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Was Gandhi a racist?

media Johannesbourg, Gandhi Square. A statue of Mohandas Gandhi, as a young man, during his time as a lawyer in South Africa (1893-1914). Gandhi - Gandhi Square © Varun Chatterji

A petition by activists in Malawi against a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the second largest city Blantyre, gathered 2,500 signatures on Tuesday. Malawians say the Indian spiritual and political leader was an "ardent racist" towards black South Africans.

"We feel that Malawi, our country, which is known as the warm heart of Africa, there's no place here for racists, we don't have space to celebrate racists," Kambewa Mpambira, a Malawian activist told RFI.

He, and other Malawians launched an online petition on 5 October to mobilize citizens against the proposed statue in Blantyre, Malawi's second largest city.

Within four days, they had already garnered 2,500 signatures, more than the 2,000 collected in Ghana during a similar protest in 2016, which led to the removal of a Gandhi statue from the main university.

"We thought that it was important that people should be aware and that if they had any misgivings about the statue that they should then sign that petition and then this should be forwarded to the Blantyre city council," adds Mpambira, denouncing a lack of information from the government.

"It is not the government of Malawi honouring Mahatma Gandhi, the statue is being built by the Indian government," insists Anthony Kasunda, spokesperson for Blantyre City Council, who are in charge of overseeing the construction.

"The government of Malawi is in a bilateral relationship with the government of India, and the council was just asked to provide space," he told RFI, adding that the statue would be built on Mahatma Gandhi road.

The statue is said to be in exchange for foreign aid to Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries.

"We have no problem whatsoever with any government to help us or to partner with us in our development," comments Mpambira.

'Dignity not for sale'

"But, what we are saying is that if there's to be a statue it should be sensitive, it should be respectful to us as citizens in this country. Regardless of there being conditions, our dignity and pride as a people, as a nation is not for sale," he says.

Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for 21 years, has long been a controversial figure. In 2015, the book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by scholars Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed revealed the extent of Gandhi's anti-Black racism. It argued that the independence leader's fight for the rights of Indians in colonial South Africa was spurred by his belief that Indians were innately superior to Black South Africans and that he advocated further segregation.

"Yes Gandhi when he arrived [in South Africa] in 1893, he was a racist," says Tirthankar Chanda, a Gandhi specialist at RFI. "He had not met Blacks before and then for him Indians were superior to Blacks."

Indeed, when Gandhi began his stay in South Africa as a 24-year-old lawyer, he used to refer to Blacks as "Kaffirs", a term used to denigrate Africans during colonial times.

Later, he would get rid of these notions however, even asking for greater equality between Indians and Africans with the Europeans, says Chanda, pointing out that the independence leader underwent "a mental and psychological evolution."

From racist to Mahatma

For all his faults, Gandhi's vision of non-violent protest inspired many African leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Chanda further points out.

The roots of the African resistance movement can be found in "the fight that Gandhi led with the British colonial govermnet for Indians," he says.

Gandhi became a hero for his role in the movement that won independence for India from Britain.

"In a sense, Mandela probably forgave Gandhi for his racism," continues Chanda. "He in fact went on to say, when he went to India, that you gave us a lawyer and we gave you back a Mahatma, Mahatma meaning a great soul."

Mpambira for his part, understands "that he is a world figure and he did do things that changed a lot of lives. But, we are concentrating on this side of him which is mostly overlooked, this hidden history," he says, hoping to follow in the example of Ghana and South Africa where proposed Gandhi statues were successfully blocked.

"We do feel connected to these other struggles," he comments. "They have inspired us that yes we can persist, something can be done and really our voices can be heard."

Asked whether authorities would consider blocking the statue if the online petition gathered enough signatures, Blantyre Council's Kasunda says "they will cross the river when we come to it. As of now we have not received a petition from anybody so the work on the statue will continue," he said.

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