Cynical attempts at painting Gandhi as a racist by cherrypicking quotes cannot detract from his extraordinary commitment to justice, says Saswat Pattanayak.
“A votary of truth is often obliged to grope in the dark.”
Whether or not one agrees with the principle of love, or concludes that love is a condescending attitude in disguise, or that his kind of love was merely a political tactic to make strategic gains, or that such a love is untimely and needless, Gandhi never deviated from using love as a political weapon.
And yet, Gandhi never claimed that he was the apostle of truth; he was merely a seeker, revising his worldview based on experiential learnings. Indeed, he reflected upon his own participation in the Boer War as inconsistent with his belief in nonviolence—it’s another matter that this admission has been discarded in favour of an earlier photograph of Gandhi as a “stretcher-bearer of Empire”.
Gandhi never claimed that he was the apostle of truth; he was merely a seeker, revising his worldview based on experiential learnings.
Gandhi was indeed gratefully acknowledged by the Zulus for his humanitarianism, for his refusal to pick a side when it came to tending the wounded, even under the most atrocious environment of racism, of which he himself was a victim. He did not merely recognise the war-nonviolence dichotomy, he went ahead and fiercely criticised the white assaulters and killers as lacking any Christian values. His change of stance at the face of battle was at once a refusal to be a stretcher-bearer of Empire, an unparalleled act of disobedience on part of a coloured subject of Indian origin in Africa.
Much later, when WEB Du Bois called Gandhi “the greatest man in the world”, he noted the irony in a non-Christian person being the only great world leader to truly exemplify the Christian doctrine of peace. Like Gandhi, Du Bois too had mistakenly thought of World War I as the war to end all wars, but like Gandhi, he soon came to understand the futility of war, since it resulted in nothing more than industrial profit, and he signed a pledge never to participate in a war again.
Gandhi was a human being with a multitude of complicated life paths under specific historical contexts and necessities. The “halo” he is often accused of cultivating is one that is sustained by his critics—to be used opportunistically when the time comes. In India, the country of his birth, Gandhi has been mocked as a Mahatma and reviled as Mohandas, depending on the flavour of the season.
Gandhi was a human being with a multitude of complicated life paths under specific historical contexts and necessities. The “halo” he is often accused of cultivating is one that is sustained by his critics—to be used opportunistically when the time comes.
The current season is that of Mohandas. Gandhi-bashers and Gandhi-killers are in political power today. (Prime Minister Modi has even gone beyond Mohandas to call Gandhi Mohanlal.) But such assailants are equally significant in the intellectual power corridors. Reactionary historians of all political shades are ready to conduct a post-mortem of Mohandas to secure their positions in modern Indian rewritings of history. The intellectual killers of Gandhi are competing with Nathuram Godse to re-enact the gory victory over the Mahatma. From Arun Shourie to Arundhati Roy, the Mohandas industry is replete with people across divergent political backgrounds to unite in one voice—to unmask the Mahatma. Latest in line are S Anand, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed. What is common to all these new-age Gandhi-bashers is that each of them claims to be the first one to expose Gandhi, as an unprecedented accomplishment.
The Backdrop: A Gandhi-Ambedkar BestsellerThe S Anand-Arundhati Roy team, which tried to make a quick buck by selling one of Dr Ambedkar’s speeches under the patronising pretext of “introducing” him to the world, has received immense criticism from Dalit intellectuals.
The majority of the criticism, of course, was pointed at the needless exercise of comparing Ambedkar with Gandhi without finding the need to analyse the former’s contribution as worthwhile on its own. Critics also denounced the commercialisation of Ambedkar’s accessible works by selling them at inexorable prices, thereby branding Annihilation of Caste as some sort of coffee-table book for the wealthy, feel-good liberal casteists—Navayana’s target audience, allegedly by design.
The outright claims by Anand and Roy that Ambedkar had to be introduced by them reeked of the same sense of entitlement Christopher Columbus probably had while introducing his discovery of America.
Third, Anand and Roy were accused of appropriating Ambedkar’s legacy, and questions were raised about the complete invisibility of Dalit Ambedkarite scholarship in Roy’s essay, which was more emphasised and publicised than Ambedkar’s own speech. Fourth, the Anand-Roy team was rightly attacked by the Dalits for their caste-denial, whereby they have consistently refused to disclose their own caste supremacist positions while appearing to be nothing sort of messiahs—Ambedkar’s criticisms of Gandhi apply to Anand and Roy’s posturing as well. More so, because Navayana surreptitiously commercialised Ambedkar without the due diligence that needed to be maintained.
The outright claims by Anand and Roy that Ambedkar had to be introduced by them reeked of the same sense of entitlement Christopher Columbus probably had while introducing his discovery of America. Like the indigenous peoples of America, the Dalits of India always existed and made their own struggles and had their own leaders and their own inspirations/aspirations. The sheer ignorance of the Anand-Roy team about the complex histories of Dalit struggles in India within and outside of Amebedkarite discourses is precisely what might have led to their surmising that they were doing some missionary undertaking in introducing Ambedkar to the world.
When Dalit scholars started criticising her for misappropriating Dalit scholarships and claiming joint authorship of Annihilation of Caste—as prominently once displayed on the book’s Amazon/Verso listing, later modified following pressure—instead of agreeing to enter into a dialogue to address her positions of privileges, Roy, freshly back from a luxurious shoe-shopping spree in downtown Vancouver while giving an interview to The Huffington Post, lambasted them as “frothing hyenas”. Ironically, the sheer dismissiveness of Roy and Anand towards their critics was a robust indicator of what caste privilege in India is all about—the tendencies that were being fought by Ambedkar during his time still continue to be fought today by Dalit scholars and activists everywhere.
LACKING THE humility to feel embarrassed at the Savarna hegemony reflected in the Navayana offerings, S Anand returns with another publication to cash in on the growing market of Gandhi-bashing. This book, of course, cleverly uses a photo of wartime Gandhi in order to “expose” Gandhi, a ludicrously desperate attempt to vilify a person who had already admitted to his follies, much like Dr Du Bois had. But nothing stops Navayana from shooting sensational baloney and while doing so, to shoot from Ambedkar’s shoulder again, just as Roy had done in their previous joint venture.
This time, to avoid criticism, Anand chooses “two South African university professors” (incidentally both of Indian origin and both holding PhDs from American universities). Navayana even makes a YouTube video with vintage filters to question whether Einstein and Mandela knew enough about Gandhi to pay him the tributes they did. To garner international attention, a certain Rama Lakshmi writes a promotional piece in The Washington Post, quoting choice passages from the book and, presumably, the only other expert on Gandhi—Arundhati Roy. A month later, Anand himself takes the plunge to publicise the book through a half-baked blog post for The Economic Times on Gandhi’s birth anniversary. (He is not alone in his struggle to sell the book, though; after collaborating with Verso to sell Ambedkar last year, this time Navayana partners with the venerable Stanford University Press.)
Anand begins his article with a sensational proposal: let’s rethink the Mahatma. Just as he had painfully undertaken the rethinking of Ambedkar. His scholarly piece starts by calling Gandhi a “brand”, a “saleable icon”, a “Coca-Cola”. He mentions Ram Rajya and its inherent pitfalls. And of course, he reveals the “truth” about Gandhi, which he imagines is unknown to the world since that is the basis upon which he can make the new book a bestseller.
During his lifetime, Gandhi was aware of the racism afflicting the educated NRI class. He often complained of how they opportunistically looked for only their interests at the cost of the indigenous peoples in the countries they resided in.
Except, there is a problem. Gandhi-bashers have traditionally come from the Indian diaspora—the NRI base from Germany to South Africa to the United States that is always in the front rows cheering for a “Congress-free” India. During his lifetime, Gandhi was aware of the racism afflicting the educated NRI class. He often complained of how they opportunistically looked for only their interests at the cost of the indigenous peoples in the countries they resided in. He deliberately engaged in manual works with the blacks of Africa, rejected plantation produce on ethical grounds, and got frustrated with fellow educated Indians in Africa who wanted to appropriate black struggles for their own selfish demands (all of which are discussed at length in this article).
At one point, Gandhi even went on to say that he would not shed a single tear if all the Indian freedom fighters in Africa “were wiped out, for they would thereby point the way to the Africans and vindicate the honour of India.” He described the problems of the Indian minority in Africa as a minuscule one which, if mixed with that of the blacks, would only jeopardise the cause of the indigenous peoples, since there was a high likelihood that in the garb of being “cultured” and “educated”, the Indians in Africa would benefit from piggybacking on the plights of the blacks. It turned out to be prophetic, since that is precisely what has happened today—from the Caribbean islands to the African nations, after colonialism, it is the Indians who have benefitted most by taking credit for the struggles of the blacks, a danger to which Gandhi had alluded to, and for which Gandhi is being disparaged by some Indian scholars, both from within the country and from the diaspora.
BUT SUCH a trend of denunciations of Gandhi is not exactly new. Nor are any of Anand’s claims in the ET piece necessarily original. Contrary to how Anand may want to present to the world, there have been numerous attempts at rethinking the Mahatma. Even a decade before Anand wrote his critique of Ram Rajya in Tehelka, Prakash Jha had made Mrityudand, an acclaimed film that explored that theme. Before he used Coca-Cola as an analogy for the Mahatma’s brand equity, Ashis Nandy had already done so.
Contrary to how Anand may want to present to the world, there have been numerous attempts at rethinking the Mahatma.
In an EPW essay by Vinay Lal, titled ‘The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate’, Nandy was quoted as having said, “The philosophy of Coca Cola is the archetypal social philosophy of our times; Coca Cola is the ultimate symbol of the market, a way of thinking rather than a thought.” Lal then writes, “In opposing Coca Cola, Gandhi would not merely have been making a futile gesture against the market; he would have been signaling his alarm at the totalizing nature of modern knowledge systems.”
Not so coincidentally, in this very piece, Lal mentions S Anand’s criticism of Gandhi’s Ram Rajya. It looks like Anand revisited this EPW essay for his Economic Times piece and rehashed his Ram Rajya criticism, and while at it, borrowed the Coca-Cola concept from Ashis Nandy without really crediting him, just as he failed to mention the literature review that pervaded the critique of Ram Rajya way before he had grabbed headlines in Tehelka.
Setting aside the lack of originality in his claims, it is indeed nauseating to see how the claims of “rethinking the Mahatma” is turned into a commercial slogan to draw potential buyers for the new book. Did Anand really think he could fool the audience into believing that until now no book had done the rethinking of “Mahatma” tag, just as he had probably thought he fooled all into getting to know Ambedkar for the first time in their lives through the Roy essay?
Or is there something else at play here? After failing to be recognised as the messiah of the Dalits in India, is it time for Anand and Co to project themselves as the messiah of the black people in Africa? Either way, it’s sickening to the core that such dishonest claims can be made so blatantly in the corporate media to “advertise” a book that basically accuses Gandhi as hiring “advertisers” such as Tolstoy and Romain Rolland.
The books that had undertaken a “rethinking” of Gandhi were vehemently critical of various positions he held, but they have been immensely useful contributions to the Gandhiana without coming across as a bestselling repackaging of the vilified Gandhi-as-racist.
To make his book acceptable to feel-good liberals, Anand quotes Modi as a supporter of Gandhi and Ambedkar as an opponent of Gandhi. The sort of cheap, sensationalistic parallels such articles thrive on is clearly telling of the scholarship of our day than anything about Gandhi and Ambedkar, per se.
Thankfully, there exists a substantial body of well-researched, well-documented and sufficiently critiqued and discussed work on Gandhi’s politics in South Africa. I am not referring to the 1993 publication of Gandhi and South Africa, edited by ES Reddy and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. The books that had undertaken a “rethinking” of Gandhi were vehemently critical of various positions he held, but they have been immensely useful contributions to the Gandhiana without coming across as a bestselling repackaging of the vilified Gandhi-as-racist, the way Anand and Co are enthused to make.
