Was Gandhi, the leader of India’s freedom movement, a racist? Leaders like Nelson Mandela have lauded him as being part of the epic battle to defeat the white regime and prepare the way for a non-racial country. A popular sentiment in South Africa goes: ‘India gave us Mohandas, and we returned him to you as Mahatma’.
A controversial new book by two South African university professors reveals shocking details about Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, before he returned to India. Against this background, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire unravels the complex story of a man who, throughout his stay on African soil (1893–1914), remained true to Empire while expressing disdain for Africans.
For Gandhi, whites and Indians were bound by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African. His racism was matched by his class (and caste) prejudice towards the Indian indentured. He persistently claimed that they were ignorant and needed his leadership, and wrote their struggles out of history—struggles this book documents.
Prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy is in praise of the book and the authors, which will hit stores next month, is “a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi.”
‘This is a wonderful demonstration of meticulously researched, evocative, clear-eyed and fearless history-writing. It uncovers a story, some might even call it a scandal, that has remained hidden in plain sight for far too long’ —Arundhati Roy, author of “The Doctor and the Saint”
During his stay in South Africa, Gandhi routinely expressed “disdain for Africans,” says S. Anand, founder of Navayana, the publisher of the book titled “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire.”
According to the book, Gandhi described black Africans as “savage,” “raw” and living a life of “indolence and nakedness,” and he campaigned relentlessly to prove to the British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was superior to native black Africans. The book combs through Gandhi’s own writings during the period and government archives and paints a portrait that is at variance with how the world regards him today.
Much of the halo that surrounds Gandhi today is a result of clever repackaging, write the authors, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, professors at the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu Natal.
“As we examined Gandhi’s actions and contemporary writings during his South African stay, and compared these with what he wrote in his autobiography and ‘Satyagraha in South Africa,’ it was apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.’ He was effectively rewriting his own history.”
Here is a sample of what Gandhi said about black South Africans:
* One of the first battles Gandhi fought after coming to South Africa was over the separate entrances for whites and blacks at the Durban post office. Gandhi objected that Indians were “classed with the natives of South Africa,” who he called the k*****s, and demanded a separate entrance for Indians.
“We felt the indignity too much and … petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction, and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.”
* In a petition letter in 1895, Gandhi also expressed concern that a lower legal standing for Indians would result in degenerating “so much so that from their civilised habits, they would be degraded to the habits of the aboriginal Natives, and a generation hence, between the progeny of the Indians and the Natives, there will be very little difference in habits, and customs and thought.”
* In an open letter to the Natal Parliament in 1893, Gandhi wrote:
“I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw K****r.”
* At a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi said that the Europeans in Natal wished “to degrade us to the level of the raw k****r 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.”
* Protesting the decision of Johannesburg municipal authorities to allow Africans to live alongside Indians, Gandhi wrote in 1904 that the council “must withdraw the K*****s from the Location. About this mixing of the K*****s with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”
* In response to the White League’s agitation against Indian immigration and the proposed importation of Chinese labour, Gandhi wrote in 1903: “We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.”
* Gandhi wrote in 1908 about his prison experience: “We were marched off to a prison intended for K*****s . There, our garments were stamped with the letter “N”, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much to put up with.”
* In 1939, Gandhi justified his counsel to the Indian community in South Africa against forming a non-European front: “I have no doubt about the soundness of my advice. However much one may sympathise with the Bantus, Indians cannot make common cause with them.”
The authors show that Gandhi never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Empire, with a particular penchant for war. He served as stretcher-bearer in the war between Brit and Boer, demanded that Indians be allowed to carry fire-arms, and recruited volunteers for the imperial army in both England and India during the First World War.
Watch the trailer promoting the book here:
Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. His previous books include South Africa: Still Revolting, ‘We are the Poors’: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa and Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island among others.
Goolam Vahed is Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal. He writes on histories of migration, ethnicity, religion, and identity formation among Indian South Africans.