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.

What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately of Mohandas Gandhi

First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before.  The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd.

The United States entered about two weeks ago into a different phase of the struggle in the mode of the spectacular.  Statues of Confederate generals, often astride horses—for that is what generals did in those days—have been lassoed off their pedestals; other Confederate monuments have been defaced; and some have been removed by city or local authorities in the stealth of the night. These statues—most prominently of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia—have drawn the ire of protestors before, and the “Unite the Right” Rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, became the occasion for a renewed demand for their removal as eternal symbols of the subjugation and humiliation of black people.  What could not be achieved before has evidently been achieved this year as reports continue to come in of the destruction, removal, and vandalization of these statues. But it is not only these symbols of the Confederacy, which itself dared the American Republic to extinguish slavery and struggled to retain “a way of life” whose justification was sought in the Bible, in history, in Social Darwinism, and simply in the pleasure and profit that some men derive from exploitation, that have been uprooted in the last fifteen to twenty days.

This time, the outrage of the protestors has found other targets, among them Christopher Columbus, with whom the whole sordid story of European genocide, slavery, and barbarism in the Americas commences. Statues of Columbus have been vandalized or removed in Virginia, Texas, New Jersey, and Minnesota, and others will surely fall or be removed in the days ahead.  What yet distinguishes even more the present outrage is that statues have been felled in other parts of the world.  The statue in Antwerp of the butcher of the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium, who ran an area in central Africa that was 75 times the size of his native Belgium as his personal fiefdom, and whose henchmen may have orchestrated the death of around 10 million Africans, was set fire to and has since been removed.  In what is perhaps the most visceral display of the anger directed at the memorials which stand forth as testimony to the mass enslavement of Africans, the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, Britain, was toppled by protestors, rolled through the streets, and finally dumped into Bristol Harbor.  The protestors who toppled the statue had the good sense to tie its hands and feet—if only to signify the manner in which African slaves were caged, denied their freedom, bound to servitude, and literally rendered immobile during that long journey on the slave ship known as the Middle Passage.

EdwardColsonStatueDumped

The statue of slave-trader Edward Colston being dumped into Bristol Harbor, England. Source: cnn.com

Much greater icons than Jefferson Davis or Robert Lee have taken a beating at the hands of protestors. The day before yesterday, protestors were thwarted in their attempt to bring down the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States whose face adorns the $20 bill.  On many previous occasions, Trump has declared his unqualified admiration for Jackson, though at least once the remarks of the present incumbent of the White House appeared to suggest that he thought that Jackson might still be alive!  Jackson’s notoriety among liberals stems principally, though not solely, from his policy—encapsulated in the Indian Removal Act of 28 May 1830—that led to the removal of the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River, though he also enslaved hundreds of African Americans. This forced resettlement of thousands of Native Americans, known as the “Trail of Tears”, might be described as an act that was critical in sealing the fate of all American Indians, not only the Cherokees. Though some were critical of Jackson’s worldview even at the time, he himself remained thoroughly unrepentant:  as he put it in his second annual message to Congress, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”

Andrew Jackson_statue_Defaced

Protestors attempt to bring down the statue of Andrew Jackson at Lafayette Square, Washington, DC. Source: ABC News. The police intervened: 23 June 2020.

Whatever Jackson’s renown in the United States, which remains considerable, he cannot be viewed as a ‘world historical figure’ or even in the league of George Washington, the Republic’s first President and himself a slave-owner. If the desecration of Jackson’s statue is to be justified, it is not altogether clear by what logic statues of Washington or Jefferson might be spared; and if they are not to be spared, why stop with statues and not burn to the ground—or abandon it to the dogs and other feral creatures—the very capital of the country, since it takes its name after Washington himself.  The iconography of slavery is embedded into most institutions and artefacts of American society—it is present not merely in the Confederate flag, or in the sentimental expressions of gratitude for supposed Southern chivalry across the American landscape put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but is embedded in the very fabric of American life, present in the names of schools—as a little aside, I myself spent a little over one year after coming to the United States in 1976 at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia—colleges, universities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and countless number of towns and cities. Statues are only the outward, the most public and oracular, manifestations of what resides in the pores and sinews of American society.

