Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, while he was alive, so colossally dominated national politics that his name became almost talismanic. In 1930, when Surjo Sen led his obviously violent plan to capture the government armoury in Chittagong and assassinate the town's British officials, his war cry, clean ignoring any messages of ahimsa, was “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai."

Sen wasn’t the only one to question what the Mahatma stood for. Given his heft, debates about Gandhi and his ideology still rage nearly 70 years after he was gunned down in Delhi. The latest salvo comes from a book called The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire. Authored by two South African academics, the book looks at Gandhi’s life in South Africa and, going by news reports, attacks him for his racism towards black Africans. A piece in the Washington Post describes it as a “controversial new book” which “reveals shocking details about Gandhi’s life in South Africa”.

No secret

Somewhat less dramatically, however, this aspect of Gandhi has been known for some time now. In fact, all the so-called shocking exposés that the publisher of the book has put out in a promotional video are simply excerpts from Gandhi’s own writings, published for full public consumption by the man himself. It really is no secret that Gandhi held views of racial and/or cultural superiority over the native black population at the time he lived in South Africa. Gandhi’s main struggle in Africa was not some superhuman fight against racism per se but to dissuade the White rulers from their belief that “Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”.

As a leader of the Indian expatriates in South Africa, Gandhi took a number of steps to distance himself from Africans. For example, he took great umbrage to the decision by the Johannesburg municipality to zone African and Indian living areas together. This mixing, Gandhi wrote was “very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen”.

In 1908, when Gandhi was arrested by the South African authorities, he was more outraged that he was being kept in the same prison cell as blacks rather than by the arrest itself. “We were all prepared for hardships”, the to-be Mahtama wrote, “but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up with.”

Gandhi's hang ups

By the standards of 2015, therefore, Gandhi would be a racist. He clearly believed that the black population of Africa was inferior to Indians in some way. Not only race, but Gandhi even had hang ups about class: a fair part of his struggle often ignored the indentured labourers in South Africa and concentrated on upper-class Indians. The key point to remember here is that Gandhi did not live in 2015. The Mahatma arrived in South Africa in the 19th century – 1893, to be precise. He was 24.

As such, Gandhi carried much of what would be termed common sense at the time – and would be called retrogade a century later. This included a belief that the British Empire was a force for good – a widely held opinion across vast swathes of the globe at the time, including in India. Gandhi would support the British war effort during two wars in South Africa and, for his services to the Empire, receive the prestigious Kaiser-e-Hind medal. In an example to show how quickly the reigning order of “common sense” changes, though, Gandhi returned his medal after the Empire had turned into something not-so-good after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.

In much the same vein lay the theory of race. It was common and, in fact, even thought of as scientific for its day. Just two decades before Gandhi landed in South Africa, Charles Darwin, one of the greatest pioneers of science, would write: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races”. Was Darwin a racist? For 2015, yes; for his time, no. In fact, as a keen supporting of the abolition of slavery, he was, if anything a progressive thinker for this time.

Gandhi, while a very smart man, was no ground-breaking scientist. For him to simply believe the reigning scientific consensus of the day was really no great matter. In fact, if there was anyone who believed in some perfect equality of man in the 1890s, that would be shocking and worth writing books about.

Fighting for a disadvantaged groups

Another important point to note is that Gandhi, in South Africa, was a leader of a disadvantaged group, fighting a desperate struggle for rights against a colonial state. In an ideal world Gandhi should have led all of South Africa against the Empire, rather than shunning the black population. But ideal worlds don't exist. We have to remember that at the turn of the previous century, leading the sort of nonviolent mass movements that Gandhi led against the Empire in South Africa was itself extraordinary. To condemn Gandhi’s remarkable politics in South Africa by expecting it to be perfect is just churlishness.

Indeed, this seems like a symptom of wanting to see our historical figures in black and white. This is something that not only his detractors but even Gandhi’s supporters are guilty of. In his magisterial and comprehensive biography of Gandhi, Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi describes the famous train incident that Gandhi experienced upon his arrival in South Africa. Gandhi was not only thrown out for travelling in a whites-only first class carriage but also beaten up a day later when he got on another train and refused to follow the segregation rules again. Rajmohan Gandhi explains this brave stubbornness as follows:
If he had moved as ordered, he would have accepted that souls covered in brown and black skins were of lower value than the souls of white folk. But he knew that all souls had equal value.

This is, unfortunately, quite incorrect. In 1893, Gandhi certainly did not fight to be on that train because of some perfect vision that black and white were equal. In fact, nine years later, in a written letter to a newspaper, he had no issues accepting that Kaffirs (a derogatory term for black Africans) should not be allowed onto the tramcars of Transvaal:
You say that the Magistrate’s decision is unsatisfactory, because it would enable a person, however unclean, to travel by a tram and that even the Kaffirs would be able to do so. But the Magistrate’s decision is quite different. The Court has declared that the Kaffirs have no legal right to travel by the trams. And, according to tram regulations, those in an unclean dress or in a drunken state are prohibited from boarding a tram. Thanks to the Court’s decision, only clean Indians or Coloured people other than Kaffirs can now travel by the trams.

Even in 1906, as we can see, Gandhi had no problem if anyone didn’t allow Kaffirs onto tramcars. His only quibble was that Indians weren’t being allowed on.

Of course, again, we need to take ourselves back to South Africa in 1893 and put ourselves in Gandhi’s shoes. At the time, an Indian being kicked out of a whites-only compartment was the norm. Many Indians would have gone though the same experience, shrugged and moved on, accepting it as the natural order of things. That Gandhi put his foot down and stood up for himself was in itself remarkable. The fact that, later on, he fought for Indians to be allowed on the tramcars of Transvaal was also remarkable. There is no need to create a false Gandhi here that ignores the real Gandhi since the real Gandhi is himself such a historical exception. And, of course, the fact that the real Gandhi was only remarkable – but not perfect, as per today’s moral standards – is also nothing to be ashamed of.