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The Gift Of Gandhi Statues

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
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Every time I read about protests in Africa against the installation of a Gandhi statue I feel troubled. I am still not sure why especially since I was brought up in a home where Nehru and his vision of India were held up as an ideal rather than Gandhi’s trusteeship ideas. I myself was more inspired by the stories of the revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and Surya Sen. 

I will confess that Gandhi did not matter much in my life; it was only when I saw Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi,  that I was inspired to read a little more about the man. But by then I was practicing in the Supreme Court and I had discovered Ambedkar and started reading his debates with the Mahatma under the influence of Bhagwan Das, an advocate and an ardent disciple of Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

In recent years, especially since the Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014, the party has tried to re-write the history text books in an attempt to obliterate the memory of the secular and socialist ideals of Jawaharlal Nehru. This is being done by positing Nehru against Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose and even Ambedkar. Recently, a statue of Baba Saheb Ambedkar wearing a saffron sherwani (long coat) was put up in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh.

This incident is not an isolated one but a concerted strategy of the BJP to win dalit (previously untouchable caste) votes which cannot be ignored or dismissed. It created the specious grounds for co-opting Dalit leaders into the saffron fold. The BJP has made steady gains in the reserved constituencies over the years and, in the general elections of 2014, won more reserved seats than any other party.

A leading Dalit activist and writer, Anand Teltumbde, addresses the question of ‘Saffronising Ambedkar: The RSS Inversion of the Idea of India,’ in his book, The Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the time of Neoliberal Hindutva (2018), Teltumbde notes that BR Ambedkar’s bitter critique of Hinduism pervaded the latter’s writings, and that his actions exhibited an ‘ultimate abhorrence’ for Hinduism. This history, Teltumbde writes, comes in the way of the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh’s goal to make India a ‘Hindu rashtra (nation)’. To bring Dalits into the fold, Teltumbde adds, the Sangh is left with no option but to appropriate Ambedkar, a man who converted to Buddhism because he rejected Hinduism - a  difficult policy for the BJP which wants to build a Hindu nation.

It is not surprising that Teltumbde was recently arrested and there is an attempt to frame him in a case which could lead to him serving a long prison sentence.

In this context when I read about Pranab Mukherji, the then President of India donating a statue of Gandhi to the University of Ghana, I feel glad that the faculty and students refused the gift and have succeeded in having the statue taken down.

In the same way I would support the 3000 activists in Malawi for protesting against the erection of a Gandhi statue by the Indian community with the approval of the Malawi Government in Blantyre.

The young activists in Malawi have signed an online petition calling for the Malawian and Indian governments to halt the construction of the statue. The group, working under the banner ‘Gandhi Must Fall Movement’ (#GandhiMustFall), argues Gandhi has no direct connection to Malawians as he is not known to a majority of the locals.

The group claims Gandhi, who is revered at home for his role in India’s independence, was a racist. The petition says: ‘He (Gandhi) did not like the idea that Africans and Indians were given the same entrance at work. He actually fought for Indians to have their separate entrance away from Africans.’

It is not only Africans but African Asians who have felt uncomfortable with the legacy of Gandhi in Africa. Recently I read a very moving book by Zainab Priya Dala called What Gandhi Didn’t see Being Indian in South Africa. She writes: ‘……I don’t know much about Gandhi that either you or I couldn’t find in any history book. Growing up, we never really spoke about him. My school friends will attest to it, we knew of him. We knew about how he came to South Africa as a barrister to fight a case of a Memon business family from Porbandar who had settled in South Africa and how he had been thrown off a train in a town near Durban, called Pietermaritzburg ... here is my experiment with truth: Gandhi was never important in my upbringing. I cannot hide from this.’

Zainab Priya Dala goes on to describe why he was not relevant. Her great grandfather came as an indentured labour and worked in the first sugar mill in South Africa, the Edmund Morewood Sugar Mill established in 1850. This was the place where her ancestor walked in a never ending circle like a mule to crush the cane and bring out the sweet juice. This was a sugar mill that Gandhi never visited during his stay in South Africa. He did not reach out to the poverty-stricken indentured Indians in the farms.

