MAHATMA GANDHI’S VIEWS ON RACE, ESPECIALLY BLACKS

Why Some People Think Mahatma Gandhi Was Anti Black and Racist? Does Gandhi’s Own Writings Tell That About Him?

Note: Gandhi’s quotes from the book are ‘highlighted like this’ with single inverted commas.

A black folded fist with BLM written on the wrist
A black folded fist with BLM written on the wrist
Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

Among the statues that Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters are taking down, some are Gandhi’s.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more famously called Mahatma Gandhi, is a minor figure in the pantheon of anti-black historical figures. In fact, being the patron saint of non-violent, civil disobedience politics, he is even an unusual one to be there. He is the man who Martin Luther King Jr. called the little brown saint. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) has inspired many including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Barack Obama.

So, like in every other occasion, this time too when BLM protesters are daubing with the word “racist” on Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in London’s Parliament Square or defacing his statue in Washington DC, there are questions yet again about whether Gandhi was really anti-black and racist.
The book I review here — Sabine von Herbert’s How I Began to Dislike Gandhi: The Story of My Disillusionment With The Truth-God (2016) — is a good source to find the answers on this question.

Why she began to dislike Mahatma Gandhi? An overview of the Book:

Written in an autobiographical format but without much biographical content, the book is an account of an intelligent teenage girl growing up in former West Germany in the 1980s. She became fascinated by Mahatma Gandhi and India early on; embraced Yoga in her late teens, and became a Vegan at the age of 22. As she got to know Gandhi more, she began to follow Gandhi in letter and spirit. Years went by solidifying her commitment to what she thought as Gandhi’s ideals.

She writes that eloquently:

(Gandhi) was all over my life: both in my body and spirit. I imitated even his wry humour. Once he was asked what he thinks of western civilisation, Gandhi said, ‘It is a good idea’. I mimicked it ad verbatim for thousands of times.

Same with the story of Oxford. Gandhi was once gifted a Ford car. With his apparent disdain for motor vehicles (even railways), he rarely used the car or allowed anyone else to use it. But it served as a potent prey for political satire. On special occasions, he would ask two oxen to be tied in front of the car and make them pull the car around the ashram compounds. He called it “Ox-ford”! Dislike for cars, Western education, modernity and at the same time emphasising the importance of rustic life — all achieved in a single brilliant stroke. Yes, Gandhi overshadowed everything that was me. It was a long-distance love affair that went on for many years without any hitches: a perfect hierarchical devotion to the man and his ideals. I willingly submitted myself to my spiritual master (p.8).

Then, of course, her love affair started faltering:

Here and there, once in a while, I would come across something that would slightly upset my unfettered devotion (p.9).

Gandhi’s views on Jews in Nazi Germany and his defense of the caste system, especially the case of the ‘untouchable castes’ made her read everything that Gandhi had written.

Now, trust me, it is no mean task.
Having read the entire collected works of Gandhi myself, I know what it means. I had to spend the entire three months of a scorching Delhi summer to make a fair overview of Gandhi’s works. Gandhi was a prolific writer. He has written approximately 48,000 pages that are organized across 98 volumes!

Reading what he has written would completely change the way she perceived Gandhi. This book is a topic-by-topic analysis of how the actual writings of Gandhi made her a bitter critic of him.

Overall Assessment of the Book:

The title says it all. How I Began to Dislike Gandhi: The Story of My Disillusionment With The Truth-God is a polemic book. As the author acknowledges, it is not the result of research. There is no philosophical discussion about Gandhi’s idea of truth or god or spirituality.

It is a blow-by-blow account of what Gandhi has written on race, caste, religion, vegetarianism, capitalism, and gender. The author is quoting Gandhi from his actual writings on each of these topics.

In fact, there is nothing particularly new in this book. But what is interesting is the way it is written, and how the author has organized the writings of Gandhi to answer some of the questions that will shock most of us.

Was Gandhi an anti-black?

His writings say, yes.

Was he a defender of the discriminatory caste system?

Yes.

Was he a crony capitalist?

Probably, yes.

Was Gandhi’s vegetarianism merely an extension of his conservative social outlook?

Yes.

Was Gandhi sexist?

Most probably, yes.

Did he indulge in some weird sexual experiments?

Yes.

Did he suggest a rape victim kill herself to uphold the honor?

Yes.

In the book, all of it is not inferred but meticulously put across by citing Gandhi. It is written eloquently. It is crispy and precise. I think the book delivers what it offers — a devoted fan reads Gandhi and comes out as a rabid critic — nothing more, nothing less.

A poster held facing back of a crowd saying, “It’s a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it!!”
A poster held facing back of a crowd saying, “It’s a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it!!”
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Three Arguments on Gandhi Being a Racist:

The author thinks that on three grounds what Gandhi wrote was racist even for his time. Firstly, he wrote about the racial inferiority of Black people. Corollary to the first point, secondly, he wrote about the superiority of his own race, the Aryans. Thirdly, and unsurprisingly, he argued for the physical and political segregation on the basis of race.

