Fam. It’s real talk time.
Beyond the “Be the change you want to see in the world” movement brand phenomenon that is Mahatma Gandhi, there is an insidious legacy of Casteism, racism, and sexual predation misogynism that we must talk about.
For Gandhi is simply not the social movement hero we want for our movements today. Period.
And we have to talk about it!
Now I know, Gandhi has been a sacred cow for many activists. But not talking about the truth in order to protect personal attachments to his myth simply maintains false ideas about many core discussions that we urgently need to have between our movements. This includes conversations about non-violence, international solidarity, anti-blackness, and strategies to end caste oppression.
As a Dalit activist it has been the burden of the Dalit movement to educate activists around the world about Gandhi. But it’s time that activists from other communities start learning about his toxic legacy. For behind his carefully crafted image is a calculating, cunning leader who was deft at playing communities against each other for the benefit of Savarna (caste Hindu) privilege.
The call for many Dalit and African communities this last year to #Dumpgandhi and that #Gandhimustfall is a historical reckoning that is about centering real solidarity between Black and Dalit peoples not international showmanship. This led to a powerful win in the University of Ghana to remove Gandhi’s statue from the University of Ghana is the latest victory by an international movement to reconsider Gandhi.
It is our hope this article helps movements around the world to begin conversations around Gandhi’s questionable legacy regarding Black, Dalit, and Women folx. A full list of citations is also included. So lets begin with our first reason.
REASON #1: GANDHI WAS UNCATEGORICALLY ANTI-BLACK
South African leader Nelson Mandela called Gandhi “the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary” whose “nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements.” But this sweeping statement is in fact the opposite of his position during his time in South Africa.
He had come to South Africa in 1893 because he was hired to work as an attorney for wealthy Indian traders. It was during this time that he helped establish the Natal Indian Congress. The goal of this Congress was to “promote concord and harmony among the Indians and Europeans residing in the colony of South Africa and to ultimately fight discrimination against Indian traders in Natal.
Gandhi instead promoted racial segregation as the strategy to uplift Indians often pitting Indians and Blacks under colonial rule.. It was his belief that Indians were better than blacks who he referred to by the slur “Kaffir”. In the newspaper the Indian Opinion, which he founded in 1904, created a platform for much of his anti-black rhetoric. Here is a sample of just one of his choice anti-black quotes from this time in South Africa:
“Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, 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.”
This idea that Indians were better than native Africans pervades his writings on Apartheid where he writes consistently of the need to mentally and physically separate Indians from Indigenous Africans. Even more appalling, are his assertions of the indignities of being grouped with Africans by colonial entities. It was a definitively Anti-Black stance that is in line with a casteist mindset obsessed with heritage and birthright. For his Anti-blackness foreshadow his Anti-Dalitness that will come to characterize his engagements with Dalits in India during Independence.
Another telling example of his anti-blackness is where he makes the distinction that most Indians were not indigenous. This next quote reflects both his Anti-Black and anti-indigenous stance as he names specifically an Indian Adivasi/Indigenous tribe:
“The statute books describe the Indians as belonging to“the aboriginal or semi-barbarous race of Asia”, while as a matter of fact there is hardly one Indian in South Africa belonging to the aboriginal stock. The Santhals of Assam will be as useless in South Africa as the natives of that country. “
He argues against colonial attempts to equate Indians with indigenous Africans because in his view, indigenous peoples were “barbarous and useless”. So because the Indians in South Africa were largely not Indigenous even to India, in his mind, whites were making a mistake. This is not the perspective of a man dedicated to liberation and inter-racial harmony. These are the words of a racist anti-indigenous bigot. And this is not a model to build lasting freedom from empire, simply an example of how empire abets and continues painful hierarchies with individuals who are willing to benefit off the exploitation of their fellow colonial subjects.
Finally, beyond these indefensible positions, Gandhi cheered on the British as they waged a war on the black Zulus. During the 1906 Bambatha Uprising the Zulus of South Africa rebelled against the colonial British government. Protesting a new poll-tax, Zulus confronted and killed two British tax collectors in 1906. In retaliation, the British declared war on the Zulus. They hung, shot, and severely flogged thousands of Zulus during this war leading to over four thousand Zulus being murdered during the rebellion.
