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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: Would the Real Gandhi Please Stand Up?

G.B. Singh is a Colonel in the U.S. Army and author of the forthcoming Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity (Prometheus Books, April 1, 2004). He may be reached via email at

African Americans for Humanism Examiner, Sep. 1, 2002 (Fall, 2002; Vol. 12, No. 3)

Photo: G.B. Singh

Almost everyone knows of Mahatma Gandhi. Barring few exceptions within the ranks of fundamentalist Hindus, Gandhi is universally recognized for his nonviolent crusades to seek justice, liberty and equality, and applauded for bringing independence to India from British colonialism. Some Hindu fundamentalists do not think much of Gandhi because they believe that he harbored excessive pro-Muslim views, which went against the general welfare of the Hindus. The validity of such views has never been openly debated, and those who hold such anti-Gandhi views have never examined their views critically. If other Indians outside the small circle of Hindu fundamentalists held anti-Gandhi opinions, I am not aware of them. Moreover, the public has been told that the vast majority of Indians do respect Gandhi. Some even go so far as to literally worship him.

I was raised in India and taught to follow in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. After coming to the United States, I was amazed to see how popular Gandhi was in Western society - more so than in India, in some respects. Even more amazing was his popularity among Black Americans.

The release of the film Gandhi in 1982 increased his popularity, and young Black Americans went to the theaters to see the movie as part of their school curriculum. Now those Black Americans are adults, and many of them happen to meet me on a daily basis. Talking to them, I have recognized that Gandhi is a far more famous figure among African Americans. Many of them associate the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Gandhi. They believe that Dr. King followed in the footsteps of Gandhi and thus modeled his civil rights movement after him. Therefore, the successes of the movement are attributed to Gandhi. This view is even shared by the senior officials of the National Park Service that installed Gandhi's statue at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1998.

Because I enjoy my conversations with African Americans, I often get them thinking radically differently by asking them: 'What was Gandhi's relationship to Black people?'

They answer back: 'The relationship had to be a good one.' This is supported, as they point out unhesitatingly, by the example of Dr. King, who, of course, followed him.

I then will ask: 'Do you know that Dr. King never met Gandhi?'

Many of them are not aware that King and Gandhi had never met. I then repeat my earlier question: 'What was Gandhi's relationship to Black people?'

I get no answers.

Many Blacks are not cognizant of the fact that Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. He then lived in India from 1915 to 1948. My question to them pertains to Gandhi's relationship with Blacks precisely at the time when he lived in South Africa for 21 years. One cannot help but discern that there is not a single Black person anywhere in any of the photos of Gandhi during that time. With Black people in the great majority, there is no way that Gandhi had missed noticing them.

Why is this? The answer is very simple: Gandhi hated Black people. Only a few scholars are aware of this background. For all practical purposes, the burden of unraveling this mystery fell upon my shoulders. Here are some of the highlights:

In 1906 Gandhi had participated in a war against Blacks. The Gandhian literature either keeps quiet on the subject or tries to paint him as a great humanitarian who actually helped Blacks by rendering to them urgent medical care. Had he not done so, we are told, many Blacks would have died. While researching the historical documents, however, I found that Gandhi's participation had nothing to do with 'humanitarian concerns' for Black people. He was more concerned with 'allying relationships' with the colonial Whites living in Natal colony. Driven by his racial outlook, he went out of his way to enlist Indians to join the army under him to fight for his cause against the Blacks. He also considered Indians living in South Africa to be 'fellow colonists' along with the White colonists, over the indigenous Blacks.

We accredit Gandhi with inventing the great technique of satyagraha, the nonviolent resistance movement to redress wrongs. Satyagraha had its birth in South Africa, and the popular history books laud Gandhi's successes in his struggles for his people against the system of apartheid. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. We need to ask: If Gandhi's technique was so good and was of such tremendous importance to the suffering Blacks of South Africa, then why is it that not a single Black newspaper ever mentioned Gandhi's satyagraha?

Again, as my research led me to delve more deeply into the historical records, I learned that the inception of Gandhi's satyagraha had the underpinnings of anti-Black racism. This especially came to light after Gandhi was convicted for breaking the law in 1908, and then sentenced. To his surprise, as he walked into the prison, he noticed 'niggers,' and had to live among them. This was bad news to him and it fortified his racist resolve which formed the very foundation of his satyagraha struggle. Here is one excerpt from my book that Gandhi wrote himself:

The cell was situated in the native quarters and we were housed in one that was labelled 'For Colured Debtors.' It was this experience for which we were perhaps all unprepared. We had fondly imagined that we would have suitable quarters apart from the natives. As it was, perhaps, it was well that we were classed with the natives. We would now be able to study the life of native prisoners, their customs and manners.