But matters have now gone beyond Jefferson and Washington.  There is outrage in London, for instance, over the desecration of the statue of Winston Churchill, the war-time Prime Minister of Britain who came to be cast as the last man standing between barbarism and civilization. I have nothing to offer, he said, “but blood, sweat and tears”, and in politically conservative circles, and I suspect in some beyond that too, he is viewed with utter veneration as the gritty political leader who led Britain to a decisive triumph over Nazi Germany.  In anti-colonial circles, however, Churchill has long had an altogether different and even odious reputation as someone who was racist to the core. Just precisely how he was a racist is a question that must be treated with diligence, something not possible within the confines of this essay, but there is little doubt that he persistently adhered to the view that Africans and Indians, among others, were incapable of exercising responsible self-government. He was scarcely alone in holding to this view. Growing up in India, I came to learn of him as the obdurate and relentless foe of Indian independence, and as someone who despised Mohandas Gandhi: as he put it rather infamously, on the eve of the Indian leader’s negotiations with the Viceroy for Indian self-representation, it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, an Inner Temple lawyer, now become a seditious fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” For many years, while being intensely troubled by Churchill’s outlook, I also marveled at his enviable command over the English language.

Churchlll'sStatueLondonVandalized

Statue of Winston Churchill outside Parliament Square, London, 7 June 2020. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8398909/Defiant-Black-Lives-Matter-protestor-says-desecrated-Churchills-statue.html. The masked BLM protestor who defaced it explains in a short video why he did so; the video is at the same source.

It is thus all the more ironical that even the statue of Mohandas Gandhi has not been spared.  The desecration of his statue in the American capital—paint was sprayed over it and it appears to have been partially defaced—will seem inexplicable, perhaps some form of collateral damage in the heat of the moment as protestors went from one site to another, to the hundreds of millions who know of him only as the architect of Indian freedom and as the principal exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance.  Gandhi may have been reduced to a set of clichés, quotations adorned on mugs, T-shirts, posters, billboards, and car stickers, but it is instructive that among the many aphorisms attributed to him there is famously this one: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”.  If I may use the anodyne language that characterizes the remarks of corporate managers, liberal politicians, and well-intentioned university administrators, most “good people” everywhere are bound to feel horrified that the statue of no lesser a person than the Mahatma, ‘the Great Soul’, should have been vandalized.  The American Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, seems to have been expressing precisely these sentiments when he tweeted with an Indian audience in mind, “So sorry to see the desecration of the Gandhi statue in Wash, DC. Please accept our sincere apologies.  Appalled as well by the horrific death of George Floyd & the awful violence & vandalism.”

GandhiStatueWashingtonDefaced

Gandhi’s statue in Washington, I might add, is no ordinary statue. It is not its aesthetic brilliance that distinguishes it, even as it is pleasing to the eye, but rather its location in the nation’s capital, a space reserved, with but a handful of exceptions, to commemorate the lives of those Americans who are deemed to have been decisive in shaping the nation’s history and endowing it with greatness.  Indeed, the placement of statues and memorials in Washington is no easy matter, subject to immense bureaucratic hurdles, and falls under the jurisdiction of the US Congress itself; and Ambassador Juster’s apology must be read not only as an expression of atonement for the country’s inability to safeguard the statue of a person associated the world over with the idea of nonviolence but as a necessary diplomatic gesture.

GandhiStatueWashingtonColdStorage

However, as I shall suggest in the forthcoming part, there is a more complex politics underlying the desecration of Gandhi’s statue, which has followed the path to which Gandhi himself has been confined by some:  cold storage.