Copyrighting the TruthGandhi was never afraid of calling a spade a spade. Little wonder that with the impact his criticism of Hinduism brought, he was eventually murdered by the Hindu fanatics. Anand and Co can go on selling thousand-rupee books bashing Gandhi for a living (the Arundhati Roy essay was sold for Rs 599, not to mention her ticketed appearances to make money in the guise of giving a voice to the “voiceless” Dalits), but for such self-proclaimed bold publications, they will never attract the ire of Hindu fanatics. Indeed, the commercial enterprise built around anti-Gandhi revisionism is precisely what the Gandhi-killers in power today have always wanted to see flourish. The only difference is, Modi sugarcoats “Mohanlal” Gandhi, and Anand’s venture calls Gandhi a Coca-Cola.
Indeed, the commercial enterprise built around anti-Gandhi revisionism is precisely what the Gandhi-killers in power today have always wanted to see flourish.
But sadly, much to the discomfort of the Anand-Roy-Desai-Vahed team, Gandhi-bashing is not new. And there is nothing radical about it either. “Rethinking” of Gandhi did not start with S Anand, however much he might want to take credit for it. I remember in 2002, when Raj Kumar Santoshi’s film on Bhagat Singh was released (along with four other movies about the revolutionary that very year), I was in a packed cinema hall in Bhubaneswar. Every time Gandhi appeared on screen, the audience—otherwise decent peace-loving Odia people—burst into screaming “Shut up, bastard!”, “Chor Gandhi”, and many other choicest abusive phrases. Very similar reactions were noticed across other cinemas too, whenever Gandhi was pitted against Bhagat Singh.
This is not an essay to discuss Bhagat Singh, but suffice it to say that Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose were adopting radically different paths compared to Gandhi, but that did not make them enemies of Gandhi, just as Malcolm X was not an enemy of Dr King. But to quickly revert to the sensational Gandhi-bashing industry, even Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse’s autobiography was already a bestseller throughout the country and widely translated, way before Anand used Nandy’s Coke parallel to describe the undying imagery of Gandhi.
It seems Anand stumbled upon Ambedkar just as he stumbled upon Gandhi—sudden discoveries without taking the time to analyse historical contexts. His partner-in-profit Arundhati Roy, of “frothing hyenas” fame, had been quick to admit her own introduction to Ambedkar as accidental. After all, she proudly proclaimed in her book that she had “never encountered the notion of caste” in her school days. Such intelligent people, and such manipulative agendas; indeed, knowledge in cunning hands can turn into a dangerous thing.
Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose were adopting radically different paths compared to Gandhi, but that did not make them enemies of Gandhi, just as Malcolm X was not an enemy of Dr King.
While the saleable idea of Ambedkar repackaged in Navayana hardbound editions generated harsh criticisms from the very people they were trying to patronise, the new offering from Navayana looks like a saleable sequel to Raj Kumar Santoshi’s films, to cater to BJP voters hungry for any attack on Gandhi. And of course, this time there is no need to wait for the discussions on the new book—the potential frothing hyenas have already been identified by Anand himself in his Economic Times article. The publisher has identified Anand Patwardhan, Atul Dodiya, Norman Finkelstein, Julian Assange and, of course, every future critic, since they have all been dismissed by Anand as “dull academicians who resolutely refuse to see the truth behind Gandhi.”
SO DOES Anand alone know the truth behind Gandhi? What about the volumes of criticisms on Gandhi that actually comprise the majority of Gandhiana? Criticisms from both the Left and the Right? Or is S Anand the publishing equivalent of Arnab Goswami, who introduced the truths about Subhas Bose to India? Or the Modi of the publication world, who knew Indians were ashamed and ignorant until he revealed them the truth?
What motivated Anand not to mention the legions of scholars, activists, politicians and biographers who damned Gandhi at every opportune moment? What about Annie Besant, Winston Churchill, Nirad Chaudhuri (An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian), R Palme Dutt (India Today), Richard Grenier (The Gandhi Nobody Knows), Mukul Kesavan, Erik Erikson (On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence), Carol Gilligan (In A Different Voice), Robert Howard (Mohandas Gandhi: A Biography of Moral Development), Soumendranath Tagore (Against the Stream), MN Roy (The Cult of Nonviolence), GB Singh (Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity), Harold Coward (Indian Critiques of Gandhi), Nathuram Godse (May It Please Your Honour)—after all, isn’t the list of Gandhi’s critics just about as endless as his admirers? Will the sale of his new book be reduced if he elaborates on how much of Gandhi-bashing has already been going on in the name of halo preservation?
Will the sale of his new book be reduced if he elaborates on how much of Gandhi-bashing has already been going on in the name of halo preservation?
Since Anand has not cared to share any scholarship on Gandhi in Africa apart from marketing his latest offering in the ET article as if it were the first critical work on Gandhi, let readers know that the most scathing and well-researched work attacking Gandhi’s profile in South Africa was in the form of JH Stone II’s essay ‘M.K. Gandhi: Some Experiments with Truth’, which was published in the Journal of Southern African Studies back in 1990. And for serious researchers in this field, they can look up Geoffrey Ashe’s Gandhi, published way back in 1968!
Once the Collected Works were released during his birth centenary, scores of biographers had started attacking Gandhi’s politics in South Africa. Paul Power’s 1969 essay ‘Gandhi in South Africa’ was an excellent critique which elaborated on those specific criticisms levelled against Gandhi while he was there. What prompts a journalist/scholar to hide the existing literature from the readers while behaving like an ad-maker promoting unique commodities? The answer can again be found in the existing practices of Navayana, which had not even spared Ambedkar from its exclusive breaking news headlines to sell a megalomaniac “introduction” essay at 500 times the cost of the original book.
Like the copyright for Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, the “truth” about Gandhi may well be now copyrighted by Navayana. Unfortunately the “truths” are more complicated than some business-savvy publication houses would like the world to know.
Entitlements of Truth-SeekersTo answer Navayana/SUP, Einstein may not have known about Gandhi’s life in Africa, or maybe he knew after all. Who are we to make those assumptions? And was Einstein the infallible one, even if he withdrew his admiration for Gandhi? Which individual is? The truth is in the consequences. And that truth is the pivotal manner in which Gandhi acted, influenced and resulted in the liberation of the colonised world in the past century. The truth is what Nelson Mandela narrated about Gandhi of South Africa, and no amount of belittling of Mandela by the likes of Anand is going to diminish the wisdom of Madiba. (Or, now that S Anand has already judged Mandela of taking a “quick jump towards re-enslaving his people to white capitalism,” is Navayana’s next title going to ask us to “Rethink the Madiba”?)
With a profound sense of regret for the kind of humanity that pervades us today, I am having to write this piece. What is it that makes us feel so tempted to be so euphorically dismissive of freedom fighters of the ranks of Gandhi, Mandela, and King? Or to make a YouTube video to showcase Einstein and Mandela’s ignorance? How many people do we need to prove as more ignorant than us in order to glorify our recent discoveries as the only truths? What makes us feel so entitled that we can summarily reject the collective experience of an entire continent of people that is so intimately connected with freedom struggles endured via extreme hardships and harsh conditions? What makes a publication house casually mock at the aspirations of “nationalist anti-colonial period” as “political jabber”? Who are we really? What sort of arrogance and insta-fame guide our hunger?
Of course Gandhi was a devout Hindu, but he was cognisant of Hinduism’s evils, and his sustained opposition to its various orthodoxies took his life anyway. He was the enemy of the Hindus more than he was the enemy of the Muslims or the Christians or the Buddhists. To conveniently project him as the worst of Hinduism is to paint Dr King as the colonising Christian and Malcolm X as the spiritual guide of ISIS. Indeed, all three of these were killed by people from their own respective religions for having challenged the hypocrisies in those very religions in practice.
Contextualising Incomplete Texts: Prison NotebooksAnand ridiculously alleges that Gandhi’s personal and political archive is only “selectively” available to us, and finds the 98 volumes of his collected works woefully inadequate. And yet he goes ahead and quotes Gandhi selectively to depict him as a racist. Anand quotes Gandhi without providing any context whatsoever, and the newspapers are happy to publish such gibberish passing for arguments.
To prove Gandhi was a racist, Anand quotes him:
We were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, our garments were stamped with the letter “N”, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. (1908)
Here’s the context missing (deliberately) from Anand’s article—the above paragraph is from Gandhi’s article ‘My Experience in Gaol’, in which he describes the conditions of imprisoned Indian satyagrahis, who he had initially thought would be treated as political prisoners, but were clubbed together in a prison intended for civil crimes.
Anand quotes Gandhi without providing any context whatsoever, and the newspapers are happy to publish such gibberish passing for arguments.
Through his article, Gandhi was clarifying a few things. At the outset, he had explained that it is “necessary for everyone to have an idea of the hardships of gaol life. Often we imagine hardships where in fact there are none.” In a way, he was describing his prison experience to be less traumatic than that of the black people who were imprisoned in the adjacent cell. At the “Trial of Johannesburg”, Gandhi had indeed pleaded to the magistrate to award him the maximum penalty, but he, along with other satyagrahis, was given simple imprisonment for two months. He was first detained in the Prisoners’ Yard behind the court and then secretly taken to a cab. He wrote that he wondered if he would be taken out of Johannesburg and treated as a political prisoner. Then Gandhi wrote (from which Anand selectively quotes):
All that I had imagined was soon falsified. I was taken to where all prisoners are kept, and was soon joined by my fellow-prisoners. First, all of us were weighed. Then we were asked to give our finger-impressions. After being stripped we were given prison uniforms to wear, consisting of black trousers, a shirt, a jumper, a cap and socks. We were given a bag each to pack away our own clothes in. Before being led off to our ward, we were each given eight ounces of bread. We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, our garments were stamped with the letter “N”, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up with. I then felt that Indians had not launched on passive resistance too soon. Here was further proof that the obnoxious law was intended to emasculate the Indians.
It was, however, as well that we were classed with the Natives. It was a welcome opportunity to study the treatment meted out to Natives, their conditions [of life in gaol] and their habits. Looked at from another point of view, it did not seem right to feel bad about being bracketed with them. At the same time, it is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. The cells for Kaffirs were adjacent to ours. They used to make a frightful din in their cells as also in the adjoining yard. We were given a separate ward because we were sentenced to simple imprisonment; otherwise we would have been in the same ward [with the Kaffirs]. Indians sentenced to hard labour are in fact kept with the Kaffirs.
The distinction between a political prisoner and those convicted of crime is clearly lost on Anand, not to mention Gandhi’s “identity politics” in South Africa in order to gain recognition for Indians as a distinct socioeconomic group. Gandhi was not making a case that no Indian should be sentenced to hard labour regardless of crime. He was opining against the need to imprison satyagrahis—political prisoners—in the same jail where black people as well as other Indians were sentenced to hard labour for committing crimes.
This sort of objection has been made by political prisoners all over the world and campaigns to release political prisoners are rooted in highlighting the fundamental difference between those who are convicted of crimes and those who are detained as political prisoners.
This sort of objection has been made by political prisoners all over the world and campaigns to release political prisoners are rooted in highlighting the fundamental difference between those who are convicted of crimes and those who are detained as political prisoners.
IN THE third part of the same article, Gandhi described the issue of diet. He mentioned how the “mealie meal” was the staple diet of the blacks but was foreign to the satyagrahis, who preferred rice. However, the satyagrahis decided not to ask for any favour from the gaol authorities. This did not go on for long, as some Indians plainly refused to eat mealie pap and instead starved.
