The Case For Dismantling the Legacy of Gandhi
In a recent incident, the statue of Gandhi located at Simon Fraser University was decapitated. As per the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), "It appears someone used some sort of power tools to take the head of the statue off.” The Consulate General of India in Vancouver promptly expressed strong disapproval of this action, characterizing it as a "heinous crime." The RCMP did not provide any indications regarding the individual(s) accountable for the incident although various media outlets, conservative Hindu nationalists, and its media arms expeditiously inferred that “Khalistan supporters” were the perpetrators. A Hindustan Times video suggests that “India fumes as Khalistan backers desecrate Gandhi statue in Canada, twice in a month.”
Occurring at a time of political unrest in Panjab, when hundreds of Sikhs had been arrested under draconian colonial-era laws after demonizing Sikh political activism, the Indian media and government immediately targeted Sikh activists without providing any evidence for this allegation. This knee-jerk response fails to acknowledge the intricacy of Gandhi's connections and past with diverse communities throughout the Indian subcontinent, leading to a significant amount of censure and rejection. A meticulous assessment is imperative, along with acknowledging that, for numerous communities, it is not only suitable but also crucial to take measures against symbols such as these monuments. Reviewing Gandhi’s sordid political legacy, it is clear that Gandhi embodied deeply problematic perspectives about marginalized people outside his so-called “upper-caste” elite. This included disdain for Muslims, Black communities, Dalits, women, as well as Sikhs. In Gandhi’s political vision of humanity and the Indian nation, all of these groups occupy a subordinate position–unworthy of full dignity and autonomy. Given the political context of the incident and India’s allegations however, it is important to understand how the myth of Gandhi is mobilized in order to advance India’s benign “branding” around the world while its aggressive propaganda machine continues to undermine Sikhs throughout the diaspora.
The Convenient Adversary
In their own views, oppressors have often lauded their greatest opponents. This may indicate flexibility, a willingness to negotiate, or a realization of their opponents' techniques' efficacy. Westerners and those from colonial and imperial nations preferred opponents who were willing to take the path of least resistance, or one that did not cause the imperial/colonial nation much discomfort. Considering the context of the independence movement against British rule, Gandhi appears to have been that celebrated foe.
Several decades ago, Gandhi was extensively commemorated and frequently referenced in conjunction with another renowned advocate of nonviolent resistance, Martin Luther King Jr. During the period in question, the Indian National Congress (INC), which is commonly referred to as a moderate nationalist political party, held the reins of power. One of its key strategic objectives was to leverage the legacy of Gandhi to enhance India's international standing. The proliferation of Gandhi busts worldwide can be attributed to members of or groups associated with the INC.
On both sides, Gandhi was presented as a useful enemy. Indian nationalists embraced Gandhi as a symbol of "ancient Indian wisdom" in its foreign policy attempts to project India as a “vishwaguru” (Guru of the world), while colonial powers held him up as an example of the effectiveness of pacifism. When compared to the RSS's fascist roots, he is seen as a tolerant and progressive leader.
The truth is however, that this simplified narrative significantly obfuscates the truth. It is crucial to clarify that Gandhi did not support secularism in the way that the RSS and Hindu fascists portrayed him. In fact, Pritam Singh argues that “had Mahatma Gandhi not been murdered by a Hindu fanatic, the ambiguous and contradictory nature of his thought would have made him a very valuable source of legitimacy for some version of Hindutva ideology.”
Reality, however, completely overturns this myth of Gandhi as the tolerant saint.
“Kafirs and Natives”
In December 2018, the University of Ghana's campus witnessed the removal of Mahatma Gandhi's statue. This may have been the first time Gandhi had ever been publicly criticized by a group outside of India in such a way, thanks to pressure from university staff and students. Pranab Mukherjee, a former Indian president, had presented the monument from the Indian government as a gift (ie. tactic) in 2016. Nana Adoma Asare Adei, a law student, stated to the BBC: "Having his statue means that we stand for everything he stands for and if he stands for these things [his alleged racism], I don't think we should have his statue on campus."
