history and heroism: let's talk gandhi
It comes as quite a shock when the man you grew up believing to be a “saint” actually had dark, twisted secrets that history neglects to accentuate. For the first seven years of my life, I grew up in Bangalore, India, and naturally, I was taught to blindly admire and respect one of India’s greatest politicians and activists. The newspapers I’d see my grandfather reading constantly praised Mahatma Gandhi for his unwavering heroism, and the black-and-white pictures of the man in the traditional dhoti were embedded in my mind as a face to the glorious name.
Looking back now, it’s truly appalling that I was so evidently misled. It wasn’t until my seventh-grade social studies class when my teacher introduced the syllabus by simply scribbling a quote on the blackboard — “history is written by the winners” — that I began to do my own research. I uncovered numerous articles and documentaries hidden behind those that educators would force down their students’ throats, and came to the very gruesome realization that the way we’re taught history today is literally brainwashing us.
Mildly put, Mahatma Gandhi, behind his reputation of being a peaceful protester and whimsical leader, was a racist and misogynist.
Ashwin Desai, a professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahed, a professor of history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, spent years studying and compiling the story of Gandhi’s time in South Africa. In 2015, they published a book called The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire which highly emphasized Gandhi’s “whitewashed” past and his derogatory comments against the indigenous African peoples. Desai and Vahed wrote that Gandhi went out of his way to segregate Indians from Africans, despite their struggles being similar in the sense that both races were oppressed and denied rights on the basis of their skin color. Gandhi had a very clear stance about who he believed to be the “superior races” — they were that of the Aryan brotherhood and the civilized Indians.
In an interview with a BBC correspondent, Desai said: “To the extent that he wrote Africans out of history or was keen to join with whites in their subjugation he was a racist. To the extent that he accepted white minority power but was keen to be a junior partner, he was a racist.” While it may be true that Gandhi had no choice but to comply to the whitewashing of South Africa, he was still a willing participant. He still refused to lend a hand to the African people who so desperately needed help against English persecution.
In 1947, Gandhi was interviewed by Louis Fischer, a Jewish-American journalist, and author of The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s views on the Holocaust were revealed in arguably his most controversial statement: “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves in the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
Before delving into the uncomfortable history of Gandhi and the numerous young women associated with him, it’s important to discuss his relationship with his own wife. He frequently used her as his punching bag; as quoted in Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India: “I simply cannot bear to look at Ba’s face. The expression is often like that on the face of a meek cow and gives one the feeling as a cow occasionally does, that in her own dumb manner she is saying something.”
The biographical film Gandhi (1982) inaccurately portrayed Gandhi’s marriage as an optimistic, well-told love story. In an article published by the Commentary Magazine, Richard Greiner, the journal’s most frequent movie critic, highlighted the truth behind Kasturba Gandhi‘s death, which did not make it to the screen. Diagnosed with pneumonia, British doctors recommended penicillin to cure her, but Gandhi refused to inject his wife with the “alien” life-saving medication that he later used on himself to treat his own malaria.
In his time in South Africa, two of his female followers were harassed by a young man, leading him to forcibly chop off their hair so they didn’t warrant any unwanted sexual attention. He wrote about the incident later, emphasizing the message to all Indian women that they were responsible for their own sexual assaults. In order to test his celibacy, he slept naked with young women without touching them to test his sexual patience. Among the many young women was his own great-niece.
Sorry-not-sorry for bursting your bubble.
Too often these issues are brought up and brushed off as “minor flaws,” but the real reason behind that is simply people’s inability to accept that “great men” are not always great. It’s people’s stubborn stance that prominent figures throughout history cannot be held to the same standard as normal human beings.
Gandhi was by no means the “perfect human being” that history books, biographies and society itself often paints him to be. There are cracks in that painting, too many to count; and it is just another example of how we need to take charge of our own knowledge so that we don’t find ourselves blinded by ignorance.
That being said, while I admire the cause for which Gandhi dedicated a good portion of his life, I wholeheartedly condemn the leader behind it.