Was Gandhi a racist?

The Gandhi statue at the University of Ghana was a gift from President Pranab Mukherjee in June this year.  

On September 12, 2016, a group of academics at the University of Ghana submitted a petition to the members of the University Council asking for the removal of a Gandhi statue in its precincts. Four reasons cited as the rationale for the request stand out: one, Gandhi uttered racist remarks against indigenous Africans; two, in the absence of statues of African heroes, there was no reason to have a non-African’s statue in an African university; three, racist symbols at many universities have been removed; and four, there was no consultation with the stakeholders prior to erecting the statue. The latest news updates suggest that a decision has been taken for relocating the statue. But the key question remains: was Gandhi a racist?

It is indeed true that Gandhi uttered racist remarks against native Africans within the dominant discourse on race and culture of the time. The Ghana University petition cites six racist utterances by Gandhi against indigenous Africans made between 1894 and 1906, but strangely, omits his revised views on Africans. His revised views, favourable to indigenous Africans, are located in his book Satyagraha in South Africa (1923-25), a historical narrative of the Indian struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa between 1894 and 1914. If Gandhi is castigated for his racist utterances, aren’t his revised opinions on native Africans equally noteworthy? There is, however, a catch here.

Some scholars — most notably, Joseph Lelyveld and Arundhati Roy — have suggested that Gandhi’s change of mind about native Africans may not have been a true change of heart. For Lelyveld, Gandhi’s later utterances about native Africans, made in the 1930s, were intended at tidying up his disdain for the Blacks. For Roy, it was an attempt at becoming a South African hero by rescuing himself from his past racist utterances by rewriting history. But such a reading of Gandhi’s writings may not be borne out by historical evidence.

Let us begin with Gandhi’s usage of the racist slur ‘kaffir’. The term ‘kaffir’ has Arabic roots and means ‘non-believer’. But it is present in the 10th edition of the scholarly Encyclopedia Britannica (1902) for referring to indigenous peoples of South Africa. The word appears no less than five times in the entry under the header ‘Anthropology’ authored by Edward Burnett Tylor. This demonstrates that ‘kaffir’ was in common usage at the time. If every utterance could be located within its corresponding linguistic context of the time, it is not surprising that ‘kaffir’ appears in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 456 times in the volumes 1-13 for the period between 1894 and 1913. But it is equally important to note that the term ‘kaffir’ does not appear thereafter in Gandhi’s writings. A change seems to have occurred in Gandhi’s beliefs on race around this period (1911-13).

This metamorphosis in Gandhi’s perception of the African ‘race’ was the consequence of a series of events in the world of knowledge, which led to the decline of the paradigm of pseudo-scientific racism. Pseudo-scientific racism was the dominant paradigm of perceiving race and culture between 1880 and 1920. The paradigm classified humans according to physical characteristics of skin colour, body hair, hair texture, cranial measurements, and so forth. Those with similar physical features were then grouped to create a race identity. Thus were created Mongoloids, Caucasians, Blacks and so on.

These groups were then hierarchically ordered into superior and inferior races. The paradigm of pseudo-scientific racism also linked race with culture. As a ‘race’ of people was the author of the culture in which that particular race was immersed in, the belief of a superior race producing a superior culture and an inferior race creating an inferior culture gained credibility. The paradigm of pseudo-scientific racism thus created a hierarchical ordering of not only race but also of culture. The Europeans located themselves at the top of this scale while certain groups of native Africans found themselves at the bottom.

By the early 20th century, this paradigm of pseudo-scientific racism began to wear thin. Gandhi’s changing perceptions of race and culture coincided with the decline of this paradigm of knowledge about race and culture. The evidence for this hypothesis is compelling. Around 1907, Gandhi encountered Jean Finot’s Race Prejudice (English translation of the French original). Finot critiqued ‘race’ as a pseudo-scientific concept by demonstrating that human physical characteristics were partly products of the milieu. He insisted that race was an invented fiction because it cannot survive impartial scientific scrutiny.

