One of Britain’s leading experts on Indo-British culture has called for a permanent memorial in London to Dadabhai Naoroji, saying the famed Indian independence icon and first South Asian MP is far more deserving of such a tribute than Mahatma Gandhi.
Author and historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama, founder of the Indo-British Heritage Trust which helps promote the centuries-long relationship between India and Britain, sparked a furious debate this week after saying that a proposed statue of Gandhi in London’s Parliament Square sends out the “wrong message”.
“In the first instance, we already have one statue of him in Central London so why waste money on another one? Secondly, Gandhi doesn’t represent anything in favour of the Indo-British relationship. This is a man who hated the British.
“As South Asians living in this country our aim should be to bring our communities together, to celebrate Indo-British heritage. If we are to make a statue, it should be of a role model who represents everything that is positive, good and elegant about the relationship between our two countries.”
Dr Vadgama believes that the only man worthy of such an honour is Dadabhai Naoroji, the Bombay-born intellectual and politician who helped found the Indian National Congress.
“Even Gandhi looked up to him and he won the affection and support of a wide range of people, including Irish and Indian Home Rule campaigners and the Suffragettes”, Dr Vadgama says.
Born and raised in Bombay, Naoroji was a man possessed of an immense breadth of talents: from Zoroastrian expert and campaigner through publisher and academic to business tycoon.
He first travelled to London in 1855, setting up the first Indian company to be incorporated in Britain before later becoming professor of Gujarati at University College Lonodn.
In 1867 he helped found the East India Association, a precursor to the Indian national Congress.
Naoroji later joined Britain’s Liberal Party, winning the Finsbury Central seat at the 1892 general election. In Parliament he campaigned tirelessly for Indian independence. He would later become a mentor to numerous icons of the Independence movement, including Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Dr Vadgama believes that the world’s “unbridled admiration” for Gandhi has meant that the contributions of men like Naoroji have been overlooked.
Gandhi’s commandeering of the world’s attention however, is one of the lesser reasons for Dr Vadgama’s ire at the proposal for a statue in London, first revealed by former Foreign Secretary William Hague on an official trip to India in July.
Dr Vadgama sparked anger among Gandhi supporters on Saturday by saying the statue would be totally inappropriate given Gandhi’s “disgusting” sexual antics.
Speaking to the Times, she said Gandhi’s habit of sleeping naked with young women as a way of testing his “commitment to celibacy” was abhorrent and can no longer be ignored, particularly at a time when the mistreatment of women in India is in increasingly sharp focus.
“Gandhi does not stand for anything I’m proud of as a woman because he treated women with contempt, including his own blood relations.
“I find it particularly disgusting that he was proud of what he did, of overcoming his own ‘temptations’ by using his great niece as some sort of sexual experiment.
“This is a man who was obsessed with sex on the one hand whilst on the other he was constantly talking about the concept of ‘Brahmacharya’ or chastity. I cannot equate the two at all. I think his mind was utterly confused and the world should wake up to this reality.”
Gandhi with his grandnieces Abha and Manu (Right)
Gandhi’s unusual approach to sex is arguably one of the world’s worst kept secrets. According to numerous biographers and contemporaries, he spoke constantly about sex and celibacy.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru described as “abnormal and unnatural” Gandhi’s advice to newlywed couples to stay celibate for the “sake of their souls”.
While his unusual arrangements with women at his ashram were known and were seen as “normal” by those around him at the time, the 77-year-old’s decision in 1946 to invite his 17-year-old grandniece Manu to share a bed with him caused some alarm.
In the final, bloody days leading up to independence, Gandhi felt the move would offer his disciples some manner of “comfort”.
“We both may be killed by the Muslims,” he is said to have told Manu. “We must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked.”
One southern Indian politician of the time even went so far as to call him “a most dangerous, semi-repressed sex maniac”.
Dr Vadgama, who was an independence campaigner in her birthplace of Kenya and who was once an admirer of Gandhi’s, says such behaviour can no longer be overlooked, especially in the wake of continued violence against women in India.
“I have known this about Gandhi’s life for many, many years and I have lived with that knowledge but since the events in Delhi of December when that poor girl was gang raped.
“Men shouldn’t treat women as though it’s some kind of experiment.
“People protest when experiments are carried out on animals so why do we ignore the plight of women?”
“I’m absolutely ashamed that my hero could sink so low. Gandhi got away with murder.”
While Dr Vadgama believes that Gandhi’s bedroom etiquette should not completely obliterate his legacy of non-violence and compassion, all aspects of his life should be carefully considered before making a decision on a permanent memorial, particularly at a time when the phrase ‘British Values’ keeps getting bandied about with increasing frequency.
Dr Vadgama’s views will doubtless place her in a small, albeit vocal, minority.
Her comments in the Times has sparked a heated debate with several commentators saying that history makers such as Gandhi should be honoured, despite their sins.
Writing in the Evening Standard, journalist Sam Leith asked: “Should Winston Churchill’s statue be relegated to the scrapyard for his racism? Should T S Eliot be gouged from Poets’ Corner for his anti-Semitism?”
Leith continued: “That would be not to show ourselves more enlightened, so much as to erase and occlude the past — and in the process add to the sum of ignorance. Even the best people in every generation are consumed by the follies and wickednesses of the cultures that produced them. The ones we erect statues to are those who are remarkable because in at least one area of endeavour — and seldom more — they thought, or led, or wrote, or fought, their way out of a prevailing orthodoxy. It’s that one area that gets them the statue.”
Responding to Dr Vadgama’s comments in the Times, Lord Meghnad Desai – who chairs the Mahatma Gandhi Statue Trust – also said that one mistake should not take away from what Gandhi achieved.
Other prominent figures have led the chorus of support for the statue.
Businessman and activist Rami Ranger described Dr Vadgama’s views as “misguided” and her protestations “unwarranted and counterproductive”.
Mr Ranger said: “I shudder to think what our future would have been if it wasn’t for Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for our independence. This is not the way to show gratitude to someone who put our interests above his own. How many people do we know who can give up everything for a cause that they believe in?”
Plans for the statue were revealed during an official visit to India by William Hague and his cabinet colleague and then-Chancellor George Osborne, one of a string of recent visits by high-ranking British politicians to India following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May.
The actual announcement of the statue was made on the day Osborne signed a £250 million military technology deal with the Indian government.
According to Lord Desai, there have been “lots offers to fund the statue” although he’s reluctant for the initiative to be funded by “just one billionaire”.
Despite Dr Vadgama’s protests, the permanent memorial to Gandhi is almost-certain to join statues of other historical figures on Parliament Square, including Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
The statue, which will be unveiled in January 2015, is set to become the focal point for a series of celebrations surrounding Gandhi’s life, including his 70th death anniversary in 2018 and 150th birth anniversary the following year.