The falsification of history

The charge that Mohandas Gandhi was a racist is doing the rounds again. His stay in colonial South Africa fuels those claims.

Street art in Islington, London February 2017. Artist: Gnasher. Photo credit Maureen Barlin via Flickr.

The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi before India published in 2013 was received with much consternation in South Africa. This was because in Guha’s quest to portray the South African Gandhi as a cosmopolitan anti-colonial fighter and apostle of non-racialism, he wrote out of history the brutal subjugation of Africans and the myriad resistances against the Imperial army while turning a blind-eye to Gandhi’s anti-African racism and support for the right of the white minority to hold political power.

Guha’s argument is that because Indians were more adept at challenging white domination, the ruling class passed a myriad of laws that restricted their movement to trade, going on to argue that given that:

These restrictions were later extended more thoroughly to the Africans, the Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims. And in so far as it was Gandhi who led the first protests against the racial laws, he should really be recognised as being among apartheid’s first opponents.

This is a staggering claim because at exactly the time when laws were passed against Indian traders, the brutal system of migrant labor that wrenched Africans from their families, dragooning them into the mines of South Africa and housing them in a prison like compound system that controlled all aspects of their lives. In addition, numerous taxes were implemented that crippled African economic initiatives (a move endorsed by Gandhi to get the “lazy” natives to work) and a strict enforcement of curfews and pass laws curtailed their movement (Gandhi condoned this as long as long it did not apply to Indians).

Guha’s book is littered with these chauvinist assertions. He argues for example that “Europeans wanted to claim it [South Africa] as their own, an objective to which-at the time [circa 1905]-the Indians, and the Indians alone, posed a serious challenge.” Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of South Africa history will tell you that the colonial archive is filled with the fear of African rebellion especially in Natal. Witness that doyen of South African historians Jeff Guy writing about the aftermath of the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906:

The execution of those who it was said had murdered whites, the exile of chiefs said to be disloyal, over three thousand dead and three thousand in gaol, the refusal to consider an amnesty for those in hiding, the cattle seized, property looted and homesteads burnt were still, incredibly, not enough… officials were planning further punishment and suppression… The colonial dream of conquest, the creation of an African population both subservient to and appreciative of alien rule was never-could never-be attained.

In many senses Guha’s cardboard cut-out figure of Gandhi that “India gave us a Mohandas we (South Africa) gave them a Mahatma” served as a lightning rod for a plethora of works that sought to balance the books as it were.

Now Guha returns to the fray placing great store with the assertion that by Gandhi’s mid-30s, circa 1906, Gandhi stopped being a racist. Just like the racists Jan Smuts and Cecil John Rhodes, who might have said some nice things about Africans, this cannot be used to exculpate their racist ideology. So for Gandhi. Unfortunately for Guha much after 1906 Gandhi continued to castigate and belittle Africans. Among a host of examples, in 1909 his activism, as Isabel Hofmeyr shows, crystalized in wanting Indians inside and outside prison “not to be classed as native,” holding that he had made up his mind “to fight against the rule by which Indians are made to live with Kaffirs and others.” And for those Indians who enjoyed the company of “natives,” Gandhi pronounced that they were “addicted to bad habits.”

Let me illustrate how nonchalant Guha is about Gandhi’s anti-Indian racism. In his book Guha quotes Gandhi who argues that the of carrying passes:

…presupposes that the Indian is a barbarian. There is very good reason for requiring registration of a native in that he is yet being taught dignity and the necessity of labour. The Indian knows it and he is imported because he knows it.

Guha makes no comment on this crude racism and the way in which Gandhi could not countenance African refusal to work for the white colonists as a form of resistance. Time and time again, Guha quotes but doesn’t reflect on Gandhi’s racism, making one wonder about Guha’s own orientation. Gandhi’s passive resistance comes imbued with a sense of Indian superiority and African inferiority. Guha quotes one of Gandhi’s lieutenants A.M. Cachalia from1908: “Passive resistance is a matter of heart, of conscience, of trained understanding. The natives of South Africa need many generations of culture and development before they can hope to be passive resisters in the true sense of the term.” Guha’s response is that Cachalia “provided a compelling defense of non-violence as the most moral means of challenging injustice!”

Despite the weight of evidence, Guha argues that “Gandhi forged enduring friendships with individuals of ethnic and religious backgrounds different from his own… As a London-trained lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi was the only Indian in Durban who bridged the gap between the races.” Given Gandhi’s aversion to Africans this conclusion is patently untrue.

Guha’s attempt to rescue a South African Gandhi elides his racism, his lack of acknowledgement of African oppression and resistance, the long march of indenture which saw Indians transcend caste and confront a system that sought to reduce them to numbers.

But it is Guha’s own writing out of African history under colonialism and segregation that is really unpardonable. It leads him into the realms of Brahmin chauvinism; Indians led the fight against discrimination and could be seen as the first anti-apartheid fighters. In Guha’s hands, the history of South Africa is told as a struggle between Indian traders and white racists. Africans are in the background, inert figures; a people without history.

Is it any wonder that Guha cannot see Gandhi’s racism?

Further Reading