This article originally appeared in Washington Examiner, dated January 21st, 2019.
Mahatma Gandhi: lawyer, freedom fighter, Indian icon, and racist?
That is the allegation thrown at him by a group of students and faculty activists at the University of Ghana in Accra, who petitioned for a statue of Gandhi to be torn down from its prominent position on campus.
Yet what’s more surprising than mere campus outrage is that the university actually ceded to these ridiculous demands. The campus administration moved to tear down the statue and erase Gandhi’s legacy at the university, implicitly affirming the group’s disparagement of Gandhi’s life and works. The administration’s concession to these radical activists is an example of how fringe arguments, when not debunked thoroughly and swiftly, can metastasize and gain dangerous levels of public sway.
The campus activists draw from a few controversial critics of Gandhi, who argue that he was not really the freedom fighter and hero he is considered to be across most of the world, but was actually a racist who disparaged African people early in his career. This is a fringe argument and not the consensus of most scholars who study Gandhi.
For example, some of Gandhi’s fiercest critics, such as University of Johannesburg professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, argue that Gandhi had objected to having Indians go through the same post office entrance as native Africans (post offices were segregated at the time) because he believed that Indians were naturally superior.
But this is a misinterpretation of Gandhi’s writing. Nishikant Kolge of the Delhi Center for Developing Societies writes that Gandhi was only complaining about the white Britons’ biases against Indian people when he argued against the Indian classification. This did not mean he accepted the discriminatory treatment of lower-class Africans, just that he wanted better treatment for his own race.
In many other instances, Gandhi expressed explicitly anti-racist sentiments that criticized the treatment of Indians and native Africans alike. In just one example, he demonstrates his empathy with the victimized natives in a letter to his colleagues, stating that he “shuddered” when he heard about struggles of Africans in South Africa. Gandhi also stated in a letter that he believed that black passengers were “entitled” to first-class treatment on South African rail cars if they paid first-class fares, contradicting a writer at a prominent newspaper at the time.
However, the University of Ghana student activists were perhaps most distraught over Gandhi’s use of the pejorative term “kaffir.” While currently the word “kaffir” is rightly considered to be an ugly pejorative, in Gandhi’s time the social consequences for uttering such a word were not as severe. The word was used by Europeans in the 16th century to refer to all black people they encountered. As late as 1911, “kaffir” had its own entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, with no apparent derogatory connotations in its description.
Only when social mores started to change in the mid-20th century did the word become associated with anti-African racism. Furthermore, it is important to note that Gandhi often used the word to refer to Africans in a sympathetic light, stating disapprovingly that the “Kaffirs had to suffer in the third-class carriages in the Cape.” The activists misattribute Gandhi’s use of mainstream jargon at the time to actual ethnic prejudice, smearing his character based on out-of-context quotations.
Ultimately, the activist portrayal of Gandhi as an anti-African bigot simply ignores the man’s life’s work as an anti-racist and civil rights advocate. When the British invaded the native African Zulu kingdom in 1906, while Gandhi was still in South Africa, he rallied Indian support for the Zulus and helped with their medical care. Gandhi’s contributions to South Africa’s black population in his time were so heralded that he was honored by the South African legislature in 2006 as a “champion of freedom, peace, and non-violence.”
It’s clear that the activists’ attempt to discredit Gandhi as a racist gets history all wrong. But their successful pitch to have Gandhi’s statue removed from the University of Ghana is a sign of dangerous trends to come.
These activists’ cynical revisionism of Gandhi’s storied history was inspired by American universities’ removal of statues memorializing “white supremacy,” but their historical misjudgment of Gandhi has further-reaching consequences because of Gandhi’s worldwide prominence as a civil rights icon.
The success of this petition has diminished the struggle against real racism by conflating it with a fake hit job against a great man. Part of the the reason why accusations of racism increasingly fall on deaf ears is because activists have weaponized the term to attack anyone they simply don’t like. It is absolutely true that the West has tough issues to confront within its history. But Gandhi’s imagined racism against black people is not one of them, and the activist attempt to make it so is an offense to history.