What is really revealing is when Dala goes on to say how her father took a French journalist to see the sugar mill and tell her this story. Later they roamed around the Edmund Morewood Memorial gardens which had flowers covering the pond in which the sugar cane juice was collected. The French journalist did not write the story because Dala writes: ‘the French journalist did not run the story, or at least any part of the time we spent with her. I know this because Dad and I didn’t tell her anything that she wanted to hear.’

The West is complicit in manipulating the legacy of Gandhi as an apostle of peace and non-violence for their own political purposes.

With this background I was surprised at my reaction when I heard of the movements in South Africa, Ghana and Malawi to bring down the Gandhi statues. I was profoundly disturbed.

Let us look more closely at the reasons being cited for the anger against the Gandhi statues.

The Faculty and students of the University of Ghana had demanded the taking down of Gandhi’s statue for three reasons; and I quote Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, part of the faculty of African and Gender studies:

  1. Should an African University honour a non-African who had no direct relationship to Ghana with a statue when it has not honoured any Ghanaian (African) who has served our interests/fought directly for us?
  2. Should an African university honour a man who devalued the freedom of Africans in South Africa; and that in 2016 when we know more about Gandhi’s controversial/racist or at best complicated relationship with Africans?
  3. Should African states/Universities receive such ‘gifts’ uncritically and without consulting constituents?

Let us begin with the second, and perhaps the most important part of this controversy: Gandhi was a racist. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015) has documented Gandhi’s views at this crucial time in his life. While accepting the fact that Gandhi made statements which were racist in those early days; his views on caste too were rooted in his society and till 1930s he was against inter caste dining and inter caste marriages. But it is also true that his resistance campaign, even though it began with a concern for rich Indians, did lay a foundation for a deeper movement against racism. And he evolved into an icon of resistance against colonialism in India where he inspired millions to revolt against colonial rule when he gave the call for Quit India.

Personally speaking, the quality which I have come to admire most about Gandhi was his ability to debate and discuss with his critics and change his own views when he thought he was wrong. His debates with Tagore illustrate his open mind. In sharp contrast to today’s India where a difference of opinion can be labeled anti-Indian and land you in jail.

Despite all their differences it was Ambedkar who became India’s first Law Minister not Gandhi; if Gandhi is revered as father of the nation Ambedkar is the father of the Indian Constitution. It would not be inappropriate to point out that these Indian freedom fighters (and I presume the African leaders) had a perspective on patriarchy, however, that is not reason enough to reject their legacy in the anti-colonial movements.  Nevertheless there was room for debate and discussion; for differences and controversies.  

I wish the movement GandhiMustFall could be more ModiMustFall and it had focused on the appropriation of Gandhi by the Hindu nationalists - the same people who were responsible for his murder. If it had been linked to this fact then it would be absolutely just to refuse the gift of the statue from such a Government.

But it is the first reason which I find disturbing: should we put up a statue of a person who made no contribution to Ghana. Of course statues of freedom fighters of Ghana must be given priority; but surely there must be a role for solidarity across nations.

However, I am proud of the fact that I lived for some time on Nelson Mandela Road near Africa Avenue in Delhi; I love the idea that we honour Third World leaders who fought colonialism by naming our streets such as the Benito Juarez Marg in New Delhi and a Pio Gama Pinto road in Goa.

To me all the movements for national liberation across the Third World are a part of our common heritage even if the leaders focused their attention on their own country and did not directly fight for the rights of the Indian people.

I was sad to see how the legacy of all those Indian Africans who fought against colonialism alongside the African freedom fighters is being erased from public memory.

The GandhiMustFall movement could easily turn into an anti-Indian movement. And that is why I feel disturbed by the anger and outrage expressed by the activists.

Nandita Haksar

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer.