This is the second in an unplanned series of write-as-stuff-happens posts on the politics of statues. You can read the first post here.
In June 2016, the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled a statue of Gandhi on the Legon campus of the University of Ghana in Accra. Almost immediately, angry blog posts and articles in the local press denounced the installation of the statue, demanding its removal. On twitter, activists proclaimed #GandhiMustFall and #GandhiForComeDown. An online petition voicing these demands has attracted over 1700 signatures at the time of this writing. The argument of the protesters is simple: Gandhi was a racist. As an activist in South Africa, he worked primarily in the interests of the Indian community, seeking a renegotiation of its position in the existing racial hierarchy of the settler colony without ever attacking the underlying premises of racial ordering. The protesters evidence this claim with Gandhi’s own words drawn from writings across a significant period (1894-1908), in which he refers to black South Africans by what would today be considered the offensive racial slur ‘kaffir’. More than the word, the connotations of which may well have worsened since the time Gandhi employed it, the protesters are angered by the shallowness and rank supremacism of his vision of liberation:
Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir 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 (1896).
The protesters link Gandhi’s remarkably accommodationist views on race with his beliefs about caste, the institution of which he would notoriously justify in later arguments with Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar. Unsurprisingly, the protest against the Gandhi statue draws inspiration from contemporaneous struggles against symbols of colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy all over the world, among which #RhodesMustFall in South Africa is preeminent. The connection is more than incidental: once again, the politics of a settler in turn-of-the-century South Africa has come under scrutiny in a protest against a statue in a distant country.
When the second edition of Ambedkar’s groundbreaking essay Annihilation of Caste was published in 1937, it contained an exchange between him and Gandhi. In an essay entitled ‘A Vindication of Caste’ (1936), Gandhi had offered a highly disingenuous and idealised defence of the caste system, arguing that whatever its abuses in practice, ‘the calling of a Brahmin—spiritual teacher—and a scavenger are equal, and their due performance carries equal merit before God and at one time seems to have carried identical reward before man.’ Ambedkar was suitably withering in his response, reminding readers that Gandhi’s favoured Hindu saints had been ‘lamentably ineffective’ in their social reform efforts: ‘They did not preach that all men were equal. They preached that all men were equal in the eyes of God—a very different and a very innocuous proposition which nobody can find difficult to preach or dangerous to believe in.’ Gandhi, Ambedkar concluded, was ‘prostituting his intelligence to find reasons for supporting this archaic social structure of the Hindus.’
In 2014, the anti-caste publishing house Navayana issued an annotated critical edition of Annihilation of Caste with an introductory essay by Arundhati Roy titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’. Notwithstanding her candid admiration for Ambedkar, Roy’s essay attracted criticism from Dalit intellectuals who questioned her ability, as an upper-caste writer, to articulate Dalit lived experience and to appreciate Dalit investment in the text. They regarded her essay as reductive on a number of levels: its critical appreciation of Ambedkar had been based on a reading of a single text; that reading had been overshadowed by the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, which was not part of the original text but simply an appendix to a later edition; and even its assessment of the debate had paid far more attention to Gandhi than Ambedkar. ‘Why’, the critics asked, ‘can’t we read Ambedkar on his own terms?’ It’s an important question, though the converse does not follow: for it is impossible to understand why Gandhi arouses controversy on the question of equality without attention to Ambedkar.
For all its problems, Roy’s essay has the virtue of directing the attention of an Indian reading public that is perhaps increasingly aware of Gandhi’s conservatism on questions of caste, to his views on the distinct but analogous subject of race. If, as most historians tell us, it was the South Africa years that made Gandhi a ‘Mahatma’ prior to his return to India, Roy seems correct in her suggestion that ‘his views on race presaged his views on caste’. So it is surprising how little discussion there is, in India, of Gandhi on race. Indeed, Ram Guha’s recent doorstopper of a biography Gandhi Before India seems symptomatic of a problem. Guha makes much of Gandhi’s ability and willingness to work with and for Indians of all castes, classes and religions, and of his close relationships with white dissidents (many Jewish) of all kinds. He informs us that Gandhi’s troubling views on race underwent considerable ‘evolution’ to the point where he ceased to use the term ‘kaffir’ fifteen years into his South African life. And yet he skims lightly over the implications of his admitted inability, over the course of an impressively researched biography of over four hundred pages, to identify any substantive social, professional or political dealings that Gandhi had with black South Africans in the twenty-one years that he spent in their country. Indeed there is something insidious about the use of the very word ‘evolution’ to describe changes in Gandhi’s race thinking: it seems to endow the trajectory of his thought with the quality of naturalness, inviting readers to empathize with and endorse its contours and temporality. Against the backdrop of this sort of mealy-mouthedness, Roy’s insistent recitation of the facts of Gandhi’s racism constitutes a radical intervention in the Indian public sphere. Against the familiar retort that historical figures must be judged in accordance with the norms of their time, Roy places Gandhi’s championing of Indian segregation from the ‘kaffir’ alongside the ruminations of his contemporary, W. E. B. DuBois, on the ‘double consciousness’ forced on the American Negro. Who is of the time, behind the times, ahead of their time? And how do answers to these questions themselves vary across time?
