, it is imperative that we advocate for a more holistic portrayal of his ethics.
While popular media has a tendency to magnify Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns, they often gloss over the fact that Gandhi was actually very violent in his beliefs about black people. For example, while living in South Africa between 1893-1914, Gandhi joined the military in the war against black resistance and even organized a brigade of Indians to put down the Zulu uprising. He not only believed that power was supposed to be in the hands of white people, but, he went as far as to call black people “kaffirs”, an insulting and contemptuous term for a black African which some see as an equivalent to the word “nigger”. In a letter that he penned to a health officer in Johannesburg in 1904, he argued that the council had to do all that was in their power to “withdraw kaffirs” from an area in Johannesburg where a large number of South Africans lived alongside Indians.
I am not arguing that we should completely do away with all the good that Gandhi has done, what I am simply asking is why we are so eager to minimise anti-blackness. If Gandhi had said these same things about white people instead, every history book would have a list of his ‘problematic’ behaviors alongside the list of his achievements and we wouldn’t be so quick to portray him as the standard which all good men must strive to attain.
Some would argue that Gandhi was a product of his time and that he simply played into the negative beliefs people had about black people at that specific point in history. I, however, do not agree with this at all. As someone who campaigned for the liberation of the people of India from British rule, it is unacceptable that he concurrently played an active role in the dehumanisation of black people.
Additionally, in the last 38 years of his life, Gandhi began practicing celibacy and he slept next to naked young women in his ashram as a ‘test’ of said celibacy. Among these young women was his own grandniece, Manu Gandhi and Abha, the wife of his grandnephew who was 18 years old at the time. Now, it is entirely possible that these young women consented and willingly took part in these ‘experiments’, but due to Gandhi’s status and influence at the time, it is more likely that they were forced to take part out of fear or coercion. Is consent really consent if it is guided by influence? I think not.
In summary, what I want to say is that just because Gandhi advocated for the liberation of one group of people does not mean that he didn’t simultaneously take part in the oppression of a different group of people.
Gandhi was not perfect, so let’s start portraying him accordingly.