Who is one of the greatest contributors to the problem of segregation in India?

The man who created segregation in South Africa just a few decades before Apartheid.

Gandhi’s racial hatred towards black Africans is heavily documented by his own writings, many of which were published in his newspaper, The Indian Opinion. One of the most notable manifestations of his distaste for the African population was his campaign to racially segregate the Durban, South Africa post office. This was reported by The Telegraph in 2013, an excerpt from which is below. Our more detailed and fully documented explanation, posted farther down on this page, demonstrates Gandhi’s campaign for racial segregation extended far beyond Durban.

USA. North Carolina. 1950.
USA. North Carolina. 1950.

French, Patrick. “The truth about Mahatma Gandhi: he was a wily operator, not India’s smiling saint.” The Telegraph, January 31, 2013.

Gandhi has become, in India and around the globe, a simplified version of what he was: a smiling saint who wore a white loincloth and John Lennon spectacles, who ate little and succeeded in bringing down the greatest empire the world has ever known through non-violent civil disobedience. President Obama, who kept a portrait of Gandhi hanging on the wall of his Senate office, likes to cite him.

An important origin of the myth was Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi. Take the episode when the newly arrived Gandhi is ejected from a first-class railway carriage at Pietermaritzburg after a white passenger objects to sharing space with a “coolie” (an Indian indentured laborer). In fact, Gandhi’s demand to be allowed to travel first-class was accepted by the railway company. Rather than marking the start of a campaign against racial oppression, as legend has it, this episode was the start of a campaign to extend racial segregation in South Africa. Gandhi was adamant that “respectable Indians” should not be obliged to use the same facilities as “raw Kaffirs”. He petitioned the authorities in the port city of Durban, where he practised law, to end the indignity of making Indians use the same entrance to the post office as blacks, and counted it a victory when three doors were introduced: one for Europeans, one for Asiatics and one for Natives.

Gandhi Campaigns for Racial Segregation
Upon arriving in South Africa to perform legal work for a group of upper-caste Indians, Gandhi settled in to begin his own activism. In 1894, he formed a political organization — the Natal Indian Congress, a precursor to his refashioning of the Indian National Congress 27 years later. The NIC was founded further the causes of caste Hindus and campaign against equal treatment for Indians and black South African natives.

Gandhi specifically wanted to segregate the black Africans away from the upper-caste Indian population in the same way Dalits and low-castes of India are segregated from the Hindu population. The first major victory (as Gandhi perceived it) of the INC was increased segregation at the post office in Durban, South Africa.

The post office had two doors. One for whites and the other for Indians and black natives. Gandhi, disgusted at having to share a door with blacks, initiated a campaign demanding creation of a third door.

Gandhi Refuses to Share Door With Blacks
Gandhi first referenced this issue in an August, 1895 letter titled “Report of the Natal Indian Congress.” He wrote: “A correspondence was carried on by the late President with the Government in connection with the separate entrances for the Europeans and Natives and Asiatics at the Post Office.” [Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), Vol. 1, p. 266]

A year later, after the issue had already been resolved, Gandhi chose to expound upon his reasons for raising it in the first place. In his August 14, 1896 letter, “The Grievances of the British Indians in South Africa: An Appeal to the Indian Public,” he called being “put on the same level with the native” a “disability.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 367] He did not complain that Indians were refused the same rights as whites, but rather that Indians were not treated as legally superior to the black natives. Gandhi’s “Grievances” letter continues:

“Lavatories are marked ‘natives and Asiatics’ at the railway stations. In the Durban Post and Telegraph Offices, there were separate entrances for natives and Asiatics and Europeans. We felt the indignity too much and many respectable Indians were insulted and called all sorts of names by the clerks at the counter.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 367]

Clearly, Gandhi was infuriated by the idea of integration with the black natives. He didn’t mind that Indians were segregated from whites as long as the Indian was not “dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 193]

Gandhi Achieves Post Office Segregation
In his 1895 “Report,” Gandhi boasted about the government response to his petition for segregation from the blacks. He wrote: “The result has not been altogether unsatisfactory. Separate entrances will now be provided for the three communities.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 266] Again, in his 1896 “Grievances,” he bragged about this victory, writing: “We petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, pp. 367-368]

Gandhi Seeks Further Segregation
He was not satisfied, however, and in 1896 raised the “problem” of other integrated locations. The integrated railway station lavatories displeased him, for instance, and in “Grievances” he wrote that “our efforts are concentrated towards preventing and getting repealed fresh legislation.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, p. 367] His efforts to increase racial segregation continued for many years. In a 1904 letter to Johannesburg’s Medical Officer of Health, for instance, he again protested integration with the blacks, writing: “Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all Kaffirs of the town, passes my comprehension…. Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council 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 very unfair to the Indian population, and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.” [CWMG, Vol. 3, pp. 428-429]

Indeed, Gandhi felt the racial segregation of Indians from blacks was something worth boasting about. In a 1903 Indian Opinion article, he wrote: “The petition dwells upon `the co-mingling of the colored and white races.’ May we inform the members of the Conference that so far as British Indians are concerned, such a thing is particularly unknown. If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is the purity of type.” [CWMG, Vol. 3, p. 379]

Gandhi’s staunch devotion to Hinduism clarifies his love of racial segregation. The foundation of Hinduism is a racist caste philosophy which forces darker skinned people in general and the black Untouchables of India specifically to the bottom rung of society. Much of Gandhi’s time in South Africa was dedicated to ensuring the denial of equal civil rights to the black natives, whom he viewed as equivalent to Untouchables.

His activities in South Africa beg an important question. Did his campaign for a racially segregated society contribute to the rise of Apartheid?