Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler.

To all his previous sins, another one has come to the fore in very recent years: Gandhi was, it is said, a racist. Thus the vandalization of his statue during these “Black Lives Matter” protests, and similarly, as some readers might recall, the demand, ultimately conceded, for the removal of his statue from the Accra campus of the University of Ghana two years ago.  There is no question that Gandhi used the word “kaffir” on numerous occasions to refer to the black population of South Africa, and equally there is unimpeachable evidence that he was keen that the Indians should not be classified alongside black people.  It has also been argued, not incorrectly, that though he waged a struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, Gandhi did absolutely nothing to plead for black people or to seek to involve himself in their own struggle to gain some measure of rights and dignity in their own homeland.

The matter, however, is far from being as straightforward as Gandhi’s critics would have us believe, though I shall offer only the shortest rejoinder here since each point may be discussed at great length.  We may begin with the word “kaffir” which, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) usefully reminds us, has “since the mid 20th century been considered extremely offensive”.  It is noteworthy that the offensiveness of this usage is dated to the mid-20th century, or some three to four decades after Gandhi left South Africa.  What its usage was between 1890-1914 merits considerable exploration:  as the OED makes clear, it was also used widely to designate, apart from black people, non-Muslims and members of certain groups, among them the Xhosa and Nguni peoples.  Secondly, those who speak of “Indians” and “black” people in South Africa do so on the assumption, which is entirely erroneous, that these were monolithic communities. Not only Gandhi’s own record of the struggle, best embodied in his book Satyagraha in South Africa, but innumerable other documents offer incontrovertible evidence that the “Indian” community was itself deeply divided, and Gandhi had enough to do to bring some semblance of unity to Indians splintered along lines of religion, linguistic affiliation, caste, and profession.  His critics do not tell us which black people Gandhi was supposed to dialogue with, or appeal to, making it all the more necessary that we critically examine what is meant by the “black” community.  Thirdly, we do not have it on record that any black community ever approached Gandhi to involve him in their struggle, and Gandhi was altogether consistent in never taking up a community’s struggle unless he was asked for his help.  Fourthly, and rather strikingly, whatever we know of his attitudes towards black people comes from his own writings, and it is an indubitable fact that his writings have long been known to black South African leaders as well as the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement to whom Gandhi was unquestionably the figure of greatest inspiration and indeed veneration.  They may have understood that Gandhi had outgrown his views, which is the argument commonly advanced in Gandhi’s defense; they also understood, which we have not, that Gandhi was his own best critic. And, fifthly, in this vein, we must be attentive to the critical praxis that Gandhi extended to the views that he advocated.  Whatever he did say might also be measured, as one instance, against the ethics of hospitality that he clearly and unequivocally offered to the Zulus when he led a large team of Indian volunteers to nurse the wounded Zulus when no white man was even willing to touch the African.

Nevertheless, for argument’s sake, let us grant his present adversaries their due and concede that Gandhi was a racist; indeed, let us go further than some of them, and let us suppose that he remained an unrepentant racist to the end of his life. But can one grant that he was not a racist like the slave trader, Edward Colston, whose statue was rolled over into Bristol Harbor?  I assume that is the case. Surely one can also grant that he was not a racist in the mold of Leopold II, or even someone in the mold of the militant white segregationists in Mississippi who did not hesitate to kill civil rights workers? Just what kind of racist was he, then, and just how did his racism harm others?  Is there any evidence whatsoever that might lead us to the conclusion that his racism instilled a hatred or dislike for black people among Indians in South Africa, or that black people in South Africa suffered in consequence of his racism?  Perhaps his critics should labor to make clear what they understand by “racism” as such, and whether they think, to pursue one line of inquiry, that racism and prejudice are the same thing? To be sure, one might have a prejudice about sex, or sexual orientation, but not about race; and so racism and prejudice are not quite synonymous:  if we refine the question, are racism and a prejudice about race the same thing?  Black people doubtless have some prejudices about white people, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of black people as racist.

There is, finally, this story that must be told.  In 1936, Gandhi was visited at his ashram by Howard Thurman, a prominent African American theologian, intellectual, and educator.  They had an intense conversation, recorded both in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and in Thurman’s own autobiography, With Head and Heart (1979).  At the end of it, Gandhi told him:  “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”  His critics and the defacers of his statues should ask themselves if these are the words of a racist.

(concluded)

See also Part I, “What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately, of Mohandas Gandhi

The two parts were published as one single albeit much shorter piece under the title of “The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race” on June 15, 2020, at abpliv.org. The original article can be accessed here.

A Spanish translation by Laura Mancini of this article is available here.

7 thoughts on “Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

  1. Even if one accepts all your arguments, it still is bizarre to put statues of him up everywhere. Strikes me as the type of thing he himself would not want. There is an old quip that the more Vietnam and China embraced a capitalist economy, the more statues of Marx they commissioned. Same way, as the world moves ever farther away from the Gandhian ideal, the more statues of him we erect.

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  2. You are doubtless right that Gandhi would not have cared for statues of him. But I am making no argument about whether such statues should exist or not; the fact is that the statues are there. Of course, as I shall be arguing in another piece later, Gandhi didn’t want his writings to survive either. He said they should be burnt. Obviously, that is not going to happen. So we would need to know how to address such questions.

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  3. Gandhi was unequivocally not a racist. He did not have a mean bone is his body. Yes, he was acutely focused on the Indian people and Indian Independence, but I believe that he hoped and prayed for a non-violent world for all human beings, where everyone could live their own truth, and live a spiritual life in peace.

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  4. Professor,

    I agree with Adavaith’s comment that either way Ghandi would not have wanted his statues up and what not. However, although that is not the case, it is still extremely disrespectful to throw down statues like this. Many of these people doing these violent riots as tearing down statues, are uneducated. They believe any false information on social media that suits their beliefs. I agree, that indeed Ghandi was not a racist. There is one occasion where Martin Luther King himself visited the villa in Mumbai, India. And although King was booked in a very good hotel, he requested to stay the night in Ghandi’s room together with King’s wife. After King stayed the night he was inspired to apply civil disobediences of his own in a peaceful matter. I think reading this experience of King and Ghandi really just couldn’t let me believe Ghandi was a racist. He was a revolutionary at the end of the day, who was able to inspire many and overall change the world.

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  5. He was the product of his age. Yes, he was racist on personal level, a promoter of racial segregation, licking up to Whites, and look down on black people as there were the norm back then when he lived. There are dark sides of his outlooks that reflected his thoughts. It’s just the World sees his good outweighed his bad, besides, India was on the colonialism victim’s side, the oppressed, and the suffered

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  6. He was the product of his age. Yes, he was racist on personal level, a promoter of racial segregation, Whites, and look down on black people as there were the norm back then when he lived. There are dark sides of his outlooks that reflected his thoughts. It’s just the World sees his good outweighed his bad, besides, India was on the colonialism victim’s side, the oppressed, and the suffered

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  7. In what I’ve been told about Gandhi, I hadn’t actually heard any allegations of racism. In any descriptions of Gandhi, I didn’t think he had strong segregation tendencies to him. I doubt that any of the U.S. Civil rights movement leaders would support him or take inspiration if he was very racist. I had heard that he had more issues with religious prejudice, although the idea of each person having some degree of divinity within them seems to stand against any form of prejudice. In his era, I’m sure Gandhi was significantly less prejudiced than others, even though British oppression gave him the right to be.
    -James Tomasek

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