Mahatma, Douchebag.

It isn’t often that one has to change everything one has known about someone. Gandhi was as close as this country will ever come to having a moral leader, a conscience. He is the man who brought down the British Empire without the use of violence. He is also touted as the inspiration behind MLK Jr.’s fight for civil rights in America, and Mandela’s fight against the Apartheid laws in South Africa.

Nair mentioned a Penn and Teller episode calling bullshit on Gandhi’s Mahatma title, in which they claim he was a flagrant racist. I spluttered…

Mahatma Gandhi, a racist? You’re kidding me.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the man MLK Jr. called his inspiration for the fight for black civil rights in America, a racist? Surely, you’re not serious?”

“This has to be a misinterpretation of something Gandhi said. Penn and Teller aren’t Gandhi-experts, after all”.

It isn’t as if I did not know that he was a social conservative – he was against the horrors of untouchability, but not against the caste system; he was against the then prevalent maltreatment of widows, but you wouldn’t find him having said anything for widow-remarriage, – to say nothing of his ideas about religion and secularism, and science and technology, but one puts these things down to evolving social standards. After all, the vanguards of social opinion of one century are only as good as the laggards of the next, and the silliness that is religion is still pervasive today.

But the idea that someone like Gandhi, who lived and fought for civil rights in South Africa for two decades could have been racist seems a little far-fetched, right? Right? So I did some digging around. I wanted to prove that I hadn’t held a douchebag in the highest esteem for as long as I can remember. I read, from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), some of Gandhi’s letters to authorities and his articles in The Indian Opinion, the newspaper he ran in South Africa.

This is from November 1896, in a pamphlet that became known as ‘the green pamphlet’ for its cover:

… the Indian is put on the same level with the native in many other ways also. Lavatories are marked “natives and Asiatics” at the railway stations. In the Durban Post and Telegraph Offices, there were separate entrances for natives and Asiatics and Europeans. We felt the  indignity too much and many respectable Indians were insulted and called all sorts of names by the clerks at the counter. We petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans

And again, from September 1896, and a speech written to be read out in Bombay:

Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire 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.

(‘Kaffir’ is what native black people of South Africa were called, and no, it wasn’t just short-form for ‘native black people of South Africa’; it was then the equivalent of today’s ‘nigger’.)

Or this, from February 1904:

… under my suggestion, the Town 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.

Or this from September 1905,

We have come to know that it is the intention of the Government to change the Higher Grade Indian School at Durban into a school for Coloured children generally, and to observe no distinction as to girls and boys … the decision to open the school for all Coloured children is unjust to the Indian community, and is a departure from the assurance given by the then Minister of Education… As to the question of non-separation of girls and boys … there are not only practical serious objections to such a course being followed, but in many instances there is also the religious sentiment to be considered

And here’s the kicker, from an article in The Indian Opinion, in September 1903:

We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they [White Supremacists in South Africa] do, only we believe that they would best serve the interest, which is as dear to us as it is to them, by advocating the purity of all the races and not one alone. We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race…

The White race is ‘pure’? The white race should be the predominating race in South Africa, a sub-continent where the natives were black, and were in the majority? What the fuck?! How is this any different from what Hitler advocated regarding the purity of the Aryan race? Hitler actually followed through with the gassing of six million people for absolutely no reason, and Gandhi was content on leaving the ‘impure race’ be, as long as they didn’t also want to part of mainstream society, but as far as I’m concerned, the underlying principle is the same.

The extracts I’ve quoted are not exhaustive. There’s a lot more of the same kind of racism. Nearly everything Gandhi said or wrote in South Africa, from circa 1895 to circa 1915, anything that had anything to do with the native black people goes along the same lines. The general import is this: ‘the white race is pure, and the black race is impure. The white people are doing the black people a favour by civilising them. My only objection is that Indians are also put in the same category as the black people. How could you do that to us? Both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. We are not like the black people, and you should treat us better’.  (The last two sentences are actually his: CWMG, Vol I, Pg. 192)

Seen in the light of this venom against an entire race of people, for nothing other than their skin colour, I can see no explanation for his insistence on preserving the caste system than that he made a transition from South Africa to India and replaced the black people with the dalits of India. And to think that this is the man we think of as the messiah for equality. To think that this is the man MLK Jr. idolised, the man than Mandela took inspiration from. If this isn’t irony, I don’t know what possibly could be.

It isn’t often that one has to change everything one has known about someone, especially if that someone is generally considered a great man. Maybe ‘change’ isn’t the right word, maybe ‘reinterpret’ is more like it, but it sure as heck feels like a goddamn one-eighty.

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7 thoughts on “Mahatma, Douchebag.”

  1. Wow. That was surprising. But times change. Our interpretations of things change too. The law is adapted to serve the society better. I guess role models and national heroes are also one of those things which change according to changing times.

  2. Woman! I already said all that (to wit: the vanguards of social opinion of one century are only as good as the laggards of the next)

    This is bad despite the rider that times have changed.

  3. I’ve never been a Gandhi fan. However, you may be reading too much into

    “…which is as dear to us as it is to them, by advocating the purity of all the races and not one alone.”

    Maybe he was just against interracial relationships.

  4. @Arvind, (Thatha? Mukundan?) I would’ve thought something like that too, except I read the whole letter. It isn’t a misreading. And it isn’t one letter… Everything he did, everything he said about black people was racist. He fought for increased and stricter segregation. He volunteered and commandeered Indian troops for the British army against a Zulu uprising. Would you believe that? Gandhi was a Sergeant Major in the British army.

    @Ravikanth, It is true that there’s almost no record of him having said something about race after he came back from South Africa, but like I said, this is probably because he didn’t run into any black people in India, and it looks to me like he just shifted his attention to caste. He wanted untouchability gone because what people here were doing in the name of untouchability was inhuman, but he still wanted the castes segregated. He advocated against people marrying outside their own caste. He said, repeatedly, that even eating with someone from some other caste was unnecessary. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like he changed very much.

    He may have been, on the whole, a good thing for this country, but on this issue, nobody could have done worse damage than he has.

  5. Most people are still adamant about this caste thingy because people from same caste have similar cultures at home. Once this changes people will stop bothering about caste. You just want to screw MKG. You are just trying to look for a reason i would say 😛 You really should be a journalist. You landed up here 😛

  6. Ravikanth, I know about the compatibility issue (my father’s a sociologist; you wanna guess how many times we’ve had this argument?)

    I also knew about Gandhi’s insistence on marriage within the caste. What I did not know was the racist streak. In the light of that, the caste issue seems to take on more a diabolical meaning.

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