The days and weeks leading up to the 68th Indian Independence Day in 2014 were marked by a furious debate about the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
The debate was sparked by comments made by the prominent British Indian author and historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama who criticized a planned statue of the Mahatma in London’s Parliament Square as “wholly inappropriate” given Gandhi’s treatment of women and what Dr Vadgama described was his “obsession with sex”.
Dr Vadgama said Gandhi’s “experiments” with women – sleeping naked beside young girls and women in a bid to test his ‘commitment to celibacy’ – could no longer be ignored, particularly in light of the continued mistreatment of women in India that have generated headlines around the world.
Sex wasn’t the only thing that has caused confusion for supporters of the Mahatma.
Economist Lord Meghnad Desai, the man who was responsible for ultimately installing the Gandhi statue in Parliament Square, had previously raised questions about Gandhi’s supposed admiration for Adolf Hitler and his endorsement of the Hindu holy text Bhagvad Gita which Lord Desai claimed promoted violence.
Admiration for what Mahatma Gandhi achieved has often overwhelmed any attempt at scrutiny of his beliefs and principles.
Nevertheless, there have been numerous individuals – including Gandhi’s contemporaries – who have questioned the morals and mores of a man many consider to be a saint.
One of the first was Cornelia Sorabji, the brilliant lawyer, reformist and social campaigner who was the first female graduate of Bombay University and the first woman to study at a British University after reading law at Oxford.
In an article published in the then Boston-based literary magazine The Atlantic Monthly in April 1932, some six months after Gandhi visited London to attend the Round Table Conferences, Ms Sorabji described the Mahatma as “vain, paradoxical and confused”.
That apparent “confusion” is a theme that unites many critics of Gandhi – his admiration for the British set against his desire for freedom from them; his adherence to the Hindu belief system set against the discrimination that was inherent in that system.
Now, two prominent South African academics of Indian origin are raising yet another question about Gandhi’s legacy: was he a racist?
Ashwin Desai, Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and Goolam Vahed, Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal are the authors of ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire’.
In the book, the duo claim that during his time in South Africa, Gandhi regularly expressed “disdain for Africans”, describing black Africans as “savage,” and living a life of “indolence and nakedness”.
Desai and Vahed also claim that Gandhi campaigned to prove to the British rulers of South Africa that the Indian community in the country was superior to native black Africans.
Many of the claims are drawn from Gandhi’s own writings as well as government archives, the authors say.
The authors refer to numerous instances when Gandhi referred to black South Africans as ‘Kaffirs’ and cite his clear disdain when the racist white authorities banded blacks alongside Indians.
According to the Desai and Vahed’s book, Gandhi once fought with South African authorities over the separate entrances for whites and blacks at a post office in Durban. Gandhi was angered that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa,” who he called the kaffirs, and demanded a separate entrance for Indians.
Gandhi (Centre) outside his Johannesburg law office.
In a 1893 letter to the Natal Parliament, Gandhi writes: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than 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.”
During a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi expressed his anger at the Europeans in Natal who he said wanted “to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
Many historians and authors have concluded that much of Gandhi’s current image has been carefully crafted by supporters who have discarded much of the unsavoury aspects of his persona – not least Gandhi’s willingness to go to any extent to achieve independence for India and Indians.
That’s a view supported by Desai and Vahed.
“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and ‘Satyagraha in South Africa,’ it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.’ He was effectively rewriting his own history”, said Desai.
‘The South African Gandhi’ is sure to cause widespread consternation in India. However, it has received the backing of award-winning author Arundhati Roy who said the book is “a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi”.