Let’s say something about Mahatma Ghandi, the Great Soul. His place in history is beyond doubt. His ideas of non-violent protests for Indian independence have long inspired generations of liberation and activists and movements all over the world. People of every creed and race—from Dr Martin Luther King Jnr to Nelson Mandela.
For that, Ghandi has an undeniable special place in history—a place deserving to be applauded by all peoples of the earth, especially those who believe in co-existence of peoples; classes, ethnic groups, races and nations.
But Ghandi’s story, as most of Malawians and people beyond our borders, have belatedly discovered, is not a straightforward issue.
The recent fixation in African academic circles of Gandhi’s apparently racism is a case in point. It’s so clear from recently published writings of Ghandi’s time in South Africa, during the racist apartheid regime in particular, that Gandhi was a racist. His view of Africans was less flattering. He deemed the African race to be inferior to his own and used the derogatory term Kaffir at a time South African blacks suffered severe discrimination under apartheid.
He sought the uplifting of the South African Indian without his black compatriot.
Yet, as most Ghandi apologists would quickly point out, Ghandi’s views could have been a reflection of the appalling reality of the time—namely, that Indians in South Africa, and pretty much elsewhere, espoused racist views. After all, even the most progressive societies in the world have once hosted strong racist views and even acts as criminal and inhumane as slavery.
That is a fair point to raise but also beside the point. For one, there is no excuse for such an obvious flawed thinking such as racism or any idea premised on ‘one race is superior to another’.
However, it is when Gandhi’s views are bounced on a country like today’s Malawi, where the racial tensions between many who descended from his native India and the indigenous black people have been smouldering for decades without exploding; where the Indian community has never integrated fully and appears cordoned off from the rest of the society—save for its dominance of business and where employer and employee relations is not always cordial; when an idea such as a Gandhi statue appears out of touch.
Gandhi’s racism is then transfixed into a debate we have never had. It enters a large debate in which citizens of a small nation begin to resent too much of anything foreign and rightfully question why their streets are being dominated by foreign heroes when their heroes lie in unmarked graves.
In a country where Indians and blacks don’t live as neighbours; don’t play the same sport (who is the last Indian Malawian to play for the Flames?), odds of intermarriages are so bad and one suspects, border on the abomination for many Indians; the story of Gandhi’s statue unearths so many fraught lines.
While those who have laughed at the trivia business of fighting the erection of a small statue have legitimate concerns on questioning why similar energy is never spent fighting rampant corruption, perennial power outages and other social ills, they are also wrong to conclude that protesting against racism is not a worthy cause.
Those who also champion Ghandi statue’s fall, too, get it wrong when the premise for their opposition is solely that Malawian heroes wouldn’t get similar recognition in India or that Malawian heroes are yet to get their statues.
For starters, they are barking on a wrong tree. The Gandhi statue is an idea of Indian government and Malawi government, which is guilty for failing to honour our local heroes, was just being pragmatic to accept such an offer from a key bilateral and development partner.
So, maybe, Ghandi must fall, maybe he must stand. What is clear, to this end, is that this is an important debate because we see the first glimpse of citizenry expressing themselves on the country they want to build. It gives those who believe in active citizenship joy to see ordinary folks rushing to courts for intervention.
Such a citizen awakening can only be good for the country, one way or another.