The authorities then offered them bread. When the Chinese prisoners were not offered rice, Gandhi wrote, “It appeared as though the Chinese were being discriminated against as a class inferior to us.” Gandhi then wrote out a petition on their behalf. Gandhi described how the European prisoners were treated—they got bread thrice a day, with meat and soup, potatoes, green vegetables, etc. They even got tea and coffee. Gandhi expressed the sentiments prevailing among the Indians:
Both Kaffirs and Europeans get food suited to their tastes, the poor Indians—nobody bothers about them! They cannot get the food they want . . . In any case, why should the gaol authorities bother to find out the normal Indian fare? There is nothing for it but to let ourselves be classed with the Kaffirs and starve.
When the Chinese prisoners were not offered rice, Gandhi wrote, “It appeared as though the Chinese were being discriminated against as a class inferior to us.”
After elaborating on the perceptions, Gandhi chided his fellow Indians. He said the prevailing angst was an indication that the Indian satyagraha movement was deficient. This was an affront to the morality of Indians in Africa. Gandhi’s “racism” was targeted at his own people. He criticised fellow Indian political prisoners by saying that some of them were getting extra food from outside and were getting undue favours, and were not devoted to truth in a way to avoid inconveniences. He wrote:
If we think more of others than of ourselves, it will be easy to find solutions for these problems. If it is necessary to find remedies for these problems, it is also necessary to bear another consideration in mind. A prisoner must submit to certain hardships. If there were no hardships, what would be the point of being imprisoned? Those who can control their minds can find happiness even amidst hardships and enjoy being in gaol. Such persons, however, will not forget the hardships [of gaol life], and, for the sake of others, they ought not to. Moreover, we should give up clinging so tenaciously to our customs and habits. Everyone has heard of the saying, “As the country, so the attire.” Since we live in South Africa we must accustom ourselves to whatever is wholesome in the food of the people here. Mealie pap, like wheat, is good, simple and cheap food. Neither can it be said to be tasteless. In fact, for some purposes, mealie pap is better than wheat. I also believe that, out of regard for the country in which we live, we must accept the food grown in the soil of that country, provided of course it is not unwholesome . . . There are some habits of ours which we must not hesitate to give up in the interests of our country. The nations which have progressed are those which have given in on inessential matters . . .
In the same article, Gandhi also described the plights of the “Other Indian Prisoners” who were in the same cells as the natives who were perceived to be “uncivilized”. Having described their imprisonment as worse off than the satyagrahis, Gandhi went on to also mention that those Indians had indeed earned the favour of the Chief Warder and were given respectable work to do inside the gaol (such as supervising work on the machines or similar jobs that were not strenuous).
This is an important understanding which never quite left Gandhi all his life—that the Indians were ranked separately by the rulers, and that their political cause was also different from that of the black people in South Africa. Or, for that matter, from that of the Chinese. Gandhi was acutely aware of the racist divide-and-rule tactics of the Natal government. He articulated the same in another of his 1908 articles:
The beauty of the Natal Bills is that they do not apply to the Chinese, let alone the Kaffirs. If the Bills are passed, it will make out Indians to be the lowliest [among the Coloured persons]. We believe the Natal Government’s object in bringing forward these Bills is to ascertain white reaction and test Indian strength. They seem to think that, if the Indian community does not protest in this case or does so only perfunctorily, it may be possible to bring greater pressure to bear on it on future occasions.
He was less worried about seeing the rank of Indians falling below that of the Chinese and the blacks, and more attentive towards the system of ranking itself, which he had already decided to challenge and see abolished.
He was less worried about seeing the rank of Indians falling below that of the Chinese and the blacks, and more attentive towards the system of ranking itself, which he had already decided to challenge and see abolished.
What Swarajya MeantGandhi was not only against the divisions of races by the white ruling class, he was also cognisant of the dangers of perpetuating similar divisions within the casteist Indians. He wrote in the same year,
Our people hardly understand what swarajya means. Natal enjoys swarajya, but we would say that, if we were to imitate Natal, swarajya would be no better than hell. [The Natal whites] tyrannize over the Kaffirs, hound out the Indians, and in their blindness give free rein to selfishness. If, by chance, Kaffirs and Indians were to leave Natal, they would destroy themselves in a civil war. Shall we, then, hanker after the kind of swarajya which obtains in the Transvaal? . . .
If we observe happenings all over the world, we shall be able to see that what people call swarajya is not enough [to secure] the nation’s prosperity and happiness. We can perceive this by means of a simple example. All of us can visualize what would happen if a band of robbers were to enjoy swarajya. In the long run they would be happy only if they were placed under the control of men who were not themselves robbers. America, France and England are all great States. But there is no reason to think that they are really happy . . .
It is wrong normally for one nation to rule over another. British rule in India is an evil but we need not believe that any very great advantage would accrue to the Indians if the British were to leave India. The reason why they rule over us is to be found in ourselves; that reason is our disunity, our immorality and our ignorance. If these three things were to disappear, not only would the British leave India without the rustling of a leaf, but it would be real swarajya that we would enjoy.
Gandhi’s view of Swarajya was not simply emancipation from foreign rules; it was also an end to the similar traits that were being imbibed by the victimised groups themselves. Insofar as that was concerned, the goal for Gandhi was to change the hearts and minds through education and action, and not merely to change the structure while the mindset of the majority remained reactionary. On such a path, therefore, he spared none from his examination—the content of character for him reigned over the colour of skin or religion or nationality, although he never hesitated to note and protest against the systemic and predictable patterns amidst the oppressors and the oppressed. This is why despite being a humanitarian, he was also an anti-colonial nationalist.
Nonviolence—Utopian?Whether one agrees with Gandhi’s methods of nonviolence or not, he never faltered from his basic premises of 1908, a trait which was indeed imbibed by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr, among many others. Gandhi wrote:
Many people exult at the explosion of bombs. This only shows ignorance and lack of understanding. If all the British were to be killed, those who kill them would become the masters of India, and as a result India would continue in a state of slavery. The bombs with which the British will have been killed will fall on India after the British leave. The man who killed the President of the French Republic was himself a Frenchman and the assassin of President Cleveland of America was an American. [He was factually wrong here; he presumably meant Cleveland’s successor William McKinley.] We ought to be careful, therefore, not to be hasty and thoughtlessly to imitate the people of the West. Just as we cannot achieve real swarajya, by following the path of evil—that is by killing the British—so also will it not be possible for us to achieve it by establishing big factories in India. Accumulation of gold and silver will not bring swarajya.
Phoenix and Anti-Racist ActivismGandhi’s anti-caste activism was part of his lifelong principle for what he called Swarajya. In South Africa of 1909, the period when the likes of Anand describe Gandhi as a racist, Gandhi was indeed vocal about the caste question. At the Phoenix School, Gandhi wrote, Indians would be admitted irrespective of caste and community, and no distinction would be made in matters of food habits. The only dietary restrictions would be tea, coffee or cocoa.
Gandhi provided an ethical reasoning for these restrictions which, in retrospect, was unprecedented. He wrote,
Tea, coffee and cocoa are produced through the labour of men who work more or less in conditions of slavery. In Natal, for instance, it is the indentured labourers who work on tea and coffee plantations. Cocoa is produced in the Congo, where indentured Kaffirs are made to work beyond all limits of endurance. We think that slave labour is used even in the production of sugar. Though it is not possible to look too deeply into these matters, we are firmly of the view that these three things should be used as sparingly as possible.
Gandhi’s solidarity with the “indentured Kaffirs” was embedded within his fight against the racist ruling class. Contrary to revisionist historians, Gandhi was not opposing the enslavement of the native people because he was racist towards them. He was, in fact, a relentless champion of anti-racist causes. In 1910, he wrote:
The Pretoria Town Council is dead set against the Coloured people. Every year, students are seated in the Town Hall during their examination. This time a Kaffir sat with the whites in the same hall. The Council was angered by this and served notice on the examiners that, since they had seated a Kaffir with the whites in the same hall, it would not be available to them henceforth. The examiners thereupon asked for a separate room for the Kaffir. This, too, was refused by the Council and a resolution was passed that no Kaffir or any other Coloured person should ever be allowed to use the Town Hall or any of its rooms. The whites who passed this resolution are counted very respectable and well-educated men. In a country like this, the Coloured people are placed in an extremely difficult position. We think there is no way out of this except satyagraha. Such instances of injustice are a natural consequence of the whites’ refusal to treat the Coloured people as their equals. It is in order to put an end to this state of affairs that we have been fighting in the Transvaal, and it is not surprising that the fight against a people with such deep prejudice should take a long time [to bear fruit].
Not only was Gandhi protesting against the slavery of black Africans in plantations, he was also demanding for the right of the blacks to be treated as the equals of the whites.
Not only was Gandhi protesting against the slavery of black Africans in plantations, he was also demanding for the right of the blacks to be treated as the equals of the whites—this was part of his Satyagraha in South Africa, an anti-racist endeavour to the core.
Nationalistic PrioritiesHowever, it would not be an error to assume that Gandhi was on many occasions representing, and indeed prioritising, the interests of Indians over that of any other racial group in South Africa. This is typical of nationalists or even freedom fighters who represent a certain identity group. Gandhi was taken aback by allegations against Indians when the whites called them as “source of annoyance to whites, that Indians are immoral, that they harass girls, making unseemly gestures at them, and that they corrupt the morals of the Kaffirs.” Gandhi opposed any attempt to vilify Indians as a whole.
But at the same time, he chose to differ from fellow Indians when it came to exclusively focus on the interests of just their own oppressed group. In a letter to MP Fancy in 1910, Gandhi wrote that he was not advising other Indians to travel third class in trains, “but so far as I myself was concerned I had decided to travel third for the following reasons . . . [among others], I shuddered to read the account of the hardships that the Kaffirs had to suffer in the third-class carriages in the Cape and I wanted to experience the same hardships myself.” This was again in the same vein as his advocacy for eating the kind of food the blacks ate and to be sentenced to the kind of hardship that they were subjected to in the prisons. If anything, such actions were emphatically anti-racist.
Gandhi was on many occasions representing, and indeed prioritising, the interests of Indians over that of any other racial group in South Africa. This is typical of nationalists or even freedom fighters who represent a certain identity group.
There have been accusations against Gandhi for his condescending attitude towards the African blacks, just the way he displayed it later towards the Dalits. This understanding comes from the way Gandhi glorified manual labour, which was mostly carried out by the most oppressed section of any society. Indeed, for anyone uninitiated to Gandhi’s words/works, it would appear to be so. But to Gandhi’s credit, his glorification was not merely lip service, as he himself set out act on those words.
He was not overtly impressed by the “development” plank on the basis of mechanisation—he wanted to see human labour recognised, especially of the manual kind, as he was deeply suspicious of “educated” class misusing their knowledge to oppress the working class. For him the privileged intellectual class needed to do the works of the manual working class in order to bridge the existing class division. Even before he tended to the lepers in India and indulged in hand-spinning and got inspired by how Madhusudan Das of Odisha had undertaken leather tanning defying Hindu customs, Gandhi had started his own experiments—or “stunts”, as his critics feel tempted to dismiss them as—in South Africa.
Inspired by the African blacks, and not succumbing to the prevailing racism among the Indians there, Gandhi had already started working with the untouchables of South Africa. In 1911, Gandhi wrote,
In pampering this corpulent body that has been given to us and pretending that we earn [our living] by our intellect, we become sinners and are tempted to fall into a thousand and one evil ways. I regard the Kaffirs, with whom I constantly work these days, as superior to us. What they do in their ignorance we have to do knowingly. In outward appearance we should look just like the Kaffirs.
He was not overtly impressed by the “development” plank on the basis of mechanisation—he wanted to see human labour recognised, especially of the manual kind, as he was deeply suspicious of “educated” class misusing their knowledge to oppress the working class.
His identification with the manual working class would continue thereafter for the rest of his life.
While working with the indigenous peoples, Gandhi also came to learn that not all parts of South Africa even allowed Indians to travel to certain “Kaffir districts”. He wrote about Cape Indians that
Only white traders are allowed to go there. These traders rob the Kaffirs. An Indian happened to go to the Transkei as a waiter. He was turned out by the magistrate like a dog . . . We have heard that they want to have a registration law applicable to the whole of South Africa and to limit the total number of Indians admitted into South Africa to six a year . . .
