‘A Gandhi statue in Africa is like putting up Gen. Dyer’s in India’—Ashwin Desai

The protests in Davis, California, where yet another Gandhi statue came up

The protests in Davis, California, where yet another Gandhi statue came up

In Davis, California (US), when “a 6-foot-3-inch, 650-pound gift from the Indian government”—yet another Gandhi statue—was being unveiled at a ceremony on 2 October, about 75 protesters chanted “Indian Government shame shame”; “Gandhi, Gandhi you can’t hide, you committed genocide” and “racist Gandhi.” According to the Sacramento Bee, the protesters nearly drowned out a panel of speakers. The Indian media and intelligentsia did not however stop to introspect why the protests against Gandhi’s statue in Ghana had erupted last month. They just carried on with the Gandhi birth anniversary rituals. Only one journalist, Viju B of Times of India’s Kochi edition (1 October 216), thought it pertinent to take stock. He interviewed Ashwin Desai coauthor (with Goolam Vahed) of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire. Here it is:

Ashwin Desa signing a copy the bookWe negate Gandhiji’s true legacy by uncritically accepting everything he did. On his birth anniversary, an assessment of his ‘darker’ side ‘Gandhi Was Apartheid’s First Ideologue’. The Mahatma was notoriously blind to the plight of Africans but does that make him a racist? Ashwin Desai, internationally acknowledged authority on Gandhi’s South African years, thinks so. Excerpts from an email interview:


You have critically examined the role of Gandhi’s South African experience and how he never really addressed the Black cause there. Was it just ignorance or was it deliberate?

It was done deliberately. Gandhi’s strategy was to ingratiate himself with Whites. He believed that Indians and Whites were of Aryan stock while holding that Africans were lower down the civilization scale than Aryans. Gandhi was entirely aware that Africans lived under the most abject conditions. But he appeared to blame them and not the savage colonial wars that dispossessed Africans of their land and forced them into a brutal migrant labour system.


In a Ghana campus they are now calling for a statue of Gandhi to be removed because they claim he was a racist and considered Indians to be “infinitely superior” to Africans. How far is this allegation true?

Their summation of the African Gandhi is entirely spot-on. Gandhi took up the Empire’s cudgels to ensure that Africans were kept in their place. For us, this is what marked Gandhi his begging to be the stretcher-bearer of Empire in South Africa. And when tired of stretcher-bearing, he asked for guns to defend Empire against rebellious natives.

Is it not a fact that African leaders like Nelson Mandela were inspired by Gandhi’s life and philosophy? How do you see this contradiction?

What aspect of Gandhi’s life could Mandela take inspiration from? Mandela became an iconic figure because he opted for armed struggle. He fought for African majority rule. On both counts Gandhi would have opposed him. Gandhi’s philosophy of the separation of the races makes him one of apartheid’s first ideologues. As he wrote, “We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race”. And as Jad Adams puts it: “An association with the elite and racially exclusive did not fit badly with Gandhi’s view of the spiritually superior man, his body purified by the right food and chastity , his mind rarefied by contemplating the moral value of every action” (2010: 85).

Why is Gandhi still considered a racist among certain scholars? Was the term Harijan a patronising way to slot dalits like Blacks in South Africa?

Gandhi is labelled a racist because he was one. He openly expressed his contempt for Africans, he saw the need for White rule, and was in love with Queen and Empire. So the African Gandhi is not a Mahatma as Mandela would have it. He spat on the struggles of African people. So for India to impose a statue of the man in Ghana is like Britain imposing a statue of General Dyer in India and hailing him as an anti-imperial fighter. It just makes no sense. Gandhi was very quick to impress Whites by showing how much better Indians were than Africans. Indian Opinion published an editorial on 9 September 1905 under the heading “The relative Value of the Natives and the Indians in Natal.” In it, Gandhi referred to a speech made by Rev. Dube, an early African nationalist, who said that an African had the capacity for improvement, if only the Whites would give them the opportunity. In his response, Gandhi suggested: A little judicious extra taxation would do no harm; in the majority of cases it compels the na tive to work for at least a few days a year. Then he added: “Now let us turn our attention to another and entirely unrepresented community the Indian. He is in striking contrast with the native. While the native has been of little benefit to the State, it owes its prosperity largely to the Indians. While native loafers abound on every side, that species of humanity is almost unknown among Indians here.”

Here are some of the plethora of racist views he was happy to express: In a letter addressed to the Johannesburg medical officer of health, Dr Porter, after the South African War, he wrote: “Why of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping all kaffirs of the town passes my comprehension. Of course, (at) my suggestion, the town council of Johannesburg must 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 unfair to the In dian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”

When he was imprisoned during the passive resistance campaign of 1906–08 and placed in the same prison cell as Africans; he felt humiliated to be placed in the same cell and wrote that “many of the Native prisoners are only one degree re moved from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves in their cells”. One can see how Gandhi’s views on Africans formed his views on caste and vice-versa. He was prepared to acknowledge dalits, but he would name them, he would represent them and they needed to accept the validity of the caste system. This is what in South Africa we called White racist paternalism.

Indian South Africans are lucky that Gandhi failed in his mission. What Gandhi wanted was to be treated on par with Whites and an acceptance of their rule. In other words if Gandhi succeeded we would have been junior partners in the system of apartheid, that the United Nations declared a crime against humanity .

The BJP is appropriating Gandhi now after Congress which exploited his name for many years. Is this part of a larger Hindu nationalism, a recasting of Gandhi as a Hindu leader?

He was always a Hindu nationalist. If Gandhi was alive he would be voting for BJP and threatening dalits to vote for him!

Many of Gandhi’s views are outdated, yet he seems to be more relevant than ever before. Is this just a part of the myth of the Mahatma or is there something we can learn from his life and work?

The argument is made that Gandhi was a man of his times. But if he was a man of his times then we must discount the maxim that ‘India gave Africa a Mohandas, and we gave them a Mahatma’. While he was in South Africa he acted and sounded like an apartheid ideologue.


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