Westminster glorifies Hindu preacher Gandhi despite warnings by NRI minorities of sordid past
LONDON: Jan. 13, 2015 – A campaign by the Conservative Party to install a statue of Hindu preacher Mohandas Gandhi in London’s Parliament Square has found many dissenters, ranging from Labour leaders to Dalit activists, Sikh NGOs, the founder of the Indo-British Heritage Trust, and even the late Winston Churchill, once leader of the same party which is now spearheading demands for a new Gandhi idol.
In December 1930, Churchill wrote: “The truth is, Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.” Opponents of the planned statue insist the ideology of Gandhism is especially exposed by the 21 years Gandhi, an Inner Temple-educated barrister, spent in pre-apartheid South Africa. He first arrived there in 1893, when it was still known as Britain’s Cape Colony and, to many, his time there offers key reasons the UK government should reject erecting his statue.
One person who thinks Westminster should be wary of Gandhi’s South African past is Kulwant Singh, a community leader at Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha (Southall), the largest Sikh gurdwara in London. Describing Gandhi as “disturbing,” Singh remarks: “This man laid the foundation for apartheid by calling for racial segregation at every turn.” He knows the allegation is shocking to those used to hearing Gandhi paired with African icons like King and Mandela, but Singh says the proof is within easy grasp.
“Look at his collection of writings published by the Indian State,” says Singh. “In them, we see Gandhi said ‘the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race.’ In 1905, he opposed integration of African and Indian schoolchildren. Then in 1906, he volunteered to join the slaughter of Zulu freedom fighters who were resisting atrocities by their colonial rulers. For years, he raged that Indians should not be, in his words, ‘dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir,’ and he constantly petitioned the government to ‘not consider Indians as being on the same level as Kaffirs.’ How is a racist like this a model for our children?”
For a little over a decade, Gandhi’s legacy has been plagued by contentions of racism. In 2003, when a statue of him was installed in Johannesburg, The Guardian reported: “Critics have attacked the gesture for overlooking racist statements attributed to Gandhi, which suggest he viewed black people as lazy savages who were barely human.” News reports from The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and The National Post confirm that Gandhi statues have faced protest over his racism and other controversial deeds in Los Angeles area, San Francisco, and Ottawa, respectively.
Past protests didn’t stop PM David Cameron, on January 10, from enthusiastically declaring: “A statue of Mahatma Gandhi standing alongside Churchill and Mandela at Parliament Square is highly appropriate and I am highly delighted that we have have done this relatively quickly.” Whether or not Cameron was aware of Churchill’s views on Gandhi was not immediately obvious. Last year, in an announcement of the idol, Chancellor George Osborne called Gandhi “a figure of inspiration, not just in Britain and India, but around the world.” Osborne was joined by Foreign Secretary William Hague who, apparently not speaking in reference to the Hindu preacher’s two decades in South Africa, praised “Gandhi’s view of communal peace and resistance to division.”
Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy reached a starkly different verdict in an October 2014 interview, saying: “It will be distressing for people in the black community who have been taught to valorize him…. Gandhi believed in racial segregation. His first victory in South Africa was to campaign for a third entrance to be opened in the Durban Post Office so Indians would not have to use the same entrance as ‘Kaffirs.’ He calls them ‘savages’ and ‘kaffirs.’”
For this very reason, black activists and writers from South Africa to the United States have been vehemently rejecting Gandhi. One of those is Reverend Irene Monroe, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School, who wrote an April 2011 column for Huffington Post describing Gandhi as “an unabashedly diehard supporter of India’s Hindu caste system.” Explaining that she first heard of Gandhi through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said, “I loved Gandhi because King did.” However, she concluded: “If King and others knew of Gandhi’s racist views of black South Africans… Gandhi wouldn’t have been so highly profiled in his public sermons.”
Monroe is not the only African activist who felt compelled, upon learning of Gandhi’s “racist views,” to speak out. Another voice on the issue is influential South African journalist and political theorist Sentletse Diakanyo. In an impassioned column penned for The Mail & Guardian in October 2008, Diakanyo stridently denounced Gandhi’s “pathetic racism and advancement of segregation of black people.” Expounding his argument, he wrote:
“The greatest injustice against the struggle for liberation of black people was the projection of Mahatma Gandhi as committed to a cause against segregation. It is a fallacy that Gandhi in his struggles had any interests of black people at heart. His was a selfish cause to advance interests of Indians while encouraging continuing subjugation of black people. Gandhi held an absurd belief that Indians, along with whites, were a superior race to black people.”