Gandhi’s advocacy for the Indians was also in the backdrop of his understanding of the exclusively different political battles the Indians were combating vis-à-vis the blacks.
Contextualising Incomplete Texts: Racism Against Indians
Let’s rewind to 1893, when, as Rama Lakshmi reported in The Washington Post, Gandhi was airing racist views in South Africa. The authors quote Gandhi as writing:
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.
These couple of lines are taken entirely out of context from a 20-page pamphlet titled ‘Open Letter to the Natal Parliament’. At the outset, Gandhi declares that in writing this long letter, his “one and only object is to serve India, which is by accident of birth called my native country, and to bring about better understanding between the European section of the community and the Indian in this Colony.”
Gandhi has mentioned time and again the reason he was there in South Africa—to serve the business interests of Indian Muslims. In his own words, “I had gone there on a purely mundane and selfish mission. I was just a boy returned from England wanting to make some money.” He was all of 23 in 1893. He was not expected to be a politically conscious freedom fighter, for his purpose of arrival that year was to work as a legal counsel to a merchant called Dada Abdulla. He was not there as an anti-imperialist revolutionary. To his credit, he soon became deeply aware of the prejudices that were systemically present in South Africa, but on the very year of his arrival in South Africa, he had failed to develop a politically empowering agenda.
Having said that, Gandhi was no apostle for colonialism. Quite the contrary. In that very letter, he wrote in advocating for his client,
Without entering into details, I would deal with the Indian question as a whole. I suppose there can be no doubt that the Indian is a despised being in the Colony, and that every opposition to him proceeds directly from that hatred. If that hatred is simply based upon his colour, then, of course, he has no hope. The sooner he leaves the Colony the better. No matter what he does, he will never have the white skin. If, however, it is based upon something else, if it is based upon an ignorance of his general character and attainments, he may hope to receive his due at the hands of the Europeans in the Colony.
Gandhi has mentioned time and again the reason he was there in South Africa—to serve the business interests of Indian Muslims. In his own words, “I had gone there on a purely mundane and selfish mission. I was just a boy returned from England wanting to make some money.”
Disregarding the religion of his clients and positioning them as Indians, Gandhi critiqued the divide-and-rule politics of the whites in that very letter by saying, it was up to the British to say “whether you will lower them or raise them in the scale of civilisation . . . whether, in short, you would govern them despotically or sympathetically.” Gandhi’s prime defence was his showcasing of Indian civilisation as an intellectually superior one, which at the very least equalled that of the Europeans, and therefore his plea was that his Indian clients be treated as equals and not degraded in South Africa. He asked of the Parliament:
You can educate public opinion in such a way that the hatred will be increased day by day; and you can, if you chose so to do, educate it in such a way that the hatred would begin to subside.
Gandhi tried to appeal to the emotions of the ruling class by asking questions such as, “Is their [Indians’] present treatment in accordance with the best British traditions, or with the principles of justice and morality, or with the principles of Christianity?” This was made in the similar manner as many freedom fighters across the world have asked of the ruling orders of the day—not all of them quite clearly, but given the diversity in political tactics, this was not necessarily a non-option either.
AFTER MAKING these disclosures, Gandhi goes on to glorify Indian culture and civilisation and quotes various western scholars to advocate a position that in his mind was going to benefit his clients. He quotes The Natal Mercury of 11 August 1894:
One seeks the solution in the introduction of a yellow race, able to stand a tropical climate and intelligent enough to undertake those special avocations which in temperate climates would be filled by Europeans. The yellow race, most successful hitherto in Eastern Africa, is the native of Hindostan—that race in diverse types and diverse religions which, under British or Portuguese aegis, has created and developed the commerce of the East African littoral. The immigration of the docile, kindly, thrifty, industrious, clever-fingered, sharp-witted Indian into Central Africa will furnish us with the solid core of our armed forces in that continent, and will supply us with the telegraph clerks, the petty shopkeepers, the skilled artisans, the cooks, the minor employees, the clerks, and the railway officials needed in the civilized administration of tropical Africa. The Indian, liked by both black and white, will serve as a link between these two divergent races.
Gandhi tried to appeal to the emotions of the ruling class by asking questions such as, “Is their [Indians’] present treatment in accordance with the best British traditions, or with the principles of justice and morality, or with the principles of Christianity?”
Gandhi was making these points in an effort to prevent the South African regime from making laws that would deport the Indians (often called Arabs by the whites) who were already living there with their families. Gandhi’s legal arguments borrowed from his ethical ones. He asked why the Indian settlers were being driven out. Were they not worthy enough to stay in South Africa? If so, “what is it that makes them so successful competitors?” He wrote,
The chiefest element of their success, in my humble opinion, is their total abstinence from drink and its attendant evils. That habit at once causes an enormous saving of money. Moreover, their tastes are simple, and they are satisfied with comparatively small profits, because they do not keep uselessly large establishments. In short, they earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. It is difficult to see how these facts can be urged as an objection to their stopping in the Colony. Of course, they do not gamble, as a rule do not smoke, and can put up with little inconveniences; work more than eight hours a day. Should they be expected to, is it desirable that they should, abandon these virtues, and contract the terrible vices under which the Western nations are groaning, so that they may be permitted to live in the Colony without molestation?
The Indian Muslims were not only considered “savages” by the whites, there was a variety of justifications from the ruling class for such a description. Gandhi devised his arguments in a manner that would not alienate the masters while still managing to send across the desired message. He said,
It will be best, also, to consider the common objection to the Indian traders and labourers. It is their insanitary habits. I am afraid I must, to my great mortification, admit this charge partially. While much that is said against their insanitary habits proceeds merely out of spite and hatred, there is no denying that in this respect they are not everything that could be desired. That, however, never can be a reason for their expulsion from the Colony. They are not hopelessly beyond reform in this branch. A strict, yet just and merciful, operation of the sanitary law can, I submit, effectually cope with the evil, and even eradicate it. Nor is the evil so great as to require any drastic measures. Their personal habits, it would appear, are not dirty, except in the case of the indentured Indians, who are too poor to attend to personal cleanliness. I may be allowed to say, from personal experience, that the trading community are compelled by their religion to bathe once a week at least, and have to perform ablutions, i.e., wash their faces and hands up to the elbows, and their feet, every time they offer prayers. They are supposed to offer prayers four times a day, and there are very few who fail to do so at least twice a day.
Intersecting class with religion, Gandhi had made quite valid arguments in favour of why the Indian labourers and traders should be allowed to continue working in South Africa.
EXCEPT FOR one mention of the word “Kaffir” (in the paragraph selectively cited by Anand), Gandhi did not use this 20-page letter to make any remark that was racist towards the blacks. The letter was strictly a lengthy justification for why the Indian Muslims should be allowed to continue living in South Africa—quite naturally so, as this was the sole reason why Gandhi was hired to work there to begin with. The mention of “raw Kaffir” had been made in the context of highlighting the intellectual superiority of the Indian Muslims, playing right into the hands of the kind of divisive politics characteristic of the whites in those days (something which still continues to this day in most parts of the world, where there is a competition among various oppressed groups to claim “model minority” status to draw support from the ruling elites for their respective causes).
Gandhi was individually privileged, and was an intellectual indulging in the legal profession to safeguard the interests of his clients, but it should not be forgotten that he was still a “coloured person” in colonised Africa. He was not the beneficiary of racism; he was a victim of it. In the United States today, African-Americans and Latinos and Asians can fight against each other all they want and try to proclaim how each is better than the other, but that does not make them the racists. And here, we are talking about 1893.
Gandhi was appealing to the same “Christian values” of goodness, nobility and justice, to which pretty much all freedom fighters under the white colonial rules have done. To appeal to the goodness and virtue of the followers of Jesus in a desperate attempt to procure security has been the practice of every oppressed group that has faced brutalities from the whites. And Gandhi was doing just that while proclaiming the superiority of his Indian clients that hailed from a great civilisation, and to support his claims he quoted Max Muller, Schopenhauer, HS Maine, Andrew Carnegie, Bishop Heber, George Birdwood, WW Hunter, Louis Jacolliot, Victor Hugo and many other western scholars who would appear to be credible in the eyes of the ruling class. As a lawyer, Gandhi’s point was to demonstrate as much as it was possible to showcase the potential of Indians as second to none.
Gandhi was individually privileged, and was an intellectual indulging in the legal profession to safeguard the interests of his clients, but it should not be forgotten that he was still a “coloured person” in colonised Africa. He was not the beneficiary of racism; he was a victim of it.
Gandhi wrote in the letter,
Add to this the facts that India has produced a Buddha, whose life some consider the best and the holiest lived by a mortal, and some to be second only to that lived by Jesus; that India has produced an Akbar, whose policy the British Government have followed with but few modifications; that India lost, only a few years ago, a Parsee Baronet who astonished not India only, but England also, by his munificent charities; that India has produced Christodas Paul, a journalist, whom Lord Elgin, the present Viceroy, compared with the best European journalists; that India has produced Justices Mahomed and Muthukrishna Aiyer, both Judges of High Courts in India, whose judgments have been pronounced to be the ablest delivered by the judges, both European and Indian, who adorn the Indian Bench; and, lastly, India has in Baddruddin (Tyabji), (Surendranath) Banerji, and (Pherozeshah) Mehta, orators who have on many an occasion held English audiences spellbound.
Gandhi juxtaposed these in the context of his exposition of the racism of which the Indians were constant victims in South Africa:
I think it will be readily granted that the Indian is bitterly hated in the Colony. The man in the street hates him, curses him, spits upon him, and often pushes him off the footpath. The Press cannot find a sufficiently strong word in the best English dictionary to damn him with. Here are a few samples : “The real canker that is eating into the very vitals of the community”; “these parasites”; “Wily, wretched, semi-barbarous Asiatics”; “a thing black and lean and a long way from clean, which they call the accursed Hindoo”; “he is chock-full of vice, and he lives upon rice . . . I heartily cuss the Hindoo”; “squalid coolies with truthless tongues and artful ways”. The Press almost unanimously refuses to call the Indian by his proper name . . .
To bring a man here on starvation wages, to hold him under bondage, and when he shows the least signs of liberty, or, is in a position to live less miserably, to wish to send him back to his home where he would become comparatively a stranger and perhaps unable to earn a living, is hardly a mark of fair play or justice characteristic of the British nation.
That the treatment of the Indians is contrary to the teaching of Christianity needs hardly any argument. The Man, who taught us to love our enemies and to give our clock to the one who wanted the coat, and to hold out the right cheek when the left was smitten, and who swept away the distinction between the Jew and the Gentile, would never brook a disposition that causes a man to be so proud of himself as to consider himself polluted even by the touch of a fellow-being.
In all of the above writings, Gandhi depicted the contradictions of his times where moral yardsticks had taken a backseat, but his descriptions of indentured labourers are relevant even to this day when we analyse the plights of undocumented workers, “illegal aliens” and refugees. And against such prevalence, no state religion—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism—has been able to administer justice to the dispossessed, for the rights of whom Gandhi fought all his life.
Aryan Invasion and Questioning the HindusIndia’s right-wing ruling party’s ideology rejects the “Aryan Invasion” theory, which is mostly dismissed either as a communist conspiracy or as a product of colonial mentality. Proud Hindu nationalists would much rather believe that the Hindus were the original inhabitants than accept any hint at being a colonising force themselves. Navayana/SUP maintain that “For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bonded by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African.” This sentence is used time and again to promote the book. What they again refuse to divulge is that Gandhi’s argument for linkage was in the context of telling the British society that it was no superior as a coloniser—if anything, the parallel was a thinly disguised insult.
