Mahatma Gandhi was not a racist, but the attacks on him are

by Meghna Chandra.

The Salt March

Today marks the 151st birth anniversary of freedom fighter M.K. Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi wrote that “Good travels at snail’s pace… but evil has wings”. With imperialists controlling academic institutions, social media and the media, evil travels at 5G. The picture of Gandhi as an unrepentant racist has travelled with breathtaking speed. Many people of both the Indian American and African American community have come to understand Gandhi’s legacy as one of racism, casteism, sexism, and even violence.

The attacks on Gandhi are not an attack on racism, but an attack on the legacy of Afro-Asian unity against the Western world order. They are a part of the erasure of colonialism from history. The “cancelling” of Gandhi has less to do with Gandhi himself than the atmosphere of our times of cynicism, pessimism, and a contempt for the masses of poor people who followed Gandhi into the struggle for India’s Freedom. Underlying these attacks is a deeply conservative definition of racism as an attitude frozen in time, as opposed to a moral stance taken towards humanity throughout the course of struggle. Though Gandhi was not a racist, the attacks on him are because they attack a tradition that rejected Western Civilization, that united the darker nations against white hegemony, and that saw the poorest and darkest people defeating imperialism.

The Fraud of Obadele Kambon: Cultural Nationalism Must Fall

Gandhi’s statue being taken down at the University of Ghana after the Gandhi Must Fall Campaign

Academics today who have never contributed to people’s struggle lead the charge to attack (“deconstruct”) these leaders via “research by control F”. Case in point, the scholarship of the leader of the Gandhi Must Fall movement, Obadele Kambon. His article “The Pro-Indo-Aryan Anti-Black M.K. Gandhi and Ghana’s #GandhiMustFall Movement” is riddled with wrong citations and purposely misleading quotations. Although Kambon’s slogan has been adopted by many, and scepticism of Gandhi’s legacy has creeped into the minds of even more, few have studied Gandhi, or even Kambon’s work on him.

Kambon’s claims are far beyond ridiculous about a man revered around the world. For example, Kambon asserts in his article that Gandhi was eager to engage in warfare against the “Afrikan=Black people” in 1905, a year before the Zulu rebellion. In the full quote he cites, Gandhi is refuting the white supremacist idea that Indians were too cowardly to fight. Gandhi referred to Indian’s participation in the Boer war, a war of white Britishers against white Afrikaners, as proof of this. Nowhere is he “jumping at the opportunity (that did not exist) to fight black people. Kambon says later that Gandhi “lamented” at not getting the ability to kill Zulus with rifles and calls him “bloodthirsty”. The thrust of the full quote is, again, Gandhi objecting to the idea that Indians are too cowardly to fight. He does not “lament” at not being able to kill Africans. The point of the letter is to show that Indian performance in the war proved their worthiness for citizenship. His position is not unlike that of Du Bois, who called for black people to support World War I in 1918, seeing it as an opportunity for white America to recognize black courage and valor. As he said in Dusk of Dawn in 1940  “I did not realize the full horror of war and its wide impotence as a method of social reform. Perhaps, despite words, I was thinking narrowly of the interest of my group and was willing to let the world go to hell, if the black men went free”. Similarly, Gandhi said in 1939 with an interview with Reverend S.S. Tema of the ANC that the Zulu war was a “manhunt”.

Kambon standing where Gandhi used to be.

In 1993, Gandhi scholar and renowned anti-apartheid leader ES Reddy explained most of the quotes Obadele dug up (and more) regarding black people in the context of Gandhi’s political evolution. There were three stages in Gandhi’s development, in the first of which he was an admirer of the British Empire and believed in British rule. As a young man, he engaged in petition politics which appealed to a white legal framework to get rights for Indians. It is to this period that the bulk of Gandhi’s derogatory statements were made, since it involved Indians trying to hold onto their limited rights in a white system. 

In 1907 he launched the Satyagraha against the Asiatic Ordinance. His thinking developed to a new stage, he rejected Western civilization through his method of nonviolent resistance. The more Gandhi engaged in this grassroots struggle, the more he identified with the poorest of the poor. 

