The movement for the removal of statues that glorify odious historical characters is garnering attention. Originating in South Africa as the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015, it spread to other parts of the world, especially Britain’s Oxford University where Cecil Rhode’s statue still glares at African students. In Africa, this movement isn’t limited to the removal of statues of adversaries of citizens’ ancestors. It is also a movement that urges to decolonise the entrenched state of affairs in education and beyond.
Amidst this, M. K. Gandhi’s statue was defaced in Johannesburg, with calls for “Racist Gandhi must fall”, last year. In 2003, when Gandhi’s statue was raised in Johannesburg, scores of petitions demanded the removal of the statue. This movement produced a dedicated group named “Coalition Against Gandhi Statues”. The recent demand by Ghanain academics for the removal of Gandhi’s statue at the University of Ghana isn’t new.
To decode this, we should glance over Gandhi’s persona. Gandhi belonged to the savarna group, a bania (capitalist/trading class) by caste. B.R. Ambedkar, a staunch critic of Gandhi, debunks the latter’s faux admonition of hierarchy. Gandhi wrote about egalitarianism in English, while promoting suppression of oppressed caste groups in his writings in Gujarati. His Gujarati journal Navjivan promoted the caste system as a cardinal principle of Swaraj. In an interview to the BBC in 1955, Ambedkar explained how Gandhi used his influence to suppress rights of “untouchables”, especially political rights given by the British government in the form of the Communal Award. Gandhi opposed the recognition given to “untouchables” subjugated to slavery by caste Hindus for over two and a half millennia.
But India has been exporting Gandhi since independence. With the blessings of privileged caste Congress leadership, Gandhi’s writings were exported, masked under moral spiritualism. Post-Independence, Brahminical governments traded in Gandhi and reaped soft power benefits, visible in the deployment of Gandhiplomacy as a cornerstone of India’s foreign relations. Many westerners idolise Gandhi — when told about his ranting over the black race, his relationship with his female counterparts and “lower” caste folk, the westerner’s admission of ignorance descends into callous ignorance. Ambedkar wrote a chapter titled “A Plea to the Foreigner” explaining why a foreigner finds Gandhi and the Congress’ efforts noble — it had to do with the apparent honouring of the “notion about freedom, self-government and democracy” promoted by western political scientists as an honourable maxim.
Gandhi was also a perfect vanguard for India’s propertied class. He was anti-labour. He advised protesting peasants: “Whilst we will not hesitate to advise the kisans when the moment comes, to suspend payment of taxes to Government, it is not contemplated that at any stage of Non-cooperation we would seek to deprive the zamindars of their rent. The kisan movement must be confined to the improvement of status of the kisans and the betterment of the relations between the zamindars and them.. The kisans must be advised scrupulously to abide by the terms of their agreement with the zamindars, whether such is written or inferred from custom.” Gandhi was a darling to the capitalist and feudal class of India.
Often, the debunking of Gandhi’s repute is countered with Gandhi not being perfect — he, like other humans, carried flaws and was “a man of his time”. The logic about “human” imperfection denies the individual imperfection of Gandhi — the imperfect Gandhi ought to be discussed in the mainstream for producing ideal discourses.
Among radical black circles, Gandhi is a failed plot. Even African Americans who looked upto Gandhi, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, have been robbed of the real narrative. South African historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed place Gandhi in history as someone who prioritised his bargain with power over moral and ethical values. And how does Gandhi inspire the current African generation? The millennial generation is interested in alternative knowledge, business connectivity, globality, fast-paced rationality. Gandhi would dismally fail these expectations. Even though non-violence is credited to Gandhi, the real credit has to go to Buddha, Ambedkar proving how Gandhi reproduced his original doctrine.
By referring to history books attentively, other Indian inspirations could be found. Jotiba Phule, the greatest social reformer of the 19th century, who, in spite of his humble caste background, challenged the hegemonic positions of Brahmins, could be an option. Phule even dedicated his book Gulamgiri in 1872 to black slaves in America. And if gestures strengthen ties, then gifts of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches would be most fitting. Ambedkar reminds Africans and other oppressed races that annihilation of structures of oppression is the first step towards re-establishing a decent order, of liberty, equality and fraternity, which he inserted in the Constitution that defined Indian nationhood.