Why Some in Malawi Believe Mahatma Gandhi Was ‘Racist’

Video Editor: Ashutosh Bhardwaj

Was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, India’s revered freedom movement leader and the ‘Mahatma’, racist?

While Gandhi is idolised in India as the ‘father of the nation’, his legacy in certain parts of Africa is problematic, to say the least.

For some in Malawi, Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against apartheid in South Africa and British colonialism in India does not justify “racism”.

Less than a week before Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu was scheduled to unveil a statue of Gandhi in Malawi, a local court halted the work on the statue.

Campaigners in the southeastern African nation won an injunction on Wednesday, 31 October, to temporarily halt work on Gandhi’s statue that was to be constructed as part of a $10 million-deal with India in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. Protesters accused the ‘Mahatma’ of using racial slurs and spreading hate when he was in Africa.

Construction of the monument began in August on a street that is named after Mahatma Gandhi.

Naidu returned from his three-nation tour to Zimbabwe, Botswana and Malawi on Tuesday, 6 November, without directly referring to the statue in his press interactions.

But the Vice-President spoke about the Indian government’s ‘India For Humanity’ initiative, which aims “to take the message of Mahatma Gandhi to all parts of the world.”

“It's a pleasure to launch ‘India For Humanity’ in Africa, the continent where Mahatma Gandhi lived for over 20 years, and drew sustenance for his fight against discrimination and colonial domination with truth and non-violence as his weapons,” the vice-president had said in Malawi.

Also Read: Vice President Naidu to visit Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi

Gandhi, The Racist?

Gandhi’s image as a ‘racist’ became a flashpoint in the African nation because of some alleged statements made by the freedom fighter after he arrived in South Africa in 1893.

The remarks, extracted from a controversial book on Gandhi's life in South Africa, and from the ‘Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ – published by the Indian government – have drawn protests and movements against honouring him (see here and here).

According to a book titled ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire’, Gandhi routinely expressed “disdain for Africans.”

The book said that Gandhi often described Africans as “savage” and “raw” people who lived a life of “indolence and nakedness.” He allegedly also used the term ‘kaffirs’, a racial slur often used to refer to black Africans.

A Washington Post report quoted the authors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, both professors at the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu Natal, as saying that much of the halo that surrounds Gandhi today was a result of clever repackaging.

“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and 'Satyagraha in South Africa,' it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.' He was effectively rewriting his own history,” the authors said.

‘Gandhi Must Fall’

A group of around 183 citizens in Malawi launched the ‘Gandhi Must Fall’ campaign after they found out that the Indian government had contacted the Blantyre City Council for a proposal to erect a statue of Gandhi.

Around 3,500 Malawians launched a petition, urging the government to stop the construction of the Gandhi statue.

The statue, alleged Mpambira Aubrey Kambewa, one of the campaign organisers, was being built as a “precondition” to constructing the Mahatma Gandhi Convention Centre in Blantyre, which the Indian government had pledged to invest in.

"“Our main protest is aligned to the fact that Gandhi is a known racist. He propagated racist sentiments against black people. He has been well quoted, including in some of his own work, saying that black Africans are sub-human and that they are at a lower level than Indians and Europeans – mainly during his time as a lawyer in South Africa.”" - Mpambira Aubrey Kambewa, Organiser, ‘Gandhi Must Fall’ campaign

“The other thing is that this deal has been done in a clandestine manner; there was no transparency. Our government did not do due diligence… they did not follow the legal mechanisms to be followed when constructing a monument,” Kambewa added.

Are The Claims True?

Noted historian S Irfan Habib said it isn’t uncommon to see Gandhi’s legacy being questioned.

“Historically, Gandhi has always been enmeshed in one controversy or the other because his philosophy itself was so difficult, so complex to comprehend that many people felt uncomfortable about what he had to say,” Habib said. “.... maybe this is one of the reasons that the people in Malawi are protesting.”

The historian added that some Indians, too, are critical of Gandhi.

"“We killed him because some of us didn’t like his politics, there were others who felt that Gandhi was, if not racist, then a casteist because he called them ‘Harijans’. They had problems with Gandhi back then, and they have problems with him now.”" - S Irfan Habib, Historian

Speaking on the charges against Gandhi, Habib said that he would much rather rely on the testimony of great leaders of the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, than on the talk of the street.

“I don’t think what people say (about the racist remarks) is true. It may have some substance, but I don’t go by that. He may have said some things in some contexts, but I’m more respectful towards Mandela’s views on Gandhi,” Habib said.

