Image Credit: ..gandhi. by Luke Cox/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

Written by Faisal Devji.

If the memory of Mahatma Gandhi lives on today, then it is mainly thanks to his enemies, who seem unable to forget him. The Mahatma’s followers, on the other hand, have turned him into a saint whose teachings can safely be ignored as the words of a superior being to be admired from afar. Given the ritualistic respect offered to Gandhi in India, which is received with public indifference, it is puzzling why he remains so alive for his critics. Perhaps they are the only ones who continue to feel betrayed by Gandhi’s loss of sainthood.

For Indians, this betrayal is renewed with each new generation, as scholars and activists discover yet another of the Mahatma’s failings. During the 1980s in the wake of second-wave feminism in India, it was his treatment of women that came under the spotlight. And in the 1990s, with the rise of caste politics in India, it was Gandhi’s views about untouchability that were questioned. In our own time, the worldwide focus on racism has unsurprisingly led him to be accused of this sin as well.

Perhaps Gandhi was a racist, but we get no sense of this from his enemies, whose personalised arguments deprive his thought of integrity and ignore the many contexts in which he operated

What is unprecedented about the condemnations of Gandhi’s racism, however, is that they are not limited to India but have become global, with statues of the Mahatma being attacked in South Africa and removed in Ghana.

I had a taste of this myself in earlier this year, when I suggested on the Oxford and Colonialism Working Group email list that we might begin our efforts to make imperial history visible in the University by marking Gandhi’s visit there in 1931. This would be followed by commemorating other anti-colonial figures who had visited Oxford with conferences, rooms named in their honour, and plaques, for example.

I was opposed by a former student and fellow academic who had been active in the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford, which sought to follow South Africa’s precedent by removing a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. The movement was attacked in the press and finally failed once alumni and donors threatened to pull their donations from the college. His was not the only critique, however. He was followed by another academic activist interested in caste issues who had been a student at Oxford, and then by a student from Birmingham who accused both Gandhi and Nehru of being anti-Sikh.

As this debate was going on, I received private messages of support from many others, who were perhaps uncomfortable with making their views about race known in public because they were white. The only Oxford student who intervened in the debate, and the only Indian citizen to do so, pointed out how politically naïve it was for these critics in effect to make common cause with the most violent elements of India’s far right, who also accuse Gandhi of racism while celebrating his assassination. Gandhi, he pointed out, is no longer the enemy for progressives there.

Like other critics of Gandhi’s racism, those who commented on my proposal offered personal rather than properly historical analyses of it, thus falling into the very moralism they despise in Gandhi and revealing their frustrated desire for the saint he has failed to be. I prefer a flawed Gandhi to his saintly effigy, just as I prefer the problematic figures of his political descendants Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, whose sexual and other lapses have not resulted in their statues being vandalised or names banned from commemoration.

The Rhodes Must Fall activists who had complained about Oxford bowing to outside pressure were now the outsiders trying to prevent us from making colonial history visible in the University. The academic who led the campaign to remove Gandhi’s statue from the University of Ghana had likewise focused on his personality rather than his politics, making moral virtue the benchmark for commemoration and thus establishing a competition in purity. Should statues of the dictator Kwame Nkrumah be removed from Accra as well? And how might anti-colonialism be understood if such figures are all written out of its history?

South Africa plays an interesting role in terms of virtue signalling on university campuses and in liberal society in the West more generally. The fact that the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa attacked African and Indian professors, eventually descending into violence, does not seem to worry about the movement’s followers in Oxford. South Africa’s belated independence represents an opportunity for the West to be on the right side of imperial history for the first time, by re-running the script of de-colonisation to condemn apartheid and celebrate the emergence of a ‘rainbow nation’. This means that finally white liberals can claim the virtue of anti-colonialism.

Yet such invocations of diversity also emerged out of the African colonies, whose administrators used the term ‘multi-racialism’ to describe societies in which whites needed to hold the balance between Africans and Indians (and sometimes Arabs as well). Seen as a source of both moral and political corruption, Indians – but not Europeans – were often (and sometimes still are) forbidden from owning agricultural land so as to protect Africans from their rapacity. Indians in Africa thus came to occupy the role of alien middlemen familiar in anti-Semitic discourse.

But there is more to the story of Gandhi’s racism than such campus controversies. The global interest in the Mahatma’s moral failings has just as much to do with the dissolution of anti-colonial solidarity worldwide. The growth of India and China as economic and military powers has lifted them out of the old world order of Afro-Asian unity to compete for their own status vis-à-vis the West. Gandhi would have been against this development of course, but he must nonetheless pay for it through loss of reputation, being the most famous representative of India and Indians globally.

Attacks on statues of Gandhi, therefore, are also attacks on Indian communities in places like South Africa, where his house and settlement at Phoenix were destroyed by anti-Indian rioters in 1986. Such attacks on minorities also include the murderous violence against African migrants from neighbouring countries (which South Africa dominates economically in fulfilment of the aims of apartheid). The arguments deployed against Indians by men such as the South African militant Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, continue to follow a classically anti-Semitic script in their depiction of an insular and exploitative community.

