The extra-judicial killing of African American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, US, has stirred massive protests across several countries, some of which have turned violent. Statues of historical personalities such as Winston Churchill and Christopher Columbus have been toppled, vandalised or defaced. Amid this, an online petition bearing more than 6,000 signatures demanding to remove a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester, United Kingdom has been accepted by the City Council for consideration.
The petition accuses Gandhi of being “a fascist, racist and sexual predator”. The petition adds, “For years he has been idolised and taught in school curriculum. For a lot of people in my community, he has bought inconsolable suffering against my people. As a result, I do not wish to see a statue and praise of that kind of character”. The petitioner asked people to conduct their own research on Gandhi and align it with their beliefs before signing the protest.
The petition has now been closed after Leicester City Council requested the petitioner to close it and formally submit it with presenting arguments.
Objection to the Petition
After the city council decided to deliberate on the demand, it has triggered a debate on the issue in the UK. Several people have come forward to defend the statue and oppose the demand to dismantle it. Supporters of the statue formed a symbolic human chain with ribbons around the statue on Saturday to protest against the City Council’s decision to consider the petition demanding the demolition. Volunteers from the Hindu organisation Samanvaya Parivar organised the protest, who were joined by former Leicester East MP Keith Vaz and city councillors. The group also tied white ribbons to the railings and held a silent vigil.
According to Labour MP Claudia Webbe from Leicester (East), the uncanny petition was a ‘massive distraction’ from the anti-racism protests. She argued that Gandhi was able to create a mass movement, just like Martin Luther King did with his Civil Rights Movement. “His form of peaceful protest, like Black Lives Matter, is a force for change. There is not any desire from the black community to move that symbol of change,” she was quoted as saying.
Faisal Devji who is a professor of Indian history at Oxford University dubbed the petition as ‘absurd’ and stated that the comparison of Mahatma Gandhi with slave owners was a ‘bit much.’ He added that the statue of the ‘Father of the Indian Nation’ was also a representation of the Gujaratis who had come to live in Leicester, after their exodus from Uganda during the regime of military dictator Idi Amin.
Besides, he argued that Gandhi sympathised with the native Africans during Zulu and Boer wars and thus his track record was ‘mixed.’ Former Member of Parliament, Keith Vaz, who had unveiled the said statue in 2009 and hailed Mahatma Gandhi as one the greatest peacemakers reiterated that he would defend the statue ‘personally’.
‘Documented Racism’ of Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi during his time in South Africa had referred to native Africans as ‘dirty, uncivilised, and savages.’ He had written in 1893 that “Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”. In 1904, he wrote to a health officer in Johannesburg that the council “must withdraw Kaffirs” from an unsanitary slum known as the “Coolie Location” where a large number of Africans lived alongside Indians. He had also petitioned against the system in public places in South Africa where there was one entrance for white people and another for Indians and native Africans. He was against clubbing Indians with Africans, and sought a different entrance for Indians.
His grandson and biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, had conceded that Mahatma Gandhi was ignorant and prejudiced towards the African black community but also highlighted his progressive behaviour that was distinct from other compatriots.
Controversial historian Ramchandra Guha, in his defence argued, “Speaking of comprehensive equality for coloured people was premature in early 20th Century South Africa.” However, according to Ashwin Desai, Mahatma Gandhi endorsed higher taxes on poor African peasants and ignored the brutality of the British Empire against native Africans. As such, the demand to remove his statue in Manchester was made by student activists in October last year.
Statue of Mahatma Gandhi vandalised in London
Days after some Balck Lives Matter protesters in the US vandalised the statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, some similar unruly elements had desecrated another Gandhi statue on Parliament Square, London. The miscreants defaced the statue on Sunday with scribbling ‘racist’ on its plinth and splattering it with white paint. They also taped placards with anti-racism messages on it. The said statue was installed in 2015 along with 11 other prominent British, Commonwealth, and foreign political figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. Following the attack on statues, several prominent statues in London have been covered with boards to protect them from vandalism.