Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

The post-truth history of Gandhi’s ‘racism’

Recent accounts, analysis of Gandhi's time in South Africa miss facts, context to create a gross misrepresentation. While there were ethical lapses in his time there, his moral journey was remarkable.

Gandhi’s Constructive Programme aimed at, among other things, Hindu-Muslim unity in a caste-free and secular (where religion is not allowed to manifest in the public sphere) socialist society called “Swaraj”.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed in 2014, during the launch of the Reliance Hospital in Mumbai, that Lord Ganesha’s head must have been fixed by a plastic surgeon and that Karna of the Mahabharata was a test tube baby, “post-truth history of science” became a reality in 21st century India.

The term post-truth is an adjective and has been defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs”. Although as a phenomena post-truth has always existed in one form or the other, in 2016, the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year. According to The Guardian, the editors of the Oxford Dictionary said that the use of the word spiked by around 2000 per cent during the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, and newspaper was quick to note that this was the era of Donald Trump and Brexit.

Human history is saturated with the phenomena the word denotes. Religions, cults, nationalism, all metaphysical positions including scientism, and anything asserted without empirical or falsifiable backing (tautologies apart) function under the sign of post-truth. But I believe that the recent spike in its popularity is a good thing: It could be the first indication of humans becoming self-aware that they normally exist suspended in a web of make-believe. What is significant about this word is that it legitimises the talk about a grey area that lies between truth and falsehood.

Aristotle gives the best common sense characterisation of how we normally use the words “true” and “false”: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” Even if we do not look upon this statement as an Aristotelian theory, it remains nevertheless a very clever, street-smart characterisation of the words “true” and “false”. The “what is” of Aristotle’s definition is what a normal speaker takes to be “real”, that is, the visible, the audible, the tactile etc., when there is no reason to suspect what (s)he sees, hears, feels etc. But the speaker, since (s)he is fallible, could be wrong.

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The grey area between truth and falsehood is the space where all that we designate as “bulls**t” co-exist with literary and artistic genres. The difference between “bulls**t” and a post-truth “x” is that post-truth “x” presents itself successfully as a “statement of truth” while it is simply a piece of “bulls**t”. Yet it wields a powerful influence on us and, in a way, even controls our decisions.

In an era where everything is up for grabs, post-truth scenarios find more and more takers. Few today have time to think and reflect on whether what they receive as a piece of knowledge or information is true or fake. In India, there is a serious attempt being made by political Hinduism to unite 80 per cent of the Indian population under the umbrella of the Hindu religion, by making caste differences less significant (though not irrelevant). On the other hand, the Dalit movement is trying to occupy unsuccessfully the political space deserted by the Indian left. Without a cogent socialist ideology, however, the Dalit movement may find itself increasingly absorbed into majoritarian political Hinduism. To avoid this fate, the Dalit movement must absorb Gandhi as an icon for the Dalit movement, at least as significant as Ambedkar, in order to fight the onslaught of political Hinduism. Political Hinduism is currently poised to convert India constitutionally into a Hindu Rashtra. Only a Dalit movement can stop the forward movement of political Hinduism.

Gandhi’s Constructive Programme aimed at, among other things, Hindu-Muslim unity in a caste-free and secular (where religion is not allowed to manifest in the public sphere) socialist society called “Swaraj”. It was Gandhi’s earnest belief that this was the only way to make India politically and economically healthy. Since political Hinduism sees Muslims as adversaries, Gandhi’s dream will not succeed as long as political Hinduism dominates the Indian political stage. But by absorbing Gandhi and reviving Gandhian socialism, with robust political theorising and through a reinterpretation of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme and Swaraj (in terms of the Sen-Nussbaum capability thesis), the Dalit movement can become a formidable political force capable of thwarting the agenda of political Hinduism. The Dalit movement would do well to realise that, while untouchability may be eradicated by social action and legal means, eliminating “Jati vyavasta” per se would require substantial institutional changes. Gandhi understood this only too well, as is clear from his idea of the constructive programme and Swaraj. It is for this reason that Gandhi only tried to eradicate untouchability. The necessary institutional changes for the abolition of “Jati vyavasta” would only be possible in a socialist society. Since this did not happen in India, “Jati vyavasta” continues to flourish unabated. Once the Dalits have a viable socio-political ideology, the Muslim population may find it congenial to join forces with them to prevent India from becoming a Hindu Rashtra. Such a formidable, politically significant combination, hopefully, would also usher in Gandhi’s “Socialist Swaraj”.


What is preventing the absorption of Gandhi by the Dalit movement is a series of post-truth discourses by some intellectuals claiming to speak on behalf of Dalits. Such a post-truth reading of Gandhian archives is trying to project Gandhi as a propagator of “Jati vyavasta” and is making the Dalit movement suspicious of Gandhi’s strong affinity with the Dalits.

As long as people like Arundhati Roy (who project themselves as the saviours of the Dalits) showcase Gandhi as a racist, the Dalit movement will remain wary of absorbing Gandhi into its fold. A recent piece of work that propagates internationally, the image of a racist Gandhi, is the book The South African Gandhi by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed.

