I was suprised upon viewing Newham Council’s website that they had chosen to promote ‘Black history month’ with an image of many notable black icons…and Gandhi.
‘Newham’s libraries are holding a series of free events throughout October to celebrate Black History Month.
Highlights include…an exhibition on the life of Gandhi which is touring Stratford Library, East Ham Library and The Gate, Forest Gate throughout October.’
Gandi is an interesting choice for Black History Month. Most obviously because he was not black.
But perhaps more pertinently because in his time in South Africa he appeared to be actively racist with regard to black people. He used the term ‘kaffir’ to refer to them and directed his efforts solely at the plight of the Indians there. He is quoted as saying, for instance:
“Ours is on 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 of indolence and nakedness.”
Of course, Gandhi was a great freedom fighter and an heroic practitioner of non-violent protest.
He also absolutely refuted any divinity attributed to him and refused to be called Mahatma. He acknowledged that he was just a man, and he was very honest about his flaws – in his autobiography he reflected that in his youth he was flawed, he beat his wife for instance.
It is other people who have attributed to him a saintliness and perfection that simply is unrealistic. He has become symbolic rather than real and as such the facts of history have been obscured.
The overtly racist caste system of the Hindu faith, where (to simplify) the blacker you are the more lowly you are (the untouchables) and the whiter you are the more divine (Brahmins) was bravely defied by Gandhi, who went on hunger strike to demand its abolition. But Gandhi’s contemporary B.R. Ambedkar points out that the truth is more complicated than this in his book ‘what congress and Ghandi have done to the untouchables’, here Gandhi is quoted as supporting the caste system in 1921, then proposing subtle changes to it, in 1925.
Others, such as Mark Linley show that Gandhi’s ideas developed over time and that he came to see the need to destroy the caste system through intermarriage.
My opinion is that Gandhi was a noble and brave man who did much good. That in his youth and life he was imperfect is no suprise and should not detract from his inspiring actions. But I think there is more value in knowing about him in his entirety rather than reducing him to a saintly charicature. He was a human being, human beings are complex, it is foolish and trite to blind yourself for the sake of simplicity or facility. History is more than just black and white.
Gandhi was a great man, who unified Muslim and Hindu India through his non-violent efforts. I think he was more great for his own acknowledgement of his flaws, which was part of his practising of Ahimsa (do no harm). That level of honesty is more brave than the clumsy beatification of well meaning ignorance.