Rama Singh is a Professor in the Department of Biology at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, and teaches courses in the area of Human Diversity and Human Nature. He is the founder of the Gandhi Lectures on Nonviolence at McMaster University and Gandhi Peace Festival in the City of Hamilton, and with the late Acharya Rammurti, a co-founder of Mahila Shanti Sena (Women’s Peace Brigade) in India.
Some teachers and students at Ghana University have launched a petition to remove a recently installed statue of Gandhi that was a gift from the President of India during his recent visit to Ghana.
“How will the Historian teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude towards the black race and see that we are glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?” wrote a professor in the petition.
Uncharitable thoughts and actions against Gandhi, such as the above petition, are not new.
In 2012, when we were installing a Gandhi Statue at City Hall, in the City of Hamilton, Canada, to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of the Gandhi Peace Festival, I received a letter, from a retired colonel from the U.S. Army, criticizing Gandhi and asking us not to install the Statue.
The retired colonel, of Indian origin, has made it his life’s mission to discredit Gandhi and, through his talks and publications, he opposes any public celebration or recognition of Gandhi. He sent me a long list of “wrongs” from Gandhi’s transformative years in South Africa.
I wrote to the colonel that I am not a historian and cannot comment on the context or the authenticity of the charges he was making against Gandhi. However, considering human frailty, let us accept that the charges are true. If Mohandas Gandhi, with all those faults, could dust himself off, and rise to become the Mahatma of the masses, there was hope for the colonel and me.
I never heard back from the colonel. The statue installation went through.
The Ghana case is not an isolated incident; it would appear to be part of a fringe but widespread movement to discredit Gandhi. To see why we should not be surprised by anti-Gandhian sentiments, we need to look at the history of how Gandhi was treated in his own country, India — socially, politically, and personally.
For over a century, ever since Gandhi returned to India in 1914, India has had a love and hate relationship with Gandhi.
Outside the political circles that obviously saw Gandhi as India’s saviour, the Indian masses loved Gandhi. They could relate to him through seeing how he lived, how he talked about the problems they faced in their daily life, and how he communicated with them.
High caste Hindus — especially the gatekeepers of the temples — on the other hand, were suspicious of Gandhi and they would later hate him as he began his fight against social hierarchies, and the caste system and untouchability in particular.
It is said that at the time of partition Gandhi became the most hated man in India. Hindus hated him because they said he was favouring Muslims; Muslims hated him because he was against the partition of India, and therefore against the creation of Pakistan as well.
Gandhi is dead, but his ideas are not. That his ideas will not die is a problem for some.
Rather than discussing, debating and criticizing his ideas, Gandhi’s critics look for scandals in his life to bring him down to size, so to speak.
Interestingly enough, as the new breed of judge, jury and executioners clamour for their pound of Gandhi’s proverbial flesh, people around the world are rediscovering Gandhi.
A new generation is discovering Gandhi and there is a slow but growing wave of love for Gandhian ideas around the world. Peace institutions are opening doors on university campuses, Gandhi’s statues are in great demand, and the long lines of visitors at Gandhi’s resting ground seem never ending.
The epicenter of the most vicious criticisms of Gandhi resides in the belly of the beast, i.e. the caste-based politics of India. The veteran social activist and Gandhian, the late Acharya Ramamurti, once told me a story. He said that he asked a prominent member of a major political party why she criticized Gandhi. The response was that “Criticizing Gandhi generates votes for us; had we known it earlier, we would have started sooner”.
Gandhi fought for social reforms without which, he said, freedom would be meaningless; you would be replacing one set of rulers with another. Gandhi’s position on the issue of caste, Dalit, women, minorities and natives was always the same. He would say these are our problems, India’s problems; let the British leave first, then we will solve our problems ourselves.
How would Gandhi respond to the question posed by the Ghanaian Professor in his petition, you may ask.
One thing is for sure. Gandhi would not defend himself against the charges made against him, just as Jesus did not defend himself. Gandhi would plead guilty as charged, just as he did in the British-Indian Court during the satyagraha. Gandhji was not interested in saving his own life.
The Ghanaian professor can learn from McMaster University’s President who happens to hail from South Africa and who knows something about Gandhi and his work. In his remarks, delivered at the unveiling of a Gandhi bust on the campus in 2011, Dr. Patrick Deane quoted from Gandhi, as follows:
“A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. Whenever I talk with someone, I learn from him. I take from him more than I give him. In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students. If you will teach your pupils with this attitude, you will benefit much from them.”
These remarks, made by Gandhi in 1942 in his address to Khadi Vidyalaya students in Sevagram (India), are now a permanent part of the Gandhi Bust dedication on the McMaster University campus.
McMaster professors have no problem in relating to Gandhi’s life and work with their students. The purpose of the Gandhi Bust at McMaster, or of the Gandhi Statue at Hamilton City Hall, is not to put Gandhi on a pedestal; the purpose is to give students a real-life example to help them understand that education is not a commodity but a means of transformation and that, in this transformation, knowledge and value must come together in the service of humankind.
If “Gandhi must fall,” as the Ghanaian petitioners demand, so should all our gods and all our heroes. If Gandhi was a racist, then we are all racists.
I challenge anyone to look into the life of your own gods or heroes and see if they come clean on all counts. Look beyond the shining crowns, beyond the Nobel prizes, beyond the gold medals, and beyond the Guinness Book of Records, and you will find that there are no flawless gods and heroes.
It is simply not possible to take a human form, in the image of a god or a man, and remain untouched by the scourges of racism, sexism, hatred, and bigotry that are flying all around us. The history of humankind is a history of the struggle for freedom from hatred, and freedom from fear. If our gods and our heroes fail us, it is because we fail them. Mohandas Gandhi was no different to begin with.
I would go further and say that if you have to use a real-life example for challenging students to think about the interconnections between life and society and the role of the individual, you cannot do better than to use the example of Gandhi. Students need to learn that Gandhi’s great Experiments with Truth — real-life experiments using himself, his family and his community as his laboratory — and not the philosophy of nonviolence are his unique contribution to humankind.
My friend the late McCormack Smyth, former Dean of Atkinson College at York University, used to say that people are afraid of Gandhi. Not because they think he wants them to live simply or give everything away; they are afraid because he challenges them to examine their own life and make necessary changes.
Gandhian ideas may be controversial but, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Gandhi cannot be ignored”. Among the historical men and women that we know of, Gandhi stands alone in consciously experimenting with his life — an open and real-life experiment — and confessing us the results from which we can learn.
Scientist are driven by passion and precision and seek to offer simple solutions. Gandhi was driven by his conscience and conviction and gave us the simplest solution that one can ask for: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And the world will take care of itself, he might have added.