Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Gandhi believed black people were inferior – should he be celebrated on campus?
Recently, a tree was planted on Highfield Campus to celebrate 150 years since Gandhi’s birth. He was a fundamental figure in the fight for Indian independence from the British Empire. Gandhi’s approach of peaceful activism not only liberated India from the shackles of colonisation, but crucially, his work also inspired some of the most important revolutionaries of the 20th Century. Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela are among those who took inspiration from him. There is no denying his positive contributions and undoubtedly his legacy lives on in peaceful protests worldwide.
However, much less discussed are Gandhi’s prejudices. Supporters fail to mention that his fight for equality was not so equal if you were black, a woman or a dalit (member of the lowest caste). His fight for equality was selective. Although discrimination based on any of the aforementioned grounds is deeply concerning, the most apparent was his discrimination against black people.
During his time as a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi experienced discrimination from white people that inspired him to battle for Indian rights. However, Gandhi’s fight was centred around his disdain that Indians were being treated in the same way as black Africans. Gandhi stated Indians are ‘infinitely superior’ to black people who he often referred to using the racial slur ‘kaffirs‘. Writing to a health officer in Johannesburg in 1904, Gandhi spoke of how the council ‘must withdraw Kaffirs‘ from the slums where Indians lived, stating that it was “very unfair to the Indian population”. Endorsing more taxes on impoverished black people and overlooking the brutality of the Empire on Africans were more ways in which Gandhi marginalised black people, in an already hostile anti-black environment. For someone so widely celebrated and one who experienced prejudice himself, it is not what you would expect.
Gandhi’s supporters believe that the racist views he held were common at the time and purely a by-product of his era. They argue Gandhi’s views changed as he grew older and as discrimination against him continued. He fought along black African soldiers in the Zulu war, where Gandhi tended to the injuries of black Africans. However, his prejudice had not completely vanished. Colourism existed long before Gandhi’s time, but he perpetuated the view that darker skinned people are inferior; a belief that still persists in brown communities today. Humans are complex and imperfect, it is after all, part of what makes us human. However, it seems more than just a simple flaw to believe that African people are inferior.
Therefore, this is not about a tree. Rather, this is about the underlying message it sends to students on campus that belong to communities that would have been marginalised by Gandhi. The idea that it is acceptable to celebrate an individual that denied their fair existence simply because it was normal at the time. At a university where the population is wonderfully rich and diverse, does a leader with such views deserve to be celebrated on campus? The University of Ghana removed their Gandhi statue in 2018 because they did not feel it was appropriate. This does not mean Indian culture could and should not be celebrated, and there are other ways this can be done.
The lack of discussion about Gandhi’s shortcomings also highlights an important issue about the way that society chooses to look at history in an overly simplified way. Much is known about Gandhi being a symbol of peaceful activism but less is known about his prejudices. This is a common phenomenon, often seen when sentimental pieces like statues and trees distract from problematic traits, and result in looking back on history with rose tinted glasses. However, it is a potentially damaging approach as overlooking detrimental practices denies the struggles of marginalised groups and limits discussions that allow us to learn from past mistakes.
Although there is much to be celebrated about Gandhi’s work, he also held prejudices that conflict with important University values that promote cohesion and unity, raising doubts on whether he should be celebrated on campus.