Why Students at Carleton University Are Trying to Have a Statue of Gandhi Removed

Gandhi has been described as a visionary and a pioneer of nonviolent protest. But some critics describe him as a racist against black Africans and a misogynist.

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Mar 27 2018, 3:09pm

A Carleton University welcome sign, and a bronze statue of Gandhi is pictured on the University Campus in Ottawa, Ontario, April 29, 2012. | Images via CP. 

Every winter, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Carleton University is affectionately adorned with hats and scarves to keep it from getting too cold.

But this tribute is a lie, say a growing number of critics, who are demanding the university remove the statue of the Indian activist. They say despite his admirable reputation, Gandhi was also a misogynist, a racist towards black Africans and a supporter of the caste system in India.

"For you to deify Gandhi, some people have to be erased from history. You don't engage with how his activism as a whole was detrimental to certain segments of society," says Kenneth Aliu, the president of Carleton's African Studies Student Association, whose opinion piece in the school's newspaper ignited the debate across campus.

"He talked about how the Indian struggle is a continuous struggle against the kaffirs, who want to live out their days in savagery and nakedness. I cannot see myself worshiping this man. Everything I learned about him was a lie."

The current debate at Carleton is not an isolated event. The statue came under criticism when it was unveiled in 2011 and commemorations of Gandhi have increasingly come under fire worldwide in recent years.

In 2016, the University of Ghana decided to remove a statue of Gandhi from its campus, citing concerns of racism. That same year, the unveiling of a new Gandhi statue at a public park near Sacramento, California, was met by a flurry of anti-Gandhi protests from immigrants from India's minority communities. The statue is still there. In 2013 and 2010, similar protests broke out surrounding Gandhi statues in Cerritos, California, and San Francisco, also failing to get them removed.

The accusations are many: That Gandhi slept naked next to young girls to test his sexual restraint; that he worked to prevent the untouchable caste from being recognized as a distinct political group; that he routinely referred to black Africans using the slur ' kaffir' and demanded Indians in South Africa not be classed alongside natives.

Aliu's piece set off a debate across campus and on social media, with many students coming out both in favour of and opposed to taking down the statue. Carleton administrators, when reached by e-mail, say there are currently no plans to remove Gandhi's statue, which was donated to the school by the High Commission of India in 2011.

There's been much written about the subject. In 2011, the Indian state of Gujarat voted to ban the book Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld, because of harsh claims the author makes about Gandhi's racism and sex life. More recently, the book The South African Gandhi, by Ashwin Desai and Goolem Vahed, has raised eyebrows, alleging Gandhi was an adamant supporter of British imperialism in South Africa. The authors point to an incident from Gandhi's time in South Africa, in which they claim Gandhi refused to use the same post office entrance as native Africans, demanding that Indians have their own entrance.

Scholars are deeply divided about how, or whether, society should commemorate Gandhi’s life in the 21st century.

"The idea that Gandhi's racial attitudes are somehow not up to par for 2018 is a difficult argument to sustain in any meaningful manner," says Hans Bakker, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Guelph, who has written extensively about Gandhi and edited the 1993 book Gandhi and the Gita.

"Anyone who claims to somehow be superior to Gandhi in terms of race relations should go live in a situation as fraught with danger and then live up to the highest ideals."

According to Chinnaiah Jangam, a professor of South Asian history at Carleton University, Gandhi never saw Africans as equals to Indians, despite being treated by the British as a second-class subject himself.

"Gandhi comes from a very privileged upper-class background and he was never able to see himself as someone who was deprived, so that's why the racial humiliation hurt him a lot," says Jangam.

"It didn’t make him reflect that there were people below him. That is a major failing on his part."

However, Jangam says there are other aspects students should consider before trying to have the statue taken down.

"Gandhi was a very ethical man and he believed in humanity and ethics, despite his problems with race and caste," he says.

His limitations are "perfectly understandable, because he was a product of his own caste and context. But one thing Gandhi had was compassion for humanity. See him in that context."

Is this debate historical revisionism? An unfair attack on a moral giant from a different generation? Or a necessary re-evaluation of an overpraised figure? The controversy over Gandhi's statue mirrors other clashes over history from the the past few years.

As Canada marked its 150th birthday, bitter disputes broke out across the country over the commemoration of once-iconic figures who were also associated with racist policies: The federal Liberals renamed the Langevin Block in Ottawa, in recognition of the role Hector-Louis Langevin played in setting up the residential school system. Similarly, the city of Halifax removed a statue of Edward Cornwallis and there were calls to rename several sites named after Jeffrey Amherst—all due to the treatment of Indigenous peoples by their namesakes.

Activists are also fighting to rename Ryerson University, named after Egerton Ryerson, and schools named after Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, due to policies that are now decried as acts of genocide by some.

Though there are only 13 schools in Canada named after Macdonald, the debate is highly contentious: A 2017 poll by Angus Reid found 55 percent of Canadians oppose removing Macdonald's name from schools, while 25 percent support it.

The issue of what to do with a figure whose ideas are now rejected by society as offensive has divided historians between those who think it’s wrong-headed to judge our past through the lens of the present, and those who argue it’s high time we did.

“The politically correct attitude is running wild and it won’t stop until we are without history," Ottawa-based historian Jack Granatstein told VICE. He says the commemoration controversies are being “driven by groups pushing their own particular agenda,” and that a lot of historians have followed suit.

"Historians have lined up on the wrong side of this issue so, frankly, I see no hope that sense will prevail."

But Jesse Palsetia, a historian of South Asian history at the University of Guelph, proposes a more nuanced view of the issue.

"The first exercise of re-examining whether statues should be taken down is a modern-day re-examination of our values, not historical ones. It clearly involves history, but it really is about our values today and how we represent them," he says.

As for Gandhi, Palsetia says Carleton should keep its statue.

"Gandhi's motivations were not to promote slavery, race dominance, or perpetuate negative images of whole peoples, in the way some of the historical figures whose statues are controversial, and that have been scrutinized lately, are implicated in," he argues.

"Raising a statue to an important historical figure should not obscure their whole life. Perhaps the monument should in some way reflect this with a plaque of explanation."

Chinnaiah Jangam says there's an irony in the fact this debate is even happening. He says Gandhi never wanted statues or commemorations made for him in the first place.

"The statue of Gandhi is here not because Gandhi wanted it to be here," he says.

"For me, whether to have the Gandhi statue on campus or not, that is not Gandhi's choice. It's the choice of powerful Indians who don't follow what he said. Gandhi never wanted statues to be established. It's a very ironic problem."

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