Best way to commemorate Gandhi in his 150th-year would be to critically examine him — not just garland and worship him.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prepares to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, students and professors of the prestigious University of Ghana removed the freedom fighter’s statue from the campus in the middle of the night this week.

They considered Gandhi racist and said that his statements about Black people when he lived in South Africa run counter to their hard-fought battle for self-respect and against colonialism and discrimination.

Gandhi often described Black Africans as “savage” and “raw”, and wrote that “the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race”.

Many of these remarks were not exactly unknown – after all Gandhi’s books, journals and letters have been available in the archives for so long. He is one of the most well-documented leaders of the 20th century.

So why is it all resurfacing now? A combination of new research, scholarship and the internet.


Also read: For much of his political career, Narendra Modi has been trained to dislike Mahatma Gandhi


For too long, the global ‘peace’ icon’s controversial remarks about Black Africans were hidden by many scholars. A racist Gandhi was just too inconvenient in the myth-making project. And Gandhi himself appears to have contributed to this project.

In a 2013 article in The Guardian, Patrick French writes about how even Ramachandra Guha’s book Gandhi Before India “seems to have excluded a great deal”.

“It largely follows the authorised, conservative version of Gandhi: When there is a doubt, he is given its benefit.”

For decades, the popular cliche in South Africa went something like this: “India gave us a Mohandas, we gave them a Mahatma”.

But people like historian Runoko Rashidi and author G.B. Singh (Gandhi Behind the Mask of Divinity) have been highlighting Gandhi’s racism in recent years.

In 2015, two South African scholars — Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, professors at the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu Natal – removed some of the Gandhi-gloss through their book. They conducted a thorough scrutiny of Gandhi’s life in South Africa – based on his own early writings and government archives — and discovered that the leader had indulged in some kind of sanitising of his past in his later autobiography. They published all these details in their book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.


Also read: Students in Canada cannot fix racism by removing Mahatma Gandhi’s statue


Indians had been taught that Gandhi became a Mahatma in India, but the roots of his ‘sainthood’ lay in his years in South Africa between 1893 and 1914. The incident of being thrown out of a train in Pietermaritzburg for being non-White is taught in Indian schools as an iconic and transformative moment when Gandhi rose up against injustice. It is there in textbooks, museums and oral histories. However, what is absent from this version is that Gandhi did not wish to be seated along with the Black Africans, as recent scholarship has revealed. That is why he protested the seating.

In fact, the very basis of his struggle for the rights of Indians living in South Africa was the way he positioned Indians above Black people.

During his fight against the system of separate Whites and Blacks’ entrances to the Durban post office, Gandhi’s main objection was that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa”. He demanded a third entrance for Indians. He wrote in an 1895 petition that placing Indians alongside Blacks in public space would lead to the former being “degraded”. He based this on his conviction that Indians and the Whites came from the common Indo-Aryan stock.

Later in 1904, Gandhi wrote to the Johannesburg municipal authorities that it was “very unfair” to make the Indians live close to Black people because “it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen”.

In India, Gandhi’s conservative Hindu views have been challenged by Babasaheb Ambedkar and several generations of Dalit and anti-caste scholars. Even as he wrote against untouchability, he never really questioned Hindu religion, whose dominant rituals supported and justified the caste system.


Also read: This leader forced Mahatma Gandhi to change his views on caste


But all this while his racist views remained largely eclipsed from mainstream historiography. This was one of the reasons why Gandhi’s legacy successfully became a central part of  India’s soft power outreach globally. The power of his politics and ideas abroad is not unlike the sway that yoga enjoys among foreigners, especially in the West.

Thanks to the interconnected world of ideas and ideology that we inhabit, it is no longer possible to hide the unseemly aspects of revered historical figures. It will find a way to float up.

Many protestors in South Africa believe that unless the Gandhi statue is removed, the world will just not listen to the voices of Africans and others.

In December 2017, a professor of African studies at the University of Ghana, wrote a letter asking for a timeline for the removal of the Gandhi statue from the campus. The university, in turn, wrote to the country’s foreign affairs department, which said it will relocate it. The statue in Ghana had been inaugurated by former president Pranab Mukherjee two years ago – a reason why Ghana’s government offered to relocate the statue instead of letting the campaigners bring it down.

It is not just Ghana, but a similar campaign is underway in Malawi as well where communities are trying to stop the erection of a Gandhi statue in Blantyre.

From racist to saint is a rather incredible trajectory. Did Gandhi evolve over time? Or was he, like all mortals, a bundle of contradictions? Or was he just a very smart strategist who didn’t always believe that means justify the end?

Whatever be the truth, the best way to commemorate Gandhi in his 150th year will be to critically examine him — not just garland and worship him.

This article has been updated to reflect changes.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Intelligence is an innate thing, but it blossoms more fully, and acquires noticeable dimensions only in an atmosphere of encouragement. Black people did have intelligence, but it did not get a chance to flower because white people were repulsed by their unattractive looks. A sunny day is preferred to a black night. A flowery dress is preferred to a black dress. God alone knows why, but this is almost a law of nature.

