Following the University of Ghana's decision to remove a statue of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, debate over his true legacy has been rekindled with a vengeance. Gandhi is admired the world over for preaching non-violent resistance to oppression. Through his methods, India managed to gain independence from Britain without engaging in violent conflict like other British colonies.
Many world leaders, including black heroes like Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, have credited him as being a source of inspiration. With evidence of his earlier writings available for everyone to peruse, a different side of Gandhi has emerged. A darker, racist side. As a young expatriate lawyer in South Africa, he wrote some very nasty stuff about black South Africans there. He went out of his way to refer to them as "kaffirs", a term that is equivalent to the N-word that American racists use to refer to African Americans.
He also compared them to wild animals and constantly complained about Indians in South Africa being treated the same as "raw kaffirs". To Gandhi, he didn't have a problem with racial segregation per se, his issue was that Indians were classified as equal to a race he considered just above animals.
So has Gandhi's almost saint-like status been the result of a carefully executed PR campaign or just ignorance?
His supporters claim his beliefs at the time were informed by the reality of the time. Racism was all around him, so as an Indian lawyer his allegiance was to Indians first and foremost. That makes for good debate. Judging him by 21st century standards is not entirely fair, because we do not have the entire picture. Still, he could have expressed his misgivings without being so blatantly racist.
His followers also claim that later in life he got an "awakening", which made him abandon his previous rabidly racist views. This is also disputed by some researchers, who point out that Gandhi had a dislike for Dalits, India's untouchables. This simply means he was a great believer in Hinduism's caste system, which is a form of institutionalized segregation. He was also alleged to be an admirer of Adolf Hitler's concept of "racial purity".
The fact that Gandhi also never publicly met any noteworthy African freedom fighters is suspect. It is also ironic that despite his earlier racist tendencies, he played a huge role in inspiring oppressed black populations in Africa and America to fight for freedom. This could be explained by the fact African and black American freedom movements had not taken center stage during his lifetime. Those movements gained prominence in the 1960s, more than a decade after Gandhi's death. As such, he can be forgiven for not playing a more prominent role in calling for the emancipation of Africans. He was known to follow events in South Africa even in his sunset years, and was recorded expressing his desire for all races in SA and Africa in general to co-exist peacefully.
So was he a racist?
That's a tough question to answer. On the one hand, he says nasty things about Africans as a young man. On the other hand, his old self preaches tolerance. Because he did in 1948, I believe this made it easier to brush over most of his negative traits. At the time, information was tightly controlled, and being the revered figure Gandhi was, of course the authorities only released information that would make him look good. Compared to today's world where it is easier to capture statements, thoughts and opinions through cameras and social media, I'd say Gandhi was lucky to have lived during that era. It made it easier to build the largely positive image the world has of him.
So I guess we will never know for a fact whether he was a racist or just very ignorant during his younger years. First hand accounts of events that took place such a long time ago are hard to come by, which hinders research further. For now, we can only assume he genuinely had good intentions for India and the world.
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