Guest contributor Anunay Chowdhary on the lessons anti-racists can learn from Mahatma Gandhi and his “change of heart” from anti-blackness.
Every episode of manifest discrimination against the Black community is followed by a brief period of historical revisionism. This allows us to position ourselves where we can better understand the experiences of the people as a member of the minorities and discriminated groups.
Every attempt to unearth these historical accounts only allows us to reflect and interrogate history from a different, often neglected, point of view. The George Floyd killing by a police officer and all the protest in its wake has brought about the same period of revisionism. As a consequence of that, in many places, there has been growing demand to take down statutes of persons who have had a history of abuse towards black people and minorities.
The growing demand to clamp down the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington DC outside the Indian Embassy and Leicester, UK is part of the same concern. The demand is motivated by words and actions by Mahatma Gandhi during his early days of 21 years stay in South Africa. This was the time Mahatma Gandhi was just Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – a lawyer looking to earn a livelihood.
He was yet to earn his title of “Mahatma” or “a great soul”, later conferred by Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi lived an extraordinary life upon returning to India from South Africa in 1915. He found that his voice resonated among the middle-class and the lower-class people and was very successful in organising the mass movements he is now renowned for.
Before that, Gandhi lived a life of a common man with common goals in life. The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, a book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam H. Vahed, traces in detail the time spent by M. K. Gandhi in South Africa. The book also unearths, although not for the first time, MK Gandhi’s manifest disdain for black people. M.K Gandhi unsuccessfully contested the British authorities to treat Indian subjects in South Africa on par with White English imperialists, and above the black native population. He argued that Indians were intellectually and culturally superior to black people and addressed members of the black community as “kaafirs“, a derogatory term by today’s standard.
“Hriday Parivartan” or “change of heart”
After leading an ambulance corps in 1906 for British imperialists during the Bambata rebellion, he was aghast to witness horrific violence inflicted on black people by white members of the army. This proved to be a turning point. Nelson Mandela in Time magazine on December 31, 1999, called it an ‘awakening’ and commented:
“He determined on that battlefield to wrest himself of all material attachments and devote himself completely and totally to eliminating violence and serving humanity.”
After establishing a successful attorney practice, he founded Indian Opinion. He shared its printing press with Ilanga lase Natal, founded by John lagalebalele Dube who later became the president of The South African Native National Congress (later known as African National Congress).
In his edition of Indian Opinion, February 10, 1912, Gandhi called Dube “our friend and neighbour.” In his address in 1908 in YMCA, he called for universal brotherhood with spaces for all the races. Gandhi also found inspiration in the work of John Tengo Jabavu, who raised an enormous sum of 50000 pounds for building educational institutions and asked the Indian community to do the same. He also expressed his reverence for WB Rubusana after his election to Cape Provincial Council.
Perhaps the most lucid exposition of “transcended Gandhi” came in the form of an editorial. In 1913, when the Natives Land Act was passed by the Union Parliament, Gandhi was vehement in his denunciation as the act placed the native. “Lack community at a disadvantage with regards to the land rights“, he said.
“Indeed, every other question, not excluding the Indian question, pales into insignificance before the great Native question.”
In referring to “South African races”, he declared in Cambridge on November 1, 1931:
“Our deliverance must mean their deliverance.”
Gandhi said, “My life is a message.“ It is the journey of an ordinary man who dismissed his early prejudices and championed an ideology that has equal space for the unequal. His greatness does not depend on an incontestable record of saintly life but owes to his proximity to the life of an ordinary human being. His imperfections are the only things that make him a fitting human to emulate. I reckon that the objective of the Black Lives Matter movement calls for a ”hriday parivartan” or “change of heart” on the other side.
I deem his contribution to the philosophical underpinning of protest movements as the most irreplaceable principle in the current struggle. “We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field” said Mahatma Gandhi in his letter to Adolf Hitler on December 24, 1940, while describing the nature of Indian independence movement. It is therefore pertinent to subscribe to the foundations laid by Gandhi. Of Gandhi, not as a man in bone and flesh, but as a philosophical skeleton.
It is not the time to be distanced from him; it is a perfect time to revive his teachings and ideals. Let us judge a man of not what society made him but what he made of society. In my limited understanding, the Black Lives Matter movement is not about the equal opportunity to fight with others but about the equality of respect that every human being deserves. It is a movement not about making equal boundaries between communities but to diminish all the boundaries to create a uniform space. Let us not bury our past with indifference. Let us revive it so that it could guide us in becoming a more accepting society.
I do not contest the rights and wrongs of the statue vandalism that took place. I only ask that we step back and ask ourselves: do we not want everyone to be like Gandhi, an ordinary man with distasteful prejudices for the black community who transcended into a person who inspired the most prominent of global black community leaders, in their struggle against discrimination? Do we not have a perfect face to show to the world while we march to protest the systemic behaviour against the black community?
By invoking Gandhi, I believe that we can not only raise questions about discriminatory behaviour but also answer how we can amend ourselves. I believe that to question injustice while finding its remedy is the best form of protest.