“You just cannot misinterpret great leaders like Gandhi in this manner. This clearly has some political motivation and propaganda behind it,” he added.

‘Gandhi Never Set Foot in Malawi’

Another issue that the citizens have raised is the lack of a historical connect between the Gandhi and Malawi.

“It’s not that Malawi sees Gandhi different from how Indians see him, or how South Africans see him,” said Wonderful Mkhutche, another activist involved in the campaign.

"“Gandhi is Gandhi. We understand him as a human being, but we are looking at a man who has no history with Malawi. His statue is coming to Malawi simply because the Indian government wants to spread his imperial influence on Malawi.”" - Wonderful Mkhutche, CampaignerThe Legal Fight

The activists took the legal route after their online petition – signed by 3,698 Malawians at the time of writing this article – failed.

In a plea filed before the Blantyre High Court, two activists Pemphero Mphande and Mkotama Katenge-Kaunda said that they have Gandhi’s written statements, in which the Indian leader has called black Africans ‘kaffirs’ and declared that Indians are superior to black people.

An excerpt from the petition read: “Gandhi said that black people pass their lives in indolence and nakedness, said that they do not work at all and are of no use, said they are uncivilised, further derided them to be savages and living lives below that of human beings, demanded segregation of black schoolchildren from Indian schoolchildren... ”

Mpande said in the petition that “being a black person himself, such remarks have invited a sense of loathe and detestation for Gandhi.”

Hence, the “construction of the statue at an open public land will only serve to reignite and fuel this sense of loathe... ”

The court granted injunctive relief to the petitioners and ordered that the construction of the statue be halted till the matter was decided.

Enthused by the court’s order, Mpambira Kambewa, another campaigner, said that the protesters will utilise all the means available to see the case through.

“We are happy that the court has granted an injunction, but we understand that the fight will continue.... We will make sure that, whatever the cost, this monument will not see the light of day in Malawi,” Kambewa said.

Mkhutche said that now the goal is to “send a message to the Malawi government and the foreign powers, like the Indian government, that Malawians are not ready to be trampled upon simply because they want to invest in our country.”

‘History Should be Rewritten’

Mphande said that Gandhi does not deserve to be admired for fighting apartheid in South Africa.

“Unfortunately, going by the history we are taught, Gandhi was a champion against discrimination. But the truth is that while championing the freedom movement in India, he weighed in on what he thought were the advantages Indians had over black people in Africa, to establish why they need not be colonised,” he said.

“So, that history needs to be rewritten and I am glad that other people are also coming forward to expose this side of Mahatma Gandhi,” Mphande added.

"“There are several academics out there who argue against Gandhi’s influence on the fight against apartheid, and some who even go as far as to say that he contributed to the apartheid system because of his anti-black sentiments that he propagated.”" - Mpambira Kambewa, Activist

Meanwhile, Katenge-Kaunda said that the aim of the movement was not to take anything away from Gandhi.

“We understand he was important to India’s Independence and a world-revered figure because of his non-violent political activism, but for us, it goes back to when he was a young man in South Africa, where he said so many disparaging things,” he said.

He said that the act of forcing the statue on Malawi, a country that attained its Independence in 1964, was like relegating its people to being second-class citizens in their own land. “We think that is very offensive… It is a mockery to us as a people,” Katenge-Kaunda added.

‘Gandhi Must Be Forgiven’

Nandini Patel, Associate Professor of political science at the Catholic University of Malawi, said that Gandhi made the remarks when he was 23, and he was not aware of the impact that his language might have had after he returned to India in 1914, at the age of 44.

We must consider his contributions after 1919, she said. “He was an icon for so many leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. He has done things in his life that outweigh what he did in his early life.”

Mandela was aware of the controversial statements made by Gandhi, and had said that he must be forgiven for his remarks, Patel added.

In an article written in 1995, Mandela had reportedly said: “Gandhi must be forgiven for those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”

Patel alleged that the issue was being used for political gains by some groups.

To this defence, Mpambira pointed out that Gandhi never retracted his statements.

“As long as Gandhi never retracted his sentiments, to us, his legacy still remains that of a racist. There is no action of his that makes us think otherwise. When you look at his quotes later on in his life, there was no retraction. And some of the racist sentiments by him were pronounced when he was a mature, educated man,” he said.

“If he grew older and changed, why couldn’t he apologise to Africans for all those things he had said,” Katenge-Kaunda said, echoing Mpambira’s views.

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