The Davis Gandhi Controversy: Another View

The Gandhi statue
The Gandhi statue

By Rupinder Brar

The other day I was at a business meeting where a friend who is also a long-term Davis resident, brought up the Gandhi controversy. He wanted to know why someone would object to Gandhi’s statue in Davis.

I told him Gandhi always had plenty of opposition. BR Ambedkar, the author of the Indian constitution and the Nobel prize winner poet, Rabindranath Tagore were among his critics. The British considered him an irresponsible trouble-maker, the traditionalists a destroyer of social harmony. To the Hindu chauvinists he was a Muslim lover and he was a Hindu chauvinist to the Muslims Leaguers.

The two most important and recent charges laid against him are that he was a closet racist and Hindu castiest. Gandhi’s South Africa writings indeed smack of overt racism. Advocating the rights of the Indians, he denigrated the Blacks. He had no problem with the racist theory then; he only disagreed with its applicability to the Indians. Racist perhaps, but not by the standards of his peers. Half a world away another Indian; Bhagat Singh Thind, made the same argument in front of the American Supreme Court, demanding a US citizenship under the ‘Whites only’ US citizenship laws. Today Thind is celebrated by the American Sikh community as a hero and a trailblazer. Thind carried on his argument well into the 1920s while Gandhi gave up his after coming to India in 1915.

Gandhi went on to write: ‘No one or faith is perfect. What is wanted, therefore, is a living friendly contact among all. We are all children of the same God.’ (Harijan 1936). Gandhi made it a practice to intermingle with all. He moved on to eat and live among the Dalits; India’s untouchables; he cleaned their toilets and tended to their sick.

Gandhi was labelled a castiest due to his opposition to Ambedkar’s demand for a separate electoral role for the Dalits, Indian untouchables. Historians agree that Gandhi’s fast was not directed against Ambedkar but the British who had first proposed a separate electoral role for the Hindu Dalits to divide the Indian nationalist cause. Gandhi saw through the charade and went on a hunger strike till the British relented. (Later, at Gandhi’s urging free India did establish a robust affirmative program for the Dalits. It is still in force).

One can certainly question Gandhi’s judgement in the context of his ‘sexual experiments’ as reported in his own writings. He took a vow of celibacy in his fifties; sometimes in his seventies he decided to test his will power and celibacy by sleeping naked on the floor, along with several participating young women. Bizarre indeed and ethically questionable but an act of a sex pervert? Not quite.

So, what is Gandhi’s legacy today?

First, the world over, Gandhi is recognized as a symbol of nonviolence and peace. Gandhi refused to hate and he recognized that if God is in everyone, as he deeply believed, then he would have to love everyone, even his enemies. He taught that nonviolence must imbue not only one’s actions but one’s words and thoughts as well. Even in the throes of desperate battles in South Africa and India, Gandhi was uniformly considerate and respectful to his oppressors and opponents, often winning both their admiration and friendship.

Critics concede that Gandhi was incorruptible and unmoved by any lure of wealth, power or high office. Once the British agreed in principle to grant India independence, Gandhi renounced politics altogether. On the eve of Independence, the celebrations in the national capital were conspicuous by the absence of one man who fought for it. Gandhi, was far away in Bengal, desperately trying to stop communal violence engulfing much of the country. An opposition Muslim League paper wrote, “He was ready to die so that we may live peacefully.”

Lord Mountbatten wrote to a London newspaper about Gandhi: “In Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers, and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal, our forces consist of one-man boundary force, and there is no rioting.

Thus it is Gandhi’s simplicity, his renunciation and his sacrifice that still inspires many Indians who yearn for those values found lacking today in public life. Many others admire his approach to conflict resolution. Almost alone among the world leaders of his time, Gandhi rejected divisive politics, bitter polarities, and the creation of a despised and feared “other.” He insisted on dialogue, a dialogue with friends, a dialogue with enemies, and a dialogue between certain Indian traditions and the West’s own critique of imperialism and capitalism.

Above all, his life inspires all those who seek a degree of spirituality in public life. Though Gandhi unapologetically brought his faith into public life, his hero, ‘Ram’ was not the angry prince avenging past wrongs, his Ram was a self-sacrificing philosopher who would rather first purify the misdeeds of his own followers through repentance. This last message resonates powerfully with the Western mind shaped by the Christian beliefs because Gandhi not only validated those beliefs, he successfully applied those beliefs in the context of the otherwise horribly bloody 20th century.

Why then did the Sikhs protest Gandhi in Davis?

A little background is necessary. California has been a home for a large Sikh diaspora for over a century. Earlier Sikhs were fiercely nationalistic, people like Kartar Singh Sarabha and Dalip Singh Saund. Sarabha, a poet revolutionary sailed from San Francisco to fight for Indian independence and was hanged by the British in 1915 before he turned nineteen. Saund, the first ever Indian origin US congressman from California authored books such as ‘My mother India’ and ‘Gandhi, the Man and his Message’. The titles say it all.

Why India lost the support of today’s Sikh diaspora is something India and every Indian must introspect.

