Indian Minorities Will Demand Removal of San Francisco Gandhi Statue

The following is a memorandum which Organization for Minorities of India will present to the San Francisco Ferry Building Management on Oct. 2, 2010.

Dear San Francisco Ferry Building Management,

Today marks the 141st birthday of Hindu religious leader Mohandas Gandhi, a statue of whom was installed on the Embarcadero in 1984. While there are few things our society needs more than advocates for peace and harmony, Gandhi was definitely not the icon of peace portrayed by his supporters. On the contrary, he spent his life advocating for racial segregation, Hindu supremacism over India and other causes harmful to minorities. As members of the area’s large community of Indian minorities, we are therefore compelled to respectfully but firmly request you to remove the statue.

Gandhi was instrumental in causing the bloody partition of India and consequently making religious nationalism the basis of the newly formed Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. During the 1947 partition, he turned a deaf ear to the needs of over 70 million so-called “Untouchables” and 40 million Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs. His influence helped to concentrate political power in the hands of the majority populations, leaving minorities no choice but to accept the dominance of Islam in Pakistan or Hinduism in India. This caused the largest mass migration in human history as the original Hindu and Sikh residents in what became Pakistan were compelled to swap places with the Muslim residents of northern India. At least 12 million people were displaced and over one million died in the chaos.

This is one particularly significant reason that Gandhi remains highly divisive within the very diverse Indian community, especially among Dalits. Once known as “Untouchables,” the Dalits are considered to be lowest in the Hindu caste system. Mayawati, one of the few successful Dalit politicians in India, has strongly criticized Gandhi. In 2007, she blamed Gandhi for India's caste problems, saying, “He divided Indian society into two categories - the weaker sections and upper castes.” In 2009, she elaborated, calling Gandhi a “fake” who “did nothing substantial to improve the condition of the Dalits.”

Public celebrations of Gandhi, especially proposals for new statues, are sparking controversy throughout North America. Most recently, the Sacramento Examiner reported that a proposal to place a Gandhi statue on the California state capitol grounds split the local Indian community along caste lines. In an April 24, 2010 planning meeting for the Sacramento statue, high-caste organizer Sham Goyal termed Gandhi as an “icon of peace.” Yet when local Indian minorities suggested honoring Mayawati instead, he stated: “If she is not grateful to Gandhi, then India would be better off if she was dead.” Beloved Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a contemporary of Gandhi, once summarized Gandhi’s similarly double-minded view of peace by saying: “If a man with God's name on his tongue and sword under his armpit deserved the appellation of a Mahatma, then Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Mahatma.”

Opposition to Gandhi, however, stems from far more than just his actions in India. Recent books such as Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity (Prometheus, 2004) and Gandhi Under Cross-Examination (Sovereign Star, 2009) have revealed how Gandhi, during more than 20 years living in South Africa, promoted racist, segregationist policies which harmed the indigenous blacks. One particular incident representative of Gandhi’s racism occurred in the late 1800s in Durban, South Africa.

In speeches boasting about the deed, Gandhi revealed that the local post office had two doors: one for whites and the other for non-whites, including upper-caste Indians and black Africans. Offended at having to share a door with black people, Gandhi initiated a campaign to segregate the blacks from his own community of high-caste Indians. He successfully petitioned the authorities to allow a third door for Indian use only, writing:

“In the Durban Post and telegraph offices there were separate entrances for natives and Asiatics and Europeans. We felt the indignity too much and many respectable Indians were insulted and called all sorts of names by the clerks at the counter. We petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics, and Europeans.” (CWMG, Vol. I, pp. 367-368)

While on a visit to his home country of India in 1896, Gandhi summarized his general opinion of black South Africans in a speech to a public audience in Bombay, stating:

“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire 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.” [CWMG, Vol. 1, pp. 409-410]

The term “Kaffir” is a pejorative South African term for blacks which is equivalent to the ‘n’ word. Use of this term has been an actionable offense in South Africa since 1975. Despite always using it to describe black Africans, Gandhi was fully aware of the offensive nature of the word. This is demonstrated by Gandhi’s comment during a religious conflict in India, when he said: “If ‘Kaffir’ is a term of opprobrium [ed. harsh criticism], how much more so is Chandal?” [CWMG, Vol. 28, p. 62] “Chandal” is a racist term for low-caste Hindus.

Gandhi's entrenched racism is further evident throughout his writings. Another example can be seen in 1904, when Gandhi wrote a letter to the Johannesburg Medical Officer of Health, protesting a decision allowing black Africans to settle in Indian neighborhoods, saying:

“Under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.” [CWMG, Vol. III, p. 429, Feb. 15, 1904]

Gandhi was far more interested in gaining legal superiority over the blacks than he was in gaining legal equality to the whites. He frequently protested that upper-caste Indians “have been dragged down with the Kaffir without the slightest justification” [CWMG, Vol. 3, p. 32] and protested legislation he believed “reduces Indians to a level lower than that of the Kaffirs.” [CWMG, Vol. 6, p. 28] In 1908, he complained that upper-caste Indians were being equated to the blacks. According to Gandhi, the British considered upper-caste Indians “to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.” [CWMG, Vol. 8, p. 167]

These short quotes and excerpts are merely brief examples of Gandhi’s bigoted past. His extensive writings are full of views disparaging practically everyone except for upper-caste Hindus, including black people and Dalits. Of course, many people question whether Gandhi ever repudiated his racist views later in life. The simple truth is that he continued spreading such beliefs until his death. In 1940, for instance, years after his activities in Africa, an elderly Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler. Addressing the letter to his “dear friend,” he told Hitler: “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.” [CWMG, Vol. 79, p. 453]

The surest indicator that Gandhi never rejected his racism is that he never apologized for the damage in which his actions resulted. However, even if his views had changed, the harm was already done. Not only did Gandhi harbor racist opinions, but he enthusiastically acted upon them by promoting racism within the Indian community, demanding segregation of blacks and Indians and even going to war against the black Africans.

Holding Gandhi up as a role model and honoring him with a statue is both hurtful and offensive to those minorities who were harmed by his bigotry. As public awareness of the reality of Gandhi’s life spreads, the statue will become an embarrassment to the city. Considering the facts of Gandhi’s legacy, we urge you to swiftly remove the statue. We encourage you to instead replace it with a statue of true champions of civil rights, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

Sincerely,

Bhajan Singh
Director, OFMI

To join in the request for removing the statue, contact the San Francisco Ferry Building.

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