If devotion’s soft petals have been laid on Gandhi’s statues, so have antagonism’s sharp points.
It will be a waste of good money to spend Rs 25,000 on erecting a clay or metallic statue of the figure of a man who is himself made of clay…” Gandhi, Harijan on February 11, 1939
His view ignored, Gandhi statues were proposed, in his lifetime, across India and in Europe, and clay busts of him came up, without any reference to him, in several places on the subcontinent. They continued to do so, in prodigal numbers, after he was no more, right to our present times. London raised a stunning one in bronze in Parliament Square in 2017, beside those of his two jailors — white South Africa’s Jan Smuts and the Raj’s Winston Churchill.
Statues have a life beyond the vision of their initiators and sculptors. If devotion’s soft petals have been laid on Gandhi’s statues in India, so have antagonism’s sharp points. Such has been the case with statues of his formidable contemporary BR Ambedkar. One can imagine Gandhi laughing at the darts, not without pain. Likewise, one can imagine the architect of India’s Constitution saying, with his wry humour, that he never needed such ‘protection’ of metal gratings under the British Raj.
Liberty and prejudice join hands on freedom’s soil. This is as it should be, as long as the exercise be free of violence and reflect, in court language, “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
Last week, “in deference to faculty opinion”, a Gandhi statue was taken down from its plinth in the University of Ghana’s campus in Accra. What caused the “faculty opinion” ? Something that has exercised scholarship and political narratives for quite some time, namely, that Gandhi’s work in South Africa saw him engage exclusively in securing the rights of Indian South Africans, with no interest shown in the much larger and far more outrageous crushing of the rights of Africans. More, that in his writings a younger Gandhi used vocabulary and nomenclature that showed bias against Africans.
What should India’s response to this be?
Should, in fact, there be an Indian response to this at all? How can there not be one? But it must see two truths.
First, Gandhi believed he was born in India but made in South Africa. This makes his Accra statue, in a vital sense, an African entity’s statue being judged by a subsequent African generation, exactly as a Gandhi statue in India would be seen by a contemporary Indian generation.
Second, that being the case, we in India should see the Accra de-installation as the decision of a sovereign people having a say in the design of their political architecture and their public spaces and for them to be able to say, as part of that ‘say’, that Gandhi does not deserve to have a statue raised to him in Africa.
So — and this is where India must come in — we must do so with the honesty which that searingly honest man deserves. Truth demands, Gandhi’s truth demands, that India should recognise that his use of term ‘Kaffir’ for Africans jars and is, today, unacceptable. But ‘the whole truth’ requires us to turn to President Mandela’s comment on Gandhi’s 125th birthday, “Gandhi must be judged in the context of the time and the circumstances.”
When Gandhi visited Britain in 1931, for the Second Round Table Conference, he had an important visitor: young Jomo Kenyatta. The future freedom fighter requested Gandhi to sign his diary. Gandhi did, writing : “Truth and non-violence can deliver any nation from bondage.” The scholar-lawyer Anil Nauriya tells us Kenyatta preserved the diary and its entry with care, even carrying it in his solo suitcase to prison. Gandhi was in Oxford in October, 1931. Speaking of South Africa’s native population as being “ground down under exploitation”, he said: “Our deliverance must mean their deliverance. But, if that cannot come about, I should have no interest in a partnership with Britain, even if it were of benefit to India.”
On January 1, 1939, he said to the Rev S S Tema of the African National Congress who queried him about a future collaboration between Indian and native South Africans : “You… are the sons of the soil who are being robbed of your inheritance. You are bound to resist that. Yours is a far bigger issue.”
African leaders like Kenya’s Kenyatta, Nigeria’s Azikiwe, South Africa’s Luthuli and Mandela saw in Gandhi’s non-violent defiance of racism, an Asian’s quickening of a future African impetus for freedom.
Gandhi did not want and does not need statues. Accra does not want and does not need advice on its statues. But diminishing Gandhi’s role in the history of decolonisation is to reduce a life-size historical verity to ground-level, and prospects of Afro-Asian solidarity to the flatness of a lifeless plinth.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal
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