When Gandhi’s statue is removed in Ghana

In two blockbuster movies, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rajkumar Hirani gave us the simplistic but comforting and ‘feel good’ strategies of ‘Jadu ki Jhappi’ and ‘Gandhigiri’. The first stratagem must have inspired Congress president Rahul Gandhi to walk across to the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha and hug an astonished Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The second philosophy for our times was trotted out by a charming underworld don, played by Sanjay Dutt, trying desperately to woo a radio jockey Janhavi, played by Vidya Balan, in Lage Raho Munna Bhai.

Squaring with Gandhism

Inviting him to a senior citizens’ home, she asks him to demonstrate his purported mastery of Gandhian thought. His muse, the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, comes to his rescue, and Munna Bhai spouts a piece of wisdom we would do well to recollect, given the prolific production and demolition of statues today. Gandhi would have said, remarks our attractive don, remove my photographs from public places, rename roads that bear my name, and take off my statues from their pedestals. Just remember what I had to say about how we ought to live together.


We remember Gandhi’s concern with the liberation of Indians from colonial rule, as well as from the dark underside of our own personalities. We also remember that he failed to engage with the plight of Africans in a colonised South Africa, where he lived for 21 years. We know that he used disparaging language for Africans. For these and related reasons his statue was brought down by academics and students at the University of Ghana, Accra earlier this month. The act may be reversed, but it prompts a rethink. We have to recognise the flaws in Gandhi’s approach to Africa the way we recognise the Eurocentrism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the great 19th century German philosopher.

Accepting that philosophy, religion and art took root in the Orient — Persia, China, Egypt and India — Hegel suggested that India, like China, is a phenomenon which is antique as well as modern: “It has always been the land of imaginative aspiration and appears to us still as a fairy region, an enchanted world. In contrast with the Chinese state, which presents only the most prosaic understanding, India is the region of phantasy and sensibility.” However, after explorers, missionaries, traders and commercial companies conquered India, and the exotic became the known and the mundane, continued Hegel in a series of lectures on the ‘philosophy of history’, it became clear that India had nothing to offer the world. He said India cannot teach the West; its tradition is a matter of the past; it has never reached the level of philosophy and science which is a genuinely and uniquely European achievement. The history of philosophy in India, concluded Hegel, is but the pre-history of Europe: India is stagnant, ripe for conquest.

Hegel’s views on India are of some significance because philosophy departments established in Indian universities in the 19th century were heavily influenced by Hegelian and Kantian intellectual traditions. These departments trained students who went on to become leaders of the freedom struggle. One of the recurrent themes in nationalist self-representation is the greatness of ancient India and consequent decline. Shades of Eurocentrism continue to shape perceptions of who we are, where we have come from, and how we can recover greatness. Hegel’s philosophy was flawed, he was a product of the age of colonialism.

Africa, then and now

Whereas the questions political philosophy asks of the human condition (for example, liberation) are eternal, the answers offered by political thinkers are bound by reasons of time and space. We have to locate a body of thought in its political and intellectual context. We can hardly judge thinkers by current standards — that is unfair. Gandhi’s thought and attitude were also the product of his age, and as imperfect as our past and current philosophies are. Still, right-thinking Indians should reflect on whether we need to apologise to our African colleagues for the mistakes that Gandhi made a century ago.

There is, however, some reason for puzzlement. The Indian government surely knew that African thinkers and scholars were angry with Gandhi, and of the resentment his words had evoked. Why did the then President, Pranab Mukherjee, inaugurate the installation of the statue in the University of Ghana, Accra campus in June 2016? Soon after, in September, academics at the university launched a petition that the statue should be removed. They cited two reasons: one, Gandhi was racist; and two, the government of Ghana should privilege African heroes and heroines over foreigners.

In Tripura

The present holders of political power in India should be able to comprehend the impact of the latter part of the statement — they are the original expounders of a narrow nationalism. In March 2018, two statues of the leader of the mammoth struggle against Tsarist Russia, Vladimir Lenin, were brought down in Tripura by supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that had swept to power in the State. A Lenin statue at the College Square in Belonia was ripped up, and razed to the ground with the help of a bulldozer. This was followed by the uprooting of another Lenin statue in Sabroom by a mob. The demolition of Lenin’s statues was justified by BJP leaders on the ground that he was not an Indian, never mind that the man had led a massive struggle of the poor and the oppressed against imperial Russia and established a worker’s state. It degenerated just like states established by right-wing forces have deteriorated. But there is no denying the genius of a man who could inspire millions of people to raise their heads and speak back to oppression.

Lenin’s and Gandhi’s thought will continue to inspire the poor and the marginalised whether or not there are statues in their name, as our Munna Bhai suggested. The setting up of a statue is, after all, more an assertion of the petty vanities of people in power, than homage to the person whose statue it is.

A rejection of India?

However, in Ghana something else is going on. This was clear in the petition drafted by academics at the University of Ghana. They not only rejected Gandhi, they rejected India. The petition, which was signed by more than 2,000 people, stated that it is better to stand up for African dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian superpower. There was a time when India under Jawaharlal Nehru had stood for the rights of all people in the postcolonial world. Today the Government of India has made it clear that it is interested in little but acquiring profits through trade, and in securing acres of land for Indian industrialists in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. When it comes to racism, Indians, regrettably, are second to none. It is these factors that arouse affront and ire in the African mind. India has lost out on solidarity, it is now seen as a state interested only in gleaning profit from other countries with whom it shares a notorious history of colonialism. Can the Indian government refrain from rubbing salt into the wound inflicted by our shared history of colonialism and exploitation? Can we show some solidarity with, and some sensitivity towards our African co-travellers in the path from colonialism to mature democracy?

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 8:13:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/when-gandhis-statue-is-removed-in-ghana/article25814427.ece

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