It is no coincidence that Julius Malema and his violent followers have selected Gandhi as a favourite target, even using a book written by two of the Mahatma’s critics in South Africa to support them. This volume, which has become the standard account of Gandhi’s racism, was published by Stanford University Press in a series for which I am an editor. While disagreeing with its views on this issue, I had reviewed, approved and even endorsed it for describing the independent political activism of the Mahatma’s compatriots in South Africa.

Having been reduced to useful stooges for Malema’s movement, while at the same time being attacked by him for defending the very Indians they wanted to bring out from under Gandhi’s shadow, these authors will now have to rethink their politics. Because Gandhi’s racism stands in for Indian racism in general across sub-Saharan Africa, with long-standing anti-Indian narratives there drawing on tropes that were once invoked by Idi Amin to expel tens of thousands of Indians from Uganda.

Brutal forms of racism undoubtedly exist in India, as any African student or businessperson there will attest. However, prejudiced as they may be, the Indian minorities in African countries cannot be accused of holding any real race power there – although, like the Jews, they are often charged with using financial inducements to exercise power surreptitiously. In fact, Indian communities have been socially and legally discriminated against in a number of African countries, and occasionally they have even been forced to leave their homes.

Gandhi’s critics never link their accusations about his racism in South Africa with the present-day African context of racialised attacks on Indians. Instead, the racial character of such attacks is often concealed under the fig-leaf of solidarity between Africans and low-caste or Dalit Indians, who serve as exceptions to the racist norm represented by the Mahatma and Indian minorities generally. Comparisons between Dalits and African-Americans in particular go back to the ‘untouchable’ leader Ambedkar himself, who was both the Mahatma’s contemporary and his enemy.

Apart from the questionable merits of using caste to think about race and vice versa, this revival of a black political rather than ethnic identity is as deeply nostalgic as the celebration of South Africa as a rainbow nation re-writing the script of decolonisation that other African nations can be seen to have betrayed. In Britain, meanwhile, where it had been pioneered in the 1970s, the rise of Islamism and other religious forms of identity broke black politics by the end of the 1980s, ushering in new kinds of religious solidarity as well as new forms of discrimination such as Islamophobia.

Two charges have been levelled against Gandhi. The first is that he never spoke for the liberty of Africans or involved them in his movement, and the second is that he considered Africans to be inferior and sought to keep Indians separate from them. However, unless he was invited to do so, the Mahatma never spoke for any community of which he was not a member. He conceived of non-violence as an exemplary rather than prescriptive practice, which would attract emulation to maintain an anarchistic social plurality. And of course, had he presumed to speak for Africans, it is certain that today he would be accused of patronising and appropriating their struggles – as indeed he often is by Dalit activists.

South Africa was a society whose racialised populations were treated differently by law. As a lawyer hired to defend Indian privileges, Gandhi was unable to challenge the legal system itself. And the law ensured he could only defend these privileges by making sure Indians were not identified with Africans, as was the case with all non-white minorities throughout eastern and central Africa. Although he likely approved of this separation personally, in line with his caste-defined ideas of plurality, Gandhi also insisted on treating wounded Zulus in the ambulance corps he led during the Bambatha Rebellion, with whom his political sympathies also lay.

When he was no longer serving as a lawyer, Gandhi’s derogatory comments about Africans ceased, and in his book Satyagraha in South Africa he contrasted Zulus favourably with Indians on every count. Eventually, he would see African-Americans as the most hopeful agents of non-violence worldwide and would prove to be a significant influence on their struggle. Nonetheless, given their legal status as British subjects of the Raj, the Mahatma had to fight for his compatriots as Indians, since no such juridical or political subject as ‘South African’ existed. His demand was therefore an international rather than a South African one, and consisted in compelling India to uphold the status of her citizens across the British Empire.

Calling the Mahatma’s first satyagraha (passive resistance) a South African action, as he himself did, is, therefore, something of a misnomer, as it depended on the involvement of India – and therefore London – for traction. And expecting Gandhi to fight for the freedom of all South Africans is anachronistic. South Africa was only one site of this struggle, with Gandhi interested in the status of Indians all over the British Empire, from Kenya to Mauritius to Guyana, Fiji and Trinidad. His movement became a global one when Gandhi sought to – and in fact succeeded in – abolishing indenture, which was the Indian successor to African slavery and supplied labour for much of the Empire.

Perhaps Gandhi was a racist, but we get no sense of this from his enemies, whose personalised arguments deprive his thought of integrity and ignore the many contexts in which he operated. After all, even accusing Hitler of racism is a meaningless generality, since we can only understand Hitler’s violence by taking its intellectual justification and historical context into consideration as well. Instead of merely turning the saint into a sinner, then, it is time for the Mahatma to become a properly historical figure with all its flaws – for his friends as much as for his enemies.

Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History and Director of the Asian Study Centre at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions. 


  1. We need him now, more than when he was born. Poor countries should stop waiting for restores n ornament and start to improve their living standards.

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