“As Hitler did to bring Germany together, we should also do it here. Hitler was a smart guy, but he went a bit too far for wanting to conquer the world” (Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President).
“Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised—the convicts even more so…The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!” (Mahatma Gandhi in his own paper “Indian Opinion,” January 16, 1909)
"India gave us a Mohandas, we gave them a Mahatma," goes a popular South African saying.
We raised the issue of Gandhi being a racist in a 2015 article published on Ghanaweb and other web portals as “Steve Biko Murdered As A Great Student Of Nkrumah.” We are somewhat amazed that Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo, ex-Director of the Institute of African Studies, is now initiating a campaign to have Gandhi’s statue taken down, although it is a campaign we whole-heartedly support. However, in this particular article we wrote among other things:
“…Ashwin Desai & Goolam Vahed, two South African scholars, show in a new book that Gandhi was a racist.”
Also in our 2015 article “Dr. Kofi Kissi Dompere On Kwame Nkrumah’s Scientific Thinking 10” we wrote:
“In the first place, Gandhi would not board or ride the same bus or train with Black South Africans during Apartheid, just as most White South Africans would not during the same period. Yet there is a tendency to make Gandhi a saint despite his apparent humanity, foibles, and political shortcomings…”
With these reminders behind us, we will do well to state categorically that both ethnic Indians, Ashwin Desai is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and Goolam Vahed is a Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal, two well-respected scholars who teach at two equally well-respected universities.
The two authored a book last year highly critical of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, titled “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.” Again, a title we included in the said article.
The authors relied on primary sources (and other writings from the era of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa) that included Gandhi’s autobiography and “Satyagraha in South Africa,” both of which can be accessed free online (see REFERENCES).
The book probably offers the first formal scholarship detailing Gandhi’s life (in South Africa from 1893 to 1914) including the controversial question of racist Gandhi. Here are some major highlights, quite apart from Prof. Ampofo’s, from the book on specifics pertaining to what Gandhi said about black South Africans (Rama Lakshimi):
- “‘One of the first battles Gandhi fought after coming to South Africa was over the separate entrances for whites and blacks at the Durban post office. Gandhi objected that Indians were ‘classed with the natives of South Africa,’ who he called the kaffirs, and demanded a separate entrance for Indians.”
- “‘We felt the indignity too much and…petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction, and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.”
- “‘In a petition letter in 1895, Gandhi also expressed concern that a lower legal standing for Indians would result in degenerating ‘so much so that from their civilised habits, they would be degraded to the habits of the aboriginal Natives, and a generation hence, between the progeny of the Indians and the Natives, there will be very little difference in habits, and customs and thought.’”
- “In an open letter to the Natal Parliament in 1893, Gandhi wrote: ‘I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan…A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.’”
- “‘At a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi said that the Europeans in Natal wished ‘to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.’”
- “Protesting the decision of Johannesburg municipal authorities to allow Africans to live alongside Indians, Gandhi wrote in 1904 that the council ‘must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.’”
- “In response to the White League’s agitation against Indian immigration and the proposed importation of Chinese labour, Gandhi wrote in 1903: ‘We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.’”
- “Gandhi wrote in 1908 about his prison experience: ‘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. 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.’”
- “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.’”
Here is one more quoted attributed to Gandhi (Kwesi Gyamfi Asiedu):
“It was a gross injustice to seek to place Indians in the same class as the Kaffirs.” —May 22, 1906
“Gandhi’s statues around the world have been controversial. In 2015, the bronze statue in Johannesburg was defaced with white paint.”
SOME GENERAL THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW!
Here is how writer George Orwell, who was very critical of the British Empire, yet benefitted from it, in his own words, summarized his take on political Gandhi after reading his autobiography:
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent…Sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid…the average human being is a failed saint…In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed.”
Orwell was initially impressed with Gandhi until he sat down and closely examined the man’s life—political and otherwise—and eventually came to this conclusion (see “Reflections on Gandhi,” 1949).
In other words, unlike Wole Soyinka or Molefi Kete Asante who decries or detests hagiography or adulatory autobiography, Gandhi shrewdly took pride in it.