India is a democracy but there is much that is still wrong with it. Even after 69 years of independence, the British era laws and inequities exist unchanged. According to the writer Arundhati Roy, not a single year has passed since 1947 without the Indian Army being deployed against its own people somewhere or another. From Assam to Mizoram, Nagaland to Kashmir, minorities have felt the heavy hand of the Indian State. Under the still existing British era laws the federal government can invoke the article 356 at will and suspend all civil liberties anywhere. Laws protecting free speech; peaceful assembly; habeas corpus all get suspended instantaneously as if a switch was turned off. In one stroke a Soviet style police state takes over.

Punjab, the homeland of the Sikhs, has suffered exceptionally. When its lawful protests were suppressed in the 1980s a militant movement was born and a civil war like state erupted in which tens of thousands of innocents died on both sides. The Sikh people saw an entire generation of their best youth lost before their eyes; dead or disappeared without any trace in hundreds of fake police encounters; something the State has still not acknowledged publicly.

To add salt to the wounds; in 1984 thousands of innocent, unarmed Sikhs; men women and children were massacred on the streets of the nation’s capital; by mobs led by the political leadership. These were not random riots but crimes committed by the State, yet to be accounted for even as the perpetrators roam about freely after multiple farcical inquiries.

Battling injustice is not only an important issue for the Sikhs, it is an article of their faith; Sikh history is replete with stories of heroes martyred for justice and freedom. I believe the Sikh activists in Davis were moved by a similar sense of injustice and were in effect protesting India not Gandhi who is but a symbol. One of the Sikh activists, Amar Shergill said as much in an interview. Nevertheless, I believe protestors are making both a moral and a tactical mistake.

Moral, because over the years, Gandhi ironically had moved very close to the Sikh ideals, a fact historians seem not to notice. “God” Gandhi wrote, “is that indefinable something that we all feel but which we do not know. To me, God is Truth and Love, God is ethics and morality. God is fearless. God is conscience. We are not; He alone Is.” (Young India March 1925).

It is hard not to notice how eloquently the above quotation captures the essence of the Sikh daily prayer, the Japji Sahib. At another point Gandhi wrote words to the effect that he wished to serve all mankind for he saw God in everyone. That too reminds one of the teachings of Bhagat Namdev, included in the Guru Granth Sahib in the following words: ‘In one and all, where ever I look, I see the same image of God’ SGGS p485.

Martyrdom, especially for the sake of others, is held in high regard by the Sikhs. It is for this reason that Guru Teg Bahadur enjoys an especially exalted status among them. Consider then that even Gandhi’s bitter critic, the historian Noorani in a rare moment of praise called Gandhi’s death for the sake of Indian Muslims an act of conscious martyrdom. Thus, wittingly or unwittingly, by the end of his life, Gandhi had moved even closer to the Sikh ideals; a fact most historians seem not to notice.

Gandhi’s admirers do not claim that he was perfect or even consistent. They do argue however that what he strove for was remarkable. Criticize Gandhi if you must, but then consider his entire life and his work in its entirety, not by cherry picking bits and pieces to fit one’s own prejudices.

The protesting activists must educate themselves, if they are unaware, that India is much more than its thuggish mobs. Flawed it may be, it is still a functioning democracy, with free institutions, opposition parties and a free press. It also has thousands of activists and organizations like themselves; people like Irom Sharmila and Arunduti Roy, fighting the very same battles. They can either let passion rule their collective mindset and go down the path of lashing out at anything Indian; a path that leads to obscurantism, political isolation, and eventual irrelevance or they can focus on the real issues and partner with other such likeminded Indians.

Finally, they must also look at how the Sikh faith itself has been usurped by self-serving imposters who indulge in their own brand of bigotry against the lower castes. They must look up the case of Piara Singh Bhaniarawala as an example. Bhaniarawala, a Dalit Sikh, is currently imprisoned; his books burned and banned in Punjab at the insistence of Sikh ultraconservatives and the clergy. Bigotry, after all, is a two-way street; it is not ‘Brahminism’ alone that oppresses minorities.

Rupinder Brar MD FACC, Director, Noninvasive Cardiology, Rideout Health, Marysville, CA

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. quielo

    The best article yet on the Gandhi statue and I thank the author for writing it. I still do not understand why we need statues of people at all, much less someone with no relation to Davis.

  2. pieterfriedrich

    Dr. Brar’s perspective is disturbingly narrow, starting first and foremost with her decision to base her entire response to protests against the statue on the false premise that it was Sikhs — and Sikhs alone — who oppose Gandhi and his legacy.

    Has she used Google to research the topic? Five seconds of searching “Gandhi statue” would inform her that the Hindu preacher’s statues are being opposed in many other places by many other people. What about the successful effort by Africans in Ghana to remove Gandhi’s recently placed statue at University of Ghana? Dr. Brar says Gandhi was “racist” but not as bad as his peers. Will she make the same claim to the faces of black Africans who are even now campaigning against his legacy? After a lengthy article answering her (falsely premised) question “why then did the Sikhs oppose Gandhi in Davis” by appealing to Gandhi’s quotes about love and God while ignoring his actual actions — favoring an uncritical acceptance of a few cherry-pickings of the man’s words instead of an academic examination of his actions — how will she respond to the question of “why then do the Africans oppose Gandhi in Ghana”?

    Instead of touting the same cliched response that Gandhi was a suffering messiah figure, all based off a selective quotation from Gandhi’s most self-promotional works, perhaps Dr. Brar should do a little — or a lot — more research and reading before presenting herself as an authority on Mohandas.

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