Was Gandhi a racist?
That’s the question the Ghana government is basing its decision on, to relocate a statue of Mahatma Gandhi off a university campus, after professors launched a petition claiming that he was “racist”.
The institution in question is the University of Ghana and interestingly enough, the statue was unveiled in June at the campus in Accra by President Pranab Mukherjee, symbolising a close tie between the two countries.
A petition was launched in September by a group of professors who called for the removal of the statue. They said that Gandhi was racist and besides, the university should be giving importance to “African heroes and heroines, first and foremost”.
“It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super-power,” said the petition, which quotes passages written by Gandhi that say Indians are “infinitely superior” to black Africans.
Ghana’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement that it has followed the controversy with “deep concern” and that it wants to relocate the statue. “The government would therefore want to relocate the statue from the University of Ghana to ensure its safety and to avoid the controversy,” it said.
“While acknowledging that human as he was, Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws, we must remember that people evolve,” said the ministry, emphasising that Ghana and India have “championed the struggle for the liberation of oppressed peoples around the world”.
“Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws.” This is just one of the many sentences that have egged on the debate of Gandhi’s legacy.
In an interview with Gouri Chatterjee for Firstpost, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, perhaps one of the very few to have explored the Mahatma’s life in great detail, said that “Gandhi was a racist”, but only in 1983 when he “first reached South Africa”. It would be pertinent to note that Gandhi was in his early 20s and filled with the prejudice of “his Indian and British upbringing. He then thought Africans inferior to Indians and whites, and said so in public,” according to Guha.
As Ghana’s ministry of foreign affairs then insightfully notes, Guha echoes a similar viewpoint: that people gradually overcome their prejudices and flaws and that Gandhi
slowly shed these prejudices. He came to appreciate the quality of African life, to admire their moral sense, and the beauty of their languages and culture. By about 1908 or so, he was advocating the equality of all races.
However, Guha was quick to point out that Gandhi’s views changed after he returned to India, asking Indians in South Africa to unite with the Africans against the white regime. The historian said that those who still consider Gandhi a racist are those who are “cherry-picking from Gandhi’s own writings” and those who are “judging the 19th century by the canons and values of the 21st century”.
Those in Ghana or elsewhere who damn Gandhi as a racist are misguided and misinformed. That said, I do not think the Government of India should be funding and installing statues of Gandhi in other countries. That is patronising; besides, would it not be better for the Government to honour and practice Gandhian principles at home?
Perhaps the South African academics do have a point. Soutik Biswas, writing for the BBC, says that the authors of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (also South African academics, but of Indian origin) believe so. The duo spent seven years researching for the book and observe that Gandhi was unconcerned about the plight of the Africans, held a firm belief that power should be with the whites and also addressed the Africans as ‘kaffirs’, which is a derogatory term.
The duo wrote that Gandhi, in 1904, wrote to a Johannesburg health officer, feeling quite strongly about the mingling of the “Kaffirs with the Indians”, referring to a slum known as ‘Coolie Location’.
Another BBC report mentioned that the hashtag #Ghandimustfall was being circulated on social media in South Africa, during April 2015, as was a statute vandalised by a group bearing placards that read: Racist Gandhi must fall.
But before we look outwards, we must look into our own backyard first.
The Dalit movement, which is gaining momentum in the country, has given fuel to the debate of Ambedkar vs Gandhi. The debate isn’t a new one though, as Arundhati Roy wrote in The Caravan, in a long-winding essay titled, The doctor and the saint.
Both men were their generation’s emissaries of a profound social, political and philosophical conflict that had begun long ago and has still by no means ended… Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally.
