Monday, October 15, 2018

On the Petition Against the Gandhi Statue: Why Malawi Needs More Such Youth Activism

In a rather unusual move, on Thursday 11th October the Malawi Government responded to an online petition that has now attracted more than 3,400 signatures in a campaign to stop the erection of a Gandhi statue in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre. The move was unusual because the only time the Malawi Government is moved to respond to anything is when people threaten to demonstrate on the streets. This time, it was a mere petition, online, and the government issued a response.

In a country known for what many consider to be docility and apathy especially on matters political, the kind of activism demonstrated by the young Malawians who have initiated the petition against the Gandhi statue is a burst of fresh air. If more young Malawians participated in this manner in issues affecting the country, perhaps the government and other responsible bodies and service providers would think twice before ignoring issues the way they are always perceived as.

I have identified at least eight reasons why many Malawians say they do not want the Gandhi statue. The first reason is that Mahatma Gandhi was racist toward Africans. The second reason is that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi, and Africa, for that matter. The third is that the Malawi Government seems to be accepting the statue from a position of weakness and poverty, coming as part of a package that includes a grant to construct an international conference centre in Blantyre, among other aid packages from the Government of India. The fourth reason is that the government has not consulted Malawians on the issue. Fifth, the Government of India is pushing an imperialist agenda, using its growing wealth and influence to position itself as a global player, at the expense of weaker, poorer nations.

Sixth, as former Vice President Dr. Cassim Chilumpha said on a panel discussion on Zodiak Broadcasting Station, the statue is being placed in a spot that is more prominent and visible than Malawians have honoured their own heroes. Besides, he added, the Malawian way of honouring people is to name roads after them, not building statues. And Blantyre already has a Mahatma Gandhi Road, he said. The seventh reason is that Malawians of Indian origin mistreat and look down upon black Malawians, and there are bad race relations between the two groups. The eighth reason is that, well, there is no reason. Malawians simply don’t want a statue of Gandhi, period.

A bust, looking like Kamuzu, in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

I would like to address the merits and demerits of each of these eight arguments, starting with the one that Gandhi was racist. The online petition against the statue makes generous reference to The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, a 2015 book written by two South African academics, Ashwin Desai, of the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahen, of the University of Kwazulu-Natal. The petitioners have selected several quotes in which Gandhi is caught in the act, so to speak. And the quotes are as unflattering as they are disturbing.

I heard of the book just when it came out in 2015, but I did not get a chance to read it until this past weekend. As I read through it, I was gripped by emotions of pain, disgust and disbelief. I came to appreciate where the petitioners were coming from, and found myself agreeing with their motion for the Gandhi statue to be stopped.

But I have been reading and teaching Gandhi since 2005, when my doctoral research, on uMunthu and peace education in Malawian classrooms, took me into the discipline of peace studies and the literature on nonviolence. I wondered why I had never read about this racist Gandhi, until now. Several questions ran through my mind as I read on. How far would the authors take Gandhi in their narrative? Would they follow him to his last days in 1948 when he was gunned down by Nathuram Godse, a fellow Indian who was opposed to Gandhi’s peace politics?

If Gandhi has stayed racist up until his last breath, how come he had become the global figure of peace and nonviolence the world holds him to be? Have we been fed a sanitised and politically correct version of Gandhi all these years, as Desai and Vahed claim in their book? If so, who was behind that, and what could their reasons have been? What will now happen to the discipline of peace studies and the practice of nonviolence once the rest of the world learns who the “true“ Gandhi was and what he believed about black people?

Before I knew it, Gandhi was saying his farewells across Durban, Transvaal and Cape Town, and the book was over. He returned first to Britain and then India in the second half of 1914, as the First World War was breaking out. The authors follow him to Britain and to India, where Gandhi continues serving the interests of the British Empire, helping to recruit Indian soldiers to fight on the side of Britain, and doing everything he could to impress the British that white people and Indians descended from the same Aryan race and should see themselves as close relatives.

