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Does Manipur Have Anything to Learn from the Call to Dismantle ‘Racist’ Gandhi Statues?

The Black Lives Matter protests are raging in America and elsewhere in the world bringing the focus on the long-standing issue of racism and discrimination. These problems exist and may remain embedded in the social system prevailing in country to country but one important facet of these protests have been the protestors naming and identifying publicly perpetrators of racism, slave trade, discrimination, religious bigotry and gender inequality, and other issues which may be peculiar to places like India, for instance caste system and untouchability. At the moment the protests have become widespread and people have braved even the Covid-19 restrictions to be out in the streets demanding answers to the spate of killings of black men and women in the recent past. In fact the whole record of such atrocities is being unearthed newly to pressurize the administration to deliver justice in ‘racist’ killing cases.

However, much before the protests happened there has been another ‘racism’ issue which has been gathering attention of the scholarly community, politicians and diplomats alike in many countries, viz. the demand for the dismantling of the statues of the Indian ‘Father of the Nation’ MK Gandhi. The movements that have registered in the public eye include those in the United Kingdom, and US cities of Sacramento, Cerritos and San Francisco. During the present protests a Gandhi statue was vandalised in Washington DC, while among the universities, Canada’s Carleton University in Ottawa has had protests in the past, and the professors and students of the prestigious University of Ghana removed a statue of Gandhi from the campus in December 2018 even as the 150th birth anniversary of the freedom fighter was coming up in 2019. In the present protests too in America many statues of slave traders and those who supported slavery have been dismantled.

The reason for the popular protest against Gandhi is that he is now also seen as a ‘racist’, going by his remarks during his stay in South Africa in the early years of his career. There are many instances when Gandhi passed comments against the native blacks in South Africa which were openly discriminatory and racist. Gandhi found the Indians more civilised than the African blacks and instead of speaking on behalf of the non-whites in South Africa he was ungrateful to the Africans in their own country when he tried to prove that Indians were not inferior to the Anglo-Saxon people and that they deserved to be in a category higher than the black natives.

This was after he was thrown out of a train for being an Indian travelling in the 1st Class compartment meant for whites. Rama Lakshmi, a columnist, writes that ‘for long the global ‘peace’ icon’s controversial remarks about black Africans were hidden by many scholars. A racist Gandhi was just too inconvenient in the myth-making project’. The University of Ghana protestors considered Gandhi a racist who ran counter to their hard-fought battle for self-respect and against colonialization and discrimination. Gandhi often wrote that “the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race”.

Was Gandhi really a Mahatma (or saintly person) and even if he was one was he an ignorant one who failed to have a humanitarian outlook but did bring about an end to colonialism in India and influenced Afro and Afro-American thought in America. Because, there are other views too, like Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times opinion columnist, puts it, “It was black Americans who delivered on Lincoln’s promise of ‘a new birth of freedom’. Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves. Who freed the slaves? The slaves freed the slaves.” The impatience with Gandhi may find a similar retort today among protestors.

Critical comments on Gandhi are not new either and in the age of the internet, more than ever, Gandhi’s representation on critical issues are open to everyone’s scrutiny. Once a famous saintly Krishna devotee of this age Swami Prabhupada compared Gandhi to Hitler, Mussolini and Tojos after he had affected the partition of India and Pakistan and asked him to join him in religious works, cautioning him that the way he was going he might get himself killed. Gandhi refused and sure enough six months later was shot by Godse. Apart from the partition of India Gandhi also was opposed to inter-caste marriage and separate electorate for Dalits because of which he is not liked by followers of Ambedkar, a father figure for the Dalits as much as Gandhi was for the Congress. Today’s India will certainly look differently at these insinuations since they are known now.

In Manipur’s case too, the present generation is now facing the full brunt of the irksome racial cross-currents. But it may do good to know that the racial divide is existent everywhere in its subtle form and they may be making too much out of it by looking too deeply into this issue instead of passing it over as something which is part of everyday life, for instance something as common as eve-teasing or cheating by shopkeepers etc., which always annoys the victim but has to be taken in stride. One reason, again in the internet age, is that people may have a feeling Manipuris themselves are not very equal towards other communities who co-inhabit living space in the state. The terms ‘mayang’ (mainland Indian) and ‘hao’ (hill people), lawai (villager) can be derogatory, depending on the tone they are said, and have the same effect as being called ‘Chinese’, ‘Corona’ or ‘Chinky’ in return.

Then there was the armed conflict in the state which from a viewpoint has done the most damage to Manipur’s image as being anti-Indians. As long as the information lag was there in the previous times Manipur could be blissfully unaware of their complicity, but today the state is bracketed together with the likes of known conflict zones like Kashmir and most people know about this. It’s in the popular Indian psyche today to dislike any place with even a little support for anti-India activities. And as far as the law goes Kashmir’s statehood has been altered and all concessions nullified. In Manipur too, India can have its way. If anything else was possible the AFSPA would have been repealed long back, going by the number of protests held, and public opinion in the state – but the story goes on. Racism too will end when this confrontationist stance ends one day, as it seems it will.

Like Gandhi’s mistake in making two spaces for the humanity in India when there is only one available, in Manipur’s multi-cultural existence too the variety of cultures should not become a stumbling block to co-habitation, in the sense of racism and discrimination. Minorities here usually play along to get some advantages but the fact is inwardly no one likes to feel the hurt that long-standing issues accord to them by way of discrimination. But some amount of cultural ties in the arts and music has been the saving grace for Manipur though it doesn’t like other ties. Ilya Kaminsky, an expatriate US poet, has informed that a former state of the USSR, that is now a separate country, has only statues of figures who excelled in the arts, literature and philosophy and would have none of the political leaders and similar personalities decorate their monuments of public interest. Manipur would do well to do something of this kind. It’s time it grew out of making complaints of all kinds and lived in a real world, away from dreams which promise it too much without actually giving anything in return.

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