1. Gandhi’s Belief in the Racial inferiority of Africans

Gandhi arrived in South Africa as a lawyer in 1893. His privileged family background in India or his British law education did not help him overcome the racial discrimination he had to encounter in his everyday life there. This led him to political activism.

Gandhi’s political activities in South Africa was almost completely about organizing Indians. He developed his political ideas and strategies like non-violence, non-cooperation and mass organizing during this time. Interestingly, equality of all humans was not part of his political initiatives. According to von Herbert, one of the central aspects of Gandhi’s political activities in South Africa was “his consistent and laborious attempt to show that Indians are different from Africans” (p.17).

In fact it was not about difference, but about a deep disdain towards Africans. He called them ‘Kaffirs’ — an insulting and contemptuous term which in Arabic meant ‘disbeliever’ but had a wide derogatory currency in the colonial context. He constantly attempted to distinguish Indians from the ‘Kaffirs’ (p.17).

It was not just the usage of racial slur in his writing. He held the view that Blacks are…

…raw, uncivilized and unintelligent. They are lazy — they pass their life in indolence and nakedness — and need control to behave properly, which civilized people do not require. Often, he states that Africans are worthy of the treatment they are meted. And he points out that the Indians cannot be equated with them (p.18).

Gandhi’s speech on September 26, 1896 in India seeking support for the Indians in South Africa, sums up his political mission during the time:

‘Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire 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. The aim of the Christian Governments, so we read, is to raise people whom they come in contact with or whom they control. It is otherwise in South Africa. There, the deliberately expressed object is not to allow the Indian to rise higher in the scale of civilization but to lower him to the position of the Kaffir’ (p.17).

On another instance, almost seven years later, on March 17, 1903, in response to a by-law in Durban which required registration of colored servants, he writes:

‘The by-law has its origin in the alleged or real, impudent and, in some cases, indecent behaviour of the Kaffirs. But, whatever the charges are against the British Indians, no one has ever whispered that the Indians behave otherwise than as decent men. But, as it is the wont in this part of the world, they have been dragged down with the Kaffir without the slightest justification’ (p.18).

The lament is repeatedly about ‘the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir’ (p.17).

In his reflections on his first experience in a prison in South Africa, on March 7, 1908, he writes: ‘Apart from whether or not this implies degradation, I must say it is rather dangerous. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves’. He was anguished by the Kaffirs from the adjacent cells making ‘frightful din in their cells as also in the adjoining yard’ (p.19).

2. Gandhi’s Belief in the Racial Superiority of the Aryans

In order to set Indians apart from the Blacks, Gandhi clung on to the racial superiority of the Indians as Aryans. Being Aryans, he demanded that Indians deserve a better treatment compared to the Blacks. The book refers to a legal note Gandhi prepared in April 1898.

It says, … the Indians in South Africa belong to the Indo-Germanic stock or, more properly speaking, the Aryan stock. I do not know that there is any authority that has opposed this view. (p.22).

Aryan race, its purity and supremacy were consistent undercurrents of Gandhi’s writings during the early phase of his public activism. He wrote in the visitors’ book at the Hindu Theological High School in Madras on October 26, 1896:

‘I had the honour to visit this excellent institution. I was highly delighted with it. Being a Gujarati Hindu myself, I feel proud to know that this institution was started by Gujarati gentlemen. I wish the institution a brilliant future which I am sure it deserves. I only wish that such institutions will crop up all over India and be the means of preserving the Aryan religion in its purity’ (p.22).

The book argues that Gandhi justified the sectarian claims on the basis of racial supremacy.

He claimed the difference between Africans and Indians, or Indians’ parity with the English, on the basis of their racial origin. He argued that Indians had the same rights as the English — and not the Africans — because Indians and Europeans belonged to the same race!

In a petition given to Sir John Robinson, Secretary of Natal Colony on June 29, 1894 Gandhi talked on the issue of better treatment of Indians. After describing the objectives and the context of the letter, it reads as follows: ‘With greatest respect to Your Honour, we beg to point out that both the Anglo-Saxon and the Indian races belong to the same stock. We read Your Honour’s eloquent speech at the time of the second reading of the Bill with rapt attention and took great pains to ascertain if any writer of authority gave countenance to the view expressed by Your Honour about the difference of the stocks from which both the races have sprung up. Max Muller, Morris, Greene and a host of other writers with one voice seem to show very clearly that both the races have sprung from the same Aryan stock, or rather the Indo-European as many call it’ (p.21).

In another document in December 1895, Gandhi points out:

‘History says that the Aryans’ home was not India but they came from Central Asia, and one family migrated to India and colonized it, the others to Europe. The government of that day was, so history says, a civilized government in the truest sense of the term. The whole Aryan literature grew up then. The India of Alexander’s time was India on the decline. When other nations were hardly formed, India was at its zenith, and the Indians of this age are descendants of that race. To say, therefore, that the Indians have been ever under servitude is hardly correct. India certainly has not proved unconquerable. If that be reason for disfranchisement, I have nothing to say except this, that every nation will, unfortunately, be found wanting in this respect’ (p.21).

3. Gandhi’s Advocacy for Racial Segregation

Gandhi argued for the physical and political segregation on the basis of race. He could not tolerate even the presence of Black co-prisoners.