Prior to this, it is apparent that little attention was paid to Gandhi's time spent in South Africa and his bigotry; in fact, as was already mentioned, he was widely acclaimed as an inspiration by Black intellectuals and revolutionaries in Africa and the United States. This phenomenon, however, experienced a quick transition as the expansion of the internet brought together groups with varying, but generally critical, opinions about Gandhi.
Gandhi's own writings from his time in South Africa (he arrived there in 1893 and stayed until 1914) paint an incredibly clear picture of his attitudes toward Africans as well as how he perceived the positionality of Indians in relation to both them and Europeans. Gandhi would write:
I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan… A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.
Gandhi stated during an address in Mumbai in 1896 that the Europeans in Natal hoped: “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.”
Numerous individuals have attempted to vindicate his historical reputation by contending that his inclination to combat the British in India was partially influenced by his encounters with racial discrimination in South Africa. Conversely, some scholars have posited that Gandhi's youthfulness during that period may have contributed to his espousal of racist beliefs, but he eventually renounced them. The complexities of his later engagements with individuals belonging to the so-called “lower” castes, or Dalits, as well as the Sikh community, coupled with his problematic “experimental” relationships with younger women/children, pose a challenge in disentangling this viewpoint. Gandhi not only had a complicated past, but he also unmistakably held deeply problematic beliefs while serving as one of the most prominent public opponents of British colonial rule.
The Ashram Experiments
Over the past decade, a number of revelations have come to light regarding individuals who are commonly referred to as "Gurus" and who have been implicated in various forms of disturbing conduct, such as sexual assault, rape, and other egregious behaviors. The ashrams would become characterized by a prevalence of trauma, pain, and suffering. For a glimpse into the potential atrocities that may be uncovered in the ashrams of the aforementioned "Gurus," one may examine Gandhi's ashram.
Between 1917 and 1930, Gandhi resided at the Sabarmati Ashram, also known as the Harijan Ashram, which served as a significant center for his campaign against the British. Initially referred to as the Satyagraha Ashram, the establishment was named after Gandhi's ideology of nonviolent resistance. Nevertheless, it served as a location where Gandhi carried out a series of unconventional and dreadful "experiments" on his adherents, predominantly adolescent females.
Many of Gandhi's profoundly disturbing "experiments" with celibacy with young women in his ashram would be documented in his own writings, which suggests that he was a man who felt his actions were both acceptable and necessary for his spiritual practice. One of his ongoing “experiments" in his ashram was to have young women (some of whom were married) sleep naked with him in his bed. In conducting research for his book "Gandhi: Naked Ambition," author Jad Adams writes in the Independent:” Gandhi would have women in his bed, engaging in his "experiments" which seem to have been, from a reading of his letters, an exercise in strip-tease or other non-contact sexual activity.” In the midst of Muslim-Hindu violence in Bengal, Gandhi, then aged 77, encouraged his grandniece Manu, then 18 years old, to spend the night in a bed with him. He suggests to her that we “both may be killed by the Muslims.” He then further suggests to her that we "must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked."
None of this went unnoticed by his own companions, some of whom rejected, denounced, and even abandoned his Ashram altogether in protest of his practices. One of Gandhi's closest associates, Nirmal Kumar Bose, wrote to another close associate, Kishorlal G. Mashruwala, on March 16, 1947, writing:
“When I first learnt about Gandhi’s experiment in which a girl took off her clothes and lay under the same cover with him and he tried to find out if any sexual feeling was evoked in him or his companion, I felt genuinely surprised. Personally, I would not tempt myself like that and more than that, my respect for [women] would prevent me from treating her as an instrument in my experiment.”
His experiments were so perverse that even Nehru writhed in disgust, wondering, “...I do not know why he is obsessed with this problem of sex.” His biographer, historian Ramchandra Guha, disclosed the following: "Gandhi was also obsessed with his own sexuality and celibacy, which is hugely problematic...Those experiments cannot be defended. They were an imposition on young people and an exercise in power..."
Gandhi saw women simply as tools and challenges to be surmounted in his sadistic quest to gauge his own spiritual compass. "Sex and Power: Defining History, Creating Societies" by Rita Banerji paints a vivid picture of the women in his ashram:
The word ‘psychotic’ repeatedly came up in various documents with regards to these women’s mental state. The women, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties (not surprisingly, given he could have ‘experimented’ with the older women or even his own wife!) were repeatedly described as depressed and weeping, and seemed to be completely in his control.