Noting Gandhi’s frequent use of the word “Kaffir” (a racial slur criminalized as “hate speech” in South Africa), Diakanyo quoted the Indian’s 1895 comment: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
The end result, Diakanyo decided, was that “Gandhi ensured that Indians received their elevation above black people and helped entrench segregation laws against black people.” He consequently concluded: “To continue to honour and celebrate this man is to insult humanity!”
A few years before the journalist discovered Gandhi’s racism, U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns (now retired) took to the floor of the House of Representatives to condemn Gandhi as racist. In his December 2005 remarks, he referred to Gandhi’s “anti-black statements,” saying:
“Gandhi ignored the suffering of black people during the colonial occupation of South Africa. When he was arrested and forced to share a cell with black prisoners, he wrote that they were ‘only one degree removed from the animal.’ In other words, Mr. Speaker, he described blacks as less than human. We condemn anyone who says this in our country, such as the Ku Klux Klan and others, as we should. Why is Gandhi venerated for such statements?”
Perhaps, some might assert, Gandhi evolved from a rough start or was ignorant of the offensiveness of his statements. That’s not an explanation Pieter Friedrich is buying, however. Friedrich, a scholar specializing in South Asia who serves as an Advising Director to Organization for Minorities of India, asks: “Did Gandhi ever apologize? Did he ever seek to make redress for his errors? Did he even acknowledge them? We know he wanted and got racial segregation of the Durban post office and was pleased when the authorities instituted a three-tiered system of entrances. He certainly knew the insult bound up in ‘Kaffir,’ a term equivalent to the n-word, because in 1924 he called it a ‘term of opprobrium.’ His greatest guilt, though, may spring from his involvement in the 1906 Zulu War.”
Friedrich calls Gandhi a cheerleader for the conflict, saying he encouraged Indians to volunteer and petitioned the government to actively seek Indian enlistees. He points to a 1905 editorial in Gandhi’s newspaper, The Indian Opinion, where he wrote: “If the Government only realized what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and give Indians the opportunity of a thorough training for actual warfare.” The colonial government never armed the Indians, but finally caved to Gandhi’s insistence on participating in the war by forming an Indian stretcher-bearer corps. Gandhi promptly joined the army and was given the rank of Sergeant-Major.
“Still, Gandhi kept agitating to be given weapons,” says Friedrich. “He called it a pity the Indians could not do ‘any work with the rifle’ and sought an amendment to legislation prohibiting arming Indians. As he put it, he wanted Indians to take ‘their share in the defense of the Colony.’”
The war broke out after Zulus, led by Chief Bambatha, killed two police officers who tried to stop protests against a new poll-tax. Arundhati Roy recounts the aftermath of the three-month conflict, writing: “The rebellion was eventually contained. Chief Bambatha was captured and beheaded. Four thousand Zulus were killed, thousands more flogged and imprisoned. Even Winston Churchill, master of war, at the time under secretary of state, was disturbed by the violence.”
Gandhi’s role was as a stretcher-bearer, despite his apparent demands for arms, but Friedrich suggests the Indian ascetic rewrote history when he published his autobiographical Story of My Experiments With Truth in the 1920s. “Before the war,” Friedrich says, “Gandhi wrote in his newspaper that ‘going to the battle-field should be an easy matter’ due to his profound faith, but in his autobiography, he wrote ‘my heart was with the Zulus’; again, in journals during the war, he records how the entirety of his work was caring for wounded colonial troops, but 20 years later he claimed ‘the work of my Corps consisted only in nursing the wounded Zulu.’ The reason this discrepancy hasn’t been discovered by the political elite is, rather simply, that they don’t bother to investigate history on their own and instead merely swallow whatever line has the biggest bait.”
Friedrich did not specify if the politicians he has in mind include Richard Beddoe, a Westminster City Councillor serving as Deputy Cabinet Minister for the Built Environment, who stated last November: “There is no doubt that Gandhi is a world-renowned figure who should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln, who both fought for civil liberties.”