African student body in Ottawa calls to remove statue of ‘anti-black’ Gandhi
As a debate over bringing down iconic figures rages around the world, including in India, Mahatma Gandhi has become the target of an effort to have his statue removed from the campus of Carleton University in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.
The campaign is being spearheaded by Kenneth Aliu, president of the Institute of African Studies Student Association (IASSA). In an opinion piece for the independent weekly Charlatan, Aliu accused Gandhi of “anti-black racism” and called for the removal of the statue.
It appears the university’s administration isn’t likely to accept that demand.
While Aliu was not available for comments despite agreeing to speak with Hindustan Times, he said in a radio interview that he started examining this issue after the 2016 protests at the University of Ghana over a statue of the Mahatma being placed there.
While mentioning Gandhi’s “philosophy of non-violence” in his oped, Aliu wrote that “it is insufficient to state the obvious about Gandhi without questioning the legacy of the man we have collectively placed on a moral pedestal”. He added, “Gandhi was a racist. He utilised anti-Black racism as a weapon to bargain with the British about the subjugation of Indians living in South Africa.”
Aliu continued: “He was known to explicitly refer to Black South Africans as ‘Kaffir’, a derogatory term on the same level as the N-word. In his 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi’s racism towards black peoples was made clear.”
The statue of the assassinated father of the Indian nation was officially unveiled on October 2, 2011, or Gandhi Jayanti, at the initiative of the Ottawa-based Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council( MGPC), which has the objective of promoting “education in Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and beliefs, especially those related to peace and non-violence”.
The life-size statue was donated by the Indian government through the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.
While the university administration did not respond to a request for comment, MGPC’s president Rashmi Gupta said the council had been assured by the varsity president that the statue will remain.
“Dr (Alistair) Summerlee, president of the university, reassured MGPC, observing that if he was asked about this issue, he will be convincing in his defence of an individual who meant a great deal to India, Indians and to global citizens. Gandhiji, according to him, was a greatly revered and respected figure and that the president and the board had the final say in any moves to remove statues or memorabilia to any individual on campus and this would not be a direction that the university will pursue,” she said in an emailed response.
Responding to Aliu’s charge of anti-black racism, Gupta acknowledged Gandhi had made “certain remarks way back” that “raised some concerns”, but those came before he evolved to become the Mahatma. She said there was a similar debate over the statue when it was first installed at the campus, but such protests were “inspired by this misplaced notion of prejudice”.
Gupta pointed out that the first statue of Gandhi in South Africa was unveiled in 1993 at Pietermaritzburg by none other than the father of the modern, post-apartheid nation, Nelson Mandela. She quoted Mandela as saying, “Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”
But the debate at Carleton may be far from over, as Aliu stressed the opposing position in his piece: “The removal of the statue is one way of correcting that history and rethinking the narratives we tell - especially in an institution responsible for creating critical thinkers.”
India has witnessed a debate of its own on the toppling of statues by political opponents, starting with the destruction of a statue of Communist icon Lenin in Tripura, where 25 years of Left rule ended in March . Since then, statues or busts of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, social reformer and founder of the Dravidian movement EV Ramasamy “Periyar” and Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee have been vandalised in different parts of the country.