Gandhi was adamant about supporting the British during this rebellion and even actively pushed the British to recruit Indian troops. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts in order to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. He urged the Indian population in South Africa to join the war through his columns in Indian Opinion: “If the Government only realised what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and give Indians the opportunity of a thorough training for actual warfare.”
The British, however, refused to commission Indians as army officers. Nonetheless, they accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of Indians volunteer as a stretcher bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. So Gandhi then volunteered for military service himself, and commanded the 21 member corps .For assisting the war on Zulus in any way that he could, he was given the rank of Sgt. Major by the British Army.
This final example of Gandhi’s is probably the saddest and more clearest example of his anti-blackness and why he should be challenged in his work and legacy in South Africa. It is also is a chapter unknown to many Black civil rights activists. In discussing this disturbing chapter of his work it is our hope that people can begin to deal frankly with whether he is an appropriate movement leader to build long lasting movements for black self-determination.
REASON #2: GANDHI WAS PATRONIZING AND ANTI-DALIT
This is probably the hardest fact for die-hard Gandhi supporters to understand. Particularly since his image in the west is so based on the idea that he singularly uplifted the plight of the “Untouchables”. But the reality is that he always held biases towards Dalits, and actively hurt our possibilities for political autonomy. Throughout his time in India, he had to be pushed by Dalit Activists to see beyond a pity-charity narrative and acknowledge Dalit autonomy and self-determination.
We can understand better his anti-Dalit attitude toward Dalit Liberation through his unwavering commitment to the hereditary nature of Caste, his sabotage of Dr. Ambedkar’s fight for separate Dalit Electorates, and even the very name he gave to Dalit Peoples: Harijan.
First and foremost, Gandhi’s position on the hereditary nature of the Caste/Varna system was shockingly anti-Dalit. For to reinforce the hereditary nature of caste professions is to reinforce caste itself. Throughout his career he continually pushed the soundness of the Varna system arguing that breaking the lines of Caste hereditary professions would bring social chaos to India. You can read more about his position in the quote below:
“I believe that if Hindu society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the Caste system. … A community which can create the Caste system must be said to possess unique power of organization. … To destroy the Caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the Caste system. [The] hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder. … It will be a chaos if every day a Brahmin is to be changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is to be changed into a Brahmin. The Caste system is a natural order of society.
Of course this is a Savarna view of the Varna system. No Dalit believes that the law of heredity and the forcing of Caste occupations on to them is just. No Dalit wants to be a bonded labor or manual scavenger by choice. Further Gandhi tries to present in his early writings a softer gentler version of Varna where the Caste system is seen as one big family. This is a manipulative idea, for in what family are some allowed to learn and others forced to pick up the shit of others?
To that end he spoke of the evils of untouchability but not of the eradication of the system that led to it! His limited Savarna imagination could only see Dalits continuing their caste occupations — forever.
This idea is brought to its fruition in his appalling essay the Ideal Bhangi.Bhangi is the caste name of a group of Dalits who are manual scavengers. These castes are forced to pick up the garbage and shit of Savarnas. It is a filthy and despicable slavery that could only have been created under the caste system. It is disheartening to read words where Gandhi imagines the extension of such a profession that would include “his ideal” Bhangi who would be trained to pick up the shit of Savarna Castes, analyse it for their health, and create sewer systems for all as part of their sacred duty. The full quote below:
“The ideal bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par-excellence, possibly even excel him. It is possible to envisage-the existence of a Bhangi without a Brahmin. But without the former the latter could not be, It is the Bhangi who enables society to live. A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby. A mother washes her baby of the dirt and insures his health. Even so the Bhangi protects and safeguards the health of that entire community by maintaining sanitation for it. The Brahmin’s duty is to look after the sanitation of the soul, the Bhangi’s that of the body of society. But there is a difference in practice ; the Brahmin generally does not live up to his duty, the bhangi does willy-nilly no doubt.
But that is not all. My ideal bhangi would know the quality of night-soil and urine. He would keep a close watch on these and give a timely warning to the individual concerned. Thus, he will give a timely notice of the results of his examination of the excreta. That presupposes a scientific knowledge of the requirements of his profession. He would likewise be an authority on the subject of disposal of night-soil in small villages as well as big cities and his advice and guidance in the matter would be sought for and freely given to society.
