Mahatma Gandhi a racist?

Hans Ramsoedh

On the waves of glob­al protests against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, a icon­o­clas­tic storm rages. Stat­ues of per­sons sym­bol­iz­ing racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion are knocked down (unlock­ing stat­ues) or daubed. A stat­ue that must now also be deflow­ered is that of Mahat­ma Gand­hi. In a num­ber of African coun­tries, protests have been tak­ing place for sev­er­al years against the pres­ence of stat­ues of Gand­hi because of his racist state­ments about Africans. In Eng­land, too, there are now activists call­ing for his stat­ues to be removed. In the Nether­lands, the stat­ue of Gand­hi in Ams­ter­dam-South (Churchill Avenue) was daubed with red paint last week. On the pedestal is writ­ten ‘racist’ and the fig­ures are 1312. These num­bers rep­re­sent the let­ters A‑C-A‑B, all cops are bas­tards. That Gand­hi is asso­ci­at­ed with these fig­ures is high­ly remark­able since he has nev­er used vio­lence.

Bekladding stat­ue Mahat­ma Gand­hi in Ams­ter­dam-South

Gand­hi as racist
Mahat­ma Gand­hi (Octo­ber 2, 1869–January 30, 1948) is regard­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly as an icon of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance to racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion and colo­nial­ism. Many human rights fight­ers found and find their inspi­ra­tion in Gand­hi and his life mis­sion, such as Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Nel­son Man­dela. What is the racist objec­tion against Gand­hi? Gand­hi regard­ed the Africans in South Africa as unciv­i­lized, dirty and alive as ani­mals. As an Indi­an, he couldn’t have had the same treat­ment as a African. Gand­hi con­sid­ered Indi­ans supe­ri­or to black South Africans, fol­low­ing the Euro­pean colo­nials, and he advised Indi­ans to avoid con­tact with black South Africans. Gand­hi made these state­ments dur­ing his stay in Natal in South Africa between 1893 and 1915.

Gandhi’s racist state­ments became known when a biog­ra­phy of him was pub­lished by Joseph Lelyveld, for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of The New York Times and admir­er of Gand­hi: Great Soul: Mahat­ma Gand­hi and His Strug­gle with India (2011). Where Gand­hi is almost a saint in India, Lelyveld’s biog­ra­phy meant a des­e­cra­tion or demythi­fi­ca­tion of the Great Soul. Lelyveld’s biog­ra­phy con­tains many asides in which he por­trays him as a bisex­u­al, racist, vain­ly, sour­puss and manip­u­la­tor. The reviews that sub­se­quent­ly appeared in British news­pa­pers have main­ly mag­ni­fied these ‘asides’ to the great dis­plea­sure of the author accord­ing to inter­views with him, because years lat­er Gand­hi dis­tanced him­self from his racist state­ments. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, in India, the reviews in British news­pa­pers about the Gandhi’s biog­ra­phy were met with great shock. In the eyes of Indi­ans, this biog­ra­phy was a des­e­cra­tion of some­one who now has the sta­tus of a saint in India.
Five years lat­er, anoth­er pub­li­ca­tion was pub­lished that addressed Gandhi’s racism, but it did not receive wide­spread atten­tion in the press as joseph Lelyveld’s in 2011. Two Indo-South African sci­en­tists Ash­win Desai and Goolam Vahed pub­lished their The South African Gand­hi: Stretch­er-Bear­er of Empirein 2016. They, too, describe Gandhi’s racism dur­ing his South African years.
I do not rule out the fact that Gand­hi, in his twen­ties, has tak­en over the nar­ra­tive of racist white suprema­cists about the infe­ri­or­i­ty of the black race with his state­ments about black South Africans dur­ing his time in Natal. This, for my part, does not imply any con­don­ing of his state­ments.

The spir­it of the Tal­iban with­in the anti-racism move­ment
I can’t escape the impres­sion that cer­tain (extrem­ist) activists are now over­come by blind anger and that com­mon sense and nuance are far to be found in them. It would mean speed­ing up the search for any­one who has a racist slur to refer to the scrapheap of his­to­ry. His­tor­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties are not saints and their lega­cy is always incon­sis­tent. This also applies to insti­tu­tions such as the Church.

