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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 28, New Delhi, June 27, 2020

The Statue Movement: Unbolting Gandhi | Khal Torabully

Friday 26 June 2020

by Khal Torabully

It is worth remembering that the movement of statues, beheading Columbus in Boston or throwing the slave trader Colston in Bristol, was preceded by a proposal to unbolt the statue of Gandhi in Ghana in 2018 and the destruction of that of Schoelcher (he voted for the abolition of slavery) in the West Indies. For Gandhi, we are coming back to the charge in the English city of Leicester at this very moment...

Lessons to be learned ...

The anti-Gandhian statue movement was based on Gandhi’s heavy-hitting words towards blacks or "kafirs" in South Africa, accusing them of being “dirty and inferior to Indians”. Inexcusable words. However, without diminishing their gravity, it is a question of returning to the complexity and contextualization of History before jumping to the simplification of memory and the physical debunking, to correct unequivocal versions of national narratives.

The Gandhi who arrives in South Africa, in a racist periphery of the British empire, is a young dandy lawyer who believed himself to be a "citizen" of the empire. But he discovers that he is relegated to the “category" of the blacks that the white regime, initiating segregation before apartheid, assimilates to animality. The Indians are "migrants", merchants or coolies, in this land of great tensions, already between the whites, the British opposing the Boers, and between them and the blacks, which will lead to war. Having little room for maneuver and knowing that if the Indians are assimilated to the blacks, they will have no chance to challenge the “Asian or Black laws” which aim to put them in step. So, Gandhi separates his fight for his compatriots from the fate of black people. He said, and no one will excuse him for that, that blacks are “dirty” and “lazy” etc. peddling racial stereotypes of the empire, where the Indian is stuck between blacks and whites. And also in the prejudices of that time and those of his own culture.

But to say that Gandhi was irreducibly racist like Hitler is not serious. I will give three proofs of this, in the light of the complexity to be addressed in this rereading of history.
First, we know that as a member of the Indian "bania" elite caste, he first had a condescending look on the Indian coolies or indentured labourers, on the untouchables too. We know that he will evolve on these points. So, at one time, Gandhi combined prejudices of caste (towards his own people), class (towards blacks) and insane colonial prejudice in the first part of his life, believing that the empire, following the colonial narrative, is "universal "dnd civilizing, with guaranteed rights to its" subjects "of India. Except that in South Africa, this subject becomes a "kafir" or a coolie in terms of institutional racism.

Gandhi fought first for the better-off Indians, then joined the indentured fighters to develop his nonviolent struggle. In this context, he was a "racist" in contextual terms or a legalist-strategist in the political framework of the moment, bending to the racial categorizations of the empire. Then the man learned and evolved.

Second point to prove that Gandhi has evolved, that he regretted the racist remarks of his first years in South Africa, let us read again a speech he made in 1908. I quote extracts (my translation), which will not fail to challenge the current Indians close to the ideology of the BJP, which holds in holy horror the ’lower’ castes, the dalits, the minorities, promoting the prejudices of the upper castes, attracting the condemnations of the UNO.

Gandhi was 39 years old when he took a stand against racial segregation in his visionary speech of 1908. At that time Gandhi, whose credo is to learn to evolve, knows better the Africans who were out of his field of vision in India and on his arrival on African soil about fifteen years ago. His ideas on "race" have evolved.

In this speech to the YMCA in Johannesburg, 112 years ago, he participated in a debate entitled “Are Asiatics and the Colored races a menace to the Empire?”. Gandhi defines what "colored races" mean. He widens the perception that they would include only the half-breeds of the English mixed with other peoples, declaring that this categorization includes the Indians, the Blacks and the Chinese, who cannot threaten the empire (Gandhi does not yet challenge the colonizers yet, proof that this man is not static, that he will evolve). He no longer uses pejorative terms towards black people. He insists: "It seems to me that Africans and Asians have advanced the Empire as a whole; you can hardly think of South Africa without the African races. And who can think of the British Empire without India? South Africa would likely be a sidereal desert without the Africans. I don’t think the white man would have come to South Africa if there were no indigenous races. "