Anybody reading Desai and Vahed’s book and stopping there will have no doubts about Gandhi’s racism toward Africans. However, Gandhi lived another thirty four years after returning to India. Desai and Vahed have little to say about those thirty four years, and although the title of their book restricts their scope to Gandhi in South Africa, the overall impression they create in the book is that Gandhi’s racist beliefs and attitudes about black people when he lived in South Africa remained with him all of his long life.

Not everyone espouses this perspective. In 1956 the Government of India embarked on a project to collect and compile everything written by Gandhi throughout his life. The result was 55,000 pages of 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. On 8th September 2015 the Indian Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Arun Jaitley, launched the e-version of the collected works. Desai and Vahed write in their book that they spent years consulting PDF versions of the collected works, and found material that had not been published hitherto.

In 2006 Indian lawyer and author Anil Nauriya published a book titled The African Element in Gandhi, whose purpose, he argued, was to unearth an  “underanalysed“ aspect of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa; that is, his relationship with Africans. Nauriya set out to answer a question that has been largely answered in the negative by Desai and Vahed: did Gandhi shed off his racism and evolve into a more sensitive, race-conscious and person who respected and valued African people?

Nauriya claims that Gandhi evolved, and that his evolution started in 1908, fifteen years after his arrival in South Africa. This may not be entirely accurate. Reading between the statements Gandhi made and continued making, but also his silences and omissions regarding Africans, Desai and Vahed retrieve material from the collected works that show Gandhi’s prejudice beyond his departure from the continent in 1914.

But Nauriya digs up material that does not appear to have been uncovered by Desai and Vahed. And read together with Gandhi’s campaigns against the British in the decades that led up to India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Gandhi evolved not only in his views on Africans, he also shed his long-held belief in the supremacy of the British Empire and Western civilisation itself. Whereas the British colonialists had arrested him no less than five times in his twenty one years in South Africa, they arrested him no less than nine times in the struggle for India’s independence. Desai and Vahed have not ventured into this latter-day Gandhi.

A piece of art also found in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

Another writer who also took up the task of uncovering Gandhi’s relationship with Africans and following him up to Inidia’s independence is Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, now 94 years old and retired. He has edited and published several books and articles under the shortened name E.S. Reddy. Reddy was born in 1924 in India but spent many years working as an international civil servant. He was a UN Under Secretary General and headed the UN Centre Against Apartheid. He worked with both the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Because of his work with the UN and his involvement in anti-colonial struggles in India and in Africa, the longevity of Reddy’s work spans the last years of India’s independence, the civil rights movements in the United States, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the full onset of independence struggles in Africa. He was there when WEB DuBois was part of the struggles both in the US and in Africa. These were struggles that saw leaders such as, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and many others lead anti-racist and anti-colonial campaigns in which India, the United States, and African countries were joined in one common cause.

This brings us to the second argument against the Gandhi statue, that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi and Africa. ES Reddy’s writings show that these struggles were intertwined and mutually reinforcing. We find these perspectives also when we examine what the afore-mentioned leaders wrote. They have been corroborated by Malawi’s own anti-colonial activists, including Henry Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume, as I will discuss in a little bit.

Illustrating how anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles intertwined and intermingled in a vortex that drew into the mix India, the USA and Africa requires going back to WEB DuBois and drawing parallels with the struggles that involved his contemporaries. As DuBois observed in an essay, nineteen months separated his birth date and that of Gandhi. DuBois was born in 1868 while Gandhi was born in 1869. Unrelated at this point but still relevant for the broader purposes of our discussion, then Nyasaland anti-colonial activist Rev John Chilembwe is believed to have been born in 1871.

It was only until after the First World War that DuBois “came to realize Gandhi’s work for Africa and the world,“ he wrote. With the Depression approaching, DuBois asked Gandhi in 1929 for a message for American Negroes, as per the language of the time. Gandhi obliged and wrote: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is dishonor in being slave-owners. But let us not think of honr or dishonor in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be pure, truthful and loving“ (p. 91; W.E.B. Dubois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, 1995). DuBois published the message in the Crisis magazine.