The book deals with Gandhi in South Africa. The racist charge is, however, largely confined to its first few chapters. The book claims that: Gandhi did not want Indians to associate with the native African people; Gandhi’s description of the African people was racially charged; Gandhi joined the colonisers to suppress the native Zulu uprising against the colonial power, and Gandhi constantly used the racist slur “Kaffir” for native African people. These claims soon acquired international credibility — but largely because most readers are unfamiliar with Gandhi’s works.


Gandhi did make isolated requests to Indians in South Africa not to associate themselves with native Africans, but, sadly, these writers made no attempt to probe why he did so. The reason for this request is clearly discernible in his October 26, 1896 lecture and also in the March 26, 1902 note, “The British Indian in South Africa”. In the lecture Gandhi says: “The Orange Free State has made ‘the British Indian an impossibility by simply classifying him with the Kaffir’, as its organ puts it. It has passed a special law whereby we are prevented from trading, farming or owning property under any circumstances. If we submit to these degrading conditions, we may be allowed to reside after passing through certain humiliating ceremonies. We were driven out from the State and our stores were closed, causing to us a loss of £9,000. And this grievance remains absolutely without redress. The Cape Parliament has passed a Bill granting the East London Municipality in that Colony the power to frame bye-laws prohibiting Indians from walking on the foot-paths and making them live in locations. It has issued instructions to the authorities of East Griqualand not to issue any trading licences to the Indians. The Cape Government are in communication with the Home Government with a view to induce them to sanction legislation restricting the influx of the Asiatics.”

Gandhi advocated the hyphenation of the Indians in South Africa from the native Africans because he feared that their clubbing would deprive the former of their legitimate rights as British subjects. If the authors of The South African Gandhi had only cared for truth they would have easily located these documents and avoided producing a post-truth history book that presents Gandhi as a racist.

Admittedly, until 1910, Gandhi had some cultural prejudices. This is a sign of ethnocentrism rather than racism and Gandhi was, till May 1908, deeply Eurocentric too. On March 7, 1908, Gandhi’s writing about his fellow African prisoners manifests this bias: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!”

However, two months later, Gandhi’s views about the African people changed radically. The evidence for this can be found in a speech he delivered at the YMCA on May 18, 1908, when he spoke of the African people as being at par with everyone else. They, he said, were equal contributors to world civilisation and had a right to be treated like everyone else. This sudden transformation was most probably the result of Gandhi’s reading of Jean Finot’s book Race Prejudice, which was available in English in 1906, and which Gandhi had read in September 1907. While it took several months of reflection for Gandhi to realise that his views of the African people were ethically wrong, once this happened, he quickly got rid of his ethnocentrism.

Because of their indifference to truth, the authors of The South African Gandhi fail to note that while Gandhi was still in Africa, he had stopped using the word “Kaffir” after 1913. The term “Kaffir” according to The Sunday Standard, a Botswanan newspaper, was a general term “from the 16th century to the early 20th century” used to describe “several different black peoples of southern Africa” (November 29, 2012). This is also how the Encyclopaedia of Britannica understood the term in its 1911 edition. We could, therefore, reasonably assume that at the time when Gandhi was using the term it had not yet become, at least, a recognisable racial slur. The Desai-Vahed research also did not reveal that Gandhi was one of the promoters of the First International Conference on Anti-Racism in London in 1911.


But there is a serious black spot in Gandhi’s political career in South Africa, when he joined the ambulance corps of the colonial army during the Zulu rebellion of 1906. He did so to promote the colonial state’s appreciation of its Indian subjects in South Africa — which, of course, was a very crude and unethical intention since Gandhi knew just how badly the colonial government and white population treated the native Zulu population. The Zulus had to fight with bows and arrows against the firepower of the brutal colonial army. That was an unequal and unjust war. All one can say in defence of Gandhi is that he too had to grow ethically and, indeed, the rest of his life did manifest an unparalleled ethical development, which can only be compared with that of the Buddha of the Nikayas and Plato’s Socrates.

The South African Gandhi fails to see the difference between political justice and social justice. Gandhi never presented himself as a spokesperson for the suffering humanity in South Africa. Rather, even in South Africa, Gandhi was fighting for political justice for his fellow Indians. Likewise, in India, his fight for social justice was confined to efforts for the removal of untouchability and not for the eradication of Jati vyavasta. As pointed out earlier, the latter was not something that could be wished away merely by voicing one’s disapproval of it in strong, uncertain terms, in the manner of Ambedkar. Gandhi knew only too well that the removal of Jati vyavasta was not possible without a complete upheaval of the economical -political-social system then prevailing in the country. Seen in this context, our post-truth historians’ innuendos that Gandhi did not work to get justice for the native South African people or for the Dalits, are unfair. It is like Ambedkar’s criticism that Gandhi ought to have worked for the abolition of the caste system prior to the initiation of a movement for the removal of the coloniser.


Gandhi’s unparalleled contribution to humanity lay in his popularisation of non-violent means of protest, which he used successfully to attain political justice for Indians in South Africa and freedom from the coloniser in India. At that level, Gandhi can be seen as an inventor of a successfully experimented set of significant practices for non-violent resistance to all forms of violent intrusions in our life. Sadly, though, his contribution to Philosophy/Ethics, Anarchist Socialism, etc. are not yet well understood — even after significant works on Gandhi’s philosophy by Akeel Bilgrami and Richard Sorabji.

The writer taught philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi


First published on: 30-09-2020 at 08:50:33 pm
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