Even though Gandhi famously campaigned against untouchability — professor Mridula Mukherjee, who criticises Roy’s view, was quoted by The Guardian as saying that Gandhi devoted his life to fighting prejudice, and being a social reformer bringing about social transformation — it’s Ambedkar we look to when we talk about caste annihilation. (It’s a shame that Tamil Nadu’s own EV Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, is lesser known, even though he was Ambedkar’s contemporary. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Guha, in the interview to Chatterjee, has a fitting reply to why when it comes to emancipating the Dalits — who have politically suppressed and culturally oppressed and marginalised in India — Ambedkar is the icon and not Gandhi. He says,
It is just and inevitable that Ambedkar should be the great icon of the young Dalits today. He was their emancipator. At the same time, it is a mistake to discount Gandhi’s own lifelong fight against caste discrimination. Upper caste Indians should take inspiration from it, since caste prejudice is still so prevalent today.
— With inputs from AFP
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a paper presented at the National Seminar held in Bengaluru by the Indian Council for Philosophical Research in September 2016.
Two features become immediately evident in any study about India: One, it is the only surviving non-Abrahamic ancient culture and civilisation, and two, its cultural and civilisational continuity dating back to such antiquity.
And this continuity has been more or less maintained intact in almost all realms of human activity in India: in dress, family life, social interactions, basic ethical conceptions like dharma, religious rituals, institutions, places of worship, traditions, art, music and so on. The reason why this continuity has been preserved owes to India’s fundamental philosophical conceptions rooted in the Vedas and the numerous Dharmashastras. The aforementioned realms are, in a way, the practical or outward manifestations of these fundamental conceptions.
In brief, stress must be laid on the phrase that India is the “only surviving non-Abrahamic ancient culture and civilisation” for the purpose of contextualisation and clarity of discourse, terminology etc.
Dr S Radhakrishnan in his preface[i] to the fifth volume of P V Kane’s History of the Dharmashastras holds that
True religion should have three sides to it:
- State of Mind
- Relationship to reality and
- A way of life
And PV Kane himself, in the same volume notes[ii] that our “ancient sages laid the foundation [for philosophical and social harmony] by insisting upon this that there is and must be harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world and man’s endeavor should be to realize in his actions and his life this harmony and unity…social reforms and politics have to be preached through our age old…philosophy. If our leaders and people throw away or neglect religion and spirituality altogether, the probability is that we shall lose both spiritual life and social betterment.”
And to realise this harmony of spirit and the world, ancient India realised that a fundamental attitude — or state of mind — was required. This attitude, to put it in simple terms, is how one regards life itself. Our ancients regarded life as one of celebration in all its variegated aspects; life was worth living to the fullest with all enjoyments — for example, as the celebrated Chamaka Prashna shows us — as long as our enjoyment didn’t violate Dharma. Or as Kane himself quotes Sita’s address to Hanuman holding that “Joy rushes to surviving men even though he has lived for over 100 years. This adage appears to me to be true and auspicious.”[iii] The key here is the note on “over 100 years” as opposed to the widespread notion of “waiting for death in the sunset of our years” and so on.
In a line, what this shows is that one of the central features of India’s philosophical underpinnings is the near-total absence of pessimism. Both happiness and sadness are but mere phases, which attitude in turn is rooted in our conception of time as cyclic.
However, both the major Abrahamic religions stand out in sharp contrast in this fundamental conception of life, and in the sense of Dr Radhakrishan’s “relationship to reality”. While Christianity conceives birth and life itself as sinful, the core doctrines of Islam take this to violent and extreme ends. And from this conception arises the need to convert — violently if necessary — the entire world to their respective religions.
Which then brings us to an even more fundamental point: the definition of the term “religion” itself. From what we have seen so far, there can be no fundamental congruence if we include the Vaidika or Dharmic system of ancient India (henceforth referred to as Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma) in the same definitional bracket as that of the Abrahamic religions. And yet, in almost all of contemporary discourse on comparative religions etc, Sanatana Dharma is given the label of “religion” in the sense of Abrahamic religions. And this incongruent discourse become mainstream — in the media, TV, talk shows, and so on — and has almost become received truth so to say.
Needless, this state of affairs has a long history and in the specific case of India, it is a case of history that continues to repeat itself in the facets of colonialism, economic oppression, societal fissures, and especially, after World War II, driven by alien ideologies.
