Was Mahatma Gandhi racist and stereotypical?

G Hand Mahatma Gandhi

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 Source: Osei, Nana Yaw

By Nana Yaw Osei

“A former Director of the Institute of African Studies, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, has started a campaign asking for the removal of the statue of Indian independence icon, Mahatma Ghandi, from the University of Ghana campus.

Prof Adomako Ampofo is urging members of the University of Ghana Council to heed her petition arguing among other things that, Ghandi was racist against black people and honoring him set the wrong example for students,” (Source: ghanaweb, September 13, 2016). There are several historical information to confirm that Gandhi was a victim of racism but not racist as being mendaciously put out there by the learned professors of Ghana’s best and premier university, University of Ghana (UG), Legon.

Gandhi was a victim of racism in 1893. For example, Natal (South African province) in 1893 had a small Indian population as a result of the importation of indentured Indian laborers a few decades earlier to work in the sugar cane farm. Their numbers had increased marginally as the infiltration of immigrants into the colony increased.

The conditions for Indians were, if not enticing, at least not obstructionist. Indians were seen as ordinary citizens with rights to property, to conduct business, to travel freely, and some even qualified for the franchise (Tutu, 2007).

The conditions of Indians were more favorable than the native black South Africans. Nevertheless, Gandhi soon found out that underneath the surface, the racial tension was panic-stricken. He had not been in Natal long before he was required to travel to Pretoria on legal business. He booked a first-class train far from Durban, but a white passenger boarding at Pietermaritzburg two hours later objected to travelling in a carriage with an Indian.

Railway officials were summoned, and Gandhi was directed to move to the third-class van at the end of the train for dark-skinned people (Tutu, 2007). He protested that he had a first-class ticket, but the officials were firmed on their stance. In the end he was forcibly ejected by the police and dumped on the station.

Humiliated and manhandled Gandhi spent a wretched night in the station waiting room. Throughout the shivering hours he agonized and pondered: should he fight for his rights or go back to India? He cogitated and reportedly said: “to run back to India was cowardice.”

He put himself in the shoes of the blacks in South Africa and identified himself with their feelings, agony and disenchantment. He reportedly said according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu “the hardship to which I was subjected was superficial-only a symptom of the deep disease of color prejudice.

I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardship in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the color prejudice.”

So how racist is Gandhi? Prof Adomako Ampofo cited the following 1894 quote attributed to Gandhi as an example of racial slur to support her petition " "A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa.

Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir. It should be noted that, the word Kaffir, is a derogatory term for black people with roots in Apartheid era of South African history (Source: ghanaweb, September 13, 2016).

The aforesaid citation attributed to Gandhi was only revealing the prevailing conditions in the then colonial South Africa necessitated by the institutionalized apartheid system but not the convictions of the iconic freedom fighter, Gandhi. Was is true that Indians were better treated in the then apartheid South Africa than native blacks or not?

In addition to the above, Gandhi would not have been a mentor for freedom fighters in South Africa if he was truly racist. In his book: “Long walk to freedom, The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela” page 91, Nelson Mandela asserted that “ The Indian campaign hearkened back to the 1913 passive resistance campaign in which Mahatma Gandhi led a tumultuous procession of Indian crossing illegally from Natal to the Transvaal.

That was history; this campaign was taking place before my own eyes.” Gandhi’s action motivated Mandela and his colleagues, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and A. P. Mda. Gandhi and his men fought against the obnoxious Ghetto Act. The act was a grave insult to the Indian community and anticipated the Group Areas Act, would eventually circumscribe the freedom of all South Africans of color.

Nelson Mandela asserted that they were contemplating on the use of hunger strike as used by prominent people like Mahatma Gandhi to register their discontent against the then apartheid regime (p. 369). Gandhi would not have been called great if indeed he was stereotypical towards black people in South Africa

There are several sayings of Gandhi which project him as antiracist. Some of them are cited as follows: “It is a bad habit to say that another man’s thoughts are bad and ours only are good and that those holding different views from ours are the enemies.” “Outward peace is useless without inner peace.” “No man loses his freedom except through his own weakness.” These are few examples.

I cannot fault Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, because I might not know her sources of information regarding Gandhi. However, even if Gandhi was racist as being speculated, the destruction of his image at UG campus is not the best. As he himself said, be the change you want to see in this world.

The policy of retaliation has never succeeded (Mahatma Gandhi). Two wrongs cannot be right. Gandhi might have his shortcomings as human, even so I think Gandhi needs to be commended rather than condemnation. . “I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.” (Socrates)

Nana Yaw Osei (Padigo) is a PhD Candidate, Psychology


Mandela, N. (1995). Long walk to freedom: The autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Back Bay Books. Tutu, D. (2007). The words and inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi, Peace, Colorado, Blue Mountain press.

Writer's e-mail: padigogoma77@yahoo.co.uk

Columnist: Osei, Nana Yaw