Denigrating Gandhi a growing fad
However, this has since become controversial. Some Ghana University professors have demanded that the statue be removed – even returned to India....
It was only in June this year that President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the University of Ghana. At the ceremony this writer attended at its Legon Campus, 12 km, northeast of Accra, the national capital, Gandhi and his ideals and his Africa legacy were extolled.
However, this has since become controversial. Some Ghana University professors have demanded that the statue be removed – even returned to India. Quoting from Gandhi’s collected works, where he is supposed to have called Africans ‘savages,’ they have asked: “How will the historian teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude towards the Black race and see that we're glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?"
The passage, found in Volume 1 of Gandhi’s 100-volume collected works reads: "A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than the savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir."
"Kaffir" is a slur against black people, particularly in South Africa. However, putting this in a perspective, Jad Adams, author of the book “Gandhi: the True Man Behind Modern India,” says Gandhi "later seems to have changed his views, saying stereotypes of Africans as 'barbarians' are wrong."
It is perplexing that the Ghanian Government and the Indian External Affairs Ministry failed to anticipate the type of opposition the statue has attracted. The Ghanaian authorities had little choice but to shift the statue out, if nothing else, to prevent it from being vandalised by those who may feel that Gandhi’s place should have gone to some African. As the media ignored their protest, the professors petitioned that they wanted to see "African heroes and heroines" honored on the campus instead.
To be fair to Accra, the government told the critics that "we must remember that people evolve." It issued a very good press statement highlighting the role of Mahatma Gandhi. It urged the people to focus on how he as an individual and his thoughts were shaped over a period and not focus on the excerpts from some of his earlier writings.
“The unfortunate verbal attack on Mahatma Gandhi is effectively an attack on an Indian Nationalist Hero and icon who is revered and cherished by over one billion people who are either citizens of India or persons of Indian descent,” said the statement from the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding that “the Ministry is urging Ghanaians to look beyond the comments attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and acknowledge his role as one of the most outstanding personalities of the last century.”
The controversy about what Gandhi said, wrote or did (or did not) during his long years in public life is not the first and the one in Ghana will not be the last. He has also had more than his share of Indian critics. An Indian-origin British lady led the campaign last year when Gandhi’s statue was installed in London.
Gandhi was, and shall remain, a controversial person. But this should not divert from his considerable contribution, not just to the country’s freedom movement, but to the national life and its discourse, be it on politics, economics or ethics. That contribution is impossible to evaluate.
More painful, however, is deliberate denigration that is born out of personal hatred, political and ideological differences. Gandhi and B R Ambedkar are sought to be appropriated at official level (Jawaharlal Nehru, by the way, is not allowed even that ‘honour’), by the current political dispensation at the Centre but its political affiliates trash them, even twist what the two said or wrote out of the context to project a false picture of them.
It happened on Dussehra this year. Militants among the Hindutva votaries projected the slaying of demon king Ravana by Lord Rama as a symbol of unity for the entire country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who described this year’s Vijayadashami as special, has been projected as the incarnation of Rama and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif was the ten-headed Ravana. Of course, the context is India-Pakistan and the current spat between the two neighbours.
But there is another context, too. Hindutva-sponsored posters abound in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. They have left no doubt that the reference is to the claim that Indian troops have “taught Pakistan a lesson” with their counter-strikes, being called “surgical strikes.”
None less than Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has given full credit to the prime minister. That credit was actually transferred from the army to Modi after it was decided to use the cross-LOC strike as a political weapon.
The most glaring change this year has been deification of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. A temple has been built where Godse’s idol is installed, garlanded and worshipped. This project of Hindu Maha Sabha is ostensibly in defiance of the official observance of Gandhi’s birth anniversary, embellished with criticism by the Sabha leaders of the government, the Bharatiya Janata Party and even their mentor Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
Although the RSS and its affiliates have always distanced themselves from Godse saying that he had left the RSS after his formative years as he had found it not radical enough, it is widely known that nobody really leaves the RSS – it is a life-time commitment. Godse’s own nephew has lambasted the Sangh for ‘disowning’ Godse.
It is difficult to believe that the temple’s creation in Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh was without the knowledge, if not tacit approval, of the government and the BJP.
To underscore this mutated image and to suite the current ethos, Gandhi has been stripped of his political argument for communal peace at home and amity with Pakistan. He is instead being projected as the “Swachha Bharat” mascot, a symbol of municipal cleanliness.
Even if in mute, civilised tones, counter-point is being registered. Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi recently wrote that while Britain honoured Mahatma with a statue in a prime area, a section in Indian society was denigrating him by building a temple to Godse.
Gopalkrishna has placed his grandfather in a universal context when he wrote: “You were not infallible Mohandas Gandhi, you erred often, as your wife, Kasturba knew more than any other person. But you owned your errors, tried always to be better than your best."
There are others, outside of the “Sangh Parivar,” ready to demolish the Mahatma. Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winning author, has accused him of discrimination and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed. Speaking at Kerala University in Thiruvananthapuram, Roy described the generally accepted image of Gandhi as a ‘lie’.
“It is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system … Do we really need to name our universities after him?" Roy said. In her introduction to Ambedkar's undelivered 1936 speech, The Annihilation of Caste, she called Gandhi "the saint of the status quo".
Her comments provoked some outrage and some scepticism from historians. Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said Roy's criticism was misplaced. "Gandhi devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice.
He was a reformer not a revivalist within the Hindu religion. His effort was in keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence and bringing social transformation without creating hatred."
Mukherjee said Gandhi and Ambedkar "represented different understandings of how to solve problems of caste oppression in India, but each was equally sincere".
The debate on Gandhi will, and must, continue. Only, it should remain within bounds of public decency.