It goes without saying that he would have the usual learning necessary for reaching the standard here laid down for his profession. Such an ideal bhangi while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it. He would consider himself responsible for the proper removal and disposal of all the dirt and night-soil within the area which he serves and regard the maintenance of healthy and sanitary condition within the same as the summum bonum of his existence.”
Yes. This is Gandhi.
Rather than leading Dalits to freedom, Gandhi operated as an apologist for Caste where his attempts to diffuse radical Dalit movements for autonomy were part of a larger strategy to Hinduise and disarm Dalit movements who were at the time, powerfully driving change all across the country, from Self-Respect movements in Tamil Nadu, the Namashudras in Bengal, toof course Dalits under Dr. Ambedkar in Maharashtra. And if not for the resistance of these Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan leaders like Ambedkar, Mandal, and Periyar we would be suffocated by a Gandhian vision for Dalit movements which would see Dalits meekly surrendering to the eternal caste Hindu yoke rather than leading to true self-determined liberation.
Even the term Harijan which he designated to Dalit peoples comes from Caste Hindu Rape Culture. Harijan refers to the children who are the offspring of women who are bound to ritual sexual exploitation at Hindu Temples under the Indian system of ritual prostitution called the Devadasi system. They are called Harijan or Children of God so that the children’s paternity is not questioned. And it is this term that he attempted to foist on Dalits!
Needless to say this term is seen as an epithet and has been discarded by all except the staunch Gandhi followers and Hindu Fundamentalists.
Finally, the most damning anti-Dalit action of his life was his fast that led to the Poona Pact. Many in the West know this only as his fast to bring light to the plight of the “Untouchables”. This fast is the non-violence action that many cite in civil rights mythology as key to the image of Gandhi as an advocate for injustice and a success of the strategies for non-violence. It is even often misunderstood as a fast undertook directly in opposition to the British.
The truth of this episode is far from noble. This hunger strike was not designed to bring attention to the plight of the “Untouchables”, but rather was Gandhi’s attempt to diffuse and stop one of the strongest Dalit independence leaders Dr. Ambedkar, from ensuring Dalit autonomy within the newly formed Indian constitution.
To understand this episode one needs to understand the power of the inimitable Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar. During the course of India’s independence struggle Dr. Ambedkar boldly brought the question of Dalit Liberation into the national freedom struggle. Through fiery speeches and mass mobilizations Dr. Ambedkar repeatedly called out Gandhi and his political party, the Indian National Congress, on his patronizing attitudes towards Dalits and asked for nothing less than total freedom from Caste apartheid for all Dalits.
This led to many public debates that only further drew the line between Dalits and Gandhi. This line grew even more fierce from 1930–32 when the British were forced through years of agitation to invite leaders of all the different Indian parties to the Round Table Conferences to draft a new law involving self-rule for all Indians. The participant members of these conferences had to be voted on by each state and Dr. Ambedkar was a shoe-in to represent Maharashtra because of the powerful agitations there by the Dalit community.
Gandhi and the Congress Party were threatened by Ambedkar and they schemed to skew the elections so that Ambedkar lost the elections to represent Maharashtra.
Now I want to ask you, would a real leader who is committed to true Dalit Liberation work to disenfranchise a leader like Dr. Ambedkar?
Absolutely not, but this is the real Gandhi.
Despite such machinations, Ambedkar was finally provided a seat at the table at the Constituent Assembly when another Dalit leader Jogendra Mandal from United Bengal helped Ambedkar receive the endorsement of the Muslim League which allowed Ambedkar to represent Dalit interests at these conferences.
This allowed Ambedkar to go on to be the author of the Indian constitution where he created an incredibly progressive document. But one key issue for him was that his belief that Dalits, Adivasis and other religious and cultural communities would not be given true electoral parity under caste Hindu society. He advocated then the idea for separate electorates so that real representation could be had by all. He was in particular inspired by his time in America and the plight of Black citizens who were similarly electorally hampered by segregation and had hoped to create another pathway for Dalits. The British government agreed with Ambedkar’s contention, and the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘Communal Award’ to the depressed classes was to be incorporated into the constitution in the governance of British India.
