Debate: Guha’s Story of Gandhi in South Africa Does Not Square With the Record

Contrary to what Guha argues, much after 1906, Gandhi continued to castigate and belittle Africans

This article is a response to Ramachandra Guha’s article, ‘Setting the Record Straight on Gandhi and Race’

Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India published in 2013 was received with much consternation in South Africa. This was because in Guha’s quest to portray the South African Gandhi as a cosmopolitan anti-colonial fighter and apostle of non-racialism, he wrote out of history the brutal subjugation of Africans and the myriad resistances against the Imperial army. He turned a blind eye to Gandhi’s ‘anti-African’ racism and support for the right of the white minority to hold political power.

Guha’s argument is that because Indians were more adept at challenging white domination, the ruling class passed a myriad of laws that restricted their movement to trade. He goes on to argue that given that ‘these restrictions were later extended more thoroughly to the Africans, the Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims. And in so far as it was Gandhi who led the first protests against the racial laws, he should really be recognised as being among apartheid’s first opponents.’ This is a staggering claim.

At exactly the time when laws were passed against Indian traders, the brutal system of migrant labour wrenched Africans from their families, dragooning them into the mines of South Africa and housing them in a prison-like compound system that sought to control all aspects of their lives. In addition, numerous taxes were implemented that crippled African economic initiatives (a move endorsed by Gandhi to get the ‘lazy’ natives to work) and strict enforcement of curfews and pass laws curtailed their movement (Gandhi condoned this as long as it did not apply to Indians).

Guha’s book is littered with such assertions. He argues, for example, that ‘Europeans wanted to claim it [South Africa] as their own, an objective to which – at the time [circa 1905] – the Indians, and the Indians alone, posed a serious challenge’. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of South Africa history will tell you that the colonial archive is filled with white fear of African rebellion, especially in Natal. Witness that doyen of South African historians, Jeff Guy writing about the aftermath of the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 in his book The Maphumulo Uprising:

The execution of those who it was said had murdered whites, the exile of chiefs said to be disloyal, over three thousand dead and three thousand in gaol, the refusal to consider an amnesty for those in hiding, the cattle seized, property looted and homesteads burnt were still, incredibly, not enough… officials were planning further punishment and suppression. The colonial dream of conquest, the creation of an African population both subservient to and appreciative of the alien rule was never-could never-be attained.

Also read: Setting the Record Straight on Gandhi and Race

In many senses, Guha’s cardboard cut-out figure, ‘India gave us a Mohandas we (South Africa) gave them a Mahatma’ served as a lightning rod for a plethora of works that sought to fill in crucial aspects of Gandhi’s time in Africa that Guha occluded.

Now Guha returns to the fray placing great store by the assertion that in his mid-thirties, circa 1906, Gandhi stopped being a racist. Just like Jan Smuts and Cecil John Rhodes might have said some nice things about Africans, this cannot be used to exculpate their racist ideology; so also for Gandhi.

Unfortunately for Guha, much after 1906, Gandhi continued to castigate and belittle Africans. Among a host of examples, the historian of African literature, Isabel Hofmeyr shows how in 1909, Gandhi’s activism crystallises in wanting Indians inside and outside prison ‘not to be classed as native’, holding that he had made up his mind ‘to fight against the rule by which Indians are made to live with Kaffirs and others’. And for those Indians who enjoyed the company of ‘Natives’, Gandhi pronounced that they were ‘addicted to bad habits’.

Let me illustrate how nonchalant Guha is about Gandhi’s anti-Indian racism. In his book, Guha quotes Gandhi who argues that the carrying of passes

‘…presupposes that the Indian is a barbarian. There is very good reason for requiring registration of a native in that he is yet being taught dignity and the necessity of labour. The Indian knows it and he is imported because he knows it.’

Guha makes no comment on this crude racism and the way in which Gandhi could not countenance African refusal to work for the white colonists as a form of resistance. Time and again Guha quotes but does not reflect on Gandhi’s racism. Gandhi’s passive resistance comes imbued with a sense of Indian superiority and African inferiority. Guha quotes one of Gandhi’s lieutenants A.M. Cachalia from 1908:

‘Passive resistance is a matter of heart, of conscience, of trained understanding. The natives of South Africa need many generations of culture and development before they can hope to be passive resisters in the true sense of the term.’

Guha’s response is that Cachalia ‘provided a compelling defence of non-violence as the most moral means of challenging injustice’.

Despite the weight of evidence, Guha argues, ‘Gandhi forged enduring friendships with individuals of ethnic and religious backgrounds different from his own…As a London-trained lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi was the only Indian in Durban who bridged the gap between the races’. Given Gandhi’s aversion to Africans, this conclusion is patently untrue.

Also read: The Freshness of Gandhi’s Religiosity in the Age of Celebrity Gurus

Guha’s attempt to rescue a South African Gandhi elides his racism and his lack of acknowledgement of African oppression and resistance.

But it is Guha’s own writing out of African history under colonialism and segregation that really is unpardonable. Indians led the fight against discrimination and could be seen as the first anti-apartheid fighters. In Guha’s hands, the history of South Africa is told as a struggle between Indian traders and white racists. The struggles of Indian indenture that saw them confront caste and a system that sought to reduce them to numbers before the arrival of Gandhi is given short shrift. All the time, Africans are in the background, inert figures; a people without history.

Is it any wonder that Guha cannot see Gandhi’s racism?

Ashwin Desai, with Goolam Vahed, is the author of The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, and is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg.