Manchester city council should reject a statue of the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi on account of his “well-documented anti-black racism”, according to student activists.
The planned 2.7-metre (9ft) bronze statue is due to be erected outside Manchester Cathedral in November to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. An open letter is calling for the council to acknowledge Gandhi’s “vile comments” and reverse the decision, which it says is an “insult” to Manchester’s black and Kashmiri communities.
The statue was given as a gift by a charitable organisation, the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur, which cited the “non-violence and compassion” on show in the city after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017. It was paid for by the Manchester-based Kamani family, the founders of the fashion retailer Boohoo.
The letter, organised by the Decolonise Network at the University of Manchester, says Gandhi referred to Africans as being “savages”, “half-heathen natives”, “uncivilised”, “dirty” and “like animals”.
A book published in 2015 by two university professors painted a complicated picture of the Indian freedom fighter, highlighting derogatory comments about black Africans and efforts to prove to British colonial rulers that South Africa’s Indian community was superior to black Africans while living in the country.
One of the organisers of the letter, Sara Khan, said the group felt the need to raise awareness of Gandhi’s comments as soon as they heard about proposals for the statue two weeks ago, “given that it is October – Black History Month”.
Although a statue of the anti-colonial activist might seem a more surprising target than those of Horatio Nelson or Cecil Rhodes, Khan said “anti-black racism” in south Asian communities was not addressed often enough.
“There’s a tendency to homogenise people of colour and our communities,” she said. “It’s a function of colonial ideology – it’s just as important to talk about it when it is people of colour who reproduce racist ideas as when they come from white people.”
Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur said the campaign “appears to diminish Gandhi’s rich and complex history and his principles of tolerance, peace and unity”.
The organisation cited Gandhi as an inspiration to African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King. “While we welcome a searching public discussion of the past, it is misleading to fixate on comments made in Gandhi’s early life as a lawyer under British colonial influence,” it said.
In response to the charity’s assertion that it was “non-political” and not aligned with any national government, Khan said the idea that Gandhi was a “spiritual figure” who transcends politics “is something we should reject”.
She also rejected accusations that movements targeting statues were attempting to rewrite history, saying: “There’s no rewriting at play here, it’s more about centring a narrative that isn’t spoken about.”
The English literature student, who is her university’s liberation and access officer, said the reaction to the campaign had been “intense from both sides”. While she had received support including from the NUS black students’ campaign, Manchester University’s Indian society has released a statement endorsing the statue. She said she had also faced Islamophobic abuse online since the campaign was reported in the media, but added: “We feel very strongly that we don’t want to the statue to be erected.”
The letter also references the #GandhiMustFall campaign, which successfully halted the erection of a Gandhi statue in Malawi. A statue was removed by the University of Ghana after protests from students and faculty members, who argue the Indian independence leader considered Africans “inferior”. Gandhi’s views on India’s caste system have also been the subject of fierce debate.
Its final demand to the council is to consider erecting a statue instead to a black anti-racist activist with connections to Manchester, such as the feminist Olive Morris or anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko.
A spokesperson for Manchester city council, which did not receive any objections during the planning process, said that while they were aware of “some debate about Gandhi’s life, most people in the city will see the statue in the context in which it was intended – to spread a message of peace, love and harmony”.
Prof Meena Dhanda from the University of Wolverhampton said it was unsurprising that “the more people have begun reading Gandhi rather than merely idolising him, the more they are finding out about his racism”.
She added: “As scholars have shown, he was terrified of intermixing, he upheld caste rules that restricted marriage outside one’s caste. He stereotyped people, for instance, he wrote – ‘Mussalman as a rule is a bully and a Hindu a coward’ and ‘Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised’.
“Despite his political actions harnessing the force of ‘non-violence’, his underlying metaphysical views were deeply at odds with modern sensibilities. To use him as an apostle of peace whilst ignoring the very beliefs that cause ruptures within modern diverse communities is ill-advised.”