Gandhi strongly opposed the Communal Award on the grounds that it would disintegrate Hindu society. To register his protest, he started an indefinite fast at Yerwada Central Jail on September 20, 1932. This hunger strike put Dr. Ambedkar and his supporters in an awkward position. For now the question of Dalit liberation was not centralized around Dalit futures but Gandhi’s health. His hunger strike was intended to manipulated Ambedkar to stand down. With the juggernaut of press surround Gandhi’s strike his non-violent tactic to shut down Dalits succeeded and Dr. Ambedkar signed on September 24, 1932, feeling his community would suffer mass retaliatory caste violence if Gandhi did die fasting. So with deep regret the Poona pact which compromised on the issue of separate electorates was signed by all and instead of the separate electorate demand, set up a system of affirmative action called reservation. Ambedkar’s decision to surrender haunted him till his death. To date many Dalit leaders believe it has and continues to hold back Dalit liberation.
This painful historical moment not only reflects Gandhian Anti-Dalitness but also strikes a the heart of the idea that Gandhian non-violence is a noble strategy. Non-violence is a tool as is violence. The choice for one over the other is a conversation to have with thoughtfulness, trust and within a movement. Too often these conversations become heavy with the Gandhian baggage as if one side has a moral superiority over the other. But as in the case of the Poona pact, we see that non-violence as used by Gandhi while at times was a tool for the Indian freedom movement, was also a tool used selectively and viciously against oppressed caste, religious and cultural communities in India. To talk about non-violence with such reverence, when it is in fact a tactic used by very human and flawed individuals, allows it to be such a flashpoint in movements.
REASON #3: GANDHI WAS A MISONGYNIST AND A SEXUAL PREDATOR
Gandhi was indeed a pervert and a pervert with power. While many books have been written that talk about Gandhi’s values on chastity. Many cite his early childhood marriage and the tragic death of his father as the origin of his peculiar sexual views.
On the day his father died he left his father’s bedside to have sex with his pregnant wife Kasturba.
He was wracked with guilt for not only leaving his father but also that later Kasturba lost the child she was carrying at the time. This trauma led to Gandhi pursuing a lifetime of increasingly bizarre and punitive views towards sexuality.
For Gandhi, the pursuit of non-violence was connected to the pursuit of chastity. He believed sexual stimulation of any sort evoked violence in one’s thoughts and behaviour.
This is why in 1906 Gandhi took the Hindu vow of brahmacharya — which invokes a spiritually centered Hindu life that centers celibacy. This was undertook at the age of 36.
He further tried to push this personal life choice as call to action for all Indians (meaning actually only Indian men) where he even stated, “It is the duty of every thoughtful Indian not to marry,’ he said. ‘In case he is helpless in regard to marriage, (and does marry) he should abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife.’
The belief in celibacy was enforced powerfully at his Ashrams throughout the country.
Therefore he enforced celibacy at all of the Ashrams for his followers. His advice to husbands and wives was not to sleep in the same room — and, if they felt an urge, to take a cold bath. This bizarre line on chastity included married couples, young children, even his own son!
His celibacy however, did not preclude him using the women members of his ashrams in participating in his “experiments” with sexuality. These experiments were aimed at testing his vows of celibacy by putting himself in predatory closeness with women of all ages. This included sleeping, bathing, and receiving massages from them while they were naked. The women involved included young and old women in the Ashram as well as his own grand-niece! Gandhi wrote about one such incident with his grandniece Manu when he called for her to sleep with him during a time of intense Hindu- Muslim violence in Bengal. He writes,
“We both may be killed by the Muslims,” he told her, “and 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.”
The tests appalled many leading in March 16, 1947, Nirmal Kumar Bose, one of Gandhi’s closest associates to write a letter to Kishorlal G. Mashruwala, another of Gandhi’s close colleagues, saying,
“When I first learnt about Gandhi’s experiment in which a girl took off her clothes and lay under the same cover with him and he tried to find out if any sexual feeling was evoked in him or his companion, I felt genuinely surprised. Personally, I would not tempt myself like that and more than that, my respect for [women] would prevent me from treating her as an instrument in my experiment.”
