Reassessing Gandhi While Misunderstanding Him

Mahatma Gandhi led India to independence from British rule using non-violent civil disobedience. In addition, he has inspired civil rights movements in Africa, the African diaspora and across the world. He appeared until recently to be as close to a secular saint as anyone the 20th century has produced. Gandhi was killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1948 and immediately frozen into a mythical martyr. However, several decades after his death, a new generation of commentators are re-examining the man, his ideas, and his legacy.

An irreverent article by Rama Lakshmi in the Worldview section of The Washington Post, “What did Mahatma Gandhi think of black people?” scrutinizes Gandhi’s actions in South Africa. Lakshmi comes to a conclusion that stunned many: his reputation does not match the historical record as Gandhi was for discrimination of Black Natives. The article relies on a book “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire,” by two South African scholars, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, professors at the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu Natal, respectively.

The article exposes the South African Gandhi as a racist supporter of the British Empire. He sides with colonists in their war against the Zulu Natives. He is a tireless defender of Indians civil rights but has nothing to say about the plights of Black Natives except to call them savages. He demands White privilege for Indians or, failing that, a system of discrimination by ethnicity bordering on apartheid; rather than equal treatment for all South Africans. Desai and Vahed claim that the image of Gandhi conveyed by his memoirs is sanitized and misleading. They present in support of their conclusions the younger Gandhi’s own writings as well as documents from the South African government archives.

Gandhi’s Life: an Initiation Journey

It is true that Gandhi was prejudiced against Blacks while living in South Africa. Facts are facts and there is no way around them. According to current sensitivities racist views are reprehensible and corrosive of the moral authority of whomever holds them. Therefore, Gandhi is a fraud unworthy of the admiration of fighters for human dignity across the world. To be fair to Gandhi, however, his South African views reflect popular standards of his own time, even among the enlightened and well-educated.

But, Gandhi is a moral leader, and perhaps, more principled behavior should be expected from him than the common man. The question is really, at what point in time Gandhi becomes a moral leader? The problem with the critique of Lakshmi, Desai and Vahed is that it examines shreds of Gandhi’s life in isolation rather than its evolution.

I suggest instead that Gandhi’s life is better understood as a transformation from a tribal identity to a universal one. The Gandhi who is celebrated is the human-rights crusader rather than the narrow- minded lawyer. But, the former is not possible without the latter.

South Africa, from Tribalism to Nationalism

The South African Gandhi is a young lawyer trying to make a name for himself within the framework of the British Empire that he accepts. His primary identity is provincial and tribal. He is a Gujarati from the merchant caste. India is not really in his mind. In South Africa, despite his privileged status as a high caste educated Hindu, he is treated as Indian laborers are, he is lumped with all other people classified as Indians. His first public struggles consist in trying to get for people classified Indians the privileges reserved to people classified Whites. He is not a revolutionary; he operates within the parameters of the oppressive system, in the process validating it. It does not matter if the African Blacks he is prejudiced against are left behind. He is consumed by the struggle for Indian rights, period. He sides with the British Empire during the war against the Zulus.

Gandhi’s actions in South Africa are important in shaping the future leader. In defending people classified Indians, he realizes that beyond the manipulative categorization by South African authorities and despite the differences in caste or religions, they share a common heritage. Their kinship is highlighted in contrast to the Black and the White communities sharing the same country. The South African experience transforms Gandhi from a provincial lawyer from a merchant caste in Gujarati to an Indian nationalist. This is a significant evolution, from tribalism to nationalism.

When Gandhi leaves South Africa, he joins the Congress Party and becomes one of the leaders of the fight for the freedom of India. To understand his newfound homeland, he crisscrosses the Indian Subcontinent, especially rural areas where more than eighty percent of the population at the time live. He witnesses abject poverty. He sees firsthand many other Indian shortcomings: oppressive caste system, rights abuses, violence against widows, recurring famines, and mistreatment of the Untouchables or Harijans…Whatever prejudice he might have harbored against South African natives in their ancestral homeland is drowned by the sad state of Indian natives in their own.

Once he has facts on India, Gandhi concludes that the system established by the British Raj and many local interests have robbed Indians of not only their political freedoms, but their capacity for self-determination. He also understands by then that similar systems enslave people all across the world, in South Africa, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria. Such oppressive systems are codified violence. Gandhi’s insight is that resisting such violence by using violence is contradictory. Instead, the appropriate and consistent way to fight violence is non-violence. Gandhi’s insight is revolutionary as it shows oppressed people everywhere that they do not have to fight their masters on their terms, they can instead redefine the fight to reflect their own strength.

By the end of his life Gandhi has traded his youthful tribalism for an uncompromising universalism. In 1946, despairing about the simmering conflict between Muslims and Hindus which will turn into deathly mass violence a year later, he declares, “Every truth—if it really is truth—presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times.”

Gandhi’s insight and its brilliant application in India have been emulated all over the world since then. He has shown the world that oppression could be fought effectively without ceding the moral high ground!

Gandhi’s Real Failure

Having secured India’s independence from British rule, Gandhi was unable to stop the partition of the country leading to the displacement of millions resulting in violence killing more than a million people. Why did Gandhi avoid assuming the executive power? Was it an attempt to stay above the fray and keep his saintly image untainted by the constraints of governing? The latter example of Nelson Mandela becoming a successful president of South Africa while preserving his reputation seems to show that Gandhi missed an opportunity to keep his country unified. He was the only political figure with enough authority to protect the integrity of the nation while limiting potential excesses by factional leaders

The political failure of Gandhi after the independence of India, however, does not affect his legacy as a fighter for human dignity in his country and all over the world. His achievement is enhanced by the fact that his insights were the result of a long and arduous journey from the fringe of a brutal empire to the center of the world stage.