POLITICS

Mahatma Gandhi's Legacy Needs Scrutiny, Remember This Before You Put Him On A Pedestal

Indians have turned Gandhi into St. Gandhi.

23/09/2016 11:52 AM IST | Updated 23/09/2016 11:54 AM IST
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A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Accra, Ghana, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

If the University of Ghana removes the statue of Mahatma Gandhi from its campus, India would justifiably be a little miffed. That's not just because Gandhi is the Father of the Nation but also because the statue was a gift from India. President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled the statue when he visited Accra in June.

Now, some in the university do not want Gandhi there. Professors at the university have started an online petition to remove the statue because Gandhi in his earlier letters had referred to Africans as "kaffirs" and written a letter where he talked about a "general belief" that Indians are a "little better, if at all, than savages of natives of North Africa."

That was in 1893. Gandhi was barely 24. Is it possible that the 24-year-old lawyer's views evolved considerably by the time he became the Gandhi the world revered? Entirely. But it's also true that in 1904 he admitted he felt "most strongly" about the mixing of "Kaffirs with Indians".

South African academics Ashvin Desai and Ghoolam Vahed created quite a stir with their book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of the Empire where they claimed Gandhi kept the Indian struggle for civil rights "separate from that of Africans and coloureds". At that time historian Ramachandra Guha said "to speak of comprehensive equality for coloured people was premature in early 20th Century South Africa" and that a friend in Cape Town told him about Gandhi "You gave us a lawyer, we gave you back a Mahatma."

That was in 1893. Gandhi was barely 24. Is it possible that the 24-year-old lawyer's views evolved considerably by the time he became the Gandhi the world revered? Entirely. But it's also true that in 1904 he admitted he felt "most strongly" about the mixing of "Kaffirs with Indians".

Gandhi's colour-blindness has been well-documented. Even his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi has admitted it saying he was "at times ignorant and prejudiced". Patrick French wrote in The Guardian "Gandhi's blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology."

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A statue of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi at an university campus in Accra, Ghana, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

Yet it's also undeniable that despite all these problems the larger message of Gandhi inspired civil rights legends from Nelson Mandela to Bayard Rustin to Martin Luther King Jr. Mandela told Abdul Kalam "of course one of the great pioneers of South Africa's freedom movement was M.K. Gandhi." Rustin came to India in 1948 to attend a peace conference and was moved by the teachings of Gandhi who had been assassinated earlier that year.

"We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers," he wrote after his return to the US. "The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn."

Were all these people duped? Not really. Gandhi might have distanced himself from the black and coloured Africans in South Africa but that does not mean his life, his work, his strategies to non-violently take on a more powerful foe could not be inspiring to black leaders struggling against injustice.

Barack Obama hung his portrait in his office as senator.

Were all these people duped? Not really. Gandhi might have distanced himself from the black and coloured Africans in South Africa but that does not mean his life, his work, his strategies to non-violently take on a more powerful foe could not be inspiring to black leaders struggling against injustice. They could seek in Gandhi the change they wanted to see in the world. That does not mean embracing his prejudices as well.

Indians however have turned Gandhi into St. Gandhi, and are unable to embrace the prickly complexity of that man. Gandhi should be opened up to debate. Instead we have placed him beyond debate. Our freedom of expression butts up against many sacred cows but Mahatma Gandhi is the one no one dares contest. In 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that use of profane language against Gandhi was unacceptable even in the name of satire or art.

A satirical Marathi poem Gandhi Mala Bhetla Hota (I Met Gandhi) was accused of "using obscene language and creating enmity between different sections of society." The judges said that in the name of satire we could not attribute expletives to our Father of the Nation. It's the Gandhi Exception. Gandhi's complexity has progressively been airbrushed, sanctified and sanitized.

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A statue of Mahtama Gandhi in Accra, Ghana, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

Albert Einstein famously said generations to come would scarcely believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth. We have progressively drained Gandhi of "flesh and blood" as we put him on the pedestal. We pay lip service to him constantly but he is mostly relevant as a political tool as in Rahul Gandhi and the RSS' court fight over Nathuram Godse's RSS-affiliation.

Even a Gandhi great-grandson, Krishna Kulkarni, got drawn into that debate penning an open letter asking Rahul Gandhi and the Congress to quit "milking" the Gandhi name for their "selfish benefits". Kulkarni wrote the RSS-affiliation issue "is squarely in the past and my family has moved on."

Kulkarni's sentiments are understandable and his frustration palpable but he too makes a mistake. Mahatma Gandhi belongs neither to Rahul Gandhi nor to Kulkarni. Kulkarni has the right to move on but that does not mean the chapter can be closed just because a family member says so. Gandhi belongs to India, to its historians.

Whatever comes of Ghana's attempt to remove that statue, the row sparked by the petition should be seen in that light of rekindling debate.

His legacy deserves scrutiny and debate, not ossification. No one gets the last word. Yet we continue think that respecting our leaders means drawing some kind of magic circle around them and placing them beyond debate.

Whatever comes of Ghana's attempt to remove that statue, the row sparked by the petition should be seen in that light of rekindling debate. One only hopes that if the hashtag #GhandiMustFall trends, we will able to at least educate the world one more time that it's Gandhi not Ghandi. Before knocking him off his pedestal, let's please spell him correctly. We owe him at least that much.

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