ICONIC FIGURES can be problematic. People with power and influence can do great things on one hand and do pretty terrible things or uphold questionable beliefs on the other.
Those who are famous or deemed legendary aren’t perfect human beings and shouldn’t be treated as such – so why do we continue to glorify certain figures as saviours when their values and beliefs reveal cracks behind the perfect image we’ve become accustomed to?
Well I say we display the flaws behind our revered figures and reveal the good, the bad and the ugly – something which has been an ongoing issue when discussing Mahatma Gandhi.
Known around the world as a beloved five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, lawyer and campaigner, his non-violent campaign for Indian independence has cemented him as one of the most inspirational figures of modern history.
You’ll find his words quoted by many of all colours and creeds and shared across social media feeds, but little is made of the less favourable side of Gandhi’s history – until now.
Manchester University students are protesting as we speak against the erection of a Gandhi statue, due to his documented racism.
The 9ft bronze statue is to be located outside Manchester Cathedral following the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack that killed 22 people. It’s said the aim of the statue is to promote peace.
The city council approved the statue of the Indian independence figure, but in an open letter, a group of students have demanded acknowledgement of Gandhi’s racism opposed to just highlighting a one-sided view of history – and rightly so.
In the letter, it reads: “In 1905, Gandhi appealed to laws asking Indians to fight against the amaZulu, and collected funds to finance the execution of black people fighting for self-determination and the right to their homeland.
“These actions and thoughts are of course not documented in his autobiography, but they are well documented throughout his earlier correspondence and writings.”
Throughout history, there have been many other references to Gandhi’s anti-blackness. In a 2015 op-ed in The Indian Express, historian and grandson Rajmohan Gandhi wrote that Gandhi may have been ignorant and prejudice against black South Africans.
During a visit to South Africa in 1903, Gandhi reportedly wrote that white people there should be “the predominating race,” and that black people “are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”
Whilst biographer Ramachandra Guha states Gandhi “grew out of his racism quite decisively” the omission of Gandhi’s problematic ways has not bode well for many.
This isn’t the first time a statue of Gandhi has been called into question. In 2018, a similar statue was removed from the University of Ghana, and coupled with the actions of the Manchester University students, we are seeing a rise among people fighting against global anti-blackness – and like it or not, Gandhi is one of the key figures who exhibited this behaviour.
No matter how much people try to erase and alter elements of history, there are those willing to make sure a more truthful narrative is told – and it’s important that we allow those people to do so and to stand up against idolising figures whose definition of peace excluded people who looked like me.
People aren’t perfect and thus we can acknowledge the good and the bad. But when we constantly omit the negatives, it’s only a matter of time before this is called into question, and we are seeing the thinly veiled curtain covering Gandhi’s legacy beginning to tear with no signs of repair.
There’s been enough praise and celebration of Gandhi’s work – do we really need more statues and iconography in his honour? Do we not have a wider selection of notable figures to draw from as a symbol of peace?
I think the students at Manchester University and the University of Ghana were right to protest and fight back against these statues which are meant to be symbols of peace but in reality, shine a light on historical inaccuracy and a continuous trend of shying away from an ugly, racist truth.