Of Gandhi and the ‘Mahatma’
Your book takes a strong stance on portraying Gandhi as a racist,
British Supremacist. Please give our readers a view of your arguments on the same.
Gandhi’s years in South Africa are replete with his obsequious loyalty to the Empire. So keen he was to show this loyalty that in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer (South African) War he spent a long time pleading with the British for a commemorative chocolate to show that they had participated as stretcher-bearers. One of the reasons for this was that he saw this as a way of mitigating the effects of racist laws especially against Indian traders. But this was also tied to the fact that he believed that Indians and Whites were of Aryan stock while holding that Africans were lower down the civilisation scale then Indians and whites.
Don’t you think whatever Gandhi did in South Africa was part of his job as a lawyer?
When Gandhi called Africans lazy and indolent how does this link to his job as lawyer. Gandhi believed in the separation of races and wrote in September 1903. Secondly, he saw Indians as part of the Aryan race, on par with whites, Africans lower down the civilization scale. Allied to this, he wrote that ‘We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race’.
Many Gandhians know about his disdain for Africans but cannot bring themselves to acknowledge how central this was to Gandhi’s project in South Africa. It is to his credit
Gandhi’s silence during and in the immediate aftermath of the war on the concentration camps means that this later injunction can be interpreted with scepticism. Further, to claim the suffering and deaths of the women as an example of satyagraha contradicts the idea that satyagrah is must be aware of their actions
And what of the more than 20000 Africans who also died in concentration camps? The Mahatma’s ‘sense of nationality’ may have been ‘portable’ but it was circumscribed by his attitude that placed African below Indians in the racial hierarchy.
How do you think the Indians are going to react to your book?
When you researching for a book it’s hardly in your mind’s eye how the book is going to be received. Now that it is out there it is impossible not to think about its reception. No doubt in India there will be criticisms and even outrage. Already in South Africa there has been lots of criticism of our work some of it bordering on the hysterical. What we need to do is to return the outrage and threats to the actual contents of the book; force people to contend with our research. In this context GoolamVahed and me are prepared to debate with all and sundry. We are not thinking beyond that.
Was controversy always on your mind while writing The South
It is not about controversy. In fact it is those like Ramachandra Guha who have written over Gandhi’s blindspot over the African subjugation and struggle that are controversial. We refer to the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Campaign in the context that all over South Africa people are taking a keen interest in history and are challenging many existing notions.
You’ve mentioned in your book that Gandhi more or less was the writer and director of his own history. In such an environment where he is already proclaimed as a “Mahatma” both in India and in Africa, how do we uncover the truth behind the real Gandhi?
In many senses it’s simple but takes hard graft. The trap that many historians of Gandhi have fallen into is that they isolated Gandhi into the contest and collaboration with white authorities.
One of the guiding lights in our research is the words of E.P. Thompson who calledfor approaching existing historical “facts” with ‘attentive disbelief’. It certainly illuminated our path to uncovering a Gandhi that has been largely hidden from view.