    Black people did not receive encouragement as equal humans and their intelligence remained confined to the raw levels, so they did not progress in life. Hence they suffered a double whammy — unattractive looks, and poverty.

    It is a paradox that Gandhi suffered because of racism, and he himself was a racist! I haven’t read much of, or about Gandhi, so I don’t know how far this perception is justifiable. But if it is, then the young Ghanian students who have themselves suffered or seen their elders suffer humiliation because of being black are fully justified in not wanting to see Gandhi being idolised in their midst.

  2. So you people really think that hiding the racist legacy is why gandhi became famous. But not his non violent approach when the world was killing one another on racist approaches(reason for hitler and don’t ever think the british were not rasict).
    People at that time everyone were in competion with each other for dominant power not telling this is the bias of this article.because u can see the logic that is people make supremacist concept just because they are competing with each other.this is basic(one can feel that he is superior but can he tell that to others on what basis can he tell that,after all he knows everyone can achieve his intelligence and knowledge) I think gandhi might have know this simple thing and he certainly was following the logic at least when he was in South Africa when he is educated.just my thoughts and understanding although he probably didn’t offend anyone Africans and indians with racial slurs. I’m sorry if I’m mistaken .

  3. So this article tells that because globally many books don’t tell he was racist.i think he was also championing nonviolence when most of the world were killing each other over racist views.not to mention that british were also racist.

  4. At least you are honest. Raw intelligence and unattractive looks. Bigotry and recognition of black cognitive potential – combined with an aesthetic narrowness that reinforces a basically immoral viewpoint.

    You have effectively channeled Ghandi’s earliest activism. Well done?

  5. I see Gandhi as the Father of my Nation. To insult Gandhi is to insult India and the principles she stands for today.
    Gandhi was a man who, despite his many faults, stood firm in the face of inequality and taught the world to face with resolute conviction any form of oppression, above all through nonviolence.
    To revile Gandhi today, nearly 70 years after his death, seems unfair since he neither has the possibility to repent nor to explain himself!
    Through his unceremonious removal in the dead of night, my Ghanian friends seem to embrace the same sort of violence that Gandhi decried.
    I do not think this act promotes cordiality, let alone brotherhood between Indians & Ghanaians.
    We must bury the hatchet while there’s still time…

  6. I am very confused after reading this article. Person who has written this hasn’t clarified that there are proofs. Is there any written proof that Gandhi has said racist things? I know many quotes which are attributed to Gandhi even though there is no proof that he has said anything like that. For instance this quote “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you. Then they fight you and then you win”.

  7. This doubting of Gandhi`s sainthood appears to many to be a recent acknowledgement of his many frailties but actually it is not new. In West Bengal although Congress rule lasted for nearly two decades after independence, this hagiographic presentation of Gandhi was not the rule. There were many books published in West Bengal at the time pointing out the inconsistencies in his policy regarding freedom movement especially his non-violent movement and his practising of manipulative politics. His treatment of Netaji when he was elected Congress President defeating his sponsored candidate alienated Bengalis and pro-muslim approach with regard to riots in Calcutta and Hindu genocide in Noakhali exacerbated this alienation.
    In West Bengal, he was and is an official icon for veneration but he is not popular with people and neither is Nehru who is blamed for partition of Bengal resulting in untold miseries to Hindus and this suffering is still continuing.

  8. Gandhi is the father of Non-Violence. Racism was a part and parcel of life in the 19th and 20th century. His racist comments were not made to bring another people down, but try and add another class in a systematic method to break a society which was white and non-white. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr adopted his methods, because they understood his philosophy. For a professor to sit somewhere and make comments is easy. To be there and live it is not.

    Half truths and bedroom research cannot make Gandhi smaller.

  9. Gandhi may be adored in India even now by a section but little scratch him and his true colours come out. His total surrender to caste and everything that goes with the ccancer is difficult to ignore far too long.
    He said, god will shower flowers on the the sudras who serve the upper castes selflessly. He declared him to be a sanatanit Hindu who, ipso facto, is incorrigibly an orthodox robot caught in a blinding abyss of darkness.
    His definition of primary education given in the Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule is abhorrrent and unacceptable. That is calculated to keek vast section in total darkness. That was what Tilak propagated.
    He advised Jews during the second world war to surrender to Hitler for sacrificing their lives voluntarily.
    His hypocrisy for rebirth as a bhangi in the next life is plainly undefendable. So, what Ghana has done today, India may do so, may be years later. More people dislike him than those bother for him.
    He betrayed the untouchables by fast unto death in 1932 and coerced Dr Ambedkar to sign Poona Pact by sacrificing all that the untouchables had in long struggles gained.
    The SCs have been consigned hand and feet bound together to the Hindus for slaughtering in their interest.
    The SCs, because of Poona Pact, have leaders without a voice. Those without brains, courage and even education, are picked by all Hindus parties to nod everything their parties want them to do.
    They are like lamb. None a lion.
    Their demand for separate electorate would ensure genuine leaders with education, voice, brains and courage and dedication.
    Gandhi destroyed their cause mindlessly and without any compunction.

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