Over the past few months, towns and cities across North America have been grappling with whether buildings and statues that honor a racist past should be renamed or taken down. Now an African student group at a Canadian university is calling for the removal of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
The president of the Institute of African Studies Student Association at Ottawa’s Carleton University is calling on the school to take down its Gandhi statue, citing his “anti-black racism.” The Hindustan Times reports that student Kenneth Aliu began researching Gandhi’s views after learning about the 2016 protests over a similar statue at the University of Ghana, which resulted in its removal from campus. The statue was donated to the university in 2011 by the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council, an Ottawa-based group that promotes Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophies.
While acknowledging Gandhi’s “philosophy of non-violence” in an op-ed about the statue, Aliu went on to write “it is insufficient to state the obvious about Gandhi without questioning the legacy of the man we have collectively placed on a moral pedestal … Gandhi was a racist. He utilized anti-Black racism as a weapon to bargain with the British about the subjugation of Indians living in South Africa.”
Aliu’s op-ed went on to note that “In his 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi’s racism towards black peoples was made clear.” His piece is also a reflection of the reassessment of Gandhi’s legacy that has been happening in recent years. In their book “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire,” professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed examined Gandhi’s writings from his time as a lawyer in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. They found that he described black Africans as “savage,” “raw” and said they lived lives of “indolence and nakedness.”
Along with other scholars, Desai and Vahed noted that a central part of Gandhi’s campaign to improve civil rights for Indians in South Africa revolved around what he deemed to be the inherent superiority of Indians over Africans. There is a “general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa,” he wrote in 1893. His writings also made frequent use of the word “kaffir,” a racial slur many equate to the n-word.
And while many of Gandhi’s current day defenders (like the defenders of other historical figures like Thomas Jefferson) say that these sentiments were merely a product of their time, there is substantial evidence that Gandhi himself attempted to rewrite his own history when it became apparent that he would be a major player on the global stage.
“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and ‘Satyagraha in South Africa,’ it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up,’” the authors wrote. “He was effectively rewriting his own history.”
This so-called ‘tidying up’ indicates that Gandhi was aware that he needed to make his views on race more palatable to an international audience. Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha, who authored the acclaimed book Gandhi Before India, insinuated to the BBC that it was unreasonable to hold Gandhi’s views to modern standards. “”To speak of comprehensive equality for colored people was premature in early 20th Century South Africa,” he told the network.
One of Gandhi’s grandsons, Rajmohan Gandhi, also chimed in with a 2015 piece on the Mahatma’s views, noting that he “undoubtedly was” prejudiced against South Africa’s blacks. (He then went on to argue that despite that, Gandhi’s views on race were more progressive than others of that era.)
But downplaying or erasing the racism Gandhi displayed during his South Africa years does not do a service to anyone. Just as American historians are currently reflecting on the legacies of founding fathers including George Washington with regards to their views on race, the same examination should be welcomed when it comes to the Father of India. An examination of anti-black views, and how they continue to endure in South Asian culture, is not a bad thing.
One of the public figures to conduct such an examination was the Nobel Prize winner and first black South African president Nelson Mandela. Mandela noted in a 1999 piece for TIME magazine that South Africa greatly contributed to Gandhi’s worldview and that it was “the sight of whipped and wounded Zulus, mercilessly abandoned by their British persecutors, [that] so appalled him that he turned full circle from his admiration for all things British to celebrating the indigenous and ethnic.”
As for the statue on Carleton University’s campus, a spokesperson for the group told the paper that school’s president assured them the life-sized statue would remain on campus.