Sparked off by the cruel murder of a Black man by a police officer in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated. Statues of figures associated with the slave trade and those who supported slavery during the US Civil War have been toppled. As the debate picked up, some protesters in the United Kingdom have demanded the removal of the statues of Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi because they claim he was a “racist”.
Popular movements are, by nature, frenetic and have a tendency to branch out unexpectedly. This might explain why the demand to take down statues of slave traders, imperialists and colonial-era mass killers is being extended to Gandhi in light of some of his remarks in the early years of his career in South Africa. The equivalence is illogical – in fact, Gandhi has probably done more than any other leader in the last century to dismantle the idea of White racial supremacy.
There is, of course, no doubt that Gandhi was a flawed man with some ideas that seem questionable in contemporary times. But for some of this statements to overtake the work he did in discrediting the racism of the British Empire is self defeating. This absurd standard of perfection in progressive movements is only suited to people who do not want progressive movements at all.
South Africa work
It is well known in India that Gandhi started his political career in South Africa in the late nineteenth century. It is here that he suffered racial discimination and was thrown out of a train for being a Brown man in a first-class coach. Soon after, Gandhi began to represent the Indian community in its battle for greater political rights in a country where racial prejudice was the basis for governance.
What is less known to Indians, however, is that at the time Gandhi’s activism on behalf of Indians rested on trying to prove that Indians, as a race, were deserving of better treatment – rather than speaking on behalf of all the non-Whites in South Africa. In his own words, Gandhi pushed the line that, “India is not Africa, and that it is a civilised country in the truest sense of the term civilisation.”
“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,” wrote Gandhi – but that he would “show at once that the Indians were, and are, in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon brethren”.
In that sense, Gandhi exhibited the prejudices of, as historian James Hunt put it, “a very conventional Victorian Indian”. That said, it must be remembered that Gandhi was himself a colonial subject and was fighting the same racist British Empire that other Black Africans were. His strategy of claiming that Indians were superior in order to fight race prejudice was no doubt problematic. But equating the words of a colonised person with, say, the the actions of a British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who used his racist ideas to starve 3 million Bengalis in 1943, Christopher Columbus, who led an unbelievably cruel native American genocide or Edward Colston, responsible for the enslavement of 84,000 Africans, is untenable.
‘A colored messiah’
This is such a commonsense idea that it has held for most of Gandhi’s life and after. The fact that Gandhi took on the British Empire was, in fact, used directly as a template by many African Americans looking for emancipation from America’s horrific race-based system of governance.
Throughout his own lifetime, Gandhi was looked at with fascination by the African-American community. During India’s freedom movement “Black accounts of Gandhi and the Indian struggle regularly employed notions of colored solidarity”, wrote historian Nico Slate in Coloured Cosmopolitanism, a detailed account of how Indians and African-Americans forged common bonds in their fight against racism.
Gandhi himself often equated the British Raj and America’s racism, writing in 1942 just before he would launch the Quit India movement, “The Allies have no moral cause for which they are fighting, so long as they are carrying this double sin on their shoulders, the sin of India’s subjection and the subjection of the Negroes and African races.”
Most famously, of course, Gandhi’s methods played a key part in America’s Civil Rights Movement, resulting in landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited racial discrimination during elections, thus pushing the United States to become a full democracy. The leader of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr not only took after Gandhi’s methods but made sure to prominently – and frequently – claim the Gandhian mantle as a strategic political move given the Mahatma’s global reputation.
“King’s ability to unify – far from perfect – owed much to his ability to inhabit Gandhi’s legacy,” writes Nico Slate. “King’s connection to Gandhi strengthened his appeal to both Blacks and Whites. Gandhi represented courage, civil disobedience, and the rising colored world to many Blacks while symbolising non-threatening nonviolence to Whites.”
It is thus not only ludicrous to equate Gandhi’s flawed anti-colonial activity in South Africa with imperialists and slavers, it is doubly so given that Gandhi was a direct inspiration for African Americans in their fight for equal rights.
Caste blind spot
Of course, this does not mean Gandhi was not problematic. As India’s most influential colonial-era politician, Gandhi did also exercise power – which is the point where he should be judged. Gandhi’s use of religious symbolism in Indian politics (such as cow protection) is necessary context for us to understand its outsized role in India today.
Most critically, however, Gandhi’s views on caste were extremely problematic – for most of his life he opposed even basics like intermarriage of different castes. Using his power, Gandhi successfully blocked moves like separate electorates for Dalits. Efforts to introduce a weak form of the principle in the Constituent Assembly led to Vallabhbhai Patel sharply attack Bhimrao Ambedkar as wanting the “partition of the country again”.
The result of this Gandhian politics is stark even to this day, with India’s architecture of reserving legislative seats for Dalits being largely ineffectual when it comes to representing actual Dalit interests.
As a result, Gandhian views on caste have been attacked by Ambedkarites in India – and rightly so.
But such are the complexities of history that when it comes to dismantling White supremacy, Gandhi is actually a 20th century hero. The fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement that seek to use his views from South Africa to equate him with imperialists, colonists and slave traders are making an absurd – and more importantly, self-defeating argument.
To say that oppressed people can only have perfect leaders and movements – is to argue that oppressed people should have no leaders and movements at all.