A few years after the publication of his work, Finot participated in the Universal Races Congress convened at the University of London in July 1911. One of the aims of this Congress was to define the term ‘race’. This Congress recognised the irreconcilability of the contention that some peoples were superior to others and eventually resolved to reject the extant meaning of ‘race’ altogether. One of the papers presented at the Congress was authored by the Jewish-American anthropologist Franz Boas. In that paper titled The Instability of Human Types, Boas argued on the basis of empirical observations that ‘races’ were not stable groups because different individuals belonging to the same race could have different physical characteristics due to geographical and social conditions. If races were not stable groups, then the belief in the innate superiority/ inferiority of races was untenable. The Universal Races Congress of 1911 is, therefore, an important milestone in the history of race studies. Amongst its promoters included Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emile Durkheim, Olive Schreiner, Max Weber, and M.K. Gandhi.

A few years after the conference, Gandhi left South Africa for good and spent the remainder of his life in India. Within a span of seven years after his return to India in 1914, Gandhi transformed from being a supporter of the British Empire into a staunch anti-imperialist. This transition opened Gandhi’s eyes to the relation between power and knowledge, and specifically, between imperialism and racism as well as imperialism and culture. Gandhi’s anti-imperialism extended from politics to aesthetics. He chastised the Indian yearning for a sharp nose and fair complexion as an imperial inheritance of a people whose minds and cultural values were colonised by the Europeans. These European ideals of beauty were, in his words, “a superstition”. From Gandhi’s transformed perspective, indigenous Africans were no longer savages nor barbarians but so imagined by the observer’s vanity.

Strangely, the petition submitted by the Ghana academics omitted the transformation of Gandhi. But, it contains a pertinent question: How can historians and teachers in the Humanities and Social Sciences explain Gandhi’s uncharitable attitude towards the ‘Black race’? Gandhi was indeed uncharitable to indigenous Africans but only in the early part of his career. He underwent an intellectual moulting and his transformed world view altered his own perceptions of other ‘races’ and cultures. Gandhi is not an isolated example. When we look at the history of race relations since the European discovery of America, we see that perceptions by individuals of peoples most distinct from themselves have transformed over time corresponding to their own individual experiences.

Let us look at two well-known individuals who led socially engaged lives at the extremities of the Modern period: Bartolome de Las Casas at its beginning and Fernando Ortiz towards the end. Friar Bartolome de Las Casas O.P. (1474-1566) once described Native Americans as encomenderos but later became the most vociferous champion of their rights. In his hurried search for a solution to the rapid decline of the indigenous population as a consequence of the Spanish conquest and colonisation of Mesoamerica, Las Casas even suggested that Native American slaves be substituted by “robust” African slaves, only to rue ever having made that suggestion on realising that the Blacks were perishing as fast as the indigenous people of America.

The other case of a transformed individual is Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969), who was a Creole scholar of Afro-Cubans. His early writings on Afro-Cuban sorcerers and slaves were not only ethnocentric but racially prejudiced against Afro-Cubans. Ortiz described Afro-Cuban slaves as lascivious and being inclined towards anthropophagi. He characterised their religion as amoral and criminal and called for exterminating it. These early studies of Ortiz were influenced by positivist criminology — the dominant school of thought of the time. Ortiz underwent a process of intellectual moulting, rejected his own racial prejudices, and eventually became the most celebrated scholar of Afro-Cubans.

Las Casas, Gandhi, and Ortiz were indeed champions of oppressed peoples and cultures. Like other ordinary individuals they too suffered from prejudices prevalent in their environment. What made them extraordinary was the manner in which they transcended these irrational prejudices.

Krishna Akhil Kumar Adavi is the author of the dissertation ‘Gandhi in South Africa and the Question of Race’.

Swaha Das is assistant professor, Indraprastha College, Delhi University.

Hari Nair is assistant professor, BITS Pilani.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2021 12:08:18 AM |

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