One thing is clear: Indians AND blacks are good citizens, like everyone else. Citing "the burden of the white man" (a recurring concept which crystallizes much misunderstanding and tension today) of Kipling (an Anglo-Indian half-breed, a fervent supporter of the empire), Gandhi affirms that even the author of the Book of the Jungle has evolved and he no longer viewed these colored races as a threat to the empire. Gandhi adds that "the burden of the white man", that is to say that he has to civilize or manage the fate of colored races, seems to him obsolete as a concept. The White does not have to be the "repository" of the future of "colored races". Gandhi denounces plans by the South African authorities to create a policy of segregation, saying that he saw no justification for segregation by skin color. He also denounces two maxims in force: might is right and the law of the jungle. He opposes to them the power of the human heart, or quoting Ruskin, the "social affections".

At this point, the young lawyer compares western and eastern civilizations: “Western civilization is centrifugal, eastern civilization is centripetal. Western civilization is therefore naturally disruptive, while eastern civilization connects. I also believe that Western civilization is aimless, Eastern civilization has always had a goal before it. I do not mix or confuse Western civilization with Christian progress ”.

Gandhi points out that the telegraph system, the telephone and the train do not connote Christian progress but that of Western civilization, marked by an overflowing activity. He notes that the Orientals, in their contemplative state can sink into lethargy or laziness and that it is necessary to come into contact with the West to transfer their energy to a new dynamism. And he adds: "As soon as this fact is accomplished, I also have no doubt that Eastern civilization will become predominant, because it has an objective. "

This Gandhi of 1908 is still ahead of the current regressive India, marked by casteism, colorism, systemic violence and segregation. This is very far from the Gandhi of 1894, who likened blacks to “brutal kafirs”, saying that blacks were lazy and that the Indians were far superior to them…

However, already in September 1905, Gandhi had written on John Dube, a Zulu leader who was to become the first leader of the ANC, saying that he was an admirable African, to know. Note also that Dube’s weekly Ilanga lase Natal was originally published in the Indian Opinion (newspaper founded by Gandhi, my comment) and people from the Dube school often visited the militants of the ashram championing Indian rights.

In the same year Gandhi wrote about Tengo Jabavu, who had founded an educational institution for blacks, saying that the Indians of South Africa should be inspired by him. He learned. He evolved. To read Gandhi as a racist ad vitam aeternam is to condemn a human to remain in his mistakes.

Let us recall, and this is my third point, that in his great wisdom, Mandela had said that Gandhi’s non-violence had inspired him for his fight against apartheid, making a difference between the immature, ignorant Gandhi of the past, using the language and values of oppression, imposed by the empire and the creed of white racists, his Indian heritage, and the later Gandhi, the one who, going beyond his errors, became the Mahatma, the great soul ...

I think that instead of unbolting his statue in Leicester or elsewhere, it would be advisable to correct the unequivocal Gandhian memory, to see him in a contrasting way, because he was a man caught in colonial and cultural prejudices of his time, before he castigated them. So this man had changed.

At the bottom of his statue that we would like to unbolt in Leicester, we should therefore affix a plaque, saying that at one period of his life, out of ignorance, regarding Blacks, he said condemnable things and that he learned and surpassed himself ... This is what Mandela said about him in 2007: “In a world propelled by violence and conflict, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century. He rightly believed in the effectiveness of the confrontation of the force of the soul of satyagraha with the brute force of the oppressor and, in fact, of the conversion of the oppressor to the upright and moral point. "

However, even in 1894, before his profound change, Gandhi was aware of discrimination. He wrote in the Times of Natal on October 25, 1894: "Indians do not regret that capable natives (Blacks, to be precise) can exercise frankness. They would regret it if it were otherwise. However, they claim that they too, if they are capable, should have the right. You, in your wisdom, would in no way allow the Indians or the natives this precious privilege, because they have dark skin.