In 1943 DuBois wrote in the Amsterdam News about his doubts over nonviolence, saying it worked in India where fasting, prayer, sacrifice and self-torture had been practised for three thousand years, and India’s population of four hundred million at the time was a force to reckon with. He believed these methods would be seen as a joke or insane if tried in England or in the US.

But when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, in Montgomery, Alabama, and black people went on strikes and boycotts that put an end to the discrimination, DuBois saw it as “a most interesting proof of the truth of the Gandhian philosophy“ (p. 92). He said this was more so as the protests were carried out by people who did not have knowledge of Gandhi and his work.

DuBois‘ own longevity overlapped anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in the US and in Africa in a life that spanned 95 years. By the time of his death in 1963, he had renounced his American citizenship and was living in Accra, Ghana. He was buried there where his mausoleum is a memorial centre. Ghana had been independent for six years at the time, and Kwame Nkrumah had taken over the mantle of Pan-Africanism from DuBois.

Nkrumah was also an advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. In a speech he gave on 7th April in 1960, Nkrumah said “positive action,“ his term for nonviolence, had  “achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent…“ (p. 48; Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah, Vol 1, 1960). He went on to say “we salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practised in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.“

For a description of the role Ghana played in Malawi’s independence struggle, Kanyama Chiume’s autobiography (1982) is instructive. India itself played an important role, as described by Chiume, who met India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. That was the time that former president Bingu wa Mutharika was a student in India, whom Chiume also met together with other African students. Chiume wrote that Nehru “executed all the decisions“ (p. 51) agreed to in their meeting, regarding supporting Malawi’s struggle, scholarships for Malawians to study in India among other arrangements.

On Henry Masauko Chipembere’s part, it is during his testimony to the Devlin Commission which was investigating events surrounding the 1959 State of Emergency that we learn of Gandhi’s influence on the tactics Malawians used to fight against British colonialism. Chipembere was regarded as a man who preferred the use of violence on the white colonialists and their “stooges,“ but he told the commission that the Malawians had discussed and utilised Gandhian non-violence methods.

He said he had personally decided on “something closer to Gandhi’s non-violence, bu with the difference that I would like to try negotiation first because Gandhi’s policy of non-violence implies action - that is passive resistance, but it seems not to include negotiation. I believe in negotiation first. If negotiation fails, resort to passive resistance“ (Chipembere: The Missing Years, p. 201).

Across the boarder from Malawi, Zambia’s first president, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda went as far writing an entire book on non-violence, which he titled The Riddle of Violence (1980). The first sentence in the book reads: “I was first introduced in a serious way to the ideas of Gandhi by Rambhai Patel, a Lusaka store keeper, who made rough and ready translations of some of the Mahatma’s writings, especially from his life story.“

Calling Gandhi his “mentor,“ Kaunda wrote that his own Christianity was aligned to Gandhi’s philosophy and it “deepened and broadened my own thinking.“ Kaunda said while he owed his faith to Jesus, “Mahatma Gandhi supplied the hope.“ And Zambia’s own independence struggle adopted satyagraha, the concept Gandhi had developed while in South Africa defining truth as a force driving the struggle. “So it was according to the principles of non-violence on the Gandhi model that the final stages of the freedom struggle in Zambia were conducted,“ wrote Kaunda (p. 18).

Having arrived at this juncture, contrary to the claims made by the petitioners and by Desai and Vahed, the sources discussed thus far point in the direction of Gandhi having evolved his views towards Africans over his long life. It should also be obvious, at this point, that Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence influenced anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in South Africa, India, the United States and across Africa. Let us proceed to address the remaining arguments being made against the erection of the Gandhi statue.