Because of the success of the Satyagraha, Gandhi became a recognized leader of the movement. This put him into close contact with colored and African political organizations that were beginning to emerge. Gandhi came into contact with ANC founder John Dube, whose Ohlange Institute industrial school neighbored Gandhi’s Phoenix ashram. They both admired Booker T. Washington, and Dube was a regular visitor to his ashram, printing his first issue of his weekly Ilange lase Natal at the Phoenix settlement. By 1908, at a speech at the YMCA in Johannesburg, Gandhi connected the Indian question to the African and Asiatic question, arguing that the empire would be nothing without darker peoples: “South Africa would probably be a howling wilderness without the Africans. I do not think that the white man would have come to South Africa at all if there had been no Native races…” Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj in 1909 in which he rejected the very idea that Western Civilization represented progress. He identified civilization with the nonviolent lifeworlds of the poor, those who were understood as “savages” by the West.

In the third period of Gandhi’s evolution from 1920, Gandhi and the Indian National Movement declared “poorna swaraj”, or complete political and spiritual independence from the British empire. He no longer saw the struggle of the Indian people as a struggle to be equal members of empire, but as a struggle to create a new world founded on the values of nonviolence, truth, and peace. 

In a 1931 speech at Oxford, he spoke of the awakening of the South African people parallel to the awakening of the Indian people, saying that “They are certainly noble, but no savages and in the course of a few years the Western nations may cease to find in Africa a dumping ground for their wares.” A month later, he mentioned how “Our deliverance must mean their deliverance”. In an interview in 1946 with a South African Indian delegation, he said “Their slogan today is no longer merely ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ or ‘Africa for the Africans’ but the unity of all the exploited races of the earth. On India rests the burden of pointing the way to all the exploited races”. In the wake of multiracial support for the Indian Passive Resistance, he would move from his position of advocating parallel struggles to encourage joint struggle between Indians and Africans. He stated in 1947 “Political cooperation among all the exploited races in South Africa can only result in mutual goodwill if it is wisely directed and based on truth and nonviolence.” 

Letter from Du Bois to Gandhi

In 1929, Du Bois asked for a letter from Gandhi to the American Negroes, acknowledging that while Gandhi was busy struggling for the freedom of his people, “the race and color problems are worldwide, and we need your help here.” In reply Gandhi wrote: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners.”

Gandhi’s evolution towards black people mirrored his evolution towards his own people. It mirrored his understanding of the West not as a force to be identified with and appealed to, but a force of slave-owners to be rejected and replaced by a new order of peace, love and truth. By reducing Gandhi to his statements at one time in his life when he identified with and appealed to the values of Western Civilization, as opposed to his later interactions with John Dube, Mordecai Johnson, William Stuart Nelson, Howard Thurman, W.E.B. Du Bois and many others, Kambon twists the true meaning of racism and hides the implications of Gandhi’s life and legacy for the next generation of Indians and blacks. Underlying the attack on Gandhi is a deeply conservative view on race, that people cannot change, and that their understanding of the nature of an oppressive regime cannot develop. This is a definition that the ruling class is invested in as it precludes any notion of principled unity among oppressed people.

Kambon is not the first cultural nationalist to attack anti-imperialist movements. Cultural nationalists have been responsible for killing Black Panthers, supporting American imperialism in Africa and Asia, and dividing movements all over the world. At the heart of cultural nationalism is a return to a primordial past that never existed at the expense of the concrete struggles today for peace and justice. It attacks other colonized groups rather than identifying the true enemy of the people– the Western World Order. 

It is telling that nowhere in his article does Kambon discuss the true enemies of the people: the Western war machine that murders the leaders of African countries that resist imperialism. The Gandhian legacy was in staunch opposition to this order of violence. By obscuring who the enemy is Kambon makes it clear which side that he is on.

