Ghana University row re-ignites debate about Mahatma Gandhi’s racism

Mahatma Gandhi figurine at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Vienna.The call to remove his statute from the University of Ghana has reignited debate about his legacy. shutterstock

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi is to be removed from the University of Ghana campus after a campaign by academic staff based on claims that the Indian leader was a racist. Politics and society editor Thabo Leshilo asked Suraj Yengde about the controversy.

Is the claim that Gandhi was racist valid?

Yes. The respected book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by academics Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, provides proof that Gandhi was not only racist but also sexist, misogynist, casteist, supremacist and a patriarch.

He displayed a contemptible attitude towards black Africans. He held the Indian to be “much superior, in capacity, reliability and obedience, to the average Kaffir”, as quoted in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (p. 50-51). He constantly opposed integration of blacks and Indians and loathed the classification of Indians with the “Kaffir race”, also in The Collected Works (p. 364). (“Kaffir” is a derogatory term used to refer to black South Africans.) He found it “insulting” to be “placed in the same category with the Native” (p. 220).

Gandhi assumed that the natives were “barbarians” and that they were “yet being taught the dignity and necessity of labour” (p. 367). On various occasions Gandhi successfully petitioned for separation of Indians (in the Collected Works again, here on p. 368-9) from the black Africans claiming the inferiority of blacks.

For example he wrote in an open letter (p. 193):

A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.

Gandhi opposed inter-race relations, such as between an Indian man and a black woman. In his Gujarati version of Indian Opinion (December 2, 1910) he admitted in inadvertently that:

Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether (p. 414).

He believed that “the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race” (p.255-6).

Gandhi’s patriarchy, sexism and misogyny are also well documented. He regarded women as manipulating creatures who invigorated fanciful phallic desires in men, squarely blaming women for the incidents of domestic violence, Rita Banerji writes in her book, Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies.

He apparently believed that women who were raped or sexually abused or whose “purity is violated” should consider suicide “through sheer will force”, according to Sujata Patel in Construction and Reconstruction of Woman In Gandhi (page 278).

Gandhi was deplorable towards oppressed castes – spiritually and politically. He believed the caste and the varna system to be the foundation of an ethical society, thus promoted separation based on caste vigorously. This translated into the public practices too, where he was on guard to snatch away the rights of “untouchables” for self-emancipation obtained via separate electorates.

Many people have written about Gandhi’s bigotry, including some among his over 1,000 English biographers.

This does not accord with the image of Gandhi as a great leader and a canonised pacifist. How are we to understand the discordance?

Gandhi is now an institution. His biographical image is reproduced so much that he continues to influence leading global moments and leaders. American President Barack Obama, for example, does not miss any opportunity to mention him when referring to India.

Human rights advocates idolise Gandhi. His statues are all over the world. This works well for India’s diplomats and makes their job easy. Simply having a Gandhi photo on a office wall or his bust donated to some school or university institutionalises the Indian government’s presence in the foreign society. Something similar happened in Ghana but it was met with a backlash.

Gandhi was a unifying model but not a great leader. He certainly united India, at least the Hindu India, with his influence in the Indian Congress. But the moral leadership he is accorded seems suspect on closer examination. Indian jurist, economist and reformer Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s account exposes the Gandhi’s injustice against “untouchables”.

Gandhi’s relationship with women has also been severely criticised. He held the disturbing view that women were simply the reproductive organs of society - good only for bearing babies and that the women who used contraceptives were whores that had an itch for sexual pleasures.

Gandhi demeaned women. He had disturbing views on the biology of women. He held the periodical menstrual cycle to be a “distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality”.

Gandhi was also at odds with the liberal tradition of tribals (the indigenous Indians, also known as Adivasi) who consider intimacy between men and women as liberating. He thus excluded tribals from positions of responsible leadership.

What is the significance of Ghana leading the charge against Gandhi in this way?

Ghana has a special place in African history as the first country to gain independence from colonial oppression. Inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-Africanist ideology, Ghana became a beacon of light for independence movements across Africa. Its freedom had a snowball effect of colonial liberations in Africa.

With their anti-Gandhi stance, Ghananian academics are leading the charge in determining the contemporary-modern history of Africa by disowning historical cults unfavourable to Africa. The Indian government’s choice of the symbol of Gandhi for its encroachment into Ghana’s campuses appears to have been a mistake.

Ghana is an important player in international and African politics. Its diaspora is well represented in the western hemisphere. This augers well for the spread of the message of the Ghananian academics. This will find resonance with the marginalised Indian groups such as the Dalits, Sikh and others.

The move by Ghana’s academics has certainly alarmed the government of Ghana. If this movement were to take effect in other African countries it might force the Indian state to reconsider Gandhi as its export symbol to Africa, in a way that is cognisant of the continent’s long history of suffering.

Although Ghana is taking the lead against Gandhi, his racism is not lost to South Africans, as Desai and Vahed wrote in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.