It has been said that the Government of Malawi is accepting the offer of the statue because Malawi is a poor country and we are always pushed around by donors. According to the Gandhi World Foundation’s website, there are Gandhi statues in more than seventy countries around the world. When a Gandhi statue was unvelied in Abu Dhabu in February this year (2018), an Indian magazine reported that the number of countries with a Gandhi statue had now reached seventy five. As there are 54 countries in Africa, and many of them do not have Gandhi statues, there are both rich and poor countries around the world where there is a Gandhi statue. It therefore cannot be said that these are all poor countries being forced to receive Gandhi statues because of their poverty.

The argument that the Indian Government is using Gandhi statues to push an agenda to position itself as a global power merits consideration. Many rich and powerful countries use similar tactics to flaunt their influence. But the influence Gandhi had over anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles spread throughout the world from the 1950s to the 1990s even before India had the kind of wealth and influence it wields today. Thus that argument can also be dismissed.

The argument, advanced by former Vice President Dr Cassim Chilumpha, that the spot near Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital is unsuitable because it gives a foreign statue undue prominence over Malawian statues is rather amusing. If we want to give Malawian statues greater prominence than statues of foreign individuals, may I humbly suggest that we put our Malawian statues on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Sir Glynn Jones Road, in front of Mt Soche Hotel. That is a far more prominent spot befitting Malawian heroes. Another ideal spot is in the middle of Chichiri Roundabout. And for now, I will opt not say much about the names of these other streets in Blantyre.

Out of the remaining three arguments, one does not deserve a response, but two have merit and must be addressed by the Government of Malawi. There is nothing to say to the argument that there is no reason, Malawians simply don’t want the statue. But it is true that Malawians have not been consulted, and that needs to happen.

Thus far the debate has been quite acrimonious, emotional and fractious, especially on social media. Quite a few individuals have resorted to insults and innuendo against the idea of the statue and against individuals supporting the idea. Some have threatened that they will demolish the statue once it is constructed. Not very Gandhian.

A round about in Lilongwe City Centre (copyright: steve sharra)

The emotions must be acknowledged and action must be taken to deal with the grievances that are giving rise to the acrimony. It is an open secret that relations between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin are not the best. A University of Malawi lecturer interviewed by the BBC on the matter pointed out that there are simmering tensions between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin. Black Malawians feel that Malawians of Asian origin demean and undermine them, in ways that betray racist attitudes. This is both a perception and a reality, and it cannot be wished away.

Malawians of Asian origin have never fully integrated into the fabric that makes up life for ordinary Malawians. Most Malawians have never seen a Malawian of Asian origin teaching in a government school, working as a nurse in a government hospital, serving in the police service, vending in the streets, driving or calling a minibus, serving in other government ministries and departments and living the day to day lives ordinary Malawians live.

Yet Malawians of Asian origin are an integral part of the country and do serve the country in many roles, but these tend to be selective and specialised, and perhaps under-reported. There are historical, economic, cultural and political contexts that have created these fissures, and they need to be addressed if Malawians of all races and ethnic backgrounds are going to forge a better Malawi. We should not allow this moment to drift away and be wasted. We should use it to tackle these issues head on. We should also use this moment to start teaching ourselves more about the history of our continent and of our world, and the struggles that have given us the country we have today.

Gandhi’s greatest message was that there are a lot of ways of resisting, expressing dissent and bringing about change without recourse to violence. It is his teachings that gave birth to the exhortation “be the change you want to see in the world“. Strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, fasting, petitions (including the one that has brought about this debate) and such other methods of resistance draw from Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy. Hardly a school year goes by without hearing that students have destroyed a school; or that a community have set fire to a police station. Many times, these violent acts of destruction happen because non-violent methods have not been given a chance.

Malawi needs more of the activism demonstrated by the young activists petitioning against the Gandhi statue. I suggest that both the Indian High Commission in Malawi and the Malawi Government engage Malawians on this issue.

That petition itself is a Gandhian method of protest. Gandhi did not invent most of the non-violence methods now attributed to him, but he made effective use of them to the extent that they came to be associated with him. He was as human as any one of us and had his weaknesses. But he worked, throughout his life, to overcome them. He left the world a better place than he found it. That is a legacy worthy emulating.