Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Global anti-racism activists err in going after Gandhi

One by one, statues commemorating men who once wielded power are tumbling.

Here in the United States, the likenesses of Civil War-era Confederate generals who fought to defend their right to keep slaves are being removed. The Museum of Natural History will relocate a statue honouring former president Theodore Roosevelt because two men—an African American and a Native American—are shown subservient to him. Even statues of the nation’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, aren’t safe.

Much of the anger is justified—many statues stared back arrogantly at those who questioned their place in history. Plaques narrated the men’s battlefield victories or electoral successes in purple prose, too coy to mention if they owned slaves, defended enslavement, or how they made money.

To be sure, some campaigners misfire. Over the weekend at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, demonstrators who were either ignorant or didn’t care, splashed red paint on a statue of Miguel de Cervantes, himself a slave for five years in Algiers, and whose 17th century novel, Don Quixote, continues to enthrall readers around the world. Collateral damage, some might say.

In the United Kingdom, where I lived till last year, slave trader Edward Colston’s statue was torn down in Bristol and tossed into the river. The administration pulled it out and said it may be placed elsewhere. The city had resisted demands for its removal: Colston was a philanthropist who funded hospitals and schools. Surely, those good deeds matter? Campaigners argued for years that you can’t balance good and evil. The city’s conservative figures debated the language of what a more realistic plaque could say. Impatient and frustrated, the crowd took the matter in its hands.

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan seems to have read the public mood. He removed the statue of another slave trader, Robert Milligan, and called for a review of all statues. Some campaigners’ targets include Winston Churchill and Nelson’s Column at the Trafalgar Square. To that list, add Mahatma Gandhi. Campaigners in Leicester and London even want a Gandhi statue to go. A university in Ghana removed a statue of him in 2018; another Gandhi statue in Johannesburg was daubed with white paint in 2015 (the city council hastily scrubbed it off).

Since 2016, students and some alumni at Oxford (including Rhodes scholars) wanted to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist-philanthropist, from the façade of Oxford’s Oriel College. His bequest pays for eponymous scholarships annually at Oxford (in 2018, 100 scholarships were given to students in the English-speaking world). This movement, called “Rhodes must fall", had begun in South Africa. Last week, Oriel agreed that the statue should go.

During the 20 years I lived in London, I went to many meetings and some receptions at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Whitehall. From there, Britannia had once ruled the waves (or waived the rules) so that the sun would not set on the Empire. As you walked from St. James’s Park, you faced the statue of Robert Clive, the first governor of Bengal, who defeated Siraj ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, and began the colonial subjugation of India. He was venal and brutal. When asked about his outrageous corruption, he told his critics, “I stand astonished at my own moderation."

Seeing Clive’s statue on a pedestal was odd; a slap on the face of every sensible Briton. I asked officials about the statue, about some of the triumphalist art inside; they smiled politely and awkwardly.

Writers like Nick Robins, William Dalrymple, and Afua Hirsch sought Clive’s removal or relocation. (A personal disclosure: my son Ameya, with his friends from school and college, is running a campaign seeking as much). Many Britons today are surprised because they don’t know the empire’s real history, a point that Shashi Tharoor makes in An Era of Darkness. As with colonial-era statues exiled to Delhi’s obscure Coronation Park, Clive and other worthies could also be given a less prominent address in London with plaques describing their deeds more accurately.

A society is judged by who it venerates. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, statues of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police head Felix E. Dzerzhinsky were razed. Though the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not sanctioned by international law, who would have objected to Saddam Hussein’s statue being yanked off?

It gets trickier with Roosevelt, Churchill and Gandhi. Roosevelt championed national parks in the US. Churchill roused Britain against the Nazis, but also made decisions that led to countless deaths in Bengal.

And then, there is Gandhi: in the 150th year of his birth, some object to his recorded views on Africans, others to what they see as his paternalism towards Dalits, and there are many who can’t seem to abide his insistence that everyone was equal. He wasn’t perfect, but his voluminous collected works show how he evolved, accepted error when he was wrong, sought forgiveness, and practised atonement. His character set him way apart from villains, rogues and other flawed icons.

Colston, Milligan, Clive, Churchill, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Saddam and those Confederate generals were complicit in or were responsible for the suffering or deaths of millions. Gandhi killed nobody; indeed, he died so that others could live.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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