Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gandhi statue in Ghana

A few weeks ago I became aware of a news item about a university in Ghana that had recently received in donation from the Indian government a statue of Gandhi.  It appears that many professors and students objected to the statue, and successfully petitioned to have it removed from the campus.  Around the same time, someone in my circle of friends shared on Facebook an article from the Atlanta Black Star with a list of racist statements Gandhi made while living in South Africa

Gandhi is one of the people who have most inspired me in my life, along with Malcolm X, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and a few others.  But I am always in favor of providing more nuance than the commonplace hagiographies might offer. 

That said, I don't think it's fair to totally discount Gandhi because of the racist views he expressed during one phase of his life, especially considering that all the Black Star's quotes come from the very first step in his moral and political evolution.  Indeed, during most of his time in South Africa, Gandhi supported the continued existence of the British Empire--he was even a soldier (in a non-combat role) for the British Army during the Boer Wars.  At that moment his demand was for equal citizenship within the Empire for Indians.  Obviously this position changed drastically later in his life, as he became an ardent, insistent fighter for full Indian independence from the Empire, and made strong criticisms of the very idea of Empire itself.  So for me, I must consider Gandhi's statements early in his life in light of how they evolved later on.  I would never accuse Gandhi of being an Imperial stooge, though he effectively was early in his life.

The difference in the case of his racist statements is that I don't know of any clear repudiation of this prior position later in Gandhi's life.  He seems to have gone back to India and then stopped making many comments at all on black Africans.  While the spirit of his thought and actions during his time in India is clearly one of tolerance, of shared humanity, of breaking down the barriers of prejudice and oppression, I don't think there's any clear statement of his on the record that explicitly, unequivocally disavows the idea that blacks are inferior to Indians.  So I can't totally argue with those who would argue that Gandhi never did in fact overcome his anti-black sentiments.

Even so, even if we assume Gandhi remained as intolerant of blacks throughout his life as his earlier statements would attest, it still wouldn't be fair to totally discount his life's teachings.  If he was a racist, then that means he was merely a product of his time.  To mention another of my heroes, Malcolm X evinces in his autobiography and his public statements quite a bit of misogyny and homophobia.  This doesn't lead me to discard his otherwise very astute reading of race and many other aspects of US society.  It just means he lived in a time where it was socially acceptable to subjugate or scorn women and queer people, indeed where people were taught from an early age how to do so.

All this said, I respect the movement at that university in Ghana to remove a statue that they don't feel represents their progressive values.  This is all the more the case when it seems that the professors and students are in large part protesting the attempt of India to project its power abroad.  Their petition mentions "it is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super power".  This sort of gets lost in the long Guardian article I liinked to, but it indicates to me that their objection is not only to Gandhi himself as a figure, but rather to the use of Gandhi as a sort of masthead, or even a Trojan horse, by the Hindu extremist party that currently rules India, in order to soften the country's image while making hard geopolitical moves domestically and internationally.

No comments:

Post a Comment