Give us a statue of Ambedkar, not Gandhi: Ghana university professor Ọbádélé Kambon

Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon, a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies​ in the University of Ghana​, 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. Courtesy Obadele Kambon
13 January, 2019

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.

At the time he was writing his autobiography, he didn’t know that he could be fact-checked later, in 100 searchable volumes via PDF. After that so-called vow in 1906, you [had] him saying that, “Black people are one degree removed from animals.” When he was serving in the jails, that is where he is saying, they “live like animals.”

He duped so many people with his autobiography. Those people didn’t have a chance to fact-check because it wasn’t until 1998–1999 that you could have access to the right things—especially in Hindi and Gujarati. How in the world are these Black people who can’t read Gujarati or Hindi supposed to be able to know this is what he was saying about them? And more so, how were they supposed to know that he was actually lying until they go back and check all that he said from 1906. When he went to India, he was fighting against Dalits, condemning their Mahad satyagraha. [Mahad Satyagraha was a satyagraha led by Ambedkar to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad, Maharashtra.]

S: Do Gandhi’s works in Gujarati and Hindi portray the real picture of his personality?
OBK: He was also saying highly inflammatory stuff in English, but then again, if you don’t have access to collected works you will never get the full scope. I am working on an article that is dealing with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and why all three of them are pushed down the throats of Black people as heroes. Those are not the ones who I ever look up to, although I can’t speak for the entire Black race. But there’s a reason why our white enemies shove them down our throats as “these are the best for your race.” South Africa, the US, and India—in all three places, Black people are subjected to genocide, according to the UN definition of what genocide is.

But, we are told by those three that the solution to our problem is closer proximity to those who are committing the genocide. First, we are told that our problem in the US is that we are not integrated—so once we integrate with these white enemies who are subjecting us to genocide, our problems are solved. Martin Luther King is telling us that the ones who are stabbing us, killing us, lynching us, subjecting us to genocide—our whole problem is we aren’t close enough to them yet. That’s like someone who has knife, chopping you and stabbing in the chest then just telling you to go closer to them. How insane is that! Therefore, we are given a solution that is never a solution—it exacerbates the problem of genocide.

Now, look at the same thing in South Africa. We are being told the problem is apartheid and the face of anti-apartheid is Nelson Mandela. But, being apart from white people is not our issue; the issue is we are subjected to genocide. Then, the same thing in India, we are told that the problem is untouchability—you cannot touch us, you cannot come into our temples, you cannot draw water from our tanks. But although our problem is genocide, the solution we are given is that, “You can now come close enough to touch us, so shut up, you don’t have any issues.” And the face of amelioration of untouchability, rather than the annihilation of caste, is Gandhi. No, the problem is genocide, which cannot be solved by simply moving closer to the ones who are perpetrating and perpetuating it.

Once we know the problem is genocide, then we need to know what to do about those Indo-Aryans, Indo-Europeans who are subjecting us to genocide. But because they have misdiagnosed our problem, all three are ceaselessly shoved down our throats as these are the heroes you should look up to. But these are not our heroes. If we choose our heroes, we will choose someone like Marcus Garvey. Where is his statue here at the University of Ghana? We will choose someone like Mangaliso Sobukwe to follow his footsteps.

We do not get to learn of any of our luminaries, what we get is Gandhi. In India, if you want to give us a statue, give us a statue of Ambedkar. That is whose writings we can relate to as Black people.

Kambon said, “We do not get to learn of any of our luminaries, what we get is Gandhi. In India, if you want to give us a statue, give us a statue of Ambedkar. That is whose writings we can relate to as Black people.” Courtesy Obadele Kambon

S: India has always objected to discussing caste, in the context of racial discrimination, on international platforms. What are the similarities between racial and caste discrimination?
OBK: It is a correlation, not causation. [For] people who are not very aware of Hinduism—in terms of the symbolism, there are colours associated with different castes—the Brahmins are associated with the colour white, the Kshatriyas are associated with red, the Vaishyas are associated with yellow and Black is for Shudras and down. This is white on top and Black on the bottom—this is the same strong correlation that you see in Indian society.

Dr Ambedkar spoke against the idea of an Aryan invasion; however, a force of those Aryans came as a military. You have indigenous people who are very dark because they are close to the equator. They had not undergone the genetic changes that went on, such as mutation of the gene SLC24A5—the significant genetic factor that makes whites white. All humanity came from Africa, but we find that in southern India, those who are still Black they did not undergo mutation, and they are still close to the equator.

