I used to say that my three biggest heroes of the 20th century were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Churchill. Then I visited Ireland and discovered what Churchill had done there. I read further about Churchill’s actions in South Africa, and about how adamant Churchill was about continuing Britannica’s empire after WWII. So my reassessment of Churchill is that he was a major hero of WWII, but not much else.
About Martin Luther King (MLK): So he had affairs. Perhaps lots of them. It doesn’t bother me that much. Did it affect his commitment to the oppressed and the poor? Not that I can see. In my books, he was and is a great man. I doubt that I could have remained non-violent as he did, if I had experienced all that he had.
Now I come to Gandhi. MLK idolized Gandhi. So had I. I have now visited three Gandhi museums/memorials. There is one more in Tamil that I have yet to visit.
In 1993, I visited the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. I arrived first thing on Monday morning, and I had the entire small museum to myself. I was most touched by the life-sized diorama of Gandhi’s possessions at the end of his life. Everything he owned weighed less than 15 kilos total. Two changes of clothes, his spectacles, bowl, utensils, and of all things, his cotton-spinning top. He made his clothes and wove the cotton for them. He himself washed them by hand. He insisted on doing it this way, for as he stated, “My life is my statement.”
So I this recent trip, I visited the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum in Mumbai. This is where for over 15 years Gandhi stayed and planned his strategies against the British. Stored in this building are many of his books, notes, and writings. If you are interested in Gandhi’s life at all, and are ever in Mumbai, this is a must-visit. Mani Bhavan is in a pleasant, wealthy, clean neighborhood in NW Mumbai. (Please note that most of Mumbai is NOT pleasant or clean.)
The first floor has many of Gandhi’s personal letters and documents. These include letters to Roosevelt and Hitler. The exhibits and dioramas said that Gandhi was far ahead of his time in advocating for equal rights for women and the complete abolition of the caste system, that Gandhi insisted that peoples of all of the many diverse religions of India should live together. He was against the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Both Hindu and Muslim separatists opposed him. Perhaps the partitioning was inevitable, as witnessed by the terrible violence in Bihar province. But on moral grounds, Gandhi sought unity. This would ultimately lead to his assassination.
The second floor of the Gandhi museum consists of more documents, plus a number of dioramas of the important events of Gandhi’s life. I found this part of the museum to be fascinating. My original plan was to display the dioramas and quote them directly as the museum explained.
But a coincidental event happened shortly afterward. After I walked out of the museum, I went to a very modern restaurant nearby, where I met three young professionals from India. I told them I had just come from the Gandhi museum and began to sing my praises about Gandhi. One of them interjected that what I have heard is the official story, but that Gandhi’s politics and motivations were far different from his polished image. This was news for me. So I began reading up further on Gandhi. I think B. R. Ambedkar’s THE ANNIHILATION OF CASTE was most important. Here are two videos that seriously changed my impression of Gandhi.
So I now am displaying these dioramas of Gandhi’s life here with explanations and commentary, where necessary.
Gandhi became politically active when he was thrown off a train in South Africa because he was Indian. He fought this legally in court, and for this, became a hero in India. But forgotten in the struggle is the documented evidence that Gandhi asked that the railways put in a second car for mixed-races and Indians, and KEEP THE KAFFIRS (South African for ‘niggers’) OUT OF THE INDIANS’ COACHES. At the time, Gandhi held strong racist views against native Africans, feeling them to be brutes and inferiors.
Gandhi returned to India from South Africa as a hero. But in India, he was considered a hero of Gandhi’s own Kshatriyas caste. This is the caste for military and rulers. And to a lesser extent, the Vaishyas (merchant) caste. Local Indians were mostly proud of Gandhi for representing India’s economic interests in South Africa, rather than their human rights.
In 1919, the British attacked a peaceful demonstration in Amritsar, Punjab, India, and killed many hundreds. The British acknowledged 375, but the Indian records showed that it was in the thousands. It was at this point that Gandhi became committed to ending British colonial rule.
Gandhi did say something interesting about British rule. He said that his program of non-violent resistance could only work with a country with some sort of moral compass, like England. He said that had it been the Soviet Union that was occupying India, on day one of Gandhi’s resistance to the Soviet presence, Stalin would have had him executed and that would be that.
Gandhi did notably campaign against the plight of the ‘untouchables’, known as the Shudras or Dalits in India. This was the bottom caste in India, that received the bulk of the discrimination. He did fast to bring attention to their plight. But…. Gandhi believed in and supported the caste system. He did want the Dalits to continue doing only their menial work, and ‘stay in their place’. Mostly though, Gandhi wanted better treatment for the Dalits without offending the Hindu hierarchy or cosmology. Gandhi may have been ahead of time, but there is little evidence that he believed in complete equality for the untouchables.
Gandhi’s marriage with Kasturba was arranged when he was 13 and she was 14. They had 4 children after his return from studying in England. At age 37, he informed her that they would no longer have any sex. Kasturba continued working with Gandhi for India’s independence. She died in prison, while under arrest for protesting British policies.
Gandhi was killed by a Hindu fanatic who wanted no compromise with the Muslims. Witnesses swear that Gandhi smiled at his assassin after he was shot. Gandhi had stated repeatedly that he was expecting to be assassinated.
The Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi spent many years. Gandhi led many noble causes here, such as the salt march to sea, to protest the British tax on salt. But at the Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi forbade married couples from sleeping with each other. Then he demanded that other men’s wives to sleep with him. He may not have had explicit sex with them, but the women and their husbands had no choice in the matter.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” Lord Acton. That this quote has become a cliche does not lessen its truth.
In Gandhi’s later years, he demanded that his two great nieces sleep naked with him. They were teenagers at the time. Gandhi may not have had sex with them. But only later in their lives did the nieces fearfully reveal this. But could they possibly have consented to this, at their age, and given Gandhi’s eminence. Of course not.
“My life is my message” — Gandhi. For the most part, he had a noble message about non-violence and tolerance, better pay and less discrimination against the lower castes. But Gandhi was also a product of his times, affected by his Hindu upbringing and ideas about caste and place in society. His behavior with other women on the Ashram and his nieces was inexcusable. But as with most legends and heroes, the real story is a mixed bag. It is much more positive than negative, no doubt. But with a dark side that has been carefully obscured by the victorious historians.