Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gandhi, The Imperfect Man

Recent revalations about Gandhi's history serve to complicate the saintly figure.
 by Fadzai Nova 


Since Gandhi’s death there have been books, articles and bite-sized fragments on social media suggesting that Gandhi was politically inept, racist and sexually active, engaging in homosexuality and paedophilia, despite taking a vow of celibacy. These suggestions are intensely provocative as Gandhi is viewed as one of the most widely revered figures of the 20th century; he is credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947, considered a great leader akin to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, and seen as a dutiful activist and a martyr for peace and non-violence. The internet is vast and has a multitude of voices, and rumours can spread as fast as truth; however, what would the accusations mean for society if they were true? Would his values and philosophies still stand? Or would they crumble as the hypocritical ramblings of a conflicted, flawed, human man?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was a prominent leader of Indian nationalism when India was ruled by Britain. By using a method he called nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi helped direct India to independence. But journalist Andrew Roberts states that Gandhi frequently deserted his civil-disobedience campaigns as they were beginning to make a positive effect, which prolonged India’s road to independence unnecessarily. Regardless, Gandhi’s campaigns inspired similar movements for human rights and liberty around the world. After his early law school years in London, he relocated to South Africa to struggle for civil rights within the Indian community. It was here that he earned the name Mahatma (Sanskrit for great soul).

A controversial book entitled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld highlights Gandhi’s time spent in South Africa. Lelyveld reasons that Ghandi was discriminatory towards the black people of South Africa during apartheid by linking Gandhi with the following statements:

"We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs … we could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the ¬Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals." (During one of Gandhi’s campaigns for the rights of Indian people settled in South Africa).

"…the Indian is ¬being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir … whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a number of cattle to buy a wife, and then pass his life in indolence and ¬nakedness." Of white Afrikaners and Indians, he wrote: "We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do." (Open letter to the legislature of South Africa's Natal province written by Gandhi)

These words seem to indicate a racist man who was even in favour of apartheid; they do not seem like the words of the iconic figure the world has come to love and frequently quote. Further evidence from the journals he wrote suggest that they were indeed reflective of his own ideologies, and cast a shadow on his character.

These quotes complicate the view of someone who is often only seen as one-dimensional. The evidence suggests that Gandhi might not have been the saintly character that the world has constructed him to be, but simply a man who wanted to liberate his people in an era where segregation was commonplace. Even within his own race there was a great disparity with religion and the caste system, and he might have simply made a choice with regards to which wars to address.

Whether all of the rumours of Gandhi’s actions and statements are true remains unclear. But these considerations, while important, should not necessarily outweigh the good work of this leader. There is a tendency to mystify and essentialise our great leaders and to ignore their flaws, such as is often the case with leaders like Nelson Mandela and others. There is no such thing as a perfect person, and our tendency to deify certain figures might lead us to ignore the good that they can offer because of their humanness, or to ignore the bad because of their positive legacy. What must be remembered is not only the man, but the example, actions and teachings that left this world a better place.