In spite of this, Gandhi would press on and groom these young women to think that they were undergoing a test of moral duty, saying: “for me Manu sleeping with me is a matter of dharma (moral duty).” Some women were captivated by Gandhi's revered status as a "mahatma" or spiritual leader, and subsequently advocated for him. In her personal diary, Manu would attest: “Bapu is a mother to me. He is initiating me to a higher human plane through the Brahmacharya experiments, part of his Mahayagna of character-building. Any loose talk about the experiment is most condemnable.”
The “Expedient Untouchables”
Throughout a significant portion of his lifetime, Gandhi declared his intention to advocate for the rights of the Dalit population in India, which had been subjected to complete social exclusion for millennia. Undoubtedly, this assertion is marred by a harsh truth, which impelled Gandhi to perpetrate appalling violence against the most marginalized castes in India for a prolonged period.
Despite Gandhi's brand management as a proponent for the Dalit community, it would be inaccurate to classify him as a "caste abolitionist." It can be argued that Gandhi did not have any intention of eliminating the caste system at all. Gandhi himself clarified this position: “These being my views I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.” Compounding his incapacity to disentangle caste from swaraj (self-rule) and Hindu society, Gandhi would write in the Gujarati Journal, NavaJivan,“I believe that if Hindu Society has been able to stand it is because it is founded on the caste system,” ultimately categorically cementing that “the seeds of Swaraj are to be found in the caste system.” Dalit author Sujatha Gidla affirmed Gandhi's casteism during the 2018 Jaipur Literary Festival: “Mahatma Gandhi was a casteist and racist who wanted to preserve the caste system and paid lip service to Dalit upliftment…”
With time, however, Gandhi's opinions mutated into something more clever, and he began to offer more subtle support for caste by rephrasing his terminology and proposing consolidation of the so-called “lesser” castes to “reproduce the old system of four varnas.” Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who would lead the Dalit movement and dedicate his life to eliminating caste, saw this for what it was, elucidating the fact that this system maintained the caste-based tradition of hereditary occupations. The oppressed castes merging into one Shudra caste (among the three hierarchical castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) would still keep them in a position of servitude to the others. This restructuring and reframing made little sense to Dr. Ambedkar. He argued that “you cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.”
During the second Round Table conferences in 1931, which were conducted between Indian delegates and the British under the auspices of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Dr. Ambedkar put forth a proposal for the creation of a separate electorate for the Dalit community: “The depressed classes form a group by themselves which is distinct and separate … and, although they are included among the Hindus, they in no sense form an integral part of that community.” The implementation of a separate electorate system played a crucial role in the political empowerment of Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit community as they sought to gain representation in a Hindu-majority electorate. He would argue, “Nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove them unless you get political power in your hands.” Gandhi, who was at the time incarcerated in Yervada Central Jail in Pune, would respond petulantly to this news by declaring a fast till death until the Dalits were reintegrated into the broader “Hindu” electorate. Under increasing public pressure for Gandhi to terminate his fast unto death, Dr. Ambedkar was promptly summoned to Gandhi's side and ultimately compelled to accede to his demands under the Poona Pact. To Ambedkar, “the Poona Pact was only the first blow inflicted upon the untouchables,” and the proposed measure would ultimately undermine the aspirations of the Dalit community for political power as it would entail their inclusion in a consolidated electorate from “...which the Hindus get the right to nominate an untouchable to sit nominally as a representative of the untouchables but really as a tool of the Hindus.”
It is ultimately difficult to maintain any faith that Gandhi ever wished to liberate the underprivileged, so-called “untouchable” societies of India; rather, it appears that Gandhi was more concerned with political posturing and the consolidation of Indian nationalism. In this aspect, Gandhi's political gymnastics were astute and intricately intertwined with his identity as a savarna, or so-called “upper”-caste Hindu. Gandhi saw Dalits as only an instrument to be used in the pursuit of his political ambitions. For Gandhi, caste was an essential tool in establishing the theoretical Indian republic. Gandhi writes that caste is:
“...responsible for durability of Hindu society, the seed of swaraj (freedom), unique power of organization, means of providing primary education and raising a defense force, means of self-restraint, natural order of society, and most important of all, eternal principle of hereditary occupation for maintaining societal order.”
