OPINION

Before he became Mahatma

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

Coming to terms with Gandhi’s South African phase is a challenge for both his supporters and his critics

Gandhi scholars generally see his political work in South Africa (1893-1914) as but a prelude to the remarkable role he played in reshaping the politics of the Indian freedom struggle. In recent years, however, a flurry of writings on Gandhi, some authored by known South African scholars, has catapulted to the centre stage of Gandhiana his ‘racist’ attitude towards Africans and Coloured people, exclusion of this segment from the political struggles that he organised, his failure to form political alliances with all oppressed people, his sexual preferences, and his imperial patriotism. How do we begin to reconcile these insights with the widely held belief in India and abroad that Gandhi is a Mahatma?

A telling contradiction

We can follow different paths to address this contradiction in Gandhi’s thought. We can, for instance, shrug off the problem by quoting the poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am vast, I contain multitudes.” Gandhi certainly contained multitudes, he held odd views on social relations, his defence of the caste system is unjustifiable, and he was eccentric to a fault. But he also had an extraordinary gift for understanding the political significance of the moment, and grasping it. He lived a life of contradictions, as we all do.

Alternatively, armed with numerous cups of tea as Munna Bhai did in the marvellous film Lage Raho Munna Bhai , we burrow into dusty volumes of his letters and writings, acknowledge he was wrong at that moment of his life, and cite him to establish self-correction in his later life. The project is tiresome but doable. Thereby we follow the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who in the 1960s pointed out an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s thought, and distinguished between the ‘young’ and the ‘mature’ Marx. We can accordingly speak of a ‘young’ and a ‘mature’ Gandhi.

Or we can focus on the historical context of his remarks. The Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner suggests that before we judge words spoken in the past, we must know what they signified then. In the work The Prince (1513), the Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli advises the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici, thus. A prince, he said, must know when not to be virtuous. For these words, Machiavelli has been slammed throughout history as the teacher of evil, and as immoral for separating, as he did, ethics and politics. Prof. Skinner asks us to consider what virtue meant in 16th century Florence. At that time virtue signified either a life devoted to reflection in the Platonic sense, or a life lived in accordance with the tenets of Christian morality. Lorenzo de' Medici, destined in Machiavelli’s view to unite a fragmented and conquered Italy, needed a different set of virtues. He had to possess pagan virtues of honour, valour, and courage. Virtue held different implications in the public sphere compared to the private sphere. Consider the time Gandhi lived in settler-dominated South Africa. Dominant linguistic conventions sanctioned the use of derogatory terms for non-whites. Indians, for instance, were called coolies. Gandhi erred because he did not question a practice that violated his own understanding of what human beings are due.

Does it really matter if Gandhi statues and photographs are removed, if M.G. roads are renamed, or if our present government tries to depoliticise a politically subversive leader by designating October 2 as Swachh Bharat? Gandhi, who wielded the broom with some dexterity, would not have minded. As Munna Bhai’s inner-self manifested as Gandhi’s apparition instructs him, do all this, just keep my teachings in your heart.

At this time in Africa

But there was a time when African freedom movements drew upon Gandhi; today, nationalist Africans attack him. Therefore, none of the paths suggested above might help us to reconcile the contradiction in Gandhi’s ideas or mollify our African friends. Witness the extent of anger. In June 2016 a Gandhi statue was installed in the University of Ghana during the visit of President Pranab Mukherjee. Soon thereafter a number of academics, students, and artists demanded the removal of the statue. Last year an online campaign ‘#Ghandimustfall hashtag’ gained traction, even as his statue in Johannesburg was vandalised in April during a rally against ‘Gandhi the racist’.

This anger is understandable. There was a time when Indian leaders were committed to solidarity with other postcolonial countries. Today as Indian industrialists/entrepreneurs compete with China to appropriate land and resources in Sub-Saharan Africa, we see the rise of resentment against the new colonisers. Therefore, Gandhi, who inspired Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, and Kwame Nkrumah, is now unacceptable to many Africans. The exploitation of vulnerable countries by India, an emerging power, has bred a rather bitter harvest.

We can ask why something said or done a hundred years ago still has the power to evoke offence. Arguably, a reinvented nationalism that has swept the world as ‘hatred of the other’ revisits the past to identify those who belong, and those who do not. In parts of Africa, Gandhi is clearly perceived as someone who came in from the outside, and began to mobilise an otherwise disparate community of Indians: indentured labour, Memon and Bohra merchants locally called Arabs, and other Indians against discriminatory laws. He was indifferent to the plight of African and coloured people.

But that was not his project. Gandhi entered South Africa as an inexperienced and brief-less lawyer to assist a case involving two prominent Memon traders. At that time of his life, a 24-year-old Gandhi believed that the British Empire would ensure the freedom of its subjects in an oppressive settler colony. He supported the British in the Boer war (1899-1902), and raised a unit of stretcher bearers to accompany troops to the front. He expected the British to reciprocate by protecting Indians. His hope was belied, and Gandhi the imperial patriot was transformed into Gandhi the leader who touched the hearts and minds of millions. He learnt the grammar of anti-colonial nationalism in exile, and amidst oppression, much as Irish immigrants became Fenians on American soil.

His idea of India was expansive and included all Indians wherever they may work; the fulcrum remained a territorial entity called India. In a farewell address he gave to a Gujarati audience on July 9, 1914, he said: “For me there can be no deliverance from this earthly life except in India. Anyone who seeks such deliverance must go to the sacred soil of India. For me, as for everyone else, the land of India is ‘the refuge of the afflicted.’” His project simply did not include Africans and coloured people, even though they were oppressed.

The task Nehru took up

Gandhi failed to grasp the importance of an alliance between oppressed groups. That task was taken on by his heir Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru learnt the virtue of solidarity by participating in the ‘Congress of Oppressed Nationalities’ in Brussels in February 1927. The 1927 congress was the precursor of the Bandung Conference in 1955. In The Color Curtain , Richard Wright wrote of the 1955 Conference, which excluded the West, thus. “Only brown, black and yellow men who had long been made agonizingly self-conscious, under the rigors of colonial rule, of their race and their religion could have felt the need for such a meeting. There was something extra-political, extra-social, almost extra human about it, it smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces... And the call for the meeting had not been sounded in term of ideology. The agenda and the subject matter had been written for centuries in the blood and bones of the participants.”

Gandhi would have approved, because in his later life he came to believe that the ‘other’ is a part of ‘us’. By then African sensibilities had been wounded. Gandhi has to be faulted for this lack of understanding. Perhaps it is time for Gandhians to apologise to South Africans and atone for the ‘sins of their fathers’.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University.



Gandhi failed to grasp the importance of an alliance between oppressed groups. That task was taken on by his heir Nehru. Gandhi would have approved



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