By David M. Greenwald
From the start, the Gandhi statue got off on the wrong foot in Davis. An international symbol of peace at the park in Davis, what could go wrong? But one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s symbol of oppression, so while people in the Indian community applauded the move, people in the Sikh community saw it as an affront to their struggle.
Unlike a lot of issues, this was a difficult one for me because I truly respected people on both sides of the divide. Moreover, I consider myself a student of civil disobedience and the civil rights movement, it is impossible to appreciate people like Martin Luther King and John Lewis without understanding that people like Gandhi and Tolstoy underlie their movement.
The disagreements turned ugly this week when the statue was literally cut off its moorings and decapitated.
On Saturday, Mayor Gloria Partida along with her four colleagues and City Manager Mike Webb put out a strong statement of condemnation.
“The City of Davis condemns the vandalism that destroyed the statue of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi in Central Park. We do not support any actions that include the destruction of property,” they said.
“We understand that our community reflects a diversity of views and values, but we expect that everyone will extend respect to each other and to shared spaces. We are committed to creating a City that is inclusive and lives up to our principles. We work diligently to ensure the physical and psychological safety of every resident. Acts of destruction are violent and shatter this safety.”
The statement by the council gave light to both of these positions.
They said: “We sympathize with those who are grieving the destruction of the statue and promise a thorough investigation and full accountability for those who committed this crime. We sympathize with those who have sincerely voiced their opposition to the statue and who feel unheard. But we reiterate our belief that the solution to solving such differences is never in violent acts but through compromise and dialogue. It is our sincere desire that our community move forward with peaceful and positive discourse and reconciliation.”
The Indian Government is naturally furious about this.
“The Government of India strongly condemns this malicious and despicable act against a universally respected icon of peace and justice,” they wrote in a press release on Saturday.
They are demanding that the US State Department order a “thorough investigation into the incident and appropriate action against those responsible for this despicable act.”
But the situation is complicated.
Former Mayor Robb Davis, who was involved in bringing the statue to Davis in the first place, told the Vanguard he felt personally deceived.
The original staff report, he noted, never mentioned anything “about the Indian government and that the approval of the statue was with the understanding that it was a gift from Indian American community members.”
He said, “This is a gift to the City of Davis by the Indo-American community in Davis. Once the prima-facie approval of the project has been established, then the project leaders will seek financial sponsors to fund various expenses involved. We anticipate no difficulty, whatsoever, in finding sponsors. There will be no financial obligation to the City.”
He said it was only months later “that I discovered the role of the Indian government. Had I known it was a gift directly from the Indian government I would not have voted for it. Indian government led by Modi is a Hindu nationalist government that has created a dangerous situation for non-Hindus in India.”
He told the Vanguard, “I can say, categorically, that had I known in February that the Indian government was donating the statue, I would not have voted to approve its placement in the City. The Modi government that has promoted the placing of Gandhi statues in various cities around the world as a means to burnish its image abroad is a Hindu Nationalist government that has taken actions detrimental to non-Hindu groups in India. “
At the same time, “Whatever the case, we received the statue and welcomed the symbol of peacemaking in our community. I condemn the cowardly act of destruction of the statue. It is disgraceful behavior and despite my misgivings about the process that brought the statue to Davis, I believe that nothing can excuse this abhorrent act.”
I definitely agree that whatever debate there was over the statue, there was a due process that needed to take place.
I listened to the concerns of the Sikh community back in 2016, as well as last summer when many came at that time to protest the statue.
One of the complaints was that Gandhi was a racist against Blacks. If he was, it is hard to imagine how Black leaders for civil rights would be following him.
Among the books that Malcolm X read while in prison was the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1959, Martin Luther King, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, took a trip to India and dined with Prime Minister Nehru.
MLK said, “Gandhi was able to mobilize and galvanize more people in his lifetime than any other person in the history of this world. And just with a little love and understanding goodwill and a refusal to cooperate with an evil law, he was able to break the backbone of the British Empire. This, I think, was one of the most significant things that ever happened in the history of the world. More than 390 million people achieved their freedom, and they achieved it nonviolently.
“We argued this point at some length with the groups of African students who were studying in India,” MLK said. “They felt that nonviolent resistance could only work in a situation where the resisters had a potential ally in the conscience of the opponent.
“We soon discovered that they, like many others, tended to confuse passive resistance with nonresistance.
“This is completely wrong,” he argued. “True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”
MLK was not blind to the problems facing India at the time of his visit (you can see his lengthy thoughts here).
It is pretty clear from MLK to the Reverend James Lawson to John Lewis, the civil rights movement embraced the teachings of Gandhi. It is also very clear that not everyone saw Gandhi as the embodiment of non-violent resistance and some saw him rather as an oppressor himself.
But the modern legacy—again—is complicated.
In a 2019 story, NPR noted, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes On Race And Sex Are Under Scrutiny.” In 2015, a BBC article reviewed a new book, and wrote, “Mahatma Gandhi has been variously described as an anti-colonial protester, a religious thinker, a pragmatist, a radical who used non-violence effectively to fight for causes, a canny politician and a whimsical Hindu patriarch. But was India’s greatest leader also a racist? The authors of a controversial new book on Gandhi’s life and work in South Africa certainly believe so.”
But again … complicated.
“There’s no way around it: Gandhi was a racist early in his life, says his biographer Ramachandra Guha,” according to the NPR story. “Gandhi as a young man went with the ideas of his culture and his time. He thought in his 20s that Europeans are the most civilized. Indians were almost as civilized, and Africans were uncivilized,” Guha, 61, told NPR in an interview in May at his home in Bengaluru, India. “However, he outgrew his racism quite decisively, and for most of his life as a public figure, he was an anti-racist, talking for an end to discrimination of all kinds,” he said.
Gandhi’s biographer and grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, told the BBC that the younger Gandhi—he arrived in South Africa as a 24-year-old briefless lawyer—was undoubtedly “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks”. He said that he believes Gandhi’s “struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle of black rights.” He argues that “Gandhi too was an imperfect human being,” but the “imperfect Gandhi was more radical and progressive than most contemporary compatriots.”
As an ABC article puts it: “Was Gandhi racist towards blacks? The short answer is: before 1906, emphatically yes; from 1906 to 1913, qualifiedly yes; after 1913 or so, increasingly no.”
This will probably not satisfy either side of the divide and that is fine. I can understand those who are victims of India’s policies, and their trepidation. From the standpoint of the US and civil rights, it is hard to imagine the force of the civil rights movement without the power of civil disobedience.
It is that tension that ultimately resulted in the destruction of the Gandhi statue in Davis, and which complicates the legacy of this man who inspired a generation of freedom fighters.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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