(to be continued)

The Dominant and the Dominated:  A Short Tribute to Albert Memmi

. . .  with an aside on Frantz Fanon and Edward Said

I read a couple of days ago of the passing of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish novelist, political thinker, sociologist, and essayist who exiled himself to Paris after Tunisia’s proclamation of independence in 1956.  At his death, on May 22 on the outskirts of Paris, he was just a few months shy of being 100 years old.  I found myself surprised at reading his obituary in the New York Times, if only because it has been years since anyone had ever even mentioned him; to be brutally honest, having known him of him as a writer who had been most active, as I thought, in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me that Continue reading

The Killing of George Floyd:  Racism in a Country Living on Borrowed Time

Los Angeles, 31 May 2020, 2 AM

(No. XII in the series:  The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics)

GeorgeFloyd'sDeath

Police officer exercising “knee restraint” on George Floyd in Minneapolis, about 8:05 PM, Monday, 25 May 2020, frame from a video taken by a witness to the killing.

As I write this, nearly all of America’s largest cities are under curfew extending through the night into dawn. It is not even a week since George Floyd, a 46-year old African American male, died as he lay pinned to the ground by a white police officer.  Minneapolis, where the killing took place, has been roiled by protests for the last five days, and demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country, necessitating Continue reading

The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”

Anti-LockdownUSA3

A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic.  However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved Continue reading

The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness

(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress_-_Tavern_Scene

“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19.  The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading

Life In the Time of Plague: Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-66

(in multiple parts)

Part I of A Global Plague, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories

(Sixth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

COVID-19 has made diarists of many of us, but the Englishman Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was, to use a contemporary expression, far ahead of the curve.  Pepys, who lived through the Great Plague that struck London in 1665-66, as well as the Great Fire of London that over the course of five days in September 1666 gutted the old City of London, was a prodigious keeper of a diary that remains unrivalled in its depiction of the daily life of a well-heeled and influential man living in times of turmoil and pestilence.  Pepys might well have been Continue reading

Inverted Relationships:  Humans and Dogs in the Times of Coronavirus Anxiety

(Fifth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Around a month ago, when schools, colleges, and universities began to transition to online learning, and the first edicts for the closure of museums, restaurants, and other public places were put into effect, some pet owners began to ponder whether social distancing also required them to keep their pets at arm’s length. Though COVID-19 is of zoonotic origins, having, most likely, been transmitted from a coronavirus-infected horseshoe bat to humans via another animal—the pangolin has been mentioned as the most likely host—the present strain of the coronavirus did not at first appear to transmit from humans to dogs, cats, and other domestic animals. In late February, however, a 17-year old Pomeranian, whose owner had been infected, also tested positive for the coronavirus and passed away in mid-March, though the exact cause of its death is Continue reading

The Coronavirus and the Humbling of America

(Fourth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

One of the most striking aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has created an upheaval all over the world has to be the astonishing sight of the world’s richest society brought to its knees and appearing as a suppliant before the very country, China, that it holds responsible for the virus.  No doubt everyone serving the sitting President will take deep offense at this suggestion, and certainly the United States has made every effort to show to the world that, if anything, it intends to capitalize on this opportunity to further punish its enemies and show that it remains the world’s predominant power.  “While coronavirus ravages Iran,” noted the Washington Post in a headline two weeks ago, “U.S. sanctions squeeze it.”  The United States has not only Continue reading

The Coronavirus, the Enemy, and Nationalism

(Second in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been making its way across the world, conquering one territory after another, since it first emerged in China around three months ago.  There are now 185 countries where the virus has taken hold, and most of them, barring a few that took early and concerted measures to mitigate it, are finding it difficult to restrain the advance of the virus within their territories.  Much like a world conqueror, the virus respects no borders, recognizes no nation-states, and cares not an iota for sovereignty.  This may be one reason why the leaders of many countries, and even Donald J. Trump, an open exponent of the idea ‘America First’, have declared that the wholly unprecedented situation created by the virus concerns all humankind.  “Let’s look out for each other,” the WHO’s Director-General said in pronouncing the virus a pandemic, “because we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” Musicians, actors, and major public figures are all part of the choir reassuring the world that “we are all in this together”.

Continue reading