While writing on his first experience in a prison in South Africa, on March 7, 1908, Gandhi wrote that he and his fellow prisoners were classified with the Natives. He says it was a welcome opportunity for him to ‘study the treatment meted out to Natives, their conditions [of life in gaol] and their habits. Looked at from another point of view, it did not seem right to feel bad about being bracketed with them’ (p.19).

However, he clearly points out the need for the physical separation from the Kaffirs:

‘… it is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. The cells for Kaffirs were adjacent to ours…We were given a separate ward because we were sentenced to simple imprisonment; otherwise we would have been in the same ward [with the Kaffirs]. Indians sentenced to hard labour are in fact kept with the Kaffirs’ (p.19).

The book points out that even when there were issues of discrimination that affected both the Indians and the Africans, Gandhi made it a point to differentiate each other:

In response to a 7-year old law that required a registration fee of £3 from every colored person settled in Transvaal, he wrote: ‘The £3 tax is merely a penalty for wearing the brown skin and it would appear that, whereas Kaffirs are taxed because they do not work at all or sufficiently, we are to be taxed evidently because we work too much, the only thing in common between the two being the absence of the white skin’ (p.18).

‘I observed with regret that some Indians were happy to sleep in the same room as the Kaffirs, the reason being that they hoped there for a secret supply of tobacco, etc. This is a matter of shame to us. We may entertain no aversion to Kaffirs, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is no common ground between them and us in the daily affairs of life. Moreover, those who wish to sleep in the same room with them have ulterior motives for doing so. Obviously, we ought to abandon such notions if we want to make progress’ (p.20).

Seven Common Justifications Made for Gandhi’s Racist Writings

These are the most frequent responses that come up when Gandhi is accused of racism. I consider each of them below and see whether the book is offering any explanations on these.

1. Gandhi made only some passing references about Blacks and Africans, which were not very substantial.

  • Many think that this is true. But it is not. This book has ample pieces of evidence to counter this point.

2. Gandhi’s writings about Blacks were during his formative years. He has done some mistakes in his early life for which he repented later.

  • This is true, except for the last point. Despite being a prolific apologist, Gandhi seems to have never apologized or found a reason to apologize for his stark writings about Blacks.

3. Gandhi was writing at a different point of history when racial categories and discrimination were not so clear.

  • This is a fair point. The book considers this point but analyzes Gandhi’s views from a contemporary standpoint.

4. Gandhi’s deplorable view on race is only a minor aspect when one considers his overall contributions.

  • Yes, this is only one of the facets of Gandhi. He is someone who has a massive influence over millions of people. His ideas and techniques are still an inspiration for many. However, that does not need to obfuscate his undemocratic, unjust, and autocratic traits.

5. Gandhi was fighting for the rights of Indians when he was in South Africa. So it was obvious that he had to differentiate Indians from Africans.

  • This is very true. He was fighting for Indians. The means with which he differentiated Indians from the Africans was on racial terms. The sense of justice he developed to fight against his dis-empowerment was not applied to those who were vulnerable than him — in this case the Blacks.

6. Gandhi’s stand on race was an exception compared to his progressive viewpoints on other social problems.

  • This is a complex issue. However, the quotations and the inferences in this book on caste, gender, religiosity, vegetarianism, capitalism, and gender more or less go along with Gandhi’s notions on race.

7. Humans are fallible. Gandhi was a human.

  • Of course, he was. Probably that is the point.

In the end, do we need to take Gandhi down? That is a political question we need to answer ourselves. It is a question about how we like to engage with historical personalities who have asymmetric interests and mixed legacies. Statues or no statues, the most important lesson is what we learn from engaging with them, how to reflect on them, and to change our world. Probably every saint stinks when we get close to them. Every statue conceals the inner materials that it is made of.

Further Readings:

(in case you would like to read further)
First of all, as I mentioned, How I Began to Dislike Gandhi covers Gandhi’s writings on race, caste, religion, capitalism, and gender in a lucid manner. If you do not mind a polemic read, it is a good start.

The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (Stanford University Press, 2016) by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed is probably the most relevant book on the topic of Gandhi’s stint in South Africa.

Among the many works on the life, politics, and philosophy of Gandhi, one of the most exhaustive books is by Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 (Knopf 2018). Another book by Guha, Gandhi Before India (Knopf 2014), deals with his years in South Africa. However, it does not cover much about Gandhi’s racist worldview.

The book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India (Knopf 2011), by Joseph Lelyveld has sparked controversies on the references of Gandhi’s remarks on Blacks and his relationship with Kallenbach, a Prussian architect.

Arundhati Roy’s introduction to The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi (Haymarket Books, 2017) puts the famed Ambedkar–Gandhi debate into context.

Claude Markovits’ book, UnGandhian Gandhi: the Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma (Anthem Press, 2004), stresses the paradoxical modernity of Gandhi’s anti-modernism.

Runaway academic. EU external expert. Knowledge entrepreneur. Flirting with AI/Conversational Technologies. Live in multiple worlds. More: https://bit.ly/AnupN

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