Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t racist, communal or casteist, says his granddaughter Ela Gandhi.
The defence may seem startling, given that few associate him with those terms. But it comes in response to academics in Africa who have launched a campaign to remove Gandhi’s statue from the University of Ghana.
The protesters have linked their demand to a “global movement towards self-respect”, and are planning protest marches on Sunday even as the world marks Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.
“People have differing views about others. Indeed not even Jesus Christ has been spared from detractors so why should they not have differing views about Gandhiji?” said Ms. Gandhi. A former Member of Parliament in South Africa and peace activist based in Phoenix, Ms. Gandhi has responded to the founders of the ‘Gandhi Must Come Down Movement” in a letter that has been made available exclusively to The Hindu.
“If they do not want his statue then by all means remove it. But I would suggest very humbly do not discard the notion of non-violence, of compassion, of ubuntu and of respect for fellow human beings and for nature and the whole of the universe simply because these were the ideals Gandhiji stood for and was assassinated for,” Ms. Gandhi said in a letter responding to the ‘Gandhi Must Come Down Movement, contents of which were made available exclusively to The Hindu.
The protests and an online petition were started by a group of professors at the University of Ghana in Accra. In their petition, the professors, who are influential academics, claim that a statue of the Mahatma, unveiled by President Pranab Mukherjee in June this year, was installed by the Indian embassy without the University consulting any of them. “It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super-power,” the petition said, referring to India’s growing influence in the country.
When the protests were launched in September, the Ministry of External Affairs is understood to have taken up the matter with the Ghanaian government through its embassy in Accra.
“The Government of Ghana fully supports the statue. The attempts by some sections of the University to have it removed is a minority view,” a government source said.
The petition that has more than 1,700 signatures so far, refers to a few quotes of Gandhiji made mostly during his early career with a legal firm in South Africa, where arrived in 1893 as a 24-year-old. Among those quotes are references to Africans under colonial rule as “Kaffirs” and “savages” that were made between 1893-1896. ”
“How will the historian teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude towards the black race and see that we’re glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?” wrote a professor in the petition.
The movement, that parallels a similiar movement in the US, has sparked a debate across many African countries after a new book by Ashwin Desai, a professor at the University of Johannesburg called “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire”, painted a negative portrait of the Mahatma using his words from those years and also alleged that he propagated the caste system in India.
“To say that he wanted to perpetuate the caste system to his death is a total misrepresentation of what he said.,” retorts Ms. Gandhi, adding, “He said there should be no hierarchy in society. That we must do away with such notions. He objected to a separate voters roll for Dalits which he felt would perpetuate the caste system while the Dalit leaders spurred by the British asked for a separate voters roll for Dalits.”
Stood up to Imperialism
Eventually, Ms. Gandhi writes that Mahatma Gandhi must be judged not by those words made as a young lawyer, but as the man who stood up to British imperialism worldwide, a freedom fighter and the champion of rights for the downtrodden that he became after began his activism in South Africa, that also became the inspiration for Mandela’s movement against apartheid.
“So do we regard him as racist? Do we judge people from one or two statements especially when there are many other quotes which point to the exact opposite?” Ms. Gandhi said adding that, “The claims…are based on opinions expressed by a few scholars who have interpreted some quotes he made in his younger days and in the context of the work he was doing at the time and the ethos in the country.”