On 4 March 1905, Gandhi delivered the first of a series of four lectures on Hinduism at the Masonic Temple in Johannesburg, where he articulated his position quite unsavoury to the proud Indians, both in South Africa and in India. He described the meaning of “Hindu” as merely a branch of the Aryan people that had migrated to the trans-Indus districts of India, and had colonised that vast country. Gandhi emphasised that Aryanism, therefore, would have been a better descriptive word than Hinduism, to explain the faith accepted by so many millions of Indians.
Only one section of society can feel slighted by such a dismissal (and even renaming) of Hinduism’s legacy by Gandhi: the right-wing Hindu nationalists who are unable to admit that their ancestors were also invaders who had colonised the indigenous peoples of the geographic region now called India. This debate has persisted among progressive and reactionary scholars across university campuses for decades now. One may agree with Gandhi’s theory or disagree with him, but to use his assertion as a sign of racism is to indeed justify colonisation in the name of civilisation.
Gandhi condemned the Aryan migration as colonisation. Sure, this upsets the monolithic conception of 10,000-year-old history of a tolerant Hindu society that has—according to its apologists—never annexed anything, but Gandhi was no gullible bhakt (of any sacred text) during his time.
Unlike these “experts” on South African Gandhi, it was Gandhi who had condemned the migration as colonisation. Sure, this upsets the monolithic conception of 10,000-year-old history of a tolerant Hindu society that has—according to its apologists—never annexed anything, but Gandhi was no gullible bhakt (of any sacred text) during his time, to say the least.
That does not mean he was bent upon insulting Hinduism in order to curry favour with the British. He was however, keen to distinguish the divisions within the so-called “Aryan bloodline”. He highlighted in that speech that the most remarkable aspect of Hinduism was self-abnegation, something other world religions did not have, as it did not derive its name from any prophet or teacher.
Again, Gandhi’s views on Hinduism notwithstanding, the accusation that he levelled at the Aryan bloodline had more to do with depicting the differences between Hindus and Christians despite their common history of colonial behaviours than to forge some new bonds between the two in a racist fashion that would aim to disadvantage the African blacks. Time and again, Gandhi described in South Africa the origin of Hinduism was in colonising the indigenous peoples and such a stipulation did not go very well with the cultural nationalists of that era. Gandhi was unequivocal about his claim, “Hindus are not the original inhabitants of India.”
Even as Gandhi agreed with the Aryan invasion theory, he refused to use that argument to gain benefits from the whites.
Writing about the Indians in East London, Gandhi wrote in 1905 about a new development: the Town Council took legal action against Indians because they were owning landed properties without obtaining passes from the government as part of obeying a racist law. Gandhi wrote, “The Indians preferred an appeal against the decision on the plea that they were not ‘Asiatics’ but Aryans who had subsequently settled in India. We are constrained to say that our brethren have wasted their money on the litigation, and brought ridicule on themselves to boot.”
Even as Gandhi agreed with the Aryan invasion theory, he refused to use that argument to gain benefits from the whites. He asked the Indians in Africa to “submit quietly to the law and take out passes. Compared with other places like the Transvaal, the situation in East London is still tolerable. While complying with the law, we should, of course, continue to fight. But the struggle should be carried on through Parliament. Our people in East London have the power and the right to vote. It would yield good results if we exercised them judiciously.” He rejected outright any proposal that Indians should be accorded special benefits simply because they could claim any Aryan heritage.
Gandhi and the Indentured IndiansWhile asking the landowning Indians to submit to the laws and not invoke their Aryan credentials, Gandhi was advocating for the cause of the indentured Indians. He prominently appealed to the Natal authorities through Indian Opinion about the plight of working-class Indians and highlighted the rate of suicide among them. He clearly highlighted the class issues impacting the lives of the “free Indians” and the “indentured Indians”. He wrote in 1904:
Suicides among the indentured Indians have become a feature year after year, and we think that the cause ought to be probed to the bottom. And it is hardly an answer coming from the Protector of Indians that he cannot arrive at even a probable cause if those who are supposed to know decline to give any information. There is a homely English proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and if the Protector would only feel as we feel, having the powers of an autocrat, he should have not the slightest difficulty in tracing the cause. There is enough in the Protector’s statement to show that there must be something wrong. Out of the free Indian population of 51,259, there were 8 suicides. Out of 30,131 indentured Indians, there were 23. Why this great disproportion?
But the sweeping statement of Navayana/SUP theorists to sell their book about Gandhi is, “Gandhi’s racism was matched by his class prejudice towards the Indian indentured.” Gandhi was not pretending to be the leader of the indentured Indians, but as a newspaper editor, he used Indian Opinion to consistently highlight the causes of the enslaved. He followed up with editorials after editorials on indentured Indians, and did not just give lip service to their issues.
When he was criticised for highlighting the suicide gap between wealthy and poor Indians, Gandhi replied with another appeal to the “Natal Contemporaries” through his editorial of June 18, 1904:
We make no apology for reverting to the question of suicides among the indentured Indians in Natal, which we raised in our issue of the 4th instant. We feel sorry that, with the exception of The Natal Mercury, the other dailies have not taken the matter up, which is purely and simply one of humanity in which they, as public journals, cannot but be interested. Our desire in asking for a commission is simply to elicit the truth, and we cannot help feeling that even the employers themselves, if they would look at the matter dispassionately, should welcome the appointment of a commission of enquiry.
Gandhi was not pretending to be the leader of the indentured Indians, but as a newspaper editor, he used Indian Opinion to consistently highlight the causes of the enslaved.
When the authorities did not investigate despite the “Protector of Immigrants” acknowledging Gandhi’s argument, on July 9 of the same year, Gandhi again expressed his frustration in an editorial titled ‘Suicide Among Indentured Indians’:
Mr. Lyttelton has, to our utter astonishment, if the cable report is correct, told Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree that the rate of suicides among the indentured Indians is not great and that, consequently, he would not institute an enquiry.
On 30 July, Gandhi reiterated,
We cannot understand what possible objection there could be to a reasonable request for an enquiry, except perhaps that of expense, but we dismiss that from consideration altogether, knowing as we do, how enquiries after enquiries are granted on much less important matters, involving a very heavy outlay. We, therefore, trust that this question will not be allowed to rest, and that it will be made clear to the Colonial Office by the worthy Knight that the suggested enquiry does not pre-suppose ill-treatment by the employers, and that it is not intended to cast the slightest reflection on them. All that is needed [is] an investigation into the truth and no more.
Gandhi’s advocacy for the indentured Indians led to public discussion in various media. Many—whites and Indians alike—questioned Gandhi’s wisdom in casting aspersions on the employer class (the plantation owners). Gandhi replied in August in Indian Opinion,
All we care for is an investigation in the interests of all concerned. That the figures we produced were staggering no one would deny, but ‘Anglo Indian’ has questioned them. We can only, therefore, draw his attention to the corroboration given to them by Mr. Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary, when he said that the rate among the non-indentured Indians was 157 per million and among indentured Indians 766 per million. If, therefore, we erred, we have erred in very good company, and in spite of the remarks of ‘Anglo- Indian’ and ‘A White Man’, we adhere to the statements we have made and urge that an enquiry should be instituted.
Protesting against the conditions of the indentured labour on the coal mines in Natal, Gandhi demanded impartial inquiry.
Protesting against the conditions of the indentured labour on the coal mines in Natal, Gandhi demanded impartial inquiry through Indian Opinion of December 1904. “If the allegations are true,” he wrote, “they reveal a shocking state of things. Our contemporary demands an inquiry. We join in the request. It should be welcomed by the mine-owners. But if an investigation is held, we trust that it will be open, public and absolutely impartial.”
FOR ALL of Navayana’s baloney, Gandhi indeed prioritised the “indentured Indians” (most of whom were Dalits), over the trader class Indians. When the Natal Municipal Corporations Bill, introduced by the government in March 1905, defined “coloured person” and “uncivilised races”, Gandhi protested the continued use of “coolie” and “lascar” to define a “coloured person”. But when the bill used “uncivilised races” to describe the indentured Indians, Gandhi thundered,
The definition of the term “uncivilised races” is an insult to the Indians concerned, and more so to their descendants. An infallible test of civilisation is that a man claiming to be civilised should be an intelligent toiler, that he should understand the dignity of labour, and that his work should be such as to advance the interests of the community to which he belongs. Apply this test to the lowest indentured Indian, and he will satisfy it.
For all of Navayana’s baloney, Gandhi indeed prioritised the “indentured Indians” (most of whom were Dalits), over the trader class Indians.
Gandhi went on to claim that caste had absolutely nothing to do with the level of intelligence or potential of a person. He wrote,
The Higher Grade Indian School, about whose pupils the Governor and the late Administrator have spoken in flattering and eloquent terms, contains many children of Indians who have been under indenture. The children would do credit to any community. They are intelligent and receive a liberal education. Is it right that they should be labelled members of “uncivilised races”? The distinction between such Indians and others would be based purely on an accident, for we assure the framers of the Bill that there are many indentured Indians who are quite as good as some Indians who have paid their own passage and entered the Colony as free men.
Gandhi’s defence of the indentured Indians was absolute and unwavering. While distinguishing them from the trader class, he wrote, “Indeed, the indentured Indian deserves if anything, better treatment than the free Indian, because the former has been invited and induced to come to the Colony and has contributed not a little to its prosperity.”
Not just due credit, Gandhi also wanted indentured Indians to receive full citizenship. Petitioning Lord Curzon in 1903, Gandhi wrote that the British must not allow “Indian labour to be exploited for the one-sided benefit of Natal.” He quite clearly laid out his condition to Curzon:
If the Colony is not prepared to grant the indentured Indians the elementary rights of British citizenship, viz., freedom of settlement in the Colony, Your Excellency will be graciously pleased to advise the Colony to discontinue importing Indian labour.
Gandhi’s defence of the indentured Indians was absolute and unwavering. While distinguishing them from the trader class, he wrote, “Indeed, the indentured Indian deserves if anything, better treatment than the free Indian.”
In June 1903, Lord Milner proposed that indentured Indians should be used for “developing the resources of the Transvaal on the understanding that, as soon as their indentures are finished, they should be compelled to return to India.” Gandhi rebuked his stance by asking him “whether he would for a single moment accept such a proposal as he has made to the Indian Government, for the Europeans? . . . Where we beg to differ from it is when it would shut out free Indian immigration altogether, or refuse equal opportunity to the Indians who have already settled in the country. The true solution of the colour prejudice is not in treating every coloured man as a beast, an animal having no feelings, but in actually flooding the country with white men. If this cannot be done, if you must introduce Indian labour, then we say, be just be fair, do unto us as you would be done by.”
Protesting against the new Immigration Bill that refused domicile to indentured Indians, Gandhi again highlighted the issue in Indian Opinion, dated 25 June 1903:
As to the indentured Indians not being considered domiciled in the Colony after the completion of five years’ residence, we can only say that there is no justification whatsoever for it. They are the most deserving and the most useful people in the Colony. In the words of the late Mr Escombe, they give the best five years of their life for a paltry wage under conditions which perilously border on slavery, and to deny to these people, after they have become free, the elementary rights of citizenship, is, to say the least of it, very unjust.
When the British tried to enforce compulsory repatriation of indentured Indians, Gandhi wrote vociferously to oppose it. Lord Elgin’s suggestion was that either tax will be imposed on all who did not wish to return, or they will have to be re-indentured. In other words, indentured Indians could not be free in South Africa even after the termination of contract. When the communication between Chamberlain and Milner hinted at deporting indentured labourers by granting better treatments to free Indians to calm the situation down, Gandhi was outraged. He wrote,
There is not in the Colony a free Indian who would agree to buy better treatment at the expense of his indentured countrymen. After all, the free Indian is in a position to look after himself. He can wait for better treatment . . . But the indentured Indian, even as it is, is practically helpless. He comes from India in order to avoid starvation. He breaks asunder all the ties, and becomes domiciled in Natal in a manner that the free Indian never does. To a starving man there is practically no home. His home is where he can keep body and soul together. When, therefore, he comes to Natal and finds that he can, at any rate, have no difficulty as to feeding himself, he quickly makes of it a home. The associations he forms in Natal among his own class are to him the first real friends and acquaintances, and to expect him to break that home is nothing short of cruelty. We have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that an Indian with any humane feelings, and any sense of common tie and common blood, would simply decline to have his position bettered at the price which may be asked by the Natal Government.