I explain this incon­sis­ten­cy below with a num­ber of exam­ples. Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers from the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry such as Voltaire and Mon­tesquieu sym­bol­ise every­thing the Enlight­en­ment stood for with its pleas for free­dom of reli­gion, sep­a­ra­tion of church and state and equal­i­ty of man. Uni­ver­sal human rights are for an impor­tant part based on the ideas of these enlight­en­ment philoso­phers. Mon­tesquieu owes us the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment of demo­c­ra­t­ic states based on his the­o­ry of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, the Trias Polit­i­ca. How­ev­er, Voltaire and Mon­tesquieu expressed racist and anti-Semit­ic views. This also applies to many oth­er enlight­en­ment philoso­phers such as Immanuel Kant and DavidHume. These philoso­phers lat­er dis­tanced them­selves from their racist views. Does it mean that, despite the change in their think­ing, we will have to put a spell on their entire intel­lec­tu­al lega­cy in 2020? These philoso­phers pro­claimed views that are total­ly unac­cept­able today, but they lived in a dif­fer­ent time and in some ways had dif­fer­ent visions of good and evil.

What about Chris­tian­i­ty, Chris­t­ian insti­tu­tions and sym­bols? Should church­es be daubed and Chris­t­ian sym­bols removed from pub­lic life because Chris­tian­i­ty legit­imized the enslave­ment of Africans by refer­ring to ‘the curse of Cham’? [Cham was one of Noah’s sons, who was cursed by his father]. With­in Chris­tian­i­ty, Africans were seen as descen­dants of Cham through all kinds of ques­tion­able rea­son­ing. It was not until the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that the Vat­i­can would speak out against slav­ery. Just as Islam is not a retard­ed reli­gion because of extrem­ist Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ism, so the Chris­t­ian Church is not a pae­dophile move­ment because of the many cas­es of child abuse. Such views would be short-sight­ed.

Mal­colm X

To stay with the present time, Mal­colm X (1925–1965) still stands today as an icon of black protest in the Unit­ed States. At some stage in his life, how­ev­er, he was also a racist (whites suprema­cists are white dev­ils, inter­ra­cial mar­riages affect the puri­ty of the black race), an anti-Semi­te (Jews are leech­es and are the worst of the white dev­ils), a homo­phobe and a sex­ist (women are sub­or­di­nate to men). Mal­com X lat­er admit­ted that he was wrong about his state­ments about whites and Jews. Should we con­tin­ue to regard him as a racist and anti-Semi­te? I am aware of mal­colm x’s above state­ments, but he nev­er­the­less remains to me above all some­one who gave Afro-Amer­i­cans dig­ni­ty and cul­tur­al self-aware­ness. Should we also call for a ban on Michael Jackson’s music on radio and tele­vi­sion because of his child abuse? By no means, he remains to me the King of pop but At the same time I real­ize that the flip side of his great con­tri­bu­tion to enter­tain­ment has also been the abuse of chil­dren.

What I want to make clear with these exam­ples is that we should not use the extreme posi­tion or faux pas in the past of indi­vid­u­als and an insti­tu­tion like the Church as a stall cov­er for their entire (spir­i­tu­al, intel­lec­tu­al, artis­tic et cetera) lega­cy. We need to look at the incon­sis­ten­cies of indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions and ask our­selves how they relate to their moral mes­sage. Peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions are com­plex and going down with one aspect leads to stereo­typ­ing and phras­es like all whites are suprema­cists and all blacks are lazy. With such an atti­tude, we are enter­ing a spi­ral of rad­i­cal­ism rather than engag­ing in con­struc­tive dia­logue. Who­ev­er we grab by the ankles and keep their heads down, there will always be things rolling out of the pock­et that can’t bear the day­light. Gand­hi is no excep­tion for me in that respect. The enlight­en­ment philoso­phers, Gand­hi, Mal­colm X and with them many oth­ers are not per­fect. No one is. In blind rage unlock­ing and defac­ing stat­ues are expres­sions of a Tal­iban-like state of mind and i con­sid­er the hijack­ing of a legit­i­mate move­ment by extrem­ists. On the impor­tant issue that is now at stake, we must not take the wrong people’s mea­sure, but rather focus on com­bat­ing racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion in the here and now!