Dalit author Sujatha Gidla concludes: “He really wanted to preserve the caste system, and why he paid lip service to the upliftment of untouchables is because Hindus needed a majority against Muslims for political representation in the British government.”
Years later, Dr. Ambedkar would write in his publication entitled, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The Fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards [which had been awarded to them].”
Rejecting Sikh Autonomy
While the aforementioned topics have dominated many of the mainstream conversations about Gandhi, far less is spoken about Gandhi's interactions with the Sikh community. The emphasis of what follows will be on Gandhi's views regarding the Sikh thesis and philosophy, his apprehensions towards the Sikh community, and his astute political maneuvers aimed at preventing the Sikh polity from gaining any significant influence within the recently established Indian republic.
For Sikhs, Gandhi serves as a symbol of the termination of their sovereign reign in 1849 with colonization by the British following the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Over the course of the ensuing 150 years, the Sikh community in India would emerge as a leading force in the implementation of effective armed means aimed at resisting British colonial rule. One of these factions would be the Babbar Akalis, who had sprung out of the previous peaceful Gurdwara Reform movement in the years before them. In the Babbar Akali Doaba publication, it was expressed strongly that “If you refuse to be awakened, the English will devour you. Without a violent struggle, India will not be free. Non-Violence has stirred the masses, but violence alone will bring the final victory.” The Sikhs' resistance profoundly affected the British as well as the Bippar elite who would succeed them in the colonial project. In any case, as a minority within the Indian republic, Sikhs would assuredly mobilize and oppose Brahminical hegemony at all costs.
Sikh resistance was not solely motivated by a stance against imperialism and colonialism but also the inevitability of Brahminical hegemony. It is evident that Gandhi and Nehru were concerned about this matter. They may have recognized that providing autonomy to the Sikhs could have detrimental consequences for the emerging Hindu state, regardless of how it was painted as "secular."
During a wave of anti-colonial movement in the 1920s, Gandhi consistently instilled in the Sikh community a sense of anticipation for the establishment of an autonomous state. These were essentially tactical concessions, forcing the Sikhs to wait until Gandhi and Nehru could establish a Hindu majority in India. This was reiterated by Sirdar Kapur Singh in his 1966 speech to parliament, that in 1929 Gandhi: “gave the Sikhs a solemn assurance that after India achieves political freedom, no constitution shall be framed by the majority community unless it is freely acceptable to the Sikhs.” These reassurances would continue for years. In 1932, Gandhi, on the defensive, would state: “What further assurances the Congress can give to the Sikhs, I fail to understand. I ask you to accept my word and the resolution of the Congress that it will not betray a single individual, much less a community.” Ultimately, Sikhs were betrayed and rejected the Indian constitution. Hukam Singh, who, through the Akali Dal, represented Sikhs in the Constituent Assembly, declared that: “let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this Constitution.”
Projecting Sikhs as somehow being inextricably linked to Hinduism as a whole was one of Gandhi's tactics for suppressing an independent Sikh hond-hasti (being/existence). Gandhi (and most nationalists) amplified a narrative that Sikhs had no reason to seek to live apart from the greater Hindu society because they are intrinsically linked to the Hindu community's manifest destiny. One significant factor in promoting this narrative was the fact that Dr. Ambedkar contemplated the possibility of leading 60 million Dalits to adopt Sikhi as a means of emancipating them from the systemic oppression imposed upon them by the Brahminical caste system. This would have constituted a highly formidable political entity. Gandhi, equipped with his customary political acumen and convenient belief that Sikhs were a subset of Hindus, would inevitably resist this notion. Gandhi would write:
Today I will only say that to me Sikhism is a part of Hinduism. But the situation is different from a legal point of view. Dr. Ambedkar wants a change of religion. If becoming a Sikh amounts to conversion, then this kind of conversion on the part of Harijans is dangerous. If you can persuade the Sikhs to accept that Sikhism is a part of Hinduism and if you can make them give up the separate electorate, then I will have no objections to Harijans calling themselves Sikhs'.