In 2013, an extraordinary Malayalam film called Papilio Buddha (dir. Jayan Cherian) became embroiled in a battle with the (Indian) Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Set in the fictional Dalit settlement of Meppara and shot in the lush environs of the Wayanad forest in the south Indian state of Kerala, the film depicts struggles over land waged in the context of brutal everyday caste and gender oppression. It explores and indicts the many ideologies that have informed these struggles—Gandhism, liberalism, communism and Buddhism—while taking seriously the new identity-based political uprisings inspired by Ambedkarism that are gaining momentum among Dalits in the region. In a crucial scene, a Gandhian leader attempts to defuse a Dalit occupation of government land by proposing the Gandhian technique of satyagraha. The Dalit activists, quoting from Ambedkar’s famous tract What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, denounce fasting as ‘a foul and filthy act’ that Gandhi deployed to emotionally blackmail his opponents (Ambedkar included) into surrendering, before going on to burn an effigy of Gandhi in protest. The CBFC initially denied the film censor certification, citing a variety of reasons including nudity and obscene language, although the confrontational scene between the Gandhians and the Ambedkarites appeared to weigh heavily on its collective mind. It was only when the filmmakers agreed to mute the putatively controversial Ambedkar speech that the film was certified for release.
The travails of this remarkable film in its encounter with the CBFC are revealing. Whatever the historical Gandhi might have inspired by way of speaking truth to power and notwithstanding the persistence in public life of what might be called a Gandhian repertoire of protest, Gandhi today has become a cipher for power, insulated from challenge by the might of the state. It is Ambedkar’s words, circulating subversively in Dalit counterpublics, that must be contained, muted, effaced.
The Ghanaian protesters against Gandhi understand this at some fundamental level. Indeed the equation of Gandhi with power is the subtext of their protest: the petition calling for the removal of the statue insists that it is ‘better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian superpower’. Whatever India once meant as a leading postcolonial state speaking truth to geopolitical power, it weighs increasingly heavily on the African continent through its investment, infrastructure-building and hunger for resources, notably land. And in a striking parallel with the grouse against Gandhi, India increasingly features in African public consciousness via alarmingly frequent reports of racist hate crimes against Africans, especially students, in India. Prompted by the murder of a Congolese man in New Delhi, African Heads of Mission threatened to boycott the Africa Day celebrations organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in June 2016, the very month in which the Indian President unveiled the Gandhi statue in Accra. At least one of the Ghanaian protesters has noted that the best way to deepen relations between Africa and India might be to protect African students who are repeatedly under attack in India.
Ironically, the same conflation of Gandhi and rising Indian geopolitical heft that makes him unpalatable in Accra might account for his warm reception in London, in the heart of Westminster no less.
Several implications follow for critical theory. First, the postcolonial canon is ageing. This recognition must prompt continual reassessment of its central figures in the registers of both history and memory, which Pierre Nora famously distinguished as distinct modes in which to make sense of the passage of time: ‘Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.’ Historical reassessment might be prompted by the discovery of new archives or the invention of new categories with which to slice up old material (a task that one might expect to become increasingly difficult in respect of heavily worked on figures like Gandhi). But memory is often a function of the politics of the present. As the student and Dalit movements in India as well as mobilisations such as Black Lives Matter, #RhodesMustFall and #GandhiForComeDown place caste and racial supremacism under increasing scrutiny, Gandhi’s centrality in influential renderings of postcolonial theory casts these formations in new relief. This isn’t a call for a window dressing of the theoretical apparatus (junk the embarrassing figure to save the canon), but rather for a recognition of its always already compromised theoretical and political commitments.
Second, as geopolitical power shifts in the world, postcolonial theory has to be able to map its key concepts—orientalism, hybridity, subalternity—onto new actors and processes, fully alive to the reality that yesterday’s revolutionary subjectivities might have become today’s imperial ones. Anything less risks certain obsolescence.
Third, critical race theory, especially as it has been absorbed and appropriated by postcolonialism, has tended to understand ‘race’, quite literally, in black and white terms. In part this has been prompted by the inescapable imperative of constructing a necessary political blackness across ‘races’ in the fight against white supremacy—a struggle that is far from over and must continue. And yet the everyday experiences of African students in India urgently demand that the political imperative of cross-racial solidarity ought not to impede our analytical ability to recognise and name the infinitely varied forms in which racisms manifest themselves. It seems useful to conclude here with Ambedkar’s analysis of the astonishing durability of the caste system, which offers a simple but profound insight that might well underpin a more complex appreciation of racisms in their multiplicity.
The caste system has two aspects. In one of its aspects, it divides men into separate communities. In its second aspect, it places these communities in a graded order one above the other in social status. Each caste takes its pride and its consolation in the fact that in the scale of castes it is above some other caste … this gradation, this scaling of castes, makes it impossible to organise a common front against the Caste System. If a caste claims the right to inter-dine and inter-marry with another caste placed above it, it is frozen the instant it is told by mischief-mongers—and there are many Brahmins amongst such mischief-mongers—that it will have to concede inter-dining and inter-marriage with castes below it! All are slaves of the Caste System. But all the slaves are not equal in status.