We need to talk about Gandhi: The conflicted Legacy of Mahatma Karamchand Gandhi
2nd October marks the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, a man revered as a saintly and almost legendary figure. But his legacy is increasingly being questioned at home and abroad.
The ‘Gandhi Must Fall’ movement led to the removal of his statues from universities in Ghana and South Africa. A Malawian court halted the erection of Gandhi’s statue in Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital. In his native India, Hindu nationalists have defaced the statue of the so-called father of the nation.
Revered as one of the most inspirational political and spiritual leaders of our time, his birthday is recognised internationally as the UN International Day of Non-violence. It is also a national holiday in his native India.
In India, he won the mantle of ‘father of the nation’ for helping to deliver India out of Britain’s colonial crown. He pioneered the principle of Satyagraha - resistance to tyranny through mass non-violent civil disobedience. Delivering India from the tyranny of British colonialism was widely welcomed, but his effort to heal the deep rifts that existed between Muslim and Hindus led to his assassination by a Hindu nationalist.
Behind the idolisation of personalities such as Gandhi or Churchill lie controversies that have beleaguered their legacies.
Gandhi is quoted in one of his writings: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … 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.”
With this information now in the public realm, Gandhi’s legacy is no longer secure even in his own country. With the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, Hindu nationalists apparently stole Gandhi's ashes and scrawled ‘traitor’ over a poster of the ‘father of the nation’ on what would have been his 150th birthday.
His controversies extend even further afield. In Africa, his anti-colonial legacy is contested, if anything, he continued the colonial racist mindset. Despite his statue standing alongside that of Nelson Mandela on Parliament Square in Westminster London, he remains a very divisive figure in Africa.
He may have helped India throw off British colonial chains and inspired generations of activists including Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi’s true feelings about Africans should not be airbrushed from history.
Many forget that he spent 21 years in apartheid South Africa where he mounted legal battles challenging the separate entrances for whites and black Africans. Gandhi objected that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa,” demanding a third entrance claiming that “their civilised habits…would be degraded to the habits of aboriginal natives”.
In his writings, Gandhi unapologetically used some of the most derogatory terms to describe black Africans whose plight he purportedly stood in solidarity with. He blatantly labelled them “savage,” and “raw”, living, in his view, the untamed lives of “indolence and nakedness” which informed his pertinacious fight against the apartheid policy of “mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians.” This, in Gandhi’s mind, was a degradation of the Indian’s superior status to the obviously inferior African.
In the West, Gandhi represents an almost saint-like figure, but as it often happens, myths about icons and legends, they often outgrow their true beliefs. Many of the famous ‘quotes’ such as “Be the change we wish to see in the world” “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” attributed to him bear little resemblance to any of Gandhi’s texts.
Gandhi's history is worth re-examination. Gandhi may have apparently “favoured” the “emancipation” his bizarre practices caused shock and outrage, even among his supporters. He took on sleeping with naked young women, including his own great-niece, in order to "test" his commitment to celibacy.
The rise of Hindu nationalism in India may have made him a forgotten man for now only to be remembered on currency notes and streets named after him. His relentless effort to prove to the British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was superior to native black Africans and campaigning relentlessly to delineate the Indian from the black African remains a stain to his legacy.
More importantly, a detailed analysis of Gandhi’s legacy and digging beneath the surface of the dominant narratives reveal a very human and perhaps a flawed individual. A person who denigrated women and promoted racist attitudes towards black Africans yet still a world icon. This demonstrates a fight at hand for those who were and still marginalised as a result of colonialism and patriarchy.