Hundreds of Californians gathered Sunday afternoon at Davis Central Park, where behind a lush navy curtain and atop a thick pedestal stood a towering bronze statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
It was Oct. 2, what would have been the 147th birthday of the revered leader of India’s independence movement and the father of the use of civil disobedience in pursuit of justice. It was a day community members had worked toward for years.
They had raised $22,000 to install and maintain the statue, a gift from the Indian government, and gathered local politicians and even the consul general of India to witness the reveal. People in white folding chairs cheered as the curtain was pulled aside and clapped when the official proclamation was read aloud.
They praised Gandhi’s serenity and quiet disposition, his reverence for the effectiveness of peaceful protest that liberated his people from British rule and inspired, among others, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Welcome to Davis, California, Mr. Gandhi,” the mayor proudly declared.
But nearby stood a separate gathering of people, not praising Gandhi but condemning him, with bullhorns and angry placards.
“PROTEST GANDHI THE RACIST,” one read.
“GANDHI WAS A CHILD MOLESTER.”
“GANDHI = FATHER OF APARTHEID.”
“REMOVE GANDHI STATUE NOW.”
Their faces and messages, though jarring against the ceremony’s otherwise tranquil tone, were not unfamiliar to many in attendance. Since the statue was first proposed to the Davis City Council, some citizens have voiced vehement opposition in meetings and workshops.
These protesters— many of them Sikh — claimed those gathered were celebrating a “Hollywood version of Gandhi” that sanitizes his life.
“It is undisputed that Gandhi was a hero to many,” Sacramento businessman Amar Shergill told the San Francisco Chronicle, “but it should be [noted that] he was also a bigot and predator of members of his own family.”
The demonstrators in Davis aren’t the only ones trying to focus attention on what they consider Gandhi’s checkered past. In September, a group of students, academics and artists called for the removal of a Gandhi statue from the University of Ghana because of the man’s “racist identity,” they wrote in an online petition. Plans to erect a Gandhi statue in London several years ago drew criticism from historians and Sikh activists, who said that he “dishonored women,” reported the Hindustan Times, and discriminated based on the Hindu caste system, never mind his advocacy for what in his day were called “untouchables,” now “Dalit.”
The Davis demonstration is the latest in a series of debates in the United States about historic heroes — towering figures in history — how pure they must be, and whether they should be required to pass muster by today’s standards or their own.
In early September, a San Francisco education official suggested renaming George Washington High School to Maya Angelou High School. “No schools named after slave owners,” he wrote on Twitter, which quickly sparked outrage from people who pointed out that Washington is one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.
Critics have torn down John F. Kennedy as nothing more than a womanizer. The same accusation has been leveled at King. Thomas Jefferson has been called a hypocrite for writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence while owning other human beings.
The trend has even seeped into popular culture.
This year, California lawmakers wanted to declare May 26 John Wayne Day, in honor of the late actor’s birthday and his embodiment of American values, like self-reliance, patriotism and determination. In his lifetime, the actor worked with Vietnamese refugees, received a Congressional Gold Medal, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and supported the Panama Canal treaties. But despite his résumé, the bill was defeated when several lawmakers revealed a less admirable side of Wayne — that he was kind of racist.
He had spoken ill of black people and Native Americans on numerous occasions.
Before the vote, several lawmakers defended Wayne’s honor, arguing, just like supporters of Gandhi did Sunday, that “every one of us is imperfect.”
Of course, John Wayne, an actor, is on an entirely different level than Gandhi, the father of a great nation revered worldwide, known as Mahatma, the “great soul.”
“Gandhi may have been wrong on things,” Madhavi Sunder, who served on the statue committee, told FOX40, “but that doesn’t mean that we should reject all of the incredible teachings.”
The protesters’ opposition to Gandhi is grounded in stories of his experiments in asceticism and chastity, testing his commitment to a life of celibacy by sleeping naked beside young women. Among them may have been his great niece and other married women.
Gandhi, though born in India, spent 21 years in South Africa as a lawyer, where among other things, he defended Indians, who were victims of discrimination, albeit not on the same level as native black Africans.
But a controversial book published last year by two South African university professors, “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire,” claimed Gandhi, while living in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, thought Indians there were superior to black Africans and may have supported Apartheid.
As the BBC described it:
They write that Gandhi’s political strategies — fighting to repeal unjust laws or freedom of movement or trade — carved out an exclusivist Indian identity “that relied on him taking up ‘Indian’ issues in ways that cut Indians off from Africans, while his attitudes paralleled those of whites in the early years”. Gandhi, the authors write, was indifferent to the plight of the indentured, and believed that state power should remain in white hands, and called black Africans Kaffirs, a derogatory term, for a larger part of his stay in the country.
The book cites Gandhi’s own writings during the period and other government archives, which, according to the authors, make it “apparent that he indulged in some ‘tidying up.'”
“He was effectively rewriting his own history,” they wrote.
To which his grandson and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi replied:
Gandhi too was an imperfect human being. However, on racial equality, he was greatly in advance of most if not all of his compatriots; and the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle for black rights.
The protesters Sunday, who came from cities outside of Davis, made a similar case against Gandhi, reported KCRA 3.
“I don’t understand why America is supporting him when America stands for freedom and Gandhi is not the ideal person for freedom,” demonstrator Brahamdeep Kaur told the TV station.
The Davis City Council approved the installation of the statue in February, but six months later called another meeting to allow members to reconsider. Hours of public comment at an August meeting ended in a 3-2 vote to reject the reconsideration and accept the statue.
Those in favor argued before the council that many other metropolitan cities displayed Gandhi statues, including New York City, Washington and San Francisco, reported the Davis Vanguard. They also pointed out that many who opposed the statue were not Davis residents.
At the ceremony Sunday, political leaders told local media they respect the demonstrators and their cause, but ultimately feel that Gandhi’s good will outweighs his blemishes.
“Gandhi represents so much that we need in our country today,” Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) told KCRA 3. “A sense of peace [and] a belief in nonviolence.”