Another marker has been felled in the intense argument over whether historical figures with racist histories should be honored. The University of Ghana in Accra no longer has a statue of Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
To much of the world, Gandhi is remembered for his peaceful protests in his efforts for Indian sovereignty, but in Africa, where Gandhi worked as a lawyer for two decades, he is seen through a different lens. And in 2016, the Ghana statue was dedicated by then-Indian President Pranab Mukherjee as a symbol of strengthening ties between the two nations.
But professors, students and Ghanaians railed against the statue, calling it an homage to a racist who thought of Africans as naked savages who were beneath both Britons and Indians, using Gandhi’s early writings from his two decades in Africa to bolster their arguments.
Gandhi’s Indian empowerment argument, critics said in a petition to remove the statue, appeared to be that the British colonial government treated Indians a “little better, if at all, than the savages or the Natives of Africa.” He spoke of the “half-heathen Native” and said that treating Indians like Africans would “degrade us.” The sole occupation of “raw” natives is hunting, he said and their “sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
He also made liberal use of the word “Kaffir,” a racial slur so offensive that it is rarely spoken aloud in polite company or written in print. Simply uttering it in South Africa, where Gandhi lived and worked from 1893 to 1915, can be viewed as a hate crime.
BBC reported that faculty members and students said the statue had been removed Wednesday.
The Ghana University petition cited other protests against — and removal of — tributes to historical but controversial figures at universities around the globe, including the former slave-owning Royall family at Harvard University and apartheid founder Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
The protests against Gandhi are not limited to Africa: In Davis, Calif., a similar statue has been protested, and plans to honor Gandhi with a statue in London have also met opposition.
Gandhi’s later writings do not include the inflammatory speech of his time in Africa — although scholars have opined that Gandhi indulged in some “tidying up” of his own history. And his leadership and peaceful protests led to India’s eventual independence. But the Gandhi statue has raised an uncomfortable question: At what point does a person’s transgression’s overshadow the good he or she has ushered into the world?
Critics argue that Gandhi’s thoughts about Africans should not be whitewashed by history — that no one’s flaws should be immune from historical scrutiny. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, — then killed and enslaved the people who already lived there. Many of America’s Founding Fathers owned slaves. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife.
But King also journeyed to India to study Gandhi’s teachings. He called Gandhi “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” And even Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary who led South Africa to end apartheid, saw Gandhi’s doctrine as inspiring.
But some history is indelible, and for members of the University of Ghana council who started the petition in 2016 and the more than 2,200 people who signed it, a statue honoring Gandhi had no place on campus.
“We consider this to be a slap in the face that undermines our struggles for autonomy, recognition and respect,” the petition says.
“It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian superpower,” the petition continues. “We have failed the generation that look up to us, namely our students. How will the historian teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude toward the Black race and see that we’re glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?”