Coming to terms with Gandhi’s complicated legacy

Gandhi’s non-violent resistance helped topple an empire, but he was also a racist. How should contemporary racial justice movements deal with his legacy?

Modi with Gandhi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi touches a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in tribute to him during an official visit to Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 8, 2016 [Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

Branding Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as “Mahatma” (great-souled) and marketing him to global audiences as an undisputed and all-inclusive icon of non-violent resistance was perhaps the most successful propaganda campaign ever carried out by the Indian state.

Thus any attempt to critically challenge Gandhi’s legacy, even when it takes place in an obscure small town in America, causes much controversy in India and beyond.

On the morning of January 27, a statue of Gandhi was found vandalised in the town of Davis, in the north of the US state of California. It was not immediately clear who sawed the bronze statue off its base and for what purpose, but the condemnations started flowing in right away.

Indian media framed the incident as an attack not only on Gandhi but also on the Indian people, and swiftly branded it a hate crime. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, meanwhile, issued a statement to officially condemn the act of vandalism and called upon the US Department of State to investigate the incident.

A few days later, the same ministry released another statement, this time tying the incident in Davis to the ongoing farmers’ protests in India without any substantial basis or evidence.

“It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” the ministry said. “Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilise international support against India. Instigated by such fringe elements, Mahatma Gandhi statues have been desecrated in parts of the world. This is extremely disturbing for India and for civilised society everywhere.”

Several right-wing Indian media outlets went further to openly blame California’s Sikh community for the incident, claiming without evidence that they must have targeted the statue in support of Sikh farmers who have been leading the protests in India.

There have been strong reactions to the incident in the US too. However, the reactions in the US were more nuanced and diverse than they were in India.

Local and federal authorities condemned the act of vandalism and Indian-American groups organised rallies to ensure the swift reinstatement of the statue. But several organisations also held demonstrations and issued statements to remind everyone that the statue was not welcomed by a significant share of the Indian community in Davis right from the time of its installation in 2016.

The California Sikh Youth Alliance, for example, issued a statement saying while it does not support the way the statue was removed, it opposes all “monuments that lionise Gandhi”. “There is no disputing Gandhi represents racism, anti-Blackness and is a blatant affront to Davis’s values,” the group said.

The statue in Davis has since been reinstated. But the incident and the reactions to it raise some important questions about Gandhi’s legacy and the way it is being appropriated by the current Indian administration:

Why is the symbol of India’s anti-colonial struggle now being condemned as a racist in America? Why is India’s far-right Hindu-nationalist government, which has links to the violent ideology that paved the way for Gandhi’s assassination, trying to shield him from any criticism? And most importantly, how should contemporary racial justice movements deal with Gandhi’s complicated legacy?

Gandhi’s racism

Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893 to represent an Indian merchant in a lawsuit and went on to spend 21 years in the then-British colony. During the two decades he spent in South Africa, most of his actions and words demonstrated his anti-Black racism.

In fact, he rose to prominence in colonial South Africa, not because of his anti-racist activism, but his efforts to reconfigure existing racial hierarchies for the benefit of his own people.

One of the first battles Gandhi fought after coming to South Africa was over the separate entrances for white and Black people at the Durban post office. Gandhi objected that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa”, who he derogatively labelled as “kaffirs”, and demanded a separate entrance for Indians.

During his time in South Africa, Gandhi repeatedly underlined the shared Indo-Aryan roots of the Indian and European peoples and argued that, due to this historical connection, the British empire should treat Indians more respectfully than Black Africans.

In an open letter to the parliament of colonial South Africa, for example, he wrote: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … This belief serves as the basis of operations of those who are trying to unify the hearts of the two races, which are, legally and outwardly, bound together under a common flag.”

In the same letter, he went on to argue that “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.”

Throughout his stay in South Africa, Gandhi continued to voice his belief that Black Africans were inferior to Indians. He openly advocated for the continuation of race-based residential and social segregation in the colony and publicly allied himself with the British colonisers at every opportunity. During the Boer war, for example, Gandhi raised an Indian Ambulance Corps and served in it as a sergeant-major of the British army.

Gandhi’s unflinching loyalty to the British based on “shared racial ancestry” and disdain for native peoples of Africa ran so deep that leading scholars believe during his time in South Africa he stood out “not as one of apartheid’s first opponents but as one of its first proponents”.

The toppling of Gandhi’s statues in the US

In this context, it is not difficult to understand why some in the contemporary anti-racism movement in the US perceive Gandhi as racist and want to remove his statues from public spaces alongside those of American and European colonists and slave traders.

Targeting Gandhi statues in the US, however, stands to harm not help the ongoing racial justice movement in the country for multiple reasons.

Unlike those slave traders and confederate generals whose statues have been toppled across the country in recent years, Gandhi played no role in shaping the history of racial discrimination in the US. In fact, if anything, Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence and non-co-operation influenced Martin Luther King, Jr in his fight for racial justice to a great extent.

Moreover, most of the confederate statues that have been toppled were installed specifically to celebrate white supremacy and intimidate the African American community at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Gandhi statues in the US, however, were erected to commemorate not his relatively unknown racism, but his globally celebrated ideology of non-violent resistance to colonial oppression.

In addition, rightly or wrongly, Gandhi is a revered icon in the eyes of many Indian Americans. As they see Gandhi as part of their identity, they perceive the vandalisation of his statues not as an anti-racist statement, but an attack on their community.

