In December 2018, students of the University of Ghana removed a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from their campus. Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, had unveiled the statue when he visited the university, which is located in the country’s capital city of Accra, in June 2016. It spurred a campaign called Gandhi Must Fall, during which the university’s staff and students contended that Gandhi was racist and called for the statue’s removal.
One of the leaders of the campaign, Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon, a research fellow at the university’s Institute of African Studies, claimed that standard bureaucratic procedures for installing the statue were bypassed. In conversation with Sagar, a staff writer at The Caravan, Kambon discussed the need to destroy improper propaganda about Gandhi—or, as he terms it, “ImpropaGandhi”—because he fought for upper-caste Hindus and not against colonialism. He drew parallels between Gandhi’s views on the Black community in Africa and the Dalit community in India. Referring to the offensive slur used to denigrate the Black community and Gandhi’s usage of the term, Kambon said, “He would have shot down as many Kaffirs as he had bullets, if he had the opportunity.”
Sagar: How was the Gandhi Must Fall movement conceived and executed?
Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon: Pranab Mukherjee’s lecture was publicised but the statue was not. I was driving down the road and I saw this new statue—it was Gandhi. My first thought was, these people have no idea who Gandhi is. So, I took a couple of photos with my phone and sent an email with 52 of his most racist quotes. That is what started the conversation on campus. We have thousands of people in our university staff list, and dozens of people were involved in the back and forth conversation. So, a lot of people were like, “We had no idea, we just saw the movie, we thought he was great, this is a surprise.” Then, of course, you had the knee-jerk reaction, “I saw the movie, it was great, he must be great. I don’t know what this is about.” I address this idea of cognitive dissonance. What happens when people are confronted with new information, when it doesn’t gel with current beliefs—they start trying to rationalise, dismiss or just ignore it, because it causes this type of tension and uncomfortability in them.
The then vice chancellor sent out an email reply during the course of the exchange. Most likely, he was the one who commissioned or allowed the placing of the statue to go through—it didn’t go through the academic board, or the normal bureaucratic channels—it just popped up on campus, without any feedback from those in African studies or history, who would know who Gandhi was in relation to African people. In the email, he said he thought that Gandhi changed when he got older. After this I sent another email. I went into his role in oppressing the Dalits and calling them “Harijans,” which [means] “bastard children of Devadasis”—a term coined in the 1400s by poet Narsinh Mehta; it is very clear why the Dalits themselves do not like that term.
Dr Ambedkar wrote about what the Congress and Gandhi had done to the untouchables in terms of coercing him into signing the Poona Pact—it was a violent act of coercion, and he really spoke in disparaging terms about it, as most Dalits do till this day. I gave all that background information—some about Gandhi, some about Dr Ambedkar saying that Gandhi was the worst enemy of the untouchables.
What people did not see is that he was against Black people, whether they happen to be continental Africans or not. He was an Indo-Aryan, upper-caste Hindu; he was always fighting for upper-caste Hindus and he was never fighting for Black people there in India.
S: So, you are saying that Gandhi was defending his caste rather than fighting for the Black community and against the British in Africa?
OBK: It comes off very clearly in his writing at the time that he is not for Black people. From 1893 to 1913, he was always saying—these Kaffirs, we don’t want to work with them; even when it comes to striking, we are not trying to strike alongside these Kaffirs. In 1906, according to his autobiography, he had this huge epiphany. [Gandhi took a vow of celibacy and stated that he learnt the error of his ways.] But some of the worst things that he said and did were after that so-called vow.