Soyinka’s serial memoirs are more of the nature of political literature than of formal autobiographies or memoirs.
Asante’s memoir on the other hand, “As I Run Toward Africa,” is more a political, intellectual, cultural and historical statement on Africa than a formal autobiography or memoir.
It is clear from the above statement that Orwell did not ascribe sainthood to Gandhi. No human being is a saint as a matter of fact, in spite of the recent canonization of Mother Teresa (see Christopher Hitchens’ “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice”).
A politico-religious institution of fallible men and women coming together and making one of their own infallible is the height of laughable hypocrisy.
However, far from these controversies, the latest irony to stare us in the face in the wake of Prof. Ampofo’s moral revolution is that, perhaps, Gandhi also happened to be one of the greatest influences on the philosophical, moral, intellectual and political development of Kwame Nkrumah. As one Dr. Biney, an Nkrumah scholar, succinctly and beautifully frames it:
“If Nkrumah was successful, he owed part of his formation, directly or indirectly to Gandhi. Nkrumah became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy of ‘Satyagraha,” which he coined as ‘Positive Action.’”
In point of fact, Gandhi himself was also influenced by Leo Tolstoy (see his book “The Kingdom Of God Is Within You”; see also Prof. Srinivasa Murthy’s “Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letters”), Henry David Thoreau (see his essay “Civil Disobedience”), and William M. Salter (see his book “Ethical Religion").
In sum, Nkrumah was indirectly influenced by Henry Thoreau’s theoretical formulations on “civil disobedience” but moved to action by Gandhi’s physical or practical interpretation of “civil disobedience.”
More to the point, the anorexic-looking bespectacled Gandhi was more than a physical quantity and social presence. Gandhi was a bold concept, an idea for radical revolutionary change in the spiritual and material wellbeing of his people.
Simply put, he was a symbolic definition of moral antithesis, a moral juggernaut of sorts much in the vein of Bob Marley’s “Chant Down Babylon” and “Crazy Baldhead,” to the established order—colonialism and economic exploitation and racism, though the latter has come back full force to bite his legacy in a way he may not have expected. Here is Bob Marley on “Chant Down Babylon”:
“Come make we chant down on Babylon one more time
“For them soft! Yes, them soft!
“Men see their dreams and aspiration
“Crumble in their face
“And all of their wicked intention
“To destroy the human race
“Me say, music you’re the key, music you’re the key
Gandhi was that music for and of social-political change, that key for the imminent dissolution of the British Empire in the land of India!
Now, poring over the corpus of Nkrumah’s writings—books and speeches—does not give away the fact that he was aware that his spatial mentor was a racist. Even the great writer George Orwell got it all wrong about Gandhi:
“Color feeling when he first met it in its worst form in South Africa, seems rather to have astonished him. Even when he was fighting what was in effect a color war, he did not think of people in terms of race or status…”
What is more, Nkrumah cannot be held responsible for Gandhi’s racism, his moral lapses and foibles. Neither can Gandhi be held responsible for Nkrumah’s shortcomings.
Even Nelson Mandela who celebrated and looked up to Gandhi for moral instruction and political strategies probably did not know Gandhi was a racist, at least for those of us who have painstakingly pored over his autobiography, authorized and unauthorized biographies. Here is how one website describes it:
“In 1999, Mandela received the Gandhi/King Award for Nonviolence from the World Movement for Nonviolence. The prize was presented by Ms. Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and a then-member of the South African parliament, a position she could not have held prior to the end of apartheid. Ms. Gandhi described Mandela as the living legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, the Gandhi of South Africa.
“Although they never met, Gandhi and Mandela are often mentioned together as giants of 20th-century anti-colonialism. South African leader Nelson Mandela described Mohandas Gandhi as ‘the archetypical anti-colonial revolutionary’ and acknowledged the earlier leader’s influence on the independence movement in South Africa.”
Gandhi also influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., César Estrada Chávez, President Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama (14th, Tenzin Gyatso), Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, John Okwoeze Odey, Christian Cardinal Tumi…
At this point we can only speculate that none of these influential personalities, especially Dr. King, had the faintest idea that his idol and mentor was a racist.
