Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Gandhi wasn’t great

Oct. 2 was Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, an event celebrated widely both in India and around the world. After all, his story is one of a peaceful champion of human rights who took up the cause of Indian independence at great personal cost (not in a financial sense) without ever taking violent action. On paper, the story sounds great. And it accordingly seems quite reasonable that people would hold him in the high regard that most generally do. The problem is that however much we might wish to deny it, the mainstream narrative leaves out some critical details, ones which reveal that Gandhi wasn’t all that great.

Take, for instance, his early years in South Africa. While he pushed strongly for the extension of full rights to the nation’s Indian population, he had little concern for the unequal treatment of his black countrymen. Indeed, he described the native black population as those “whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life of indolence and nakedness.” He argued that “ours [the Indians’] is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir [racial slur for blacks].” So pronounced was his distaste for the blacks, he sought to keep subjugated that pre-pacifism—Gandhi actually organized an Indian military brigade to put down African rebellion against the British, earning himself a medal for his service.

This is the point where many defenders argue that this was before he underwent great personal growth and came to be a friend to the oppressed and a symbol of justice. Unfortunately, his record proves otherwise. What he wrote with regards to the Holocaust is itself quite telling. After declaring in 1941 that Hitler was not “the monster described by [his] opponents,” Gandhi later went on to state that “Hitler killed 5 million Jews…But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” Whether that qualifies as anti-Semitism or just insanity is subject to debate. But certainly this is not the response of a rational individual to the horrors of the 20th century’s worst genocide.

I expect, of course, that many will argue that it was merely a case of extreme pacifism, which is what defined him among the masses. But why then did he endorse the Polish army’s resistance to the German invasion at the onset of the World War II? Surely they weren’t there greeting the Germans with roses.

Of course, bigotry was not the only thing overlooked about Gandhi that ought to be given more coverage when he is held up as an example of all that is right and good. I have yet to see much in the way of public objection to the reckless nature of his actions. During World War II, when the Japanese had taken Burma and were closing in on India, he launched some of the most disruptive non-military actions against the British that had ever taken place, thereby delaying an Allied victory that could have dramatically decreased the death toll. His actions very nearly led to the Axis gaining control of India, something which would have brought about the intense civilian slaughter he seemed to so often fantasize about in his writings. For a man concerned with peace, he had a truly alarming tolerance for large-scale extermination.

While I could go on at length about Gandhi’s many other issues, from the awful way in which he treated his wife and children to his designs of imposing strict religious rules as the law of the land, I will end my piece here. After all, I should think the problems already explored would be sufficient cause for alarm. Sadly though, in a world where sound bytes and myth trump in-depth analysis and reality, Gandhi will continue to be revered, inappropriate as it may be. So, I merely ask that the next time somebody mentions his name in reverence, in the back of your mind you remember that Gandhi wasn’t great.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878