When the British tried to enforce compulsory repatriation of indentured Indians, Gandhi wrote vociferously to oppose it.
Gandhi’s activism supported not just the Indian indentured labourers, but also Chinese and black indentured labourers. When a globetrotting English magistrate visiting Durban regretted seeing black policemen in the city, Gandhi lambasted him. Even as the Magistrate called it a white man’s city, Gandhi wrote,
Durban owes its beauty and grandeur to the presence of the Indian . . . Durban Corporation employs a very large number of indentured Indians in order that travellers like ‘An English Magistrate’ may find all the modern comforts of life. As to the other regret of his: in deference to the poor Kaffir constable, we cannot help saying that Durban owes its comparative freedom from crime to his presence . . . But for the presence of the Indian and the Kaffir police in white man’s or otherwise. Why, then, such un-English jealousy? Or is there something insidious in the South African climate itself which makes a man forget his traditions?
Without a HaloHaving said that, there was no “halo” surrounding Gandhi. Gandhi was not rewriting his own history, as Navayana suggests. Indeed, like Nelson Mandela and Dr King, Gandhi was employing his views as political strategies during his time. He wanted to protect the interests of the Indian community in South Africa and he wanted to protect the interests of the Indian community in India—both times as a nationalist against the realities of colonialism. When the time came, he underlined programs such as Satyagraha, Swarajya, Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience, Quit India, among others. Not many agreed with him however and very few were willing to remain committed. Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, Dr Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, and even Nehru himself had emphatically disagreed with him on most occasions. But Gandhi did not wait for approvals from anyone for calls of his own conscience.
It was this clarity that had led him to say that the Jews should leave the Arabs alone. He not only appeared anti-Semitic, he even appeared “racist” against Indians in Africa (for which he may not have been forgiven among the Indian Diaspora yet), when he said that
The Jews are a compact, homogeneous community in Germany. They are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organised world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in non-violent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. It will be then a truly religious resistance offered against the godless fury of dehumanised man.
There was no “halo” surrounding Gandhi. Gandhi was not rewriting his own history, as Navayana suggests. Indeed, like Nelson Mandela and Dr King, Gandhi was employing his views as political strategies during his time.
In one utterance, one could see that Gandhi was positioning Indians below the Jews, and Jews below the Arabs. His statements in the specific historical contexts did make sense, however, when he had the audacity to write that he had “sympathies with the Jews”, but he wrote that
[My] sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me . . . Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. (1938)
And how did Gandhi treat the Jews in Germany? He said they were like the Indians in South Africa—again a parallel that was to remain unpalatable for some Indians in South Africa. Gandhi wrote,
Jews have in the Indian satyagraha campaign in South Africa an exact parallel. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place that the Jews occupy in Germany. The persecution had also a religious tinge. President Kruger used to say that the white Christians were the chosen of God and Indians were inferior beings created to serve the whites. A fundamental clause in the Transvaal constitution was that there should be no equality between the whites and coloured races including Asiatics. There too the Indians were consigned to ghettos described as locations. The other disabilities were almost of the same type as those of the Jews in Germany. The Indians, a mere handful, resorted to satyagraha without any backing from the world outside or the Indian Government. Indeed the British officials tried to dissuade the satyagrahis from their contemplated step. World opinion and the Indian Government came to their aid after eight years of fighting. And that too was by way of diplomatic pressure not of a threat of war.
Contextualising Incomplete Texts: Advice to AfricaThe Smuts-Gandhi Agreement was short-lived. After Gandhi left Africa under assurance from Smuts, it was Smuts who heaved a sigh of relief by saying, “The saint has left our shores—I sincerely hope for ever.” Gandhi did not return, and anti-Indian legislation was passed in 1919, 1922, 1923, 1924, and later years. In a way, Gandhi could be accused of abandoning not just the black people in Africa, but also fellow Indians. And yet again, it was not because he was a racist that he abandoned Africa, but because his focus was now on gaining independence for India, after his two-decades-long struggle in South Africa to secure the same for Indians there.
After Gandhi left Africa under assurance from Smuts, it was Smuts who heaved a sigh of relief by saying, “The saint has left our shores—I sincerely hope for ever.”
In 1924, Gandhi displayed his “utter distrust of the British Imperial system” by writing
I am able no longer to rely upon verbal or written promises made by persons working under that system and in their capacity as officials or supporters. The history of Indian emigrants to South Africa, East Africa and Fiji is a history of broken promises and of ignominious surrender of their trust by the Imperial Government and the Indian Government, whenever it has been a question of conflicting interests of Europeans against Indians.
However, on Gandhi’s behalf, CF Andrews, Sarojini Naidu and VS Srinivasa Sastri, among others, continued to visit South Africa to highlight the plights of Indians there. Finally, in 1939, Gandhi’s replacement was to be found in Dr Dadoo and Dr Panicker who in turn influenced the blacks in Africa to form their own leadership base which would inspire a passive resistance struggle.
This does not mean that Gandhi did not advise the blacks to launch passive resistance. On the contrary, he had indeed said, “When the moment of collusion comes, if, instead of the old ways of massacre, assegai and fire, the Natives adopt the policy of Passive Resistance, it will be a grand change for the Colony.” But he was interested in seeing the Natives free themselves with their own leadership without Indians meddling with their strategies, something which would have been appreciated by the likes of Malcolm X who did not want liberal whites to be the saviours of the blacks in America.
This does not mean that Gandhi did not advise the blacks to launch passive resistance. On the contrary, he had indeed said, “When the moment of collusion comes, if, instead of the old ways of massacre, assegai and fire, the Natives adopt the policy of Passive Resistance, it will be a grand change for the Colony.”
In South Africa, before Mandela rose as the organic revolutionary who fought with Dr Xuma to have Gandhian tactics implemented, the African National Congress had searched for answers back in India from Gandhi. Reverend SS Tema from Johannesburg, a black African freedom fighter associated with the ANC, came to see Gandhi in India in 1939 and to seek his guidance. The Washington Post has published only one paragraph from this interview in an attempt to prove that Gandhi had not changed his “racist” views even in 1939.
Not that Gandhi ever said that he had changed his views on what the best course of action should be in South Africa. What the Washington Post article failed to mention is that Gandhi was historically correct, and by opposing the appropriation of the struggles of the blacks in Africa by the Indians, Gandhi had not become a racist. Quite the contrary.
RAMA LAKSHMI jumps from 1908 to 1939 and quotes Gandhi to maintain that he was justifying a certain racist sentiment. Lakshmi writes,
In 1939, Gandhi justified his counsel to the Indian community in South Africa against forming a non-European front: “I have no doubt about the soundness of my advice. However much one may sympathise with the Bantus, Indians cannot make common cause with them.”
What the Washington Post article failed to mention is that Gandhi was historically correct, and by opposing the appropriation of the struggles of the blacks in Africa by the Indians, Gandhi had not become a racist.
What the Post fails to mention again is the context with which it was said. Tema was seeking advice from Gandhi about what would be best for the African people: “How can my people make their Congress as successful as the Indian National Congress?” Gandhi had minced no words, just as Mandela had not when he reflected upon the hitherto inability on the part of Africans to court suffering and sacrifices in the Gandhian manner. Gandhi told Tema,
You have not, as far as I am aware, a band of Africans who would be content to work and live in impecuniosity. Among those who are educated there is not that absolute selflessness. Again, while most of your leaders are Christians, the vast mass of the Bantus and Zulus are not Christians. You have adopted European dress and manners, and have as a result become strangers in the midst of your own people. Politically, that is a disadvantage. It makes it difficult for you to reach the heart of the masses. You must not be afraid of being ‘Bantuised’ or feel ashamed of carrying an assagai or of going about with only a tiny clout round your loins. A Zulu or a Bantu is a well-built man and need not be ashamed of showing his body. He need not dress like you. You must become Africans once more.
Tema did not feel insulted by Gandhi. S Anand and Co certainly seem to have been. For Tema—and for Mandela as well—such an observation was accurate and sound. Tema further asked, “Of late there has been some talk of forming an Indo-African united non-white Front in South Africa. What do you think about it?” Gandhi was once again steadfast in his answer, the one he had always given to the Indian community in Africa, at the risk of being called a racist. He said,
It will be a mistake. You will be pooling together not strength but weakness. You will best help one another by each standing on his own legs. The two cases, are different. The Indians are a microscopic minority. They can never be a ‘menace’ to the white population. You, on the other hand, are the sons of the soil who are being robbed of your inheritance. You are bound to resist that. Yours is a far bigger issue. It ought not to be mixed up with that of the Indian. This does not preclude the establishment of the friendliest relations between the two races. The Indians can co-operate with you in a number of ways. They can help you by always acting on the square towards you. They may not put themselves in opposition to your legitimate aspirations, or run you down as ‘savages’ while exalting themselves as ‘cultured’ people in order to secure concessions for themselves at your expense.
Tema then asked, “What sort of relations would you favour between these two races?” And to which Gandhi replied, “The closest possible. But while I have abolished all distinction between an African and an Indian, that does not mean that I do not recognise the difference between them. The different races of mankind are like different branches of a tree—once we recognise the common parent stock from which we are sprung, we realize the basic unity of the human family, and there is no room left for enmities and unhealthy competition.”
ALL THESE statements were not made with some hideous motive. Gandhi was already the acknowledged leader in India of 1939. He was still not “revising” or “repackaging” what he had all the while been saying about the need for Indians in South Africa to not appropriate the struggles of the indigenous, because their specific problems, when redressed, should not overshadow that of the Africans. And this is also the reason why Mandela himself understood the need of making distinctions between the issues affecting the Indians vis-à-vis the Africans and studied them from varied lenses, at times from Marxist perspective, and at other times, from a purely nationalist ones.
Far from feeling slighted by Gandhi’s response, Tema complimented him, “Your example has shed so much influence upon us that we are thinking whether it would not be possible for one or two of our young men, who we are hoping will become leaders, to come to you for training.” Gandhi welcomed the suggestion.
Tema admitted, as Mandela had, that there was a failure in leadership among the African people. And yet Gandhi refused to represent them and steal their limelight away. Tema asked Gandhi, “Whenever a leader comes up in our midst, he flops down after a while. He either becomes ambitious after money or succumbs to the drink habit or some other vice and is lost to us. How shall we remedy this?” Even to this Gandhi was not patronising. He did not try to “introduce” the struggle of the Africans the way modern day Savarna messiahs do when it comes to an indigenous movement by opening up publication houses to mint fast cash in India. “The problem is not peculiar to you,” he replied. “Your leadership has proved ineffectual because it was not sprung from the common people. If you belong to the common people, live like them and think like them, they will make common cause with you. If I were in your place, I would not ask a single African to alter his costume and make himself peculiar. It does not add a single inch to his moral stature.” Gandhi in the same interview alluded to the arrogance of Christians who were “educated” and “better dressed” than the Zulus even as their education could not prevent them from brutalising Bambatta’s men.
Tema admitted, as Mandela had, that there was a failure in leadership among the African people. And yet Gandhi refused to represent them and steal their limelight away.