An Attack on the Anticolonial Struggle

To understand Gandhi, we must understand the British Raj, one of the murderous regimes in the history of the world. The British stole $45 trillion from India by monopolizing Indian trade in 1765, taxing India, and using that money to buy goods from peasants and weavers, and re-exported them abroad for fabulous profits. When the British came to India, her GDP was 25% of the world economy. When they left, it was less than 4%. They exported a huge surplus to the world, but their national accounts had a deficit because the British were paid in deflated currencies. They used their money stolen from India to finance their wars against China and settler colonies in Canada and Australia. They deindustrialized India by cutting off the thumbs of the Bengal weavers, breaking their looms, imposing duties and tariffs on their cloths, and forcing Indians to grow raw materials. They destroyed an indigenous education system in which children of all communities had access to education taught by teachers of diverse backgrounds. They engineered famines, including the 1943 famine that cost 4 million deaths in Bengal to send food to British soldiers in Greece who were not even on the war front. When Winston Churchill heard of the deaths he said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”  When his own officers wrote to him about the needless death, he asked “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

The Raj justified its exploitation by arguing that colonized peoples needed the West to civilize them. They justified their extraction and exploitation by arguing that the people they ruled were backwards and hopelessly divided and needed the Raj to keep them from killing each other. They divided Indians into smaller and smaller boxes of language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, and skin color. The Raj operated on the principle of indirect rule in which Indians were trained in the British system to do their work for them. They were trained into British values and sensibilities and made to forget what they had contributed to the world and think of themselves as inferior to whites.

Gandhi fought against his training which taught him to look upon his people as backwards and divided and successfully united them against the British Raj. He rejected the West by using ancient principles of nonviolence as the basis of his political practice and pointed out the hypocrisy of Western civilization and colonialism. He fought against the backward parts of his civilization by drawing upon the teachings of liberators like Kabir and the Buddh. He identified himself with the poorest people in the world and brought them into the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle.

In Du Bois’s review of the Gandhi’s autobiography, he explained how Gandhi accomplished this incredible feat:

“In India, Gandhi began that service which in the end was his salvation and his greatest gift to man. He studied Man. He travelled all over India and travelled in the dirty, crowded third-class so as to meet and know the masses. Probably no modern leader ever had so complete and intimate contact with and knowledge of the great mass of his fellows as Mohandas Gandhi. From 1901 to the end of his days he was almost continuously moving about India in every part and every city, in pilgrimage, investigation and study, in conference and conversation, until he became a social institution personally known to three hundred million people. There was nothing to equal this in the world’s history; and the power and influence thus gained, enabled Gandhi to influence the men and inaugurate action to an extent seldom known before. Whatever Gandhi lacked in broad education in the humanities in science he more than made up in his knowledge of mankind, his mastery of sociology” 

Gandhi’s true crime, the reason he is the subject of such a vicious attack, is because he united the people against the most brutal global regime the world had ever known. He did this by going to the people and winning their trust. In an era in which the intelligentsia is completely separated from the people, in which they would rather attack the people as backwards and “problematic”, Gandhi’s example as a unifier is anathema. Indeed, Kambon has mentioned that he is working on a take-down, not only of Gandhi, but of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. 

The implications of the attacks on Gandhi

The attack on Gandhi as a racist serves several important purposes for imperialism: one, it helps erase colonialism from history. If Gandhi is the bearer of all evils, as bad as Cecil Rhodes, then it is easy to forget the brutality of colonialism and neocolonialism. It is also easy to forget the clarity with which the darker nations united against Western imperialism as their enemy. Secondly, it tries to discredit a movement in which super-exploited people oppressed by a common system of colonialism, slavery merged their struggles and won. In the US this attack stands in the way of principled unity between African Americans and other colored people. Thirdly, it tries to wipe away a legacy of oppressed nations standing together on an international scale in a consolidated world movement against white hegemony, the absence of which has created great confusion today and a vacuum for cultural nationalists like Obadele Kambon to peddle their nonsense. 

Asian-African Conference at Bandung in 1955

Finally, erasing Gandhi erases the model for a new kind of person who operates from a foundation of morality, who sides with the oppressed, who constantly questions herself in search for the truth, who gladly goes to jail in service of justice, who puts humanity before the self. It is no wonder that the Organization for Minorities in India, a website dedicated to attacking Gandhi, in their About Page (that has since been taken down) quote Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig Von Mises, and Thomas Jefferson on the values of private property, the free market economy, Western-style democracy, and anti-communism.

The Gandhian legacy is a legacy of true anti-racism because it defied Western Civilization on a national, international, and individual level. We must defend Gandhi unashamedly because his legacy is important for the next generation. If a new world is to be born as the Western world order collapses, the legacy of Gandhi and his greatest interpreters, the African and African American people, must be understood as a foundation for the young. The intelligentsia must be guided not by guilt but by the truth.

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