Similar to rhetoric heard today, Gandhi questioned the independent existence of Sikhs on an epistemic level. He writes: “I read your Granth Sahib. But I do not do so to please you. Nor shall I seek your permission to do so. But the Guru has not said anywhere that you must grow your beards, carry kirpans (swords) and so on”. Not only would the Sikhs' physical saroop (form) be threatened, but so too would their linguistic history. In a letter to his friend Amrit Kaur, he penned the following: “I wish you would persuade enlightened Sikhs to take the Devnagri script in the place of the Gurmukhi.”
Gandhi's approach to the Sikh community was clearly paternalistic; he saw the Sikhs as part of the Hindu community and hence a people who needed to be restrained, reminded of their place, and (re-)educated on their true nature of existence. Gandhi’s paternalism is clearly established when considering Master Tara Singh:
It was wrong to make a difference between Sikhs and Hindus. Master Tara Singh had compared the Hindus and Sikhs to the nail and the nail bed. No one could separate the two. I am glad to hear it. Who was Guru Nanak, if not a Hindu? The Guru Granth Sahib is full of teachings of the Vedas. Hinduism is like a mighty ocean, which receives and absorbs all religious truths.
Dismantling the Myth
Even though Modi's right-wing government has historically been one of Gandhi's fiercest antagonists (Hindu nationalists assassinated Gandhi in 1948 and frequently burn effigies of him today), they nonetheless weaponize his legacy when it serves their political purposes. Pritam Singh’s writes: “In the larger strategic scheme of things, Hindutva ideologists are quite capable of owning Gandhi as a Ram bhagat (devotee of the Hindu god Ram) and a great Hindu thinker…”
As Gandhi used the political destiny of Dalits as a tool in his quest to create a Hindu-supremacist nation, he was ultimately reduced to convenient mythology by both colonialists looking to quell resistance to their empire as well as Hindutva extremists who saw Gandhi as a soft proponent for a Hindu rashtra. The assassination of Gandhi would further serve this myth by immortalizing him in the annals of history, or else, as his contemporary at the time, Manmath Nath Gupta states: “Had that stupid and shortsighted fellow (meaning Godse) allowed Gandhi to live his natural life, and die a natural death like all mortals, he would have, I am quite certain, grown weightless…”
It is crucial for us to keep questioning Gandhi's legacy and dismantle the Gandhi myth in order to comprehend the new political order in which we find ourselves. The beheading of Gandhi's statue is currently being exploited as part of a concerted attempt to smear Sikhs around the world and, possibly, influence domestic policy in their home countries, painting them as "extremist" elements that need to be dealt with using a heavy hand. This situation has caused some Sikhs to adopt a defensive stance, attempting to navigate through this act of vandalism and identify verbiage that may potentially alleviate the supposed harm to our community’s “standing” in Western societies. Undoubtedly, this necessitates a more profound examination on our part: should we, at present, distance ourselves from this course of action? Would our declaration insinuate that Sikhs are inherently characterized by peacefulness and exemplary citizenship, thereby precluding the possibility of actively participating in such forms of symbolic resistance? Teer Kaur, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the criminalization of space and state violence, articulates: “It’s the way the word "peaceful" has a chokehold on our Sikh community. This Gandhi-ification” of our anger and frustration to appeal to western audiences and democracies…” In a desire to harmoniously blend in with the decaying, morally nebulous Western culture that surrounds us, we have sanitized our lives, vocabulary, and approaches to conflict.
In that precise moment, decapitating Gandhi's statue was a valuable political act. The dismantling of Gandhi's legacy is necessary to honor the marginalized, stateless, and powerless communities that emerged from the Indian State and were consigned to the remote corners of Indian nationalism, constantly under the threat of genocide.
Jungfateh Singh | @JungFatehSingh
Jungfateh Singh is an organizer, writer and producer, and has worked on Sikh issues across the globe for over 15 years. His first graphic novel, Bhujang, was released June 2023.