For years, controversy has brewed around Gandhi statues placed outside India. On several continents — Europe, Africa, and North America — people of all backgrounds have stepped forward to protest the Indian political figure. In Ottawa, Canada at the University of Carleton, a statue installed in 2011 has galvanized student leaders to demand its removal.
In November 2017, an African student at Carleton published a letter in the student newspaper saying, bluntly, “Remove the Gandhi statue.” Kenneth Aliu, president of Carleton’s African Studies Student Association, believes history has been twisted to conceal Gandhi’s racist past. “His proximity to whiteness as one who continually espoused anti-Black rhetoric is, perhaps, one of the reasons behind his apotheosis,” writes Aliu. He explains, “For you to deify Gandhi, some people have to be erased from history. You don’t engage with how his activism as a whole was detrimental to certain segments of society.”
Controversy centers around the argument that Gandhi was the “father of apartheid” — a shocking claim to make about a person who is sometimes valorized as “the greatest man who ever lived” — and that he systematically dehumanized black Africans while living in South Africa from 1893-1914. Here’s the story of how African thinkers are constructing the narrative.
Sujatha Gidla: Just because Gandhi started his political career in South Africa, Africans think that he’s a great guy. But lately they have been finding out.
Female Ghanaian Narrator: Some students of Ghana’s premier university, the University of Ghana, are demanding for the removal of a statue of Gandhi from the university’s premises. Their reason? Mahatma Gandhi was anti-African and a black racist in thought, words, and deeds.
Ghanaian news host: The statue of Mahatma Gandhi has been the subject of controversy for some few weeks now among lecturers at the University of Ghana. Now, the statue which was unveiled in June 2017, essentially was donated by the Indian government, has brought lots of controversy because, Mahatma Gandhi as it were, is known to be anti-black and a racist.
Stan Pearson: Somebody said something about Gandhi being racist, and I was like, “huh?”
Jada Bernard: He was divisive, racist, and classist. Oppressive even toward his own people. The statue says, “his life is his message,” and that is the sad part because his life is something that has not been told correctly.
Arundhati Roy: Most people in the world know about Gandhi through Richard Attenborough’s film, which was really a terrible distortion of history.
Bernard: But the real Gandhi was a hateful Gandhi.
gandhism.net speaker: The real Gandhi spewed racism against Africans.
Roy: He only referred to Africans as “kaffirs” or “savages.”
Gidla: During his stint in South Africa, he looked down on black people in Africa. He called them “kaffirs.”
Bernard: He hated the South Africans, the Natives. He thought that the “kaffirs” were uncivilized. He compared them to animals.
Roy: And he called them savages and “kaffirs.”
Obadele Kambon: He referred to them as “savage,” “half-heathen,” “one degree from an animal,” “kaffir,” which is a very derogatory term. So, all of these things.
Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua: He sought to denigrate blacks to a lower level, and he used language which was clearly racist, such as “kaffir,” “these are raw people,” “these are naked people” who cannot stand for their own and therefore there should be different status for Indians and for blacks.
Bernard: He always fought for whites to be superior and for blacks to be inferior, and when he came with the idea of equality or of a complex system in South Africa, it wasn’t so the blacks could be treated better but it was just so that the Indians wouldn’t have to be treated like blacks.
Roy: Gandhi believed in racial segregation. His first victory in South Africa was to campaign for a third entrance to be opened in the Durban post office so Indians would not have to use the same entrance as “kaffirs.”
Pearson: He chose to further participate in the denigration of African people.
Bernard: He was actually very much so instrumental in that apartheid system that was set up in the early 1900s to the point to where he’s thought of as being the father of apartheid.
Kambon: Now, another thing that he’s known especially amongst the black people of South Africa, is as the father of apartheid. Now, we are talking about this in terms of institutionalized apartheid. Before this it was British at the top, everyone else underneath. Now, Gandhi, he appealed to the British, saying, “look, we’re all Indo-Aryans, so as Indo-Aryans you shouldn’t let us be associated and classed with the raw kaffir again.” Now, later on, people who didn’t know about Gandhi’s earlier role said, “oh, we looked at Gandhi and we got inspiration to fight against apartheid.” But they don’t know that if it wasn’t for Gandhi specifically — not all the Indians, Gandhi specifically — they wouldn’t have had apartheid as it existed and as it manifested.
Roy: There has been a very distressing misrepresentation of history by the court historians, and it is a scandal that’s basically hidden in plain sight.
Appiagyei-Atua: The racist past is what we think should be exposed for the world to know because there seems to be a gloss over that aspect of his life.
Bernard: And to erect a statue like that, to erect the tons of statues that we see all over, to continue to propagate him as a man of peace is a slap in the face.
Kambon: It really is a blow to the dignity of African people.
Inusah Awuni: I am a staunch believer of the African personality, and identity, and the dignity of Africans, and so, to find such a racist statue on our campus, it’s more insulting than I could ever imagine, and I support that statue to be pulled down.
University of Ghana student: I’ve learned that the guy’s a racist, and I’m not sure his statue should be allowed to be in this school because it doesn’t serve as a good example for we the students who are here to learn from. So I think that statue should go off.
Appiagyei-Atua: There is a problem with the statue in the sense that Gandhi has a racist past, and in a situation or an environment where we champion the cause of equality — racial equality — I don’t think that this statue has a place here.