Ghanaian professors are calling for a statue of Mahatma Gandhi to be removed from their campus because they claim he was racist and considered Indians to be “infinitely superior” to black Africans.
A statue of the Indian independence leader was unveiled at the University of Ghana in June by the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, who had delivered a speech calling on students to “emulate and concretise” Gandhi’s ideals.
More than 1,000 people have since signed a petition calling for it to be torn down, saying that not only was Gandhi racist towards black South Africans when he lived there from 1893-1914, but that he campaigned for the maintenance of the caste system in his own country.
“We can do the honourable thing by pulling down the statue,” read the petition, which was delivered to the university council on Thursday. “It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super-power. Some harm has already been done by erecting the statue. We have failed the generation that look up to us, namely our students.”
The professors quoted several of Gandhi’s writings in which he referred to black South Africans as “kaffirs” (a highly offensive racist slur) and complained that the South African government wanted to “drag down” Indians to the same level as people he called “half-heathen natives”.
The statue of Gandhi was unveiled by Indian president Pranab Mukherjee who called on students to emulate his ideals. Photograph: Christian Thompson/AP
One quote read: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, acknowledged that his grandfather was “undoubtedly” ignorant and prejudiced about black South Africans.
“However, on racial equality, he was greatly in advance of most, if not all, of his compatriots; and the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle for black rights,” he wrote. He also cited Nelson Mandela, who once said: “Gandhi must be forgiven these prejudices in the context of the time and the circumstances.”
In 2014, when the novelist Arundhati Roy took aim at Gandhi and accused him of perpetuating a discriminatory caste system, she provoked some scepticism from Indian historians.
Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said at the time that Gandhi had “devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice”.
However, the leaders of the Ghanaian petition, who include Akosua Adomako Ampofo, professor at the Institute of African Studies at Ghana University, and Akosua Adoma Perbi of the history department, see things differently.
They pointed out that the memorial to Gandhi was the only statue to a historic personality on the campus. The failure to honour African heroes and heroines was “a slap in the face that undermines our struggles for autonomy, recognition and respect”, they said.
There was apparently no consultation with students before the statue was erected. Ọbádélé Kambon, a research fellow at the university, was driving through the campus one day in July when he stumbled upon it.
“It was not a shock because I know the levels of mis-education, dis-education and anti-education,” he said. “If we knew better, we would do better.”
Kambon had read extensively about Gandhi, whom he said campaigned hard in South Africa for British rulers to acknowledge the idea that Indians were superior to black people. He said he immediately sent dozens of racist quotes from Gandhi to the entire faculty.
“It’s not a thing of Ghana versus India,” he said. “Imagine if we sent a statue of colonel Reginald Dyer and said it was a gift to India. How would they feel?”
Dyer was the British officer responsible for the Amritsar massacre in 1919.