If anything, Gandhi’s 1939 interview was vehemently anti-racist. The irony in depicting this as a racist opinion is so grand that the intellectual credibility of Desai and Vahed seems only to complement the sensationalistic academic hooliganism promoted by Anand-Roy duo. Had they been honest in narrating the accounts, they would have come across the consistent position of Gandhi which he told Reverend Tema regarding the need for “closest possible” relations between the Africans and the Indians; the position had remained the same back in 1928, when some Indians in South Africa had favoured separation from Africans in education. Gandhi had written then,
Indians have too much in common with the Africans to think of isolating themselves from them. They cannot exist in South Africa for any length of time without the active sympathy and friendship of the Africans. I am not aware of the general body of the Indians having ever adopted an air of superiority towards their African brethren, and it would be a tragedy if any such movement were to gain ground among the Indian settlers of South Africa.
But Gandhi clearly distinguished the “close relations” (which he individually shared with Africans) from the political formations and goals. Gandhi repeated those assertions when it came to examining Dr Lohia’s resolutions in the same year in 1939. Gandhi reiterated:
Let me say for the information of Dr Lohia and his fellow humanitarians that I yield to no one in my regard for the Zulus, the Bantus and the other races of South Africa. I used to enjoy intimate relations with many of them. I had the privilege of often advising them. It used to be my constant advice to our countrymen in South Africa, never to exploit or deceive these simple folk. But it was not possible to amalgamate the two causes. The rights and privileges (if any could be so called) of the indigenous inhabitants are different from those of the Indians. So are their disabilities and their causes. But if I discovered that our rights conflicted with their vital interests, I would advise the forgoing of those rights. They are the inhabitants of South Africa as we are of India. The Europeans are undoubtedly usurpers, exploiters or conquerors or all these rolled into one. And so the Africans have a whole code of laws specially governing them. The Indian segregation policy of the Union Government has nothing in common with the policy governing the African races. It is unnecessary for me to go into details. Suffice it to say that ours is a tiny problem compared to the vast problem that faces the African races and that affects their progress. Hence it is not possible to speak of the two in the same breath.
Gandhi’s intention was clear: he was not going to ask the Indians in South Africa to appropriate the struggles of the Africans to secure their demands. When the resolution was withdrawn, Gandhi said that it in fact “shows to the Africans and to the world in general that India has great regard and sympathy for all the exploited races of the earth and that she would not have a single benefit at the expense of the vital interest of any of them. Indeed the war against imperialism cannot wholly succeed unless all exploitation ceases. The only way it can cease is for every exploited race or nation to secure freedom without injuring any other.”
GANDHI’S CRITICS often pointed out that Gandhi was not kept informed of the latest developments in South Africa, which is why he could not foresee the fallacy in his advice that a united front was not a solution. However, Gandhi was under no such illusion. When Sir Raza Ali criticised Gandhi’s advice to Indians in South Africa concerning the formation of a non-European front, Gandhi released a statement to the press by saying,
My advice may be bad on merits but does not become bad because I have been absent from South Africa for a quarter of a century. I have no doubt about the soundness of my advice. However much one may sympathise with the Bantus, Indians cannot make common cause with them. I doubt if the Bantus themselves will as a class countenance any such move. They can only damage and complicate their cause by mixing it up with the Indian, as Indians would damage theirs by such mixture. But neither the AICC resolution nor my advice need deter the Indians from forming a non-European front if they are sure thereby of winning their freedom. Indeed, had they thought it beneficial or possible, they would have formed it long ago.
Quite predictably, Rama Lakshmi extracted only one sentence from the above statement of Gandhi (“However much one may sympathise with the Bantus, Indians cannot make common cause with them”), but did not bother to publish the reasoning behind it. Gandhi was not being racist against Africans while saying this; quite the contrary, he was suspecting that the African interests would be diluted by the Indians if such a front were to come alive. Gandhi, once again, was the anti-racist in this assertion, so mischievously quoted by the Navayana public relations (or “advertisers”, as Anand likes to call such scholars).
Yet, on 11 April 1947, Drs Dadoo and Naicker met Gandhi and launched the exemplary passive resistance movement the year after in South Africa, which inspired Nelson Mandela to join the movement and unite the blacks and lead them unto victory on their own merit—fulfilling Gandhi’s dream. A dream that had a foundation right there in South Africa when John Dube, the first President-General of the African National Congress narrated the eyewitness account at Phoenix, where 500 Indian strikers would not move despite whipping, beating with rifle butts and sticks, torture, firing and death. It was eye-opening for the Africans.
On 11 April 1947, Drs Dadoo and Naicker met Gandhi and launched the exemplary passive resistance movement the year after in South Africa, which inspired Nelson Mandela to join the movement and unite the blacks and lead them unto victory on their own merit—fulfilling Gandhi’s dream.
This satyagraha was not something Gandhi wanted to force upon the Africans. He led by example instead. The African National Congress had to create a leadership from within its own ranks and wrest their own freedom, and the Indians were not going to dominate their space. Gandhi was unequivocal about this and though one can debate the political wisdom behind it, to call it a sign of racist mentality is more insulting towards the black people of Africa who were waging their independent battles, and eventually produced their own Mandela, their Biko, their own Tutu.
Gandhi’s greatness was recognised by innumerable African leaders of all political hues. When Steve Biko’s comrade Malusi Mpumlwana was being tortured by the security police, he looked at the torturers and realised they too were human beings, who needed him “to help them recover the humanity they were losing.” Summarising Gandhi’s contribution as “Ubuntu”—I am what I am because of who we all are—Desmond Tutu wrote,
The essence of Ubuntu, or “me we”, is expressed so poignantly in the life and actions of the Mahatma Gandhi. In a long lifetime he made personal sacrifices that constantly revealed his compassion and concern for others. Everything he did was a demonstration of Ubuntu—he was driven to help the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden and to free them from colonialism no matter the cost to himself. In the end it cost him his life. However he left us a legacy of inspiration that is remarkable in its sincerity and love for humanity. Gandhi’s Ubuntu showed that the only way we can ever be human is together. The only way we can be free is together.
ANAND WRITES that Gandhi sent packaged versions of his greatness to such men as Leo Tolstoy and Romain Rolland, his “self-chosen advertiser” in Europe. Anand himself puts the “self-chosen advertiser” within quotes, as if to imply Gandhi described Rolland as that.
Desmond Tutu writes about Gandhi’s connection with Tolstoy in radically different ways. Tutu wrote that Gandhi was influenced by his reading of Tolstoy; he did not have to send any packaged version of greatness to impress Tolstoy. In fact, Gandhi was the one who emulated Tolstoy and he started a settlement called Tolstoy Farm in honour of the Russian writer’s polemic The Kingdom Of God Is Within You.
Like the Phoenix School, where admission was not restricted by caste or diet, Tolstoy Farm was not restricted to any race or class of people so long as they aligned with the principles of self-sufficiency. The community grew its own food and made its own clothing (including sandals, which they also sold). “Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm,” Tutu writes, “were the forerunners to the Satyagraha Ashram Gandhi would found in India when he finally left South Africa in 1915.” Indeed, as Gandhi said later, he was born in India, but made in South Africa.
Tutu wrote that Gandhi was influenced by his reading of Tolstoy; he did not have to send any packaged version of greatness to impress Tolstoy.
Anand’s reckless sensationalism omits nuanced approaches to understanding the long walk to freedom itself. Mandela’s long walk involved many comrades, ranging from communists to Gandhians, and he paid rich tributes to them all. Even after receiving the Nobel Prize, Mandela never shied away from his admiration for Gaddafi or Castro—he acknowledged every bit of help he had received from all quarters of the world. To accuse him of re-enslaving his people to “white” capitalism is to miss not just the life and legacy of Mandela, but also to fail at a basic understanding of capitalism. Capitalism under black or brown people is no nobler than under white people.
Gandhi was in the midst of the most tumultuous period of history and like many others, he wrote prolifically to document world events. He was unsparing towards each racial group and religion. And yet, he was not advocating hatred towards even his own enemy interests. Whether that made him deserving of a halo or truly feeble and indecisive depends on the level of masculine analysis the scholars undertake. But what about the world leaders and the freedom movements Anand dismisses as merely “nationalist anti-colonial”? How important were those freedom struggles, and how central was Gandhi to their principles? And how ignorant were those who lived their political lives emulating Gandhi? Since the answer no longer seems to be quite obvious and since we cannot ignore the alleged pearls of wisdom in the Navayana’s YouTube video, let us revisit the “ignorant” leaders.
Was Dr King Ignorant?Many may argue that perhaps Gandhi was on the path of evolution in South Africa. His 23-year-old self was going to dramatically alter when he became an enemy of the British in India. But that is hardly accurate. Gandhi never changed his basic stance of “hate the sin, not the sinner.” He continued throughout to treat racism and casteism with revulsion, but he allowed for the possibility to exist that the heart of people may eventually change. His emphasis on love and nonviolence was absolute. This is precisely what Dr Martin Luther King, Jr noticed in Gandhi, when he wrote that
Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
Gandhi never changed his basic stance of “hate the sin, not the sinner.” He continued throughout to treat racism and casteism with revulsion, but he allowed for the possibility to exist that the heart of people may eventually change.
He went on to write:
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.
Dr. King’s acceptance of Gandhi was not borne out of some sheer idealism or hero worship, but through rigorous academic analysis as well as from reading the monumental works of civil rights activism. Indeed, his “intellectual odyssey to nonviolence” did not end with Gandhi. He examined liberalism’s roots while at Crozer, and in his last year at the theological school, he was impacted by Reinhold Niebuhr’s analysis of pacifism. King eventually rejected Nieburh too in favour of Gandhi:
Nieburh interpreted pacifism as a sort of passive non-resistance to evil expressing naive trust in the power of love. But this was a serious distortion. My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.
S Anand would, of course, deride Dr King just as he has quite mischievously attacked Nelson Mandela in his latest piece. But between S Anand and Dr King, it is not very difficult to make a choice when it comes to understanding Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi’s philosophical contributions in South Africa empowered the town of Montgomery during the first major civil rights movement epoch. Dr King wrote that the “Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom . . . Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.”
Dr. King’s acceptance of Gandhi was not borne out of some sheer idealism or hero worship, but through rigorous academic analysis as well as from reading the monumental works of civil rights activism.
Indeed, Juliette Morgan, a librarian and civil rights activist in Montgomery, was attacked constantly by segregationists and driven to suicide when she was unable to bear the retaliation caused by her articles comparing the civil rights movement with that of Gandhi’s. Her sacrifice was not in vain. Dr King would pay tributes to Gandhi in the manner that she used to, and he embarked upon what he called a “pilgrimage to nonviolence” by touring India after mentioning that, “[while] the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”
Dr King was not surprised to find Lady Mountbatten sharing a dining table with him and Nehru. He wrote, “They were lasting friends only because Gandhi followed the way of love and nonviolence. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Gandhi’s emphasis on the need for love to forge and renew relationships was something Dr WEB Du Bois also shared with the world. In 1929, Du Bois asked Mahatma Gandhi for his message to “American Negroes”. On the May Day that year, Gandhi wrote to him:
Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave owners. But let us not think of honour or dishonour in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be truthful, pure and loving. For, as the old wise men have said, truth ever is, untruth never was. Love alone binds and truth and love accrue only to the truly humble.
Was Mandela Ignorant?Writing about the 1946 Asian Land Tenure Act, which curtailed the free movement of Indians in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said that this “Ghetto Act” was a grave insult to the Indian community. He wrote:
The Indian community was outraged and launched a concerted two-year campaign of passive resistance to oppose the measures. Led by Drs Dadoo and GM Naicker, president of the Natal Indian Congress, the Indian community conducted a mass campaign that impressed us with its organisation and dedication. Housewives, priests, doctors, lawyers, traders, students, and workers took their place in the front lines of the protest. For two years, people suspended their lives to take up the battle. Mass rallies were held; land reserved for whites was occupied and picketed. No less than two thousand volunteers went to jail, and Drs Dadoo and Naicker were sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
Mandela recalled that
The government crippled the rebellion with harsh laws and intimidation, but we in the Youth League and the ANC had witnessed the Indian people register an extraordinary protest against colour oppression in a way that Africans and the ANC had not . . . The Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the Youth League were calling for. It instilled a spirit of defiance and radicalism among the people, broke the fear of prison, and boosted the popularity and influence of the NIC and TIC. They reminded us that the freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions, and sending deputations, but of meticulous organisation, militant mass action, and above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice. The Indian campaign hearkened back to the 1913 passive resistance campaign in which Mahatma Gandhi led a tumultuous procession of Indians crossing illegally from Natal to the Transvaal. That was history; this campaign was taking place before my own eyes.