Gandhi even unto his death would not relinquish this practice and died with the Abha and his grand-niece Manu, the two young women who were his “human walking sticks” of whom he rotated nightly in his bed.
The situation distressed one of his former followers R. P. Parasuram who quit after writing the following in his letter of indictment:
1 January, 1947
I write these lines in sorrow and pain. You know how shy and unforward I have been these two years. You must imagine to what depths I must have been agitated then to overcome my shyness and become bold and that too with a man who is considered by many to be the greatest man living….
I object to your sleeping in the same bed with members of the opposite sex. In February 1945 or so, I was given the draft of a statement to type. I was shocked by the contents…I must tell you that even before I know of this. One day Amin-bhai came and told me that he was shocked to see Manu [Manu Gandhi — Gandhi’s own grand niece] getting into your bed.
In those days I was more shy than I am now. My only friend in the ashram was Amin. Even then I came to know of the discussions about this affair because the ashram people are so careless and can’t keep their mouth shut. Everybody objected to your doing this.
Apart from the question of any affect on you, what about the effect on girls?
There is something of other wrong with them [the women who sleep naked with Gandhi]. [The] Punjabi girl who lived opposite my room in Matunga. She used to weep unrestrainedly and that not caring whether others saw her or not. She laughed also unrestrainedly. And then here is Dr. Sushila-behn [the 24-year-old in-house physician at the ashram who Gandhi also used for his ‘experiments’]. How many are the days when she has not wept? She is a doctor and yet she is always a patient, always is ill. Who has heard of a doctor who cries out at night?
Even then the whole thing is considered wrong by the world. I do not like it. Nirmal babu [Bose] does not. Sucheta-behn [Kriplani] did not like it and said, “However great he may be, he cannot do such things. What is this?” You must admit that there is something in our objection. You cannot waive it aside.
As for blood relations [this is in reference to Manu Gandhi]. The world is sceptic even there. There have been cases of immorality between father and daughter, brother and sister.
I object to your having massage done by girls. When I was studying in college, I read a report saying you were being massaged by Dr. Sushila-behn. And now I find you do get yourself massaged by girls.
Those people who know that you are naked during massage time say that you could at least put a cover over it [his genitals].
The same objection I hold against girls coming to the bathroom when you go there. Ramachandran saw you like that and said you had fallen a little from his estimation. However great you may be, you cannot do these things.
Your placing your hands on shoulders of girls. You had written once that you gave up this practice because others intimated you with evil intention. I have not come across any other writing saying you could resume it. So it was strange to me why you resumed it. During the two years I have been with you, about 50 letters or so objecting to this practice from admirers and calumniators came. None of them got any reply.
Your being seen naked [during his bath and massage] jars on the mind of strangers, admirers though they might be. Ramachandran did not like it. He said it was the limit.
Ever since the 17th December , when in the small hours of the morning you made those dreadful sounds, dreadful because it came from you man of such eminence, even otherwise unbecoming for any wise or old man, my head has not been at peace. I have heard of another such instance from Mr. Ramachandran of the API [Associated Press of India] when you told Sushila-behn to leave you. I have seen such another instance at Delhi. But this event shook me to my depths. I said to myself that God and the nation would not forgive me if I kept quiet.
You commit Himalayan blunders. But you refuse to see these things and when told, you are irritated. I say you are conceited and constitute yourself to be the repository of all the wisdom in the world.
And now to my charges. Unless [my demands] are fulfilled, I [will] depart. I beg to differ and go away. Your actions to which I object:
1. Your sleeping with any member of the opposite sex.
2. Being massaged by any member of the opposite sex.
3. Allowing yourself to be seen naked by any member of the opposite sex.
4. Allowing yourself to be seen naked by strangers and even by people who are of your party who are not so intimate.
5. Placing your hands on the shoulders of girls when walking.
To call out Gandhi on his perversion and misogyny is to ask for a re-estimation of how much we want rape culture to be part of the founding legacy of our country. These acts of predation are not the acts of a leader we want to inspire new generations and must be contested.
The time to dump Gandhi is now. Unless we release flawed idols like Gandhi we cannot make way for truly liberatory figures from South Asian History particularly Dalit Bahujan history to come forward. Enough is enough Gandhi must fall.
Author – Thenmozhi Soundararajan