Excerpts from the paper “Thinking with Gandhi on racism and violence: A letter to a friend”, by Ajay Skaria, Professor of History and Global Studies at the University of Minnesota, published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, based on exchanges on WhatsApp in response to a question from a college friend: “Was Gandhi racist towards blacks?”
Was Gandhi racist towards blacks? The short answer is: before 1906, emphatically yes; from 1906 to 1913, qualifiedly yes; after 1913 or so, increasingly no. However, we need to ask a supplementary question: what light and shade does thinking with Gandhi throw on our current understanding of racism and anti-racism? To that question, the schematic answer would be: most of us are anti-racist in a speciesist way, or by invoking the idea of a unified human species where all of us are equals.
Thinking with Gandhi — and especially, with his concept of satyagraha — allows us to conceptualise an anti-racism and notion of equality that begins from anti-speciesism. Such an anti-racism can help us move towards an equality based on difference rather than similarity, and only an equality of difference can address many of the challenges facing the most marginalised today.
We usually locate a turning point or epiphany in Gandhi’s biography at the famous incident in 1893 when he was thrown off a train at Maritzburg. But in that incident, he is upset partially (though this is somewhat speculative, since he writes at any length about this period only decades later) because as an “educated native” he considers himself entitled to travel in first class. Most Europeans at the time would have placed Europe, India, and Africa on a descending scale of civilizations. Early Indian nationalists largely contested this only to the extent that they claimed Indian civilization was equal to the European; they, and Gandhi, left in place the rest of the racist hierarchy. His criticisms in 1893 were almost certainly not a condemnation of civilizational or educational racism: one can find many examples of such racism in his writings in the next two decades.
A more appropriate turning point would perhaps be 1906, when he helped the British by volunteering and setting up an Ambulance Corps during the Bhambatha uprising. He believed that it was his responsibility to do so as a British citizen, which is how he thought of himself. Like many others of the colonised elite who supported the British empire, he maintained his self-respect by taking Queen Victoria’s 1858 proclamation of equality at face value. Here is what he says about the 1906 experience in his Autobiography:
“The Zulu ‘rebellion’ was full of new experiences and gave me much food for thought. The Boer War had not brought home to me the horrors of war with anything like the vividness that the ‘rebellion’ did. This was no war but a man-hunt, not only in my opinion, but also in that of many Englishmen with whom I had occasion to talk. To hear every morning reports of the soldiers’ rifles exploding like crackers in innocent hamlets, and to live in the midst of them was a trial. But I swallowed the bitter draught, especially as the work of my Corps consisted only in nursing the wounded Zulus. I could see that but for us the Zulus would have been uncared for. This work, therefore, eased my conscience.”
Or as he puts it in 1939, his work in the Ambulance Corps gave him “an insight into what war by white men against coloured races meant.”
In the wake of his experience in the Ambulance Corps during the Bhambatha uprising, Gandhi begins — but only begins — questioning his civilizational racism. Like most processes of conversion, his conversion to anti-racism unfolds over years, at least until the mid-1910s. Even where conversion occurs as a thunderclap, historically speaking it takes years, sometimes generations, to unlearn the bodily and mental practices that prevailed before the conversion. So during most of his South Africa period, there is a very evident racism, thoroughly documented in Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s The South African Gandhi, though a briefer account can be found in this very damning indictment by Obadele Kambon.
The most evident marker of that persistent racism was the word kaffir, which in the South Africa of Gandhi’s time was no longer the Arabic-derived Muslim term for “non-believer,” but was one of the racist terms used to describe the indigenous South African, and especially Zulu, population. Even as Gandhi objected strenuously to the word “coolie” for Indians, considering it derogatory, he had no such objection to the term “Kaffir.” Thus, just a few months before writing Hind Swaraj, he notes in a report for the local Indian community that the protestors had been “locked up with the Kaffirs. There was not a single European officer who described us as Indians. We were called ‘sammies’ or ‘coolies’.”
It is abundantly clear also that he himself used the word in a racist sense. In 1909 he writes: “the British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.” He also objects fiercely to any mixing of Indians and “Kaffirs” in prisons or social life. He demands separate lavatories for Indian prisoners and asks that they should “never be lodged with Kaffirs.”
Addressing the Indian community in 1910 (note that this is after “Hind Swaraj”), he remarks: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”
Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Gandhi was, until around the early- or mid-1910s, decidedly racist. And throughout this period, his sense of solidarity is more with the white colonisers than with the natives.
But it was also a time when he begins protesting against “injustice” towards “Kaffirs.” In 1910, he decided to travel in third-class train carriages, partly in empathy with “the hardships that the Kaffirs had to suffer” in them. After around 1913, the word “Kaffir” disappears from his vocabulary, to be replaced by “Zulu.” His conversion may be connected also with his increasing opposition to caste distinctions in personal and political life: by this time, he is on occasion cleaning the chamber pot of his Dalit Christian clerk, and does not any longer himself follow the caste restrictions on eating and drinking. (The Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud noted in a recent talk that such practices led to Gandhi, after his return to India, being treated in some ways as part of the “untouchable” caste: even as Gujaratis who considered themselves upper caste, paid homage to him, they would not invite him inside their homes — not even during the famous Salt March, when he often had to camp overnight in temporary grass huts or public buildings such as schools because nobody was willing to host him in their homes.)
By 1928, the narrative of Satyagraha in South Africa casts his solidarities strongly with the “Zulus”; his Autobiography, written during the same period, talks of the “so-called ‘uncivilized’ Zulus.” His reflections in 1939 reveal the further erosion of civilizational racism. Thus he notes that the rights and privileges of the “indigenous inhabitants” and Indians differed in South Africa, and during his time there “it was not possible to amalgamate the two causes.” He adds:
“if I discovered that our rights conflicted with their vital interests, I would advise the forgoing of those rights. They are the inhabitants of South Africa as we are of India. The Europeans are undoubtedly usurpers, exploiters or conquerors or all these rolled into one.”
By this time, he is also moving towards understanding the Indian struggle in terms of a global solidarity of the “exploited races of the earth” against the colonisers. Over the last few decades of his life, then, his civilizational racism is increasingly undercut by his politics of satyagraha, which often twists free of the former.”