Father of our nation and loved by over a billion Indians, Mahatma Gandhi has over the years garnered respect and adoration on one hand but also numerous criticisms on the other. Even scandals, as more details about his life and works have come to the surface. It’s hard to take a stand against someone that became the face of non-violent movements globally but it is also difficult to ignore the faults of such a person, especially when they become contradictory to their celebrated work. In truth, a lot of the fault lies in our own ability to consider our heroes as human beings rather than gods, and hence, people who are just as flawed as the rest of us. And whether it’s Woody Allen, John Lennon or Mahatma Gandhi, these seemingly contradictory aspects of their contradictory behaviour and incredible repository of work forces us to pose an ubiquitous question–should people with power be held to a higher standard, or should we be able to view all of their behaviour, both good and bad, in silo, if we are to be more objective and compassionate about their innate humanness?
While we do respect and appreciate Gandhi for the movement of freedom that he triggered in India against repressive colonial rule, there are other voices and narratives that have gotten just as loud across international borders that aren’t quite the same. Nowhere is this more apparent than South Africa. ‘The South African Gandhi’ is a controversial book written by two South African professors, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, published in 2015, that sheds light on a darker side of Gandhi, his racist beliefs and, as reported by The Washington Post, his ‘expressed disdain for Africans’ during his time on the continent.
When President of India, Pranab Mukherjee visited Ghana in June earlier this year he unveiled a statue of Gandhi at the University of Ghana campus, given to “symbolize friendship between the two countries,” as per reports.
“Statues on university campuses have recently prompted bitter arguments in Africa as students wrestle with the legacy of colonialism and history of racism on the continent,” writes Jason Burke for The Guardian. A petition was started in September by university professors calling for the takedown of the Gandhi statue on the campus. Addressed to members of the University of Ghana council, the petition cites cases of Gandhi’s racism towards Africans as well as quotes from documents and letters written by Gandhi himself as reference. One of Gandhi’s quotes being, “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,” from ‘Speech At Public Meeting, Bombay’ document, one of many available online; the petition also meticulously pinpoints the exact date, year and page number of the cited extracts — this particular quote is from volume I, on September 26, 1896, on page 407 — adding the note “The term kaffir is considered a racial slur used in reference to indigenous Black South Africans.”
“We are of the view that if there should be statues on our campus, then, first and foremost, they should be of African heroes and heroines, who can serve as examples of who we are and what we have achieved as a people,” write the petitioners, adding, “Why should we uplift other people’s ‘heroes’ at an African university when we haven’t lifted up our own? We consider this to be a slap in the face that undermines our struggles for autonomy, recognition and respect.”
There are five key points the petitioners aim to highlight — “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s racist identity,” the fact that there are no memorial statues “of our own heroes and heroines on our campus.” Third being the removal of racist symbols from “world-class” universities, giving Yale University’s removal of stained glass windows that depict enslaved Africans on August 2016 as one of six examples. The final two points being the previous protests against statues of Gandhi around the world and finally stating that “there was no consultation about the placing of the statue.”
“We can do the honourable thing by pulling down the statue. It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super-power… How will the historian teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude towards the Black race and see that we’re glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?” state the petitioners.
The petition is incredibly researched, articulate and straight to the point, raising important issues relevant to the country’s past, present and future generations as well. As of today, the petition has 1,817 supporters, #GandhiMustComeDown is going viral and the growing agitation and protests on campus Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to remove the statue from the university campus and relocate it to “ensure its safety,” as explained in a statement. “The government would therefore want to relocate the statue from the University of Ghana to ensure its safety and to avoid the controversy,” it said. “While acknowledging that, human as he was, Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws, we must remember that people evolve…To this end, the Ministry is urging Ghanaians to look beyond the comments attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and acknowledge his role as one of the most outstanding personalities of the last century who demonstrated non-violence.”
Click here to read the entire petition by the professors.