Why a Ghanaian University Is Getting Rid of a Statue of Gandhi

The civil rights leader’s legacy is complicated

Mohanda Gandhi, center, spent years living in South Africa where he worked as a lawyer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For many people, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi holds saint-like status thanks to his devotion to nonviolent protest and his role in India’s independence from British rule which subjected the subcontinent to centuries of colonization. However, Gandhi was far from perfect. Now, Ghana’s largest university is removing a statue of the Indian leader after a series of protests citing accusations of racism against Gandhi.

The trouble kicked off earlier this year, when the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee gifted the Ghanaian government with a statue of Gandhi, which was soon installed on the grounds of the University of Ghana in the capital of Accra. However, while it was intended as a diplomatic offering, the statue didn’t have quite the intended effect. Shortly after the Gandhi statue appeared on campus, a group of students and teachers began vocally protesting its placement. The reason? Gandhi's statements that called Indians racially superiority to black Africans, Lily Kuo reports for Quartz.

Gandhi is revered around the world for his dedication to nonviolent resistance against colonial powers. Yet, as a young lawyer living in South Africa during the late 1800s, Gandhi repeatedly made public statements where he referred to black Africans as “savages” and “kaffirs”—a racial slur—while claiming that Indians were an inherently better people brought down by mere association, Tekendra Parmar reports for TIME magazine.

“A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa,” Gandhi wrote in an 1893 letter to the parliament of the British Colony of Natal, which is now part of South Africa. “Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”

In an online petition asking the Ghanaian government to remove the Gandhi statue, this quote is one of several cited by the protestors that documents Gandhi referring to indigenous South Africans by the racial slur. At the same time, the protestors take issue with the fact that the university currently has no statues or memorials honoring heroes of African descent, the BBC reports.

"There is a misrepresentation of Gandhi by court historians who want to present a largely sanitised and universalist Gandhi; as South Africa's first and foremost anti-apartheid fighter," University of Johannesburg sociologist Ashwin Desai tells Teo Kermeliotis for Al Jazeera. "The truth about the South African Gandhi is uncomfortable. Those who seek to remove the statue of Gandhi have rightly focused on a man who spat on the struggles of Africans in South Africa."

This isn’t the first time Gandhi’s prejudices toward other races has been called into question. Earlier this year, a statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg, South Africa was splashed with white paint during a protest against its placement, and the hashtag #GandhiMustFall has spread amongst some activists on social media, Kermeliotis reports. Even Gandhi’s descendants have acknowledged his problematic views on race, though they have urged protesters to consider their grandfather’s evolution over the years.

In light of the protests, the Ghanaian government announced that it would relocate the statue, both to quell the controversy as well as to prevent anyone from vandalizing it. 

So far, there is no word as to where the Gandhi statue will go. But wherever the statue does end up, a more complex picture of the civil rights leader will follow.

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