Exceptions notwithstanding, probably none of the persons whom society has beatified with sainthood has an unblemished record. The lessor mortals fare less well. By now, Jacob Zuma is well known for his racist and misogynist comments. What about the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini fanning the flames of xenophobia with his ill-advised comments? Finally it was an article by Jan Vermeulen entitled “This is why Gandhi’s statue was vandalised?” which propelled me to investigate further.
A case in point is Winston Churchill who is indubitably my history hero. Like all such luminaries Churchill was human. In the heat of moment, Winston did make some crass comments. Being an old-fashioned Imperialist and Royalist at heart – the last of a dying breed in the Nineteen Thirties’ – his vitriol was often directed at the Indian people & Gandhi in particular.
Main picture: Mahatma Gandhi
One of Churchill’s most derogatory comments on Gandhi was this mordant one referring to Gandhi’s meeting with the British Viceroy of India. These words were uttered whilst addressing the Council of the West Essex Unionist Association on 23 February 1931:
“It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Vice Regal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”
Whereas protagonists could argue that Churchill’s venom was directed at a specific person and hence should not be classified as a racist rant, the following comment addressed to the Peel Commission, Churchill justified why Britain has a legitimate right in deciding the fate of Palestine should settle that question:
I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Churchill’s statement can only be regarded as not only patronising but certainly overtly racist.
Mohandas Gandhi, the world-renowned human rights activist, Indian revolutionary, and proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience is amongst my most admired historical figures.
For my own part, I probably venerated Gandhi not so much for his political activism but rather for his incisive retorts and repartee. By all accounts, he would never verbally abuse a detractor or antagonist however great the provocation. Rather he would subdue his opponent through verbal sparring.
The following anecdote which I have read many times before over the years epitomises that special ability that Gandhi possessed:
When Mahatma Gandhi was studying law at the University College of London, a professor, whose last name was Peters, disliked him intensely and always displayed animosity him. Also, because Gandhi never lowered his head when addressing him as he expected, there were always “arguments” and confrontations.
One day, Mr Peters was having lunch at the dining room of the University, and Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to the professor. The professor said, “Mr Gandhi, you do not understand. A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat.” Gandhi looked at him as a parent would a rude child and calmly replied, “You do not worry professor. I’ll fly away,” and he went and sat at another table.
Mr Peters, reddened with rage, decided to take revenge on the next test paper, but Gandhi responded brilliantly to all questions. Mr Peters, unhappy and frustrated, asked him the following question:
“Mr Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package, and within was a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?”
Without hesitating, Gandhi responded, “The one with the money, of course.”
Mr Peters, smiling sarcastically said, “I, in your place, would have taken the wisdom.”
Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”
Mr Peters, by this time was incandescent with rage. So great was his anger that he wrote on Gandhi’s exam sheet the word “idiot” and gave it to Gandhi. Gandhi took the exam sheet and sat down at his desk, trying very hard to remain calm while he contemplated his next move.
A few minutes later, Gandhi got up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone, “Mr Peters, you autographed the sheet, but you did not give me the grade.
Is this not indicative of the measure of the man? In spite of intense provocation, Gandhi remained calm. Instead of a sullen vitriolic outburst, Gandhi maintained the moral high ground and without utilising derogatory epithets, he calmly trounced his nemesis.
How I wish that I possessed such mental agility and imagination!
This brings me back to the article on why Mahatma’s statue was vandalised. In essence what motivated the perpetrator was that he regarded Gandhi as being as much a racist as Cecil John Rhodes. Vermeulen queries “What, then, could Gandhi have said or done to deserve the ire of South Africans to the point that they would put themselves on the wrong side of the law?”
Vermeulen then provides grist to the mill as follows:
In the collected works of Gandhi, in his early years as an activist, one will find letters and speeches where he liberally used a highly charged racial slur (the “k-word”), and referred to black South Africans in a derogatory fashion.
“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 K***** 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,” Gandhi said in a 1896 speech in Bombay attributed to him.
“There, the deliberately expressed object is not to allow the Indian to rise higher in the scale of civilization but to lower him to the position of the K*****,” Gandhi said.
When he shared a prison cell with black people, he wrote: “Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves.”
These statements are unequivocal. There is no excusing them.
At the time, Gandhi must have believed that Indians were superior to native-born black South Africans, or why would he have said or written things like those quoted above?
Gandhi might today be venerated as “Bapu” just many South Africans fondly remember Mandela as “Tata”. In the modern quest for perfection, for sainthood, for the deification of such an esteemed figure does the sanitised image of a Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or a Winston Churchill reflect the humanity and moral frailty of these revered humans?
One does not have to speak in hushed tones about such humans for judged in their totality what they did was overwhelmingly positive. Even the great South African statesman experienced a weak moment when he declared that even thirteen year olds should be accorded voting rights. Perhaps more importantly airbrushed out of existence are Nelson Mandela’s younger days where he demanded an armed insurrection in order to overthrow the white government.
Unlike the pacifist Gandhi abhorrence of violence, Mandela would embrace it. Conveniently forgotten are the tragic consequences in such a course of action in loss of life and the collateral damage: the maimed and injured.
Both Gandhi & Mandela would come to regret their youthful exuberance; Gandhi in challenging white authority by wanting to suppress the black population and Mandela in his blood thirsty usurpation of power.
In both cases, it was the wisdom of age and not the arrogance of youth which the world justifiably remembers and celebrates.
In conclusion the wilful vandalising of the Gandhi statue does not do justice to a man for whom the world and especially the Indian Nation owes a debt of gratitude.