The Fall of Gandhi the Elf

For almost a century now Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has been held up as the Father of India and heralded as an international icon whose name and image are used at protests across the world for peace and justice. But the stark reality of the person and the politician that Gandhi was offers us an entirely different narrative. Here, Gandhism is an ideology that supports and sanctifies Hindu religion and its bedrock, the varna system of graded inequality. Pride over Aryanism and disdain for ‘uncivilized’ Blacks are part of this package. The recent protests in the University of Ghana in Accra against the statue of Gandhi—unveiled just a few months ago by the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee—have helped in exposing the reality of Gandhi and Gandhism at an international platform.

An online petition started by the professors at University of Ghana for the removal of Gandhi’s statue condemns the latter’s “uncharitable attitude towards the Black race”. It also mentions that Gandhi’s statue is “the only statue of an historical personality on the University of Ghana’s Legon campus”, and argues instead for erection of statues memorializing African heroes and heroines:

We are of the view that if there should be statues on our campus, then, first and foremost, they should be of African heroes and heroines, who can serve as examples of who we are and what we have achieved as a people. . . Why should we uplift other people’s ‘heroes’ at an African university when we haven’t lifted up our own? We consider this to be a slap in the face that undermines our struggles for autonomy, recognition and respect.

Last year in Johannesburg, a Gandhi statue was vandalized Last year in Johannesburg, a Gandhi statue was vandalized

This is not the first time that the removal of Gandhi statues have happened. Last year, in Johannesburg a Gandhi statue was vandalized for his racism, and the hashtag #Ghandimustfall (sic) was created. Post-independence literature and nonfiction in India have rarely explored the figure of Gandhi through the critical lens, and he remains a hero and even god to the Left-Liberal-Secular elite of India. Those involved in the current debate unfolding in Africa over Gandhi’s legacy are largely armed with the evidence presented in the book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed published by Navayana on 2 October last year. The book is an investigation beyond the moralistic purview that always shrouds the half-naked Gandhi who, the world now realizes, often dressed up the truth about himself. Desai and Vahed expose the harsher truths about the Mahatma’s racism, his disdain for Africans, his Aryan pride, and his loyalty to the British Empire. An Al Jazeera report quoted Desai on the incident: “The hagiographic version must be challenged. The truth about the South African Gandhi is uncomfortable… Those who seek to remove the statue of Gandhi have rightly focused on a man who spat on the struggles of Africans in South Africa.”

The fabled story chronicling the beginnings of Gandhi’s political career and his spiritual epiphany when he was thrown off the first-class compartment of a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, arose not from a desire for axiomatic equality for all but from the belief that made him think it was wrong to “degrade the Indian to the position of the Kaffir”—in other words, he did not want to sit with the lowly blacks, but with the whites in first class. This attitude is also dramatized in the play “Gandhi–Ambedkar” in The Strength of Our Wrists by the Marathi playwright Premanand Gajvee. When speaking of being able to ‘empathize’ with the alienation faced by the lower castes, Gandhi’s character narrates the train incident. But this ‘empathy’, we are shown by Gajvee, is flawed. For Gandhi goes on to say in the play:

If the god wills that I should continue to render my service to my country, he will keep me alive. I too am a member of those upper castes who have laboured until now to keep the fifth varna down in the dirt. And yet it is an astonishing thing that the fifth varna continues to remain within the Hindu fold. This means there is some secret power in the Hindu faith which I cannot explain. Indeed I am convinced that the fifth varna is an integral part of the larger Hindu family.

Gajvee-Wrists low resThe Gandhi who claimed shared ancestry with the British under the guise of “Indo-Aryan” race, and the Gandhi who saw himself and other high-caste Indians as superior to the “Kaffir” (blacks) are finally coming under the spotlight. Gandhi the politician and Gandhi the person have long been shielded behind the veil of Gandhi the Mahatma. It was only B.R. Ambedkar who took on the Mahatma in his own lifetime. In his 1945 indictment  What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, he writes:

The genius of Mr Gandhi is elvish, always and throughout. He has all the precocity of an elf with no little of its outward guise. Like an elf he can never grow up and grow out of the caste ideology.

The meaning of the protests in Ghana lies not merely in its defiance of a god like Gandhi who has been venerated since what feels like time immemorial; it is an expression of the universal Ambedkarite axiom of equality (if we may avail a debt-free loan from the work of Soumyabrata Choudhury forthcoming at Navayana). This equality becomes the central argument against and for which human society is organized. The world is finally waking up to the truths about Gandhi, and it is finally cool to not like Gandhi. Indeed #GandhiMustComeDown. And yes, let us not forget that Arundhati Roy did spend a lot of time exposing Gandhi (in “The Doctor and the Saint”) before telling us why we need to turn to Ambedkar and his unambiguous agenda of annihilation of caste.

If Ambedkar were alive today, would he have said ‘I-told-you-so’? Or simply smiled seeing the dead elf skin of Gandhian ideals finally coming apart?



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