I felt, too, that passive resistance had not been undertaken too soon by the Indian community. Degradation underlay the classing of Indians with natives. The Asiatic Act seemed to me to be the summit of our degradation. It did appear to me, as I think it would appear to any unprejudiced reader, that it would have been simple humanity if we were given special quarters. The fault did not lie with the gaol authorities. It was the fault of the law that has made no provision for the special treatment of Asiatic prisoners. Indeed, the Governor of the gaol tried to make us as comfortable as he could within the regulations. The chief warder, as also the head warder, who was in immediate charge of us, completely fell in with the spirit that actuated the Governor. But he was powerless to accommodate us beyond the horrible din and the yells of the native prisoners throughout the day and partly at night also.

Many of the Native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves in their cells. The Governor could not separate the very few Indian prisoners (it speaks volumes for Indians that among several hundred there were hardly half a dozen Indian prisoners) from the cells occupied by native prisoners. And yet it is quite clear that separation is a physical necessity. So much was the classification of Indians and other Asiatics with the natives insisted upon that our jumpers, which being new were not fully marked, had to be labelled 'N,' meaning natives. How this thoughtless classification has resulted in the Indians being partly starved will be clearer when we come to consider the question of food.

A number of Black American leaders in the late 1930s went to India and met Gandhi. Their encounters with Gandhi have never been critically analyzed. The propaganda channels have tried to describe these visits as highly educational, claiming that they brought new vigor to the Blacks' fight against racism in America, using Gandhi's example. The truth, however, is that two of these Black leaders, Benjamin E. Mays and Howard Thurman, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. King, never mentioned a word about Gandhi to the young adult King.

The Untouchable (the Black people) population of India should catch our attention. The history books tell us that Gandhi brought about revolutionary changes in the Hindu society to the point that prejudices against the Untouchables had just about evaporated. Is this at all accurate? Even Dr. King believed that Gandhi brought about the miracle in his following words:

One day Mahatma Gandhi stood before his people and said: 'You are exploiting these Untouchables. Even though we are fighting with all that we have of our bodies and our souls to break loose from the bondage of the British Empire, we are exploiting these people and we are taking from them their selfhood and their self-respect.' He said, 'I will refuse to eat until the leaders of the caste system will come to me with the leaders of the Untouchables and say that there will be an end to Untouchability and the Hindu temples of India will open their doors to the untouchables.'

And he refused to eat, and days passed. Finally when Gandhi was about to breathe his last breath, and his body was all but gone, a group from the Untouchables and a group from the Brahmin caste came to him and signed a statement that they would no longer adhere to the caste system. The priest of the temple came to him and said, 'Now the temples will be opened to the Untouchables.' That afternoon, Untouchables from all over India went into the temples and all of these thousands and millions of people put their arms around the Brahmins and people of other castes. Hundreds of millions of people who had never touched each other for two thousand years were now singing and praising all together. This was a great contribution that Mahatma Gandhi brought about.

My research into Gandhi and what he actually did to the Untouchables is radically different from what the Rev. King uttered. In a nutshell, Gandhi made sure that the vast Untouchable population would be willingly subjugated forever under the oppression of the higher castes. Dr. King was off by a mile.

India was a British colony until 1947. We accredit Gandhi with launching satyagraha movements against the British, which ultimately forced the British out of India. This story has been told repeatedly to Black people all over the world, and there has always been an underlying point emphasizing that Blacks should emulate Gandhi. He is the messiah that will free us all from racial oppression. Critical scrutiny of the literature, however, suggests that Blacks should avoid Gandhi rather than emulate him.

In post-British India the Indian leaders proclaim themselves the followers of the peaceful Gandhi. Yet they are all seeking to build weapons of mass destruction. Did we miss something important here?

I am very well aware of the fact that my findings on Gandhi's racism will incite a whole lot of controversy. Be that as it may, I am of the view that the facts speak for themselves. I have exhausted the last 18 years of my life critically analyzing these hidden documents, and I have no doubt that Gandhi harbored anti-Black views and forced his racial views on his fellow Indian countrymen while living in South Africa.