Gandhi’s early life and views provide an example of developing bridges between communities.
PROVO, Utah (March 19, 2015)—“To be a celebrated figure in history is at once to be open to adulation and attack,” Gaurav Desai, professor of English and African diaspora studies at Tulane University, said before an audience of students and faculty. Though we might think of some people as being above reproach, no one is without their critic, and historians are often split into two camps: defense or prosecution. Nearly 70 years after his death, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi continues to draw both.
The African Worlds Faculty Research Group hosted Desai and his presentation, “Gandhi as Allegory: The Politics of Race Relations in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa.” While Gandhi is best known for his work for Indian independence, Desai’s lecture focused on Gandhi’s youth as a lawyer in South Africa. Desai explained that his purpose in speaking wasn’t to take either side when it came to justifying or condemning the Mahatma. “Rather it is to highlight the contradictions that Gandhi embodies and exemplifies at this early stage of his political development in South Africa,” he said.
One such contradiction was Gandhi’s view of race. As Desai explained, Gandhi rejected the notions of racial superiority while promoting racial difference. He often made distinctions between Indians and Africans, as well as between British subjects and non-British subjects, educated and non-educated, higher-caste Indians and lower-caste Indians and more. While his views on the caste system changed as he grew older, the young Gandhi worked within these racial constructs, opposing legislation in South Africa that he believed would lower Indians to the status of the native Africans.
Gandhi came into close contact with Africans during the 1906 British retaliation against the Zulu, who were resisting taxation. Though he believed the Zulu to be in the right, Gandhi ultimately sided with the British in a sign of loyalty. He did the same in a similar conflict with the Boers, again siding with the British.
Later, Gandhi wrote against the injustices enacted upon the Africans, arguing that they weren’t as barbaric as British commentary made them out to be. “And yet, while sympathetic to the plight of Africans both in terms of how they were being presented as well as in terms of their political plight under colonialism, Gandhi’s discussion here contains a sense of paternalism,” Desai said. “Africans nevertheless remained in Gandhi’s eyes as innocent children of nature.”
Still, Gandhi believed that the rights of immigrant peoples could not supersede those of the indigenous Africans. He was especially active in protesting any exploitation of Africans by Indians. When, in the wake of WWII, Sir Theodore Morrison proposed to build an Indian colony on African territory formerly occupied by Germans, Gandhi was a staunch opponent.
With such widely different actions, Gandhi gives historians plenty of material for debate when it comes to his definitive views on race and politics. Whereas critics like Maurine Swan accuse him of being complicit to black African oppression, others – Desai among them – see Gandhi as a product of the racial confines of his day, and his change over time as a model for Indian–African relations. “His life provides a blueprint for that community as it settles in Africa over generations and a model for establishing interracial solidarities,” Desai said.
Nelson Mandela was likewise forgiving of Gandhi and paid him tribute, saying, “All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and the circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice, save that in favor of truth and justice.”
Desai echoed Mandela’s judgment, adding that any image of a historical figure that is entirely void of imperfections is just as invalid as one that is nothing but. “To ignore these imperfections is to be victim to an ideology of glory,” Desai said, “but to obsess over these imperfections is to be blind to the imaginative possibilities that great lives offer us despite their limitations.”
Desai closed his remarks with an experience from the young Gandhi’s life in South Africa that marked a shift in his racial views. Due to a misunderstanding with the people who were meant to pick him up, Gandhi was alone in a South African train station as night fell. He had been victim to numerous racial insults in the previous days and so was hesitant to reach out to any of the station workers. As he contemplated sleeping in the station, he was approached by an African American man, who took him to a nearby hotel. The owner, a white American, offered Gandhi free lodgings for the night, and he was well received by the hotel’s patrons – also white.
While we do not know much about these people, it is clear from Gandhi’s writings that the collective gesture touched him deeply. Desai concluded, “It is a telling reminder not only of the possibilities of human solidarity in the midst of great adversity but also of our own need to pay attention to stories of human connections that will help move us beyond the challenges of our own time.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)