Recently, during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, a lot of rage was expressed against racism and injustice faced by Black and ethnic minorities across the world. Many monuments and statues were defaced, pulled down, or damaged. Among them was the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. In London’s Parliament Square, the Gandhi Statue unveiled in March 2015 by the late Arun Jaitley suffered only slightly — a slash of white paint and ‘racist’ written on its steps. In Washington DC, there was more serious damage and the statue had to be covered up.
Those taking part in BLM are young, angry and quite correct to protest against racial injustice. Indeed, Gandhi would join them if he was here now. The injustices America’s Black community has suffered for the last 400 years is a shameful story. Despite the abolition of slavery in the 1860s and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the position of Black Americans remains one of political and economic deprivation. Unlike in India, voting rights are not unconditionally universal. Even now, in many states where the Republicans have a majority, the legislators invent new hurdles which make voting difficult for Black voters. Thus, if you are Black, your right to vote depends on where you live.
Over his lifetime, Gandhi suffered a lot of abuse and even after his death, 72 years ago, the criticism has not stopped. He has been denounced by feminists, by those championing Dalit rights, accused of collaborating with the British, blamed for Partition and favouring Muslims, called a cruel father and husband etc. But why racist?
As in every criticism of Gandhi, the evidence is in his own words which are cited by his critics. The principal criticism is that during the Zulu rebellion in South Africa, Gandhi volunteered to create an Indian Ambulance Corps on the British side. In fact, the Corps was asked to rescue and nurse injured Zulus who would have been neglected otherwise. The injured Zulus showed gratitude by gestures but neither could speak the other’s language. The argument is Gandhi should have joined the Zulus’ fight. Gandhi distinguished between the native Africans and those who had come from India as merchants or indentured labourers. Gandhi’s fight was to assert the rights of Indians, whom Queen Victoria had promised equal treatment with all her imperial subjects in her Declaration of 1858.
Later, Gandhi described sharing prison cell with some Zulus. As he was there for a civilian case and they were for criminal ones, he thought he should have separate status. He was also intimidated by a big Zulu prisoner who barged into the toilet where Gandhi was and literally threw him out. He was shaken but bore up.
This is the nub of the evidence. His critics expect Gandhi to have behaved like we would today, and combine the struggles of all oppressed groups against whoever the oppressor power is. To expect a person fighting for rights of a section of people a hundred years ago like we would now is not just utopian but anachronistic. We forget that we have consciousness of these injustices faced by oppressed people because Gandhi led the first anti-imperialist struggle which was successful. He cleared the pathway which has today become a highway.
Ask Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
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