People who were there before the North Indians—the Aryans—came, they are still very dark and they are the ones who are at the lowest rung of this caste system. Many of the outcastes, Dalits—who do not even figure in the four major Varnashrama Dharma or if they do, they are lower Shudras—tend to be the Black people, whereas the Brahmins tend to be the whitest ones. It’s not a direct correlation, but it tends to be that way. You see it in the skin colour, but [also] beyond that, in terms of how racism is systemic.

In all these soap operas out of India, we see those who are whiter than the white. If you look at Bollywood, you do not see representation of the Adivasis. You definitely do not see representation of the Dalits. The correlation is so stark that you would have to be feigning complete idiocy to not recognise it.

S: How did you get interested in Gandhi?
OBK: In the early 90s, I was listening to a lecture by a noted historian in the US, a Black man, Dr John Henrik Clarke, where he said if Martin Luther King, Jr was able to do more research, he would have never taken Gandhi as someone [whose footsteps should be followed], because Gandhi was a faker, a fraud. Those were very strong words.

It made me interested in the subject. Later, Dr Runoko Rashidi, a historian who deals with Black presence in early Asia, also talked about the plight of the Dalits, the Dalit Panthers [an anti-caste movement started in 1972] and things of that nature. That prompted me to read Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India by VT Rajshekar, who, interestingly, is not a Dalit himself. But that is what really got me very sensitised to names like Babasaheb Ambedkar. I started reading Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, Annihilation of Caste, and just juxtapose them: how Dr Ambedkar was saying we have to annihilate caste altogether, whereas Gandhi was like if you annihilate caste, you annihilate Hinduism, and that there are scientific justifications for caste and all these things.

Dr Ambedkar said that caste is like a multi-story building without doors and ladders; wherever you start, that’s where you are for perpetuity. And he described it as a chamber of horrors. So, all those things led me to understand that the real Gandhi was not the image he had been portrayed to be. He was an enemy of the Black people, just as Dr Ambedkar said.

S: Why do you think Gandhi was racist?
OBK: A lot of the apologists say that he grew up in a particular way and he was a part of the bania caste, which is a sub-caste of the Vaishyas, so forth and so on. The core of it is that no matter where he was located, he was always fighting for Indo-Aryans—to use his own term— not fighting [for] Black people.

The apologists also say he just said racist things when he was young, but racism is not about saying mean things. If you look at his role in the segregation of the Durban post and telegraph office entrances, his role in segregation in jails, if you look at his role in the war against the Zulus—where he was agitating for arms and guns and military training—you will see the real Gandhi, the warmonger Gandhi. Not the one who later lied and said his heart was with the Zulus.

We have little to no indication that he even knew they were called Zulus, at the time where he said they were “Kaffirs,” which Gandhi later confessed to knowing was a term of opprobrium. And that is the other thing they will say—Kaffir wasn’t a disparaging term at the time. Well, what about “savages,” “half-heathens,” “one degree removed from an animal?” Are those terms of endearment in Hindi [or] Gujarati? I think not. The thing that really betrays that he was aware that this is a derogatory term is that he would say do not call us [Indians] “coolie,” it is offensive. And then the very next sentence, “those Kaffirs over there.”

You have other contemporaries of Gandhi from India, like Dr Ambedkar, who magically found a way not to disparage the Black people and call them Kaffirs or fight in wars against them. Gandhi decided to coerce Ambedkar into signing the Poona Pact. The Poona Pact of 1932 was a result of coercion of Ambedkar by Gandhi via a fast unto death, to prevent the Dalits from getting separate electorates or a double-vote for the Dalit community, which they had previously been awarded. You see, the Dalits tend to be concentrated on the outskirts of town, so they could virtually never have a majority to represent themselves in any district or area. The idea was to basically give them somewhat of a level playing field. Gandhi said that he would fast unto death to prevent them from getting their just due.

But they had to go back on that, because Dr Ambedkar was aware that if Gandhi died during this fast there would be a massive pogrom—the Dalits would be held responsible, there would be a massive bloodbath.

Gandhi just wanted to keep Hindus together so that he could have majority. So, he was not interested in Dalits getting their just due, he was only interested in Hindus getting the majority, so they don’t have to abdicate power to anyone else, whether it is to the Muslims or [whoever.]

S: The dominant narrative remains that Gandhi left behind a legacy of non-violence.
OBK: First off, let us dispel the myth of Gandhi’s non-violence. Gandhi supported the First World War, he supported the Bambatha rebellion. About the First World War, he said, “Home rule without military power was useless.” He promoted it heavily and told people that they should think well and get involved in the war. This is 1918 that we’re talking about. About the Bambatha rebellion he said, “We need guns… We need military training.”

