A few days ago, as I was walking down Avenue de la Paix, which runs alongside Palais des Nations, where the UN meets, I paused at a spot from where you can see a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. He is sitting cross-legged, as if meditating in the vast grounds of the Palais. It is like a reminder to the diplomats who meet in this calm-mannered Swiss city, tugging at their conscience to stay focused on their job.
That day, some tourists were busy taking photographs next to the Gandhi statue. Someone had draped a large silken white scarf around the statue’s neck, and the tourists seemed happy. There was no guard around there telling them not to place the scarf on the statue, and the tourists dispersed soon, taking their scarf with them.
This was the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I have seen the same statue clad in white another time too—in winter, when light snowflakes crown Gandhi’s head, neck and shoulders, making the silhouette shine unexpectedly; on a dark winter afternoon, when the sun has already set, the silhouette glows, like silver lining around a cloud, the physical reality becoming the metaphor of the state of the world.
I have seen two Gandhi statues in London—the one at Tavistock Square near Euston station is similar to the one in Geneva, of a sitting Gandhi. Last year, a new Gandhi statue was unveiled at Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament. There, Gandhi stands alongside pillars of the erstwhile British empire, including his long-time rival Winston Churchill.
Gandhi’s presence there might at first glance seem incongruous, surrounded as he is by men Britain reveres—besides Churchill, there is another leader whom Gandhi challenged, Jan Smuts, as well as British prime ministers David Lloyd George, Viscount Palmerston, the Earl of Derby, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel and George Canning. There are two other foreigners besides Gandhi (and the South African Smuts). One is Abraham Lincoln, and the other, Nelson Mandela. Women are conspicuously absent, and Gandhi is the only one never to have held public office. Gandhi’s statue looks the least imposing and is on the smallest pedestal, as if his feet are close to the ground, as if it is the others who need props to rise to imposing heights. By showing another way, without guns and without violence, Gandhi is inspiring enough not to need any additional support.
I thought of that when I stood in front of an unusual statue of Gandhi, at the Gandhi Square (formerly known as Government Square) in downtown Johannesburg in late May. On a pleasant Sunday, I had gone to that square, which is near the courts where Gandhi practised as a young lawyer between 1903 and 1910, at the corner of Rissik and Anderson Streets. Some signposts in the city annoyingly spell the place as Ghandi Square. Here, Gandhi is young and flamboyant, dressed dashingly in his legal robes, looking purposefully busy, as if he is about to reach the court and argue an important case.
But he knew the place he was assigned, and he challenged that. He was aware, he said, that he was part of “a despised minority. If the Europeans of South Africa will forgive me for saying so, we were all Coolies . I was an insignificant Coolie lawyer. At that time we had no Coolie doctors. We had no Coolie lawyers. I was the first in the field. Nevertheless (I was) a Coolie!” he said in 1947, the year before his death.
While many “Europeans” of South Africa—or the whites—did not like Gandhi at that time, he now faces criticism from black South Africans as well as a few Indian South African academics. Last year, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed published a book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer Of Empire, which severely criticizes Gandhi’s politics a century ago. In April last year, a group protested near the statue, smearing it with white paint, carrying placards that said “Racist Gandhi Must Fall,” an extension of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a protest that was originally directed against Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and gradually spread wider (including to Oxford university in the UK) to decolonize the campus spaces, curricula and institutional memories by, for instance, tearing down statues and commemorations of those who supported racism and apartheid. It is difficult to take an opinion that sees Gandhi as an apologist of the empire or of racism seriously, as it is a view from a parallel universe.
I was at the square with my friend Kirti Menon. She is the great-granddaughter of Gandhi and lives in Johannesburg. She told me how she came with her family with cleaning materials to wash away the white paint when she heard of the act of vandalism. But an embarrassed city administration had already removed the paint. Kirti’s response to the affront was interesting. She wanted to restore the statue on her terms, peacefully, without damaging anything or abusing anyone, and to do so quietly. That was Gandhian.
You can criticize Gandhi, abuse him, ridicule him, but his reputation remains unaffected. Try doing that to any of the other leaders India idolizes, and their followers’ wrath is unleashed, as though those leaders were not men or women, but divinities. And yet they were fragile, or so the followers thought, for they could not withstand criticism from mere mortals. Gandhians don’t retaliate. And tourists continue to come to his statue and place a silken scarf on his shoulders. And on cold winter nights, as moonlight rests on those shoulders and that head, it highlights the silver lining of hope during our dismal, dark nights.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
Also Read: Salil’s previous Lounge columns