The approach to studying the history and consequences of colonialism in India is perhaps best given by Prof RC Majumdar that “Real history…teaches us that the major part of India lost independence about five centuries before, and merely changed masters in the eighteenth century,” referring to the first external Muslim invasions into and subsequent imperialism over large parts of India.
Yet, a key difference between the protracted Muslim rule in India and the British rule is the fact that while Muslim Sultans settled in India, the British never made India their home. Their purpose, it appears, was one of relentless economic exploitation of the country for the enrichment of England at untold cost and suffering of generations of Indians. One may refer[iv] to the chapters, Rape of a Continent and Economic Destruction in Will Durant’s A Case for India, and Madhushree Mukherji’s Churchill’s Secret War, among other notable works for a more comprehensive discussion.
Along with this, the British also spearheaded a fundamental change that in one stroke profoundly altered the national and social character of India. The introduction of English education — which was simultaneously accompanied by the comprehensive destruction of our traditional modes of learning — and a massive impetus to Christian missionaries, who not coincidentally, came to monopolise the educational sphere. Without going into too many details, one may recall Ananda Coomaraswamy’s early warning that an English-educated Indian would be cut off from his roots and become an “intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of her spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems the educational is the most difficult and most tragic”. [v] And when we observe the ideological battles being fought in the education establishment today, we notice how this tragedy has escalated almost irreversibly, if I may add.
As a sort of a handmaiden of giving English education to Indians, Indology began making steady but massive forays in the realms of higher learning especially when British rule was at its height. The biggest “contribution” of Indology over the last two-odd centuries is undoubtedly the Aryan Invasion Theory, which may rank as one of the world’s greatest intellectual hoaxes in the service of colonialism. Of course, in our own time, the AIT has been repeatedly shown to be false from multiple angles: archeology, genetics, Vedic textual evidence and so on. Offshoots of Indology include the current attempts to politicise and offer spurious interpretations of the Vedas, epics, Puranas, the Sanskrit language, folklore and indeed, anything that can be considered “native”, and valuable.
And as is well known, the Communists who began gaining prominence in the mid-1930s employed the Western Indology and missionary discourse about India with destructive zeal and consequences. Indeed, they elevated historical and colonial distortions to an art form as documented copiously by Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Ram Swarup, Dr K S Lal, Shatavadhani Dr Ganesh among other scholars. This distortion in the early years after India attained freedom took the two-pronged approach of whitewashing medieval Islamic atrocities on Hindus and portraying Hindus as oppressors, and reached the nadir when the Marxists began to deny history, most notably during the Babri Masjid affair.[vi] Equally, on contemporary events, Marxists — or their new self-description as liberals — continue to act as apologists for Islamic terrorism.
Curiously, but understandably, India is perhaps the only country in the world where the mutually hostile troika of Islamism, Christian Evangelism and Marxism are friends with each other because their goals remain the same as we shall see.
Both the Evangelical West and the Middle East do not make a distinction between the varna of Hindus because the core doctrines of their religions enjoin treating both a Brahmin and a Dalit as a heathen or Kaffir. Logically, nothing else explains why various Christian denominations continue to invest massive resources in converting say, Dalits en masse, or use subtle discursive techniques to convert, say the mostly-urban “upper castes.”
Most notably, the Christian West never gave up studying India and Hinduism in all its aspects. As the concept note of this seminar states, scholars like Sheldon Pollock continue to undertake this study for achieving purely political ends. When we observe the fairly recent history of say South Korea, Philippines and East Timor, it becomes clear that India is the last non-Abrahamic bastion to be subverted and bloodlessly conquered by the West. The aforementioned countries have now become mere Christian outposts of powerful nations of the West.
[i] PV Kane: History of the Dharmashastras Vol 5, Part 2: Preface by Dr. S Radhakrishnan, pp 2
[ii] PV Kane: History of the Dharmashastras Vol 5, Part 2: pp 1708-09
[iii] Valmiki Ramayana. Sundara Kanda: 34.6
[iv] Will Durant: A Case for India: pp 7, pp 44
[v] Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Education in India,” Essays in National Idealism
[vi] Koenraad Elst: Negationism in India