Gandhi’s legacy is no longer secureBreaking News
In 2015, in South Africa, where Mohandas Gandhi lived from 1893 to 1914, a statue of him was defaced by protesters. The following year, the University of Ghana agreed to remove Gandhi’s statue from its campus, after an online campaign with the (misspelled) hashtag #Ghandimustfall charged the Indian leader with racism against black Africans. Compared with other recent targets of political iconoclasts—stalwarts of the Confederacy and Cecil Rhodes—Gandhi seems an unlikely symbol of racial arrogance. Nelson Mandelaclaimed that Gandhi’s tactics offered “the best hope for future race relations”; Martin Luther King, Jr., held Gandhi up as a model; decades before that, black activists such as Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Benjamin Mays were enthralled by the phenomenon of an Indian leading people of color in the campaign against British colonialism in India. Yet Gandhi’s legacy is no longer secure even in his own country. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, cites V. D. Savarkar, a far-right Hindu supremacist who was accused of involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, in 1948, as his ideological mentor. A portrait of Savarkar, who loathed Gandhi for being too soft on minorities, hangs in the Indian Parliament building.
Even some left-leaning writers have recently argued that Gandhi must fall. In “The South African Gandhi” (2015), Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed depict him as a pro-British lawyer, who worked within the country’s white-supremacist politics to promote his Indian compatriots at the expense of black South Africans. In “The Doctor and the Saint,” Arundhati Roy indicts Gandhi for his failure to unequivocally condemn the Hindu caste system, calling him a “Saint of the Status-Quo.” The Marxist critic Perry Anderson, in his scathing account of Indian nationalism, “The Indian Ideology” (2012), charges that Gandhi’s “intellectual development” was “arrested by intense religious belief.”
Some of these reassessments may have been provoked by the halo surrounding Gandhi, which has shone brightly ever since Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning bio-pic, in 1982. It was only then that bumper-sticker homilies Gandhi never uttered—“Be the change you wish to see in the world”—were attributed to him. (Donald Trump tweeted one of these fake quotes during his Presidential campaign, in 2016: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”) As Gandhi disappeared into T-shirts and Apple advertisements, it was easy to forget that this big-eared, cuddly icon of popular culture responded to an unprecedentedly violent and unstable period in human history, beginning with the intensification of imperialism and globalization in the late nineteenth century and continuing through two world wars. “Politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries,” Gandhi once said. “I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.” His prolific writings in that turbulent era inspired thinkers as disparate as W. E. B. Du Bois and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Today, Gandhi’s political thought resonates again. In recent years, many scholars have asserted that he has much to say about the issues that make our present moment so volatile: inequality, resentment, the rise of demagoguery, and the breakdown of democratic governance.
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