The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed is a book that dares to counter a legacy and develops a new historiography of Gandhi’s early political career. It juxtaposes Gandhi’s sanctimonious account with various sources that challenge it. For Gandhi has become something of a floating signifier—from songs to names of roads, caps to soda shops, he has been with us our entire lives.
Why is it that we remember an obsessive documenter—whose personal and political archive is available to us in 98 volumes—so selectively? In this age of memes, quoting him out of context is probably not the best antidote either. However, it forces us to reconsider what we have been taught to think about the making of a Mahatma on South African soil. Take this article in Atlanta Blackstar for example, which in quoting a racist Gandhi implies that he saw the Indian community as a unified whole in South Africa. This was not the case. He was indifferent to, and later threatened by, the community of the Indian indentured labourers—whose struggles this book documents. As the authors say, “This is not a story that stops at the door of moralism, delinked from the context in which Gandhi found himself. It situates Gandhi’s life against the backdrop of the profound socio-economic change taking place in South Africa during these decades and the myriad contestations and new subjectivities that these changes brought in their wake.”
All quotes are taken from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. They comprised his editorials, speeches and correspondences of the period from the Anglo-Boer war to what is now remembered as the Indian Strike of 1913—a period between which Gandhi was proud to have “put [his] life in peril four times for the cause of Empire”.
October 1920: “I put my life in peril four times for the cause of the empire—at the time of the Boer War when I was in charge of the Ambulance Corps whose work was mentioned in General Buller’s dispatches, at the time of the Zulu revolt in Natal when I was in charge of a similar corps, at the time of the commencement of the late war when I raised an Ambulance Corps and as a result of the strenuous training had a severe attack of pleurisy, and, lastly, in fulfilment of my promise to Lord Chelmsford at the War Conference in Delhi, I threw myself in such an active recruiting campaign in Kheda district involving long and trying marches, that I had an attack of dysentery which proved almost fatal. I did all these in the belief that acts such as mine must gain for my country an equal status in the empire.”
May 1906: “As the years roll on, the memory of that noble lady remains as fresh as ever. Her interest in India and its people was intense, and in return, she received the whole-hearted affection of India’s millions…. The great British Empire has not risen to its present proud position by methods of oppression, nor is it possible to hold that position by unfair treatment of its loyal subjects. British Indians have always been most devoted to their Sovereign, and the Empire has lost nothing by including them among its subjects…. We venture to suggest that, if there were more of Queen Victoria’s spirit of enlightenment put into the affairs of the Empire, we should be worthier followers of so great an Empire-builder.”
June 1918: “There can be no friendship between the brave and the effeminate. We are regarded as cowardly people. If we want to become free from that reproach, we should learn the use of arms.”
September 1903: “We do not wish to be understood as advocating the free immigration of Asiatics…. Restrictions on immigration will be perfectly justified. We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve the interest, which is as dear to us as it is to them, by advocating the purity of all the races and not one alone. We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.”
March 1908: “We were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, 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…. Here was further proof that the obnoxious law was intended to emasculate the Indians…. It is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. The cells for [Natives] were adjacent to ours. They used to make a frightful din in their cells as also in the adjoining yard. We were given a separate ward because we were sentenced to simple imprisonment; otherwise we would have been in the same ward [with the Natives]…. Apart from whether or not this implies degradation, I must say it is rather dangerous…. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!”
June 1918: “If I see a Dhed and ask him to sit by my side and offer him something to eat, he will shake with fear. He will be my equal only when he feels sufficiently strong in himself to have no fear of me. To describe him as my equal [when he lacks such strength] is like adding insult to injury. We occupy the position of the Bhangi in the Empire.”
June 1897: “The [indentured] are certainly all very poor. Some of them were vagabonds in India. Many also belong to the lowest class…. If the Indian is not a model Indian, it is the duty of the Government to help him to become one… Indians have no wish to see ignorant Indians who cannot possibly be expected to understand the value of a vote being placed on the Voters’ List.”
December 1894: “The Press almost unanimously refuses to call the Indian by his proper name. He is ‘Ramsamy’; he is ‘Mr Sammy’; he is ‘Mr Coolie’; he is ‘the black man’…. Indenture is a subject which myextremely limited experience precludes me from making further remarks upon”
February 1904: “The councilmust withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess 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.”
September 1906: “Even the half-castes and Kaffirs, who are less advanced than we, have resisted the Government. The pass law applies to them as well, but they do not take out passes.”
December 1910: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”
(Buy The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire on the Navayana website)