You can actually read his own documentation on how he supported every major war in his lifetime. How non-violent is that in terms of actions? We have to take a very careful look at his writings, and not at the ImpropaGandhi.

S: Do you think a lack of representation of the oppressed communities contributes to this?
OBK: What is ironic is that we have people who pretend to be progressive—who call themselves Marxists and socialists. Yet, here they are allying with upper-caste Hindus and against the Dalits. They also started a Gandhi Must Stand petition. Black people who are apolitical and do not understand anything about geopolitics are now allying with right wing upper-caste Hindus—the BJP. They are with [Narendra] Modi. What Modi is doing is purely Gandhi—he presents an image of non-violence, but really is about violence.

Dalits, just like the Black people around the world, we need to have our own media, our own outlets to get our stories out. Gandhi suggested that the Dalits should be under the trusteeship of the Hindu. What that has led to is pogrom after pogrom after pogrom—from the 60s all the way up to today. How do they express this guardianship? By raping, pillaging, plundering, dismembering, lynching, and burning Black people alive.

S: You have said that India has been installing these statues to create an image of itself as a protector of democracy. Internationally, why has there been no counter campaign against this?
OBK: There have been numerous campaigns against Gandhi statues by GB Singh, who is a Sikh. He has several books. He came to my notice way back when he was fighting against these statues being imposed on us. So, there are these types of counter-narratives in his book Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity.

All of these solidarity messages I have gotten from India show very clearly that this isn’t an “India vs Ghana” thing—we are getting solidarity from the downtrodden people in India, from Siddis [an African-origin ethnic group living in South Asia], from Dalits, Sikhs. We have an email thread with all these people from India who say it is high time that the lie is blown apart, so that we can finally get to the truth. If we are not dealing with the truth, we cannot expect for peace to reign among people.

S: An incident from Gandhi’s life, that is often quoted in India, is an account of how he was thrown out of a train in South Africa and how he later demanded to be able to travel with the white people in first class. You have spoken against this incident in your interviews.
OBK: For the train incident, there is a very good text you should read, Gandhi Under Cross-Examination [by GB Singh and Dr Tim Watson]. [It points out] this supposed train incident happened in 1893, but he did not even think it up until 1909. For those who have read the collected works of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—I refuse to call him mahatma, just like Ambedkar did—anything that ever happens to him, he writes down, to the point of if he sneezes or trips over a rock. [Kambon is referring to the 100-volume compilation of Gandhi’s works titled The Collected Works of Mahatama Gandhi.]

But it was not [until] 16 years after that incident supposedly happened that he ever wrote it. He published this incident four times in his life and not one single version is the same as the other. There are numerous inconsistencies whereby any critical and thinking mind would clearly see that his accounts would not withstand cross-examination.

S: In an interview, you compared Gandhi with Reginald Dyer, the British officer who led the 1919 massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar.
OBK: The main difference between Gandhi and Dyer is simply one of opportunity. Gandhi wanted firearms—not to shoot the British, but shoot who he called the Kaffir rebels. Dyer was given the opportunity and he used it in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre—he shot down all the Indians who are just there to watch the proceedings of [a] festival. I am drawing an analogy: if Gandhi had the opportunity to get firearms, he would have done exactly what Dyer did. That is a very painful point in the history of India, right?

Now imagine if we, as a part of the Commonwealth, [would] have gone on to say, Dyer was a fine, upstanding man. Then sent a statute of Dyer saying that diplomatic relations are predicated on accepting the statue, which is a slap in your face? All of India would be up in arms. On our end, we are expected to accept a slap in the face. Gandhi makes it clear in his writings that he would have shot down as many Kaffirs as he had bullets, if he had the opportunity.

[Referring to the controversy regarding the statue] the Speaker of the House Mike Ocquaye, said a couple of years back, “Oh, this may affect diplomatic relations.” What is India looking for from Ghana? Ghana has gold, Ghana has oil—we need to stop looking at it from the position of being beggars, and start thinking of why is India trying to deal with us.

S: Gandhi is quite famous in India, and has obviously fought against the British. How should one try to dispel ImpropaGandhi?
OBK: I think the best tool against ImpropaGandhi is the collected works of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He documented [his] actions against Black people all throughout his entire life…I think his own words are the best tool to dispel all ImpropaGandhi.

This interview has been edited and condensed.