Mahatma Gandhi led multiple nonviolent revolutions against colonialism and discrimination in the 20thcentury. Having succeeded in campaigns against the British for Indian independence and acquiring better Indian rights in South Africa, (residing there for two decades) Gandhi became a national figurehead for India. Further accolades of Gandhi’s political career include his practice of satyagraha (doctrine of nonviolent protest) and the influence he has had on other Rights Activists (notably Martin Luther King jr. and Nelson Mandela). Gandhi’s legacy as a peaceful man who helped shape Indian nationality has been maintained through the erection of memorial statues, his bedroom being converted into a museum, and festivals being held in his honour. However, in 2019 the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth drew attention to Gandhi’s flaws, with #Gandhimustfall trending on twitter and revelations of Gandhi’s sexual and racial discrimination circulating through mainstream media. Despite this, global celebrations continued ahead, with India holding the national holiday Gandhi Jayanti in his honour, and countries like Singapore and England revealing sculptures in his memory. Thus, raising the question as to why, despite widely accessible evidence of Gandhi’s problematic behaviour, is he still idolised and worshipped by so many?
Since 2019 it has become even easier to read Gandhi’s self-written letters that reveal acts of sexual misconduct (some of these directed at his own grandniece Manu) and undisguised anti-blackness; labelling black people ‘troublesome’, ‘savages’, and ‘half-heathen natives.’ Despite his campaign for greater Indian rights in the country, when Gandhi was arrested in South Africa he was reportedly appalled to share a cell with black people, and called many black people South African derogatory slurs during his time there. In addition to this clear racism, Gandhi’s letters reveal misogyny and sexual misconduct that directly violate the segregated ashram rules that he preached to his millions of followers. Despite teaching the importance of celibacy, the need for husbands and wives to sleep separately, and the dangers of contraception, Gandhi would sleep in the same bed as naked women (many of which were underage) and abused his powerful position to get women to bathe with him. When Gandhi was assassinated at the age of 78, his grandniece Manu and the wife of his grandnephew Abha were both found in bed with him, despite being teenagers. On top of this Gandhi repeatedly blamed victims for sexual assault. On one occasion Gandhi forcibly cut the hair of two victims of sexual harassment to keep them from further sexual attention, rather than just punishing their harasser. Gandhi also preached that a father would be justified in killing his daughter if she had been raped in order to protect the family name, as he believed that sexually assaulted women not only surrendered their humanity but were also to blame for men’s sinful sexual desires.
Despite all of this evidence of Gandhi’s misconduct, he is continually globally idolised as a pioneer for peace. This is arguably somewhat unsurprising, as during Gandhi’s life many around him knew of this behaviour (two of his newspaper staff having resigned because of his sleeping arrangements) and yet many continued to worship him and celebrate his ideologies. To provide further evidence that those surrounding Gandhi acknowledged how problematic this behaviour was, upon Gandhi’s death his own son immediately had Manu removed from proximity and kept the letters which documented Gandhi and Manu’s relationship hidden.
In a global context, following his death Gandhi’s legacy has only grown, and he is now considered a national figurehead for India. Indian politicians who oppose Gandhi’s views have lost support, and law minister Gujarat at one point even tried making insulting Gandhi legal blasphemy. One possible explanation for Gandhi’s legacy remaining so untouched on a global scale is that many countries use their support of Gandhi to represent their support of the Indian Nation. An example of this is how the British went from opposing Gandhi so much that Gandhi believed himself to be Churchill’s greatest enemy, to idolising him so much that £1 million was spent on a Gandhi sculpture in Parliament square. The issue with this continued idolisation of Gandhi without the recognition of his problematic behaviours is that the misogyny and racism seen in Gandhi’s letters remain prominent issues in Indian society today. India has been ranked one of the lowest countries for gender equality, with sexual assault still being widely considered the victims fault and women’s menstruation still being considered shameful (a belief Gandhi himself encouraged). A clear example of this is the case of spiritual leader Asaram, who, similarly to Gandhi, gained millions of followers preaching that sexual desires were sinful. Asaram, like Gandhi, was seen to violate the rules he himself preached and was arrested in 2013 for sexually assaulting the 15-year-old daughter of one of his devotees. The obvious similarities between the behaviour of these two Indian spiritual leaders only highlight the dangers of the wilful ignorance of Gandhi’s problematic behaviour. It is a universal cliché that we in the present learn from the mistakes of the past. In this case of blindly worshipping a historical idol, the danger is that in not acknowledging how problematic some of their behaviour was, we are setting a precedent that these behaviours will not be held accountable in the present and the future.
Whilst it would be damaging to completely undermine Gandhi’s accomplishments in leading a nationalist movement against British rule, it is also clear that wilful neglect of his many problematic behaviours is also damaging to present society. Looking forward it is important that leaders are held accountable for both their achievements and their faults, in order to avoid setting harmful precedents for future leaders. Thus, although Gandhi’s legacy as a peaceful leader is deserved, it is also essential that this legacy should be questioned, criticised, and tainted by his impropriety, in the hopes of highlighting that this kind of misconduct will no longer be tolerated.
Featured Image: By Baatcheet Films from Unsplash