Influenced by Gandhi and the subsequent Indian protests, which had, on Gandhi’s advice, not included Africans, the African National Congress decided in 1949 to turn into a truly mass organisation. At the ANC annual conference in Bloemfontein, the organisation adopted a programme of action that called for boycotts, strikes, stay-at-homes, passive resistance, protest demonstrations, among others. Mandela called this as a radical change in the ANC’s policy. Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, along with Mandela, had come to the realisation that the “time had come for mass action along the lines of Gandhi’s nonviolent protests in India and the 1946 passive resistance campaign, asserting that the ANC had become too docile in the face of oppression. The ANC’s leaders, we said, had to be willing to violate the law, and if necessary go to prison for their beliefs as Gandhi had.”
Influenced by Gandhi and the subsequent Indian protests, which had, on Gandhi’s advice, not included Africans, the African National Congress decided in 1949 to turn into a truly mass organisation.
Similar to Dr King’s own examined paths, Mandela’s did not borne out of simpleton beliefs either. When Gandhi’s son Manilal Gandhi, who was then editing Indian Opinion, advanced the argument that nonviolence was a morally superior position and that is why it should be adopted by ANC, Mandela did not agree.
Mandela’s argument was that nonviolence was a “practical necessity rather than an option.” He saw nonviolence in the Gandhian model “not as an inviolable principle, but as a tactic to be used as the situation demanded. The principle was not so important that the strategy should be used even when it was self-defeating, as Gandhi himself believed.” Mandela called for nonviolent protest for as long as it was effective, even while the ANC’s official position was in agreement with Manilal.
Mandela was a reluctant Gandhian just as he was a reluctant communist. Maybe because he did find a common chord between the two philosophies, even as he was early on an opponent to the idea of admitting communists into ANC. Only after reading the collected works of Marx and Lenin did he compare the ideal of classless society to ancient African ideals and embraced the comrades. And as a communist, he was not willing to use Gandhian ideals as anything other than political strategies. He wrote about how he was initially opposed to hunger strikes but “the proponents of hunger strikes argued that it was a traditionally accepted form of protest that had been waged all over the world by such prominent leaders as Mahatma Gandhi. Once the decision was taken, however, I would support it as wholeheartedly as any of its advocates.”
Were Nkrumah, Luthuli, Kaunda and Bourguiba Ignorant?Not just Mandela and King, most of the African continent has gratefully acknowledged Gandhi’s contributions in their liberation struggles. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president; Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia; Albert Luthuli, a president of the ANC and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize; and the Leninist revolutionary and first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, have all emulated Gandhi’s political ethics and method of disobedience as deployed in South Africa.
Also known as the “African Gandhi”, Kenneth Kaunda once said:
The Mulungushi Club was designed to build a leadership area of independence against those who were oppressing people in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. We were happy to fight for their independence. We followed Mahatma Gandhi’s method; he taught us that when you are fighting to breach colonialism, you can afford to fight it non-violently.
On the occasion of Kaunda receiving the Mahatma Gandhi International Award in Durban, Steve Biko’s son Samora Biko succinctly put it:
As Biko himself prophetically said, it is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die and tonight as we remember the contributions of Kaunda, Biko, Gandhi and so many other freedom fighters, the truth of his words ring true.
Mandela said, “It was also around this region that Mahatma Gandhi spent so much of his time conducting the struggle of the people of South Africa. It was here that he taught that the destiny of the Indian Community was inseparable from that of the oppressed African majority.
Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Albert Luthuli during his centenary celebration but by comparing him with Gandhi. Mandela said, “I am truly honoured to celebrate nation-building, freedom, peace and unity with you, as you pay tribute to some of the greatest giants that ever walked on our land; Usishaka Kashayeki, uNodumehlezi kaMenzi, King Shaka, Mahatma Gandhi and Chief Albert Luthuli.” He said, “It was also around this region that Mahatma Gandhi spent so much of his time conducting the struggle of the people of South Africa. It was here that he taught that the destiny of the Indian Community was inseparable from that of the oppressed African majority. That is why, amongst other things, Mahatma Gandhi risked his life by organising for the treatment of Chief Bhambatha’s injured warriors in 1906.”
Indeed, it is a historical fact. When Bambatta as the chief of Zulu Rebellion refused to pay his tax, the entire community was brutalised by the colonists. Gandhi was in charge of an ambulance corps and defying British orders, he helped treat the Zulus, as “stretcher-bearer” (apparently a disdainful work worth of mockery). Such was his “racism” against the indigenous peoples of Africa, of which he is accused today.
Liberated black Africa, on its part, has never forgotten Gandhi, and as long as it remembers the contributions of Nkrumah, it will remember Gandhi with love and gratitude. India, on the other, hand has gleefully submitted itself to the whims of right-wing fanatics in power and to the indirect supporters of Gandhi-killers in the form of Navayana and many others. Prophetic in so many ways that such a situation justifies Gandhi being treated as a person beyond any specific national identity, just like Buddha, who was vilified in the country of his birth and practice, while being recognised worldwide.
His impact might be fast eroding in India, but Gandhian philosophy and its practice in South Africa helped inspire African revolutionary leaders to force the sun to set on the British empire.
The pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah was so influenced by Gandhi that he came to visit him in India, and using Gandhian tactics of nonviolent protests, strikes and boycotts in what he called “Positive Action”, Nkrumah led Ghana to independence in 1957. Within the next decade, nearly every British territory in the continent was independent. His impact might be fast eroding in India, but Gandhian philosophy and its practice in South Africa helped inspire African revolutionary leaders to force the sun to set on the British empire.
Was Einstein Ignorant?Navayana uses an oft-repeated quote of Einstein about Gandhi—“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth”—in order to question Einstein’s credibility. The next slide asks just as it asks of Mandela, “But did Einstein know what Gandhi did and said in South Africa?” According to Navayana, of course, Einstein was a lazy researcher instead, a scientist who didn’t know how to examine his assertions.
Before putting together this YouTube video, Anand should have done some fundamental research into Einstein’s own works in matters of critically studying racism and peace. Einstein knew what Gandhi did and said in South Africa, much more than the Navayana team seems to know. It is Gandhi’s words and corresponding deeds which led Einstein to devote his later life entirely in the cause of world peace.
In a dialogue between Einstein and Paul Robeson (also a great admirer of Gandhi), Einstein said he thought the South Africans should use Gandhi’s tactics of passive resistance.
From the Russell-Einstein Manifesto to the Stockholm Appeal to the World Peace Council, Einstein was prominently steering the direction of world peace for decades, despite FBI surveillance on him for his communist ties. Like Gandhi and Du Bois, Einstein too had discarded any formerly held understanding that any war could end all wars. This is the reason why Einstein was no “stretcher-bearer of atomic bomb” either. In fact, just the contrary. He was a vocal opponent of militant misuse of human potential, without losing faith in the capacity of peace to win over war on its own terms.
In a dialogue between Einstein and Paul Robeson (also a great admirer of Gandhi), Einstein said he thought the South Africans should use Gandhi’s tactics of passive resistance, and—eight years before the student sit-ins launched the civil rights movement—argued that black Americans, too, should adopt Gandhian nonviolence as their strategy. This was around the same time when Einstein declined the invitation to become the first president of Israel, because like Gandhi, Einstein was also opposed to the Jewish state. Einstein had stated that it would be “a difficult situation that would create a conflict with my conscience.” Opposing a separate Jewish state, Einstein noted that Palestine could still rule with one government, but without British interventions, because in his impression, “Palestine is a kind of small model of India. There is an attempt, with the help of a few officials, to dominate the people of Palestine and it seems to me that the English rule it.”
In a 1950 interview by a UN correspondent, Einstein said, “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.” Einstein had reasons to believe so—he was actively engaged with Gandhi at political levels, and together they had signed two documents opposing military drafts, the Anti-Conscription Manifesto of 1926 and the Manifesto Against Conscription and the Military Training of Youth in 1930. The text read:
It is debasing human dignity to force men to give up their life, or to inflict death against their will, or without conviction as to the justice of their action. The State which thinks itself entitled to force its citizens to go to war will never pay proper regard to the value and happiness of their lives in peace. Moreover, by conscription the militarist spirit of aggressiveness is implanted in the whole male population at the most impressionable age. By training for war men come to consider war as unavoidable and even desirable.
Einstein said, “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”
At least two decades before Soviet Union’s peace policies inspired Einstein to support the World Peace Council, Einstein was already working with Gandhi on drafting for global disarmament.
Einstein was so convinced about Gandhi’s life and practices, that he wrote a letter to The New York Times stating that if he were called before a congressional investigating committee, he would adopt Gandhi’s techniques of civil disobedience. The Thoreau Society contacted Einstein to ask him to write about Thoreau, since Gandhi was influenced by the former. Einstein then replied,
I have never read anything by Thoreau nor am I acquainted with his life history. There are, and have been, many—but not enough—people of independent moral judgment feeling it their duty to resist evil even if sanctioned by state laws. It may well be that Thoreau has in some way influenced Gandhi’s thought. But it should not be forgotten that Gandhi’s development was something resulting from extraordinary intellectual and moral forces in connection with political ingenuity and a unique situation. I think that Gandhi would have been Gandhi even without Thoreau and Tolstoy. (Einstein to Prof. Harding, Aug.19, 1953).
Einstein-Gandhi ideals continue to live on most prominently through Gene Sharp, the founder of Albert Einstein Institution. Sharp is a renowned promoter of Gandhian ideals as practiced in South Africa and India and whose book Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power had the foreword authored by Einstein himself. Einstein wrote, “Sharp considers it his bounden duty to serve a cause with all his power and without flinching from any sacrifice, a cause which was clearly embodied in Gandhi’s unique personality: to overcome, by means of the awakening of moral forces, the danger of self-destruction by which humanity is threatened through breath-taking technical developments.”
Calling Gandhi “The Teacher”, Galtung has recalled how as a 17-year old he cried upon hearing the Mahatma’s death and more than 50 years later, he thanked Gandhi for his light which “will shine for us and in us as long as there are people on the earth.”
Gandhi’s political programmes had equally influenced Johan Galtung, the founder of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and the architect of peace studies as an academic field. Calling Gandhi “The Teacher”, Galtung has recalled how as a 17-year old he cried upon hearing the Mahatma’s death and more than 50 years later, he thanked Gandhi for his light which “will shine for us and in us as long as there are people on the earth.”
In Our TimesGandhi was not a Stretcher-Bearer of Empire; he led his life as the Stretcher-Bearer of the dispossessed. He was not merely an Indian nationalist, he was the quintessential Doctor without Border of his wartime era, a tireless activist for global peace and active nonviolence, who salvaged those words from dormant academic dustbins.
Having to cite tributes to Gandhi in order to justify his relevance is an unfortunate effect of the prevailing climate of bourgeoning demand for reactionary literatures masquerading as new truths. But even in such times, we are reminded of the greatest of scholars that ever lived, WEB Du Bois, who had commented on Americans making fun of Gandhi the way the new crop of Gandhi-bashers is doing today. While attending a Pan-African and Coloured Peoples Congress, Dr Du Bois had said, “All that America sees in Gandhi is a joke, but the real joke is America.”
In our times, too, of intellectual discourses sustained upon derision of Gandhi, the real joke, alas, is us.