Therefore, the toppling of Gandhi statues in the US, without an accompanying discussion on Gandhi’s complicated legacy, achieves nothing other than aggravating the Indian American community and, more importantly, provides ammunition to those trying to derail the anti-racist movement.

Nonetheless, while the wisdom of targeting Gandhi’s statues in the US as an anti-racist action must be questioned, the current Indian government’s attempts to use such incidents to its advantage and paint itself as the primary defender of Gandhi’s anti-colonial legacy should also be challenged.

Hindu Nationalism: The ideology that murdered Gandhi

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot dead by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist and longtime member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological backbone of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Godse assassinated Gandhi because he believed, like most Hindu nationalists, that Gandhi had favoured Muslims during the partition of India. The assassination of Gandhi, therefore, is rightly classified by many as an act of Hindu-nationalist terror.

India’s Hindu nationalists are well-aware of Godse’s decades-long involvement with the RSS. Quite cleverly though, in any discussion involving Godse, they falsely claim that he severed his ties to the RSS years before Gandhi’s murder. Of course, countless historical records and testimonies demonstrate beyond any doubt that Godse remained close to the RSS and its leadership even in the days leading up to Gandhi’s assassination. In fact, just hours before his execution, Godse was heard reciting the official prayer of the RSS.

To this day, the RSS continues to uphold the same divisive and violent ideology that Godse served throughout his life. Leading Hindu nationalist organisations allied with the BJP, as well as some BJP MPs themselves, routinely celebrate Godse as a “patriot”. Nevertheless, since the BJP’s election victory in 2014, both the party and the RSS have also been working hard to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy.

Indeed, since gaining control of the central government, Hindu nationalists have been on a quest to re-write Indian history and falsely present their movement as the one that built modern India. As most Hindu nationalist leaders remained subservient to the British throughout the Indian struggle for independence, the RSS and the BJP claimed revered nationalist figures such as Gandhi, who never supported their violent ideologies, as their own. This is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi regularly quotes Gandhi in his political speeches and visits Gandhi’s ashram whenever a foreign leader arrives in India.

The Hindu nationalist efforts to appropriate Gandhi are highly hypocritical, not only because their ideology paved the way for his murder, but also because Gandhi, despite all his shortcomings, never supported the BJP and the RSS’ violent and divisive brand of politics.

While the BJP continues to view Muslims as “second-class” citizens of India, Gandhi always acknowledged that all Indians, regardless of their religion, should be allowed to live their lives free from state-sanctioned discrimination and oppression.

In several articles he wrote, he emphasised that the lack of trust between Hindus and Muslims in India was rooted in the differential treatment of these communities by colonial authorities. While the Hindu nationalists dreamt of – and are still working towards – transforming India into a Hindu nation-state, Gandhi always dreamt of building a truly secular democracy in India. He made it clear repeatedly that the idea of “swaraj” (autonomy) means nothing unless it is achieved through communal harmony and a united struggle against the British.

The difference between Gandhi and the Hindu nationalists is perhaps most evident in their approaches to Lord Ram – the mythical king under whose rule all peoples are believed to have lived in harmony. There are several versions of Lord Ram’s story, but they all include, to differing degrees, casteist/racist and misogynist elements. The RSS and the BJP, like other Hindu nationalist organisations, have long used the myth of Lord Ram to stir nationalist sentiment among their followers. Indian nationalists still chant “Jai Shree Ram” (Hail Lord Ram), when they agitate against or lynch Muslims and other perceived enemies of the “Hindu nation”.

Gandhi also used the myth of Lord Ram to further his political agenda, but in a very different way. He saw how popular this story was among northern Indian peasants and used references to Lord Ram and his mythical kingdom to organise Indians in the struggle against the British. He used the story not to divide but unite, and even popularised a song devoted to the mythical king which included the line: “All names of God refer to the same Supreme Being, including Ishvara [the umbrella term for a Hindu god] and the Muslim Allah”.

Gandhi used the myth of Lord Ram to unite Indians, while the BJP and RSS turned it into a war cry against anyone who does not subscribe to their narratives of Hindu nationalism and supremacy.

In short, the Hindu nationalists who are now acting as if they are personally victimised by the anti-racist criticisms of Gandhi have no political, ethical or moral right to utter his name let alone defend his legacy.

What is to be done with Gandhi, today?

Neither Gandhi’s political ideology nor his life is beyond criticism.

From the firebrand Marxist Bhagat Singh who criticised Gandhi’s political tactics, to the Dalit stalwart Ambedkar who condemned his approval of the Hindu caste system, there have always been many who fiercely opposed and strongly criticised India’s “Mahatma”. Even today, author and activist Arundhati Roy spares no opportunity to talk about Gandhi’s deeply problematic actions and words.

Perhaps Gandhi never deserved the moniker “Mahatma” and should not have been transformed into a “perfect” icon of anti-colonial resistance.

However, the Hindu nationalists, who are working to dismantle everything Gandhi built during his lifetime, should still not be allowed to appropriate him or use the much-needed discussion about his complicated legacy to further their political ambitions.

Let there be debate about Gandhi’s role in perpetuating racism and in preserving discriminatory hierarchies, including the caste system. Let there be a thorough reevaluation of this flawed man and his flawed legacies. Simultaneously, let there be a unified fight, much in the spirit of Gandhi, to reclaim the man from the hands of the rulers that subscribe to an ideology that murdered him.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.