On the other hand Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, Obama, the Dalai Lama and Cardinal Tumi are still alive as of this writing and we wonder if they are aware of these claims and what, if any, they have got to say about them and what that will mean for the legacy of Gandhi in the long term and for his philosophy of nonviolence or civil disobedience.
Still, these Gandhian lapses are unique to a certain history though that history is a shared one, inter- and trans-continental in context. This is quite understandable.
Gandhi, it appears, had painstakingly taken to sanitizing his writings about himself in a way that dissembled his sordid past.
The authors of “The South African Gandhi” present the following indictment of Gandhi’s revisionist intentions, a direct acknowledgment of this very fact of his past which we have just alluded to. They write:
“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and 'Satyagraha in South Africa,' it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.' He was effectively rewriting his own history.”
Orwell acknowledged in “Reflections on Gandhi” that (emphasis ours) “…this partial biography, which ends in the nineteen-twenties, is strong in his [Gandhi’s] favor.” The phrase “strong in his favor” aptly summarizes the two authors’ conclusions about Gandhi’s shrewd revisionism of his political life.
Ghana also has an important but dangerous historical revisionist in the person and character of Prof. Mike Oquaye, a trained lawyer and a former political science lecturer. Ghanaweb quotes him on the standing controversy:
“It will be most unnecessary, most uncalled for and not in the supreme interest of Ghanaians and we must know what serves our interest best.
“Some people in India wanted diplomatic relations to be broken in Ghana over the way we sometime back spited them, but caution prevailed and they kept their cool to show that they understand diplomacy and the ups and downs of international relations and today the relationship is a bit better and we look forward to it being better still.
“‘Prof. Oquaye further called on the petitioners to be tolerant of divergent views saying, that is the hallmark of academia.’”
Is the iconoclastic historical falsifier Prof. Mike Oquaye himself tolerant?
How do we effectively deal with the problem of ethnocentrism and other forms of discrimination by and amongst black folks in Ghana and across Africa?
And what do we say about African leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni who have indirectly endorsed Adolf Hitler’s vicious and murderous racism? Or that of Idi Amin, Thomas Lubanga, Emperor Bokassa, Charles Taylor, Joshua Blahyi, Joseph Kony, Jean Kambanda, Mobuto Sese Seko, Foday Sankoh, Inocêncio Kani, Omar Bashir, or Bosco Ntaganda?
And who says the dead cannot be guilty?
Whether Gandhi is no more is irrelevant to the political and moral discourse on his legacy, now a checkered open book, which has caught up with him in an unexpected way.
What matters is that the conscience of history is the judge of human thoughts and actions and that this conscience of history has delivered a powerful verdict that is hard to ignore, in a way also forcing us to reassess the saintly heart and mind of the once-canonized Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
History can be very difficult to understand sometimes on account of the illogic of time, also of the lingering anachronism of moral context. But conscience is an unbroken continuum in a conscious corruption of ethical calculus. We are referring to moral absolutism rather than to moral relativism. Certainly the latter is arguably of time, the former transcendent of space and time.
Gandhi operated in an age of reason and therefore, in hindsight, he could never acquit himself of the weighty charge of moral culpability because the conscience of history will simply not permit it.
In fine, if the dead cannot be guilty as some will have us believe in the face of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, then the living might as well reject the moral authority of the conscience of history.
Maybe the conscience of history is a glorified hologram, Gandhi a mere passage of time in a broken continuum of historical amnesia. In this context, the convictions of history remain a far cry from the actuality of moral and social justice, as well as of disbursing retribution to the aggrieved.
Of course, we also concede the fact that the illusion of time and space is beyond the encroaching confines of the imaginative quantum of human wisdom, granted that human wisdom itself is a functional integration of time and experiences with the conscience of history assuming the moral high ground of proctorship.
Ideally, the racism of Gandhi is a fixed quantum in this mercurial timeframe of functional integration.
The question here is not that “time will tell” as Bob Marley put it. The ultimate questions is that time is a proven statement of fact in this conceptualization. Time, if we may put it differently and succinctly, has already spoken and rightly so, authoritatively…categorically…unequivocally!
Now, the central question becomes whether Nkrumah should be equally held as morally culpable for appropriating a powerful idea from a man who is now known to be a racist and using that idea to free an entire continent!
This speculative question is a philosophically sophisticated one in that its possible answers are historically layered, at least from the point of view of its conceptual development, as it were from several angles, namely from Jesus Christ, to Leo Tolstoy, to David Henry Thoreau, to Gandhi himself, and all those between.
Perhaps, we had better look at the question and its possibilities of responses from the standpoint of utilitarianism (consequentialism) in particular and the history of ideas generally. It is best if this exercise is undertaken in the general context of the legacy the man left behind for posterity.
The legacy of a man or woman is not whether he or she becomes a singer, a prostitute, a pastor, an armed robber, a mother, a father, or all of the above and more, but the quality, nature or character of the contents of that legacy.
The hallmark or true test of a legacy is defined by how much it transforms lives, challenges the status quo, promotes the cause of humanism, changes society for the better, and makes civilization worth the practical efforts of human struggles for equity, spiritual and material satisfaction, and what have you.
The contents of Nkrumah’s legacy have no match in the annals of Africa’s political history. The fact of Gandhi being a racist and of Nkrumah coming under his influence does not challenge this statement of fact!
In other words, it is far from right to visit Gandhi’s moral sins on Nkrumah in the same way no sane or higher mind will attempt to visit the moral sins of Leo Tolstoy, William Salter, and David Henry Thoreau on Gandhi. Of course as a human being Nkrumah was as imperfect as his enemies and detractors, yet he was also a better human being, a superior soul or a higher moral ontology, if you may, than his enemies and detractors.
Surely Nkrumah rightly belongs in the same class of 20th-century moral leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Marcus Garvey, Amilcar Cabral, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mother Teresa…Let us celebrate them even as we emulate their exemplary legacies.
In Part 3, we shall look at the following question (and related subject matters): WHO SHOULD REPLACE GANDHI’S STATUE?
For the Yoweri Museveni quote, see “The Shariat,” Vol. 2, No. 15, April 15-21; also see Milton Allimadi's "Rep. Rangel Deplores Gen. Museveni's Past 'Hateful' Statements On Slavery, Hitler, and LGBTS," Black Star News, Aug.1, 2014.
Ashwin Desai & Goolam Vahed. “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.” Publishers: Navayana/Standford University Press (2015).
Ghanaweb. “Pull Down ‘Racist’ Gandhi’s Statue from Legon—Professor Demands.”September 13, 2016.
M.K. Gandhi. “Satyagraha in South Africa.” Translated from the Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai (1968). Retrieved from http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/satyagraha_in_south_africa.pdf
M.K. Gandhi. “An Autobiography (or “The Story Of My Experiments With Truth).” Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. Retrieved from http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/gandhiexperiments.pdf
Rama Lakshimi. “What Did Mahatma Gandhi Think Of Black People?” September 3, 2015. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/03/what-did-mahatma-gandhi-think-of-black-people/
Srinivasa Murthy. (1987). “Mahatma Gandhi & Leo Tolstoy Letters.” Retrieved from http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/MG_Tolstoy_Letters.pdf
Ghanaweb. “Pulling Down Gandhi’s Statue Unnecessary—Mike Ocquaye.” September 15, 2016.
Gandhian Institutions—Bombay Sarvodaya & Gandhi Research Foundation. “How Relevant Is Gandhi’s Nonviolence.” Retrieved from http://www.mkgandhi.org/africaneedsgandhi/relevance_of_gandhi's_nonviolence.htm
Kwesi Gyamfi Asiedu. “Will Gandhi Fall In Accra.” September 19, 2016. Retrieved from http://pulse.com.gh/features/mahatma-gandhi-will-gandhi-fall-in-accra-id5233915.html
Ama Biney. “The Legacy of Kwame Nkrumah in Retrospect.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, March 2008, p. 131.
Gandhian Institutions—Bombay Sarvodaya & Gandhi Research Foundation. “How Relevant Is Gandhi’s Nonviolence?” Retrieved from http://www.mkgandhi.org/africaneedsgandhi/relevance_of_gandhi's_nonviolence.htm