Mandela has well deciphered the complexity of Gandhi, who did not remain static in his ignorance and his prejudices. He wrote, when Gandhi founded a body of stretcher bearers for the wounded during the second Boer War, treating blacks neglected by whites, that he became aware of his mistakes and he amended himself: "His revival occurred on the hilly terrain of the so-called Bambatha rebellion ... British brutality against the Zulus has awakened his soul against violence as nothing had done before. He decided on this battlefield to strip himself of all material attachments and to devote himself totally to the elimination of violence and to the service of humanity. "

Gandhi has never changed course since this radical change. He said in a speech at Oxford on October 24, 1931: “… As there has been a revival in India, there will still be a revival in South Africa with its much richer resources - natural, mineral and human. The mighty English seem to be pygmies before the mighty African races. They are wild nobles after all, you would say. They are certainly noble, but not wild and in a few years, Western nations may no longer find in Africa a dumping ground for their goods. "

In an interview with a South African Indian delegation in April 1946, he also said: "Their slogan today is no longer just Asia for Asians" or "Africa for Africans, but unity of all the exploited races of the earth. On India lies the burden of showing the way for all exploited races. "

Therefore, these three points are essential to understand that knocking down statues with cookie cutter reasoning shows a lack of knowledge of history. It is about reasoning in a contextual and evolutionary way. Mandela, the South African sage, understood this perfectly.

In October 2003, when the Gandhi statue was unveiled in Johannesburg, Mandela declared: "Gandhi’s political technique and the elements of nonviolent philosophy developed during his stay in Johannesburg have become the lasting legacy of the struggle continues against racial discrimination in South Africa. "

Mandela therefore distinguishes between the ignorant, racist Gandhi, entangled in haughty thoughts of the empire and the one who has been transformed by the experience of discrimination and segregation. The Gandhi man was not an irreproachable saint, but he progressed in the direction of a humanism which disarmed an empire which racialized its domination.

Knowing the Gandhi of 1894 and the Gandhi after, Mandela wrote in a 1995 article: "Gandhi must be forgiven for these prejudices and judged in the context of time and circumstances. Here we are looking at young Gandhi, who has not yet become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice, except in favor of truth and justice. "
What more can I say, except that in his aforementioned 1908 speech in Johannesburg, recalling the exploitation of the Indians in the Coolie Trade in Natal and Mauritius towards the end of his speech, Gandhi says that he speaks as a loyal subject of the Empire and not as a member of a subjugated race.

He also asked "the English race" to work for race equality and an indigenous government. And he ends with these words which put down any accusation that Gandhi would have been a racist to the end, some likening him to Hitler, even in India, where his statue was symbolically debunked by the exclusive and populist vision of Modi, who works to destroy the diversities of his country, seeking to strike Gandhi out of the national narrative.

The Mahatma said this in a visionary and totally anti-racist way: "If we look to the future, is it not a legacy that we must leave to posterity, that all races are confused (mingled, my precision) and produce a civilization that the world may not have seen yet? There are difficulties and misunderstandings, but I believe, in the words of the sacred hymn: "We will know each other better when the mists are gone. "

Gandhi has evolved and freezing him into a statue of unbolted racism requires a reassessment. There was a condemnable, contemptible Gandhi, but there was also a Gandhi in solidarity with the struggle of the Blacks.

For these "heroes" who have not changed, the movement of the statues has a say. However, it cannot do away with historic complexity and must question facts frozen by an instrumentalized memory in the name of a questionable hierarchy.

The ongoing iconoclastic movement is important, but it cannot be content to erase History instrumentalized by the national narrative in a monolingual way, without investing in a constructed counter-argument, to precisely deconstruct historical and memorial impostures, and designate these ghosts that reappear in national stories where unspoken words or sentences point down, like the knees of the police officer Chauvin, with a view of suffocating people pushed to the margins of current societies.

Also, it is important, instead of overturning all wrongly and avoid "erasing" names from History, like those on the streets, as Macron said recently, it is wise to return to a pedagogy for a more contrasted, contextualized vision which does not consist in imposing a narrow vision of memory and restricting the necessary work of pedagogy to initiate a more inclusive society in its past and present foundations.

It is a question of using the statues of a reprehensible past as supports for a better knowledge of History and the dignity of the humanities, especially that History repeats itself. To erase artefacts is also to render invisible the messages they carry and which must be highlighted in school books or on plaques explaining condemnable ideas and values.

The author Khal Torabully from Mauritius, is a prizewinning poet, essayist, film director, and semiologist. Author of some twenty-five books, he coined the term “coolitude” to give voice to indentured workers, imbuing the term with dignity and pride

© Dr Khal Torabully

Original article in French:

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