When people think of the fight for Indian independence, they usually think of Mahatma Gandhi. His name is one that most people can recognize, and his beliefs have influenced leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and other revolutionaries. Gandhi is famous around the world and has become a symbol of peace, nonviolence and civil rights — his statues can be seen not only in India but in England and the United States too.
Gandhi has become a revered figure as the father of “satyagrah,” which is a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience and the search for truth. For most Indians, he is practically saint-like, with the nickname “Father of the Nation.” His face appears on currency and political leaders frequently tout Gandhian tenants for popular recognition.
But Gandhi’s exalted status in India and abroad is detrimental to our understanding of history — and it has harmful implications for today’s movements.
In the summer of 1893, Gandhi was riding in the first-class section of a train in South Africa. The first class carriage, however, was exclusively for white passengers, and after Gandhi refused to be pushed into the back, he was expelled from the train. This celebrated story marks a turning point in Gandhi’s life, as afterward he finally decided to organize his people and oppose bigotry against Indians. It would inspire his lifelong struggle for passive resistance. What many gloss over, though, are the other reasons why Gandhi may have refused to leave the first-class section of the train.
Gandhi (along with many British imperialists) believed in the Indo-Aryan theory, which posited that Europeans and upper-caste Indians shared a common ancestral group: the Aryans, who had colonized India after leaving Europe. This theory was a British tool to justify the sophistication of ancient Indian civilization and culture as well as a way to further their own imperial goals. Although Aryans were not an invading group from Europe, British imperialists still believed they would bring a savage India back into its Aryanic golden age. For Gandhi, belief in the Indo-Aryan myth as it existed at the time created a racial hierarchy, with upper-caste Indians being closer to whiteness than they were to blackness, the former situated at the top of the racial hierarchy and the latter at the bottom.
In 1908, Gandhi penned his recounting of his experience after being brought to a prison and what it meant for native South Africans, writing, “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.”
Gandhi’s belief in this hierarchy is important in understanding why he might have been offended by the incident on the train. Did the real insult lie in being seen as equal to Black people?
Gandhi’s racism has made him a contentious figure for oppressed communities, yet his problematic beliefs are always swept under the rug by mainstream Western media. In 2018, students and faculty at the University of Ghana protested the installation of a statue of Gandhi until it was taken down. While Gandhi may have fought for the liberation of Indian people, in both South Africa and India, he stepped on marginalized groups to do so.
Gandhi’s treatment of Dalits is another major source of criticism. Although Gandhi is often proclaimed to be anti-caste, he used them to score political points and uphold upper-caste values. Gandhi famously renamed Dalits — formerly called “untouchables” — as Harijans, or children of God. In American textbooks, Gandhi’s popularization of the word Harijan is applauded as a progressive movement against casteism. In reality, this renaming did nothing to grant rights to Dalits and opposed the desires of many Dalit activists, who wanted to name their own community. It was a paternalistic way to force them into embracing the Hindu caste system and furthered the perpetuation of the caste system. In his supposed course to end casteism, Gandhi constantly spoke over Dalit activists and even went on hunger strike to prevent the reservation of Dalit seats in parliament, thus undermining their political power for the benefit of upper-caste Hindus.
Despite his racism and casteism, Gandhi has become sanctified in the West. Although he was instrumental in ending British imperialism in India, satyagrah wasn’t the only movement that drew the British out of India. Political violence was also used by Indian militant groups against the British Raj, yet Western narrative tends to give all of the credit for Indian independence to nonviolent movements.
The West’s fixation on nonviolent resistance in the Indian independence movement is an effort to oversimplify, to dull history down to the parts that are easiest for us to swallow today. Gandhi’s “Mahatma” image functions in the same way: It is difficult for Indians to acknowledge his racism and casteism, so sanctifying him is much easier than coming to terms with reality. India’s struggle for liberation, which was a complicated and bloody event, becomes stripped of nuance in the eyes of the West. This version of history plays into the orientalist stereotypes of passive existence and struggles of Asian people. Gandhi’s racism is thus painted over, creating a nice and orientalized figurehead for centrists to co-opt.
The violence inherent in political and social change often is eclipsed by images of peace after these movements pass. It is similar to what we’ve seen in America’s civil rights movement, with schools and culture placing stronger emphasis on nonviolent leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. than more radical thinkers who also played a major role in these movements, such as Malcom X. Western fixation on Gandhi glosses over other influential freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh who orchestrated failed assassination attempts that nevertheless added momentum to the movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are both now seen as respected leaders who can be lauded as figureheads and mentors for mainstream political movements. Yet those same political movements simultaneously undermine the legacies of these men. Martin Luther King Jr. has been embraced by most Americans, who disregard the fact that King was a radical hated by many during his time. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (a staunch Hindu nationalist) lauds Gandhi and his tenants, despite the fact that it was a Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi. The emphasis that these two men put on nonviolence makes the whitewashing of their history easy and comfortable for people who do not realize that change is often brought about by violent revolutions.
Last summer, protests calling for the end of police brutality sometimes became violent, and the reaction to condemn looting was swift from most mainstream politicians. The lack of recognition for radical leaders of the past has repercussions for today, leading us to believe that change was brought about solely through nonviolence. Condemnations of looting not only drew attention away from actual issues of police violence but also demonstrated how much the state relies on nonviolence to maintain the status quo. To do this, they co-opt figures of the past.
Flawed understandings of modern movements for change come from deliberately distorted understandings of history by the people in power. The sanctification of leaders like Gandhi serves to whitewash images of the past and promotes the blind devotion to leaders without understanding the complexities behind actual change.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org