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"Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star..." - E.E. Cummings

Gandhi, Obama, and Race

Mahadev Desai and Gandhi meet with other Indian nationalists in 1939

Mahadev Desai (left) and Gandhi meet with other Indian nationalists in 1939

by Kevin Alfred Strom

THIS WEEK Google replaced their normal search page graphic with one depicting Mohandas K. Gandhi, also known as Mahatma (Sanskrit for “Great Soul”) Gandhi, in recognition of his birthday, which is now celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence. Gandhi’s movement of civil disobedience was a significant factor in India’s successful quest for self-determination and the ultimate withdrawal of Britain from the Indian subcontinent.

Barack Obama praised Gandhi on Friday, saying “Gandhi’s teachings and ideals, shared with Martin Luther King Jr. on his 1959 pilgrimage to India, transformed American society through our civil rights movement. The America of today has its roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent social action movement for Indian independence which he led. We must renew our commitment to live his ideals and to celebrate the dignity of all human beings.”

Many people, Obama included if he’s sincere, see Gandhi and his movement in very simplistic and essentially mythological terms: Gandhi’s movement, they believe, was a “struggle for equality” within a multiracial paradigm. Actually it was the opposite of that.

Mohandas Gandhi wanted his people, the native people of the Indian subcontinent, to be free of the British Empire. He wanted his people to have their own country. He wanted them to have their own government, answerable to no other people. He wanted self-determination for his folk: their own territory, their own leaders. And he looked at this situation in explicitly racial terms.

Though there was much greatness in it to be sure, the British Empire outside the Anglo-Saxon dominions like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, was a multiracialist empire which forced differing peoples together against their will, crushing their self-determination and freedom largely for crass economic reasons. Sound familiar?

What Gandhi was most emphatically not doing was seeking “equality” under the Empire. He was not saying “We are all the same. Therefore give us equal incomes, equal schooling, equal housing and we will all live in harmony and brotherhood as one people.” That is what representatives of the new world empire, like Obama, his handlers, and the billionaire moguls who long preceded them, wish he had said.

What Gandhi was saying was that his people were unique and worthy of survival — and in order to secure their survival they must rule themselves and possess their own territory. Hence his two-word slogan for his movement — his command to the British Empire — “Quit India.” His was no M.L. King-like quest for a chimerical “fairness” enforced by central authority in an equally chimerical race-blind society. Quite the opposite! He said in essence that this land belongs to me and my people — and you, your race, your bureaucracy, and your Empire should just get out.  Ultimately, they did exactly that.

Gandhi’s parallels in the Black community are Robert Brock and Marcus Garvey and Sharity Ross-Petit — not King.

Gandhi expressly stated his belief in maintaining the purity of not only his race, but all races, when he gently chided White nationalists who only cared about their own racial integrity and who crudely lumped all non-Whites together. He wrote in 1903:

“We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone.”

Gandhi also stated in his Indian Opinion newspaper, referring to a then-current issue in multiracial South Africa :

“The petition dwells upon ‘the co-mingling of the colored and white races.’ May we inform the members of the Conference that so far as British Indians are concerned, such a thing is particularly unknown. If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is the purity of type.”

Greater India, even after the British left, was an artificial construct encompassing several peoples, and it’s not clear to me to what extent Gandhi recognized that further partitions would be necessary. But that’s a subject for another day.

Empires — from the ancient Assyrians in Palestine, to Tito’s Yugoslavia, to the Communist Chinese in Tibet — invariably say that they force differing peoples under one rule — their rule — “for their own good”… to “bring peace”… to make everyone “equal.”

And they invariably condemn any person who wants his people to be free of the empire’s rule — whether Gandhi or Jefferson or the Dalai Lama — as a “troublemaker,” a “hater,” a “terrorist,” or the like:

How dare Gandhi advocate breaking the King’s laws! We’re all subjects of the Crown, Indian and Briton, and Gandhi is a hooligan and criminal!

How dare the Dalai Lama insist that Tibetans should have their own territory and their own government, answerable only to Tibetans! How dare he call for an end to the mass importation of Chinese into Tibet! That’s anti-Chinese — that’s racist! (Of course, once you understand the Maxim of Self-Determination, you can easily see it’s nothing of the kind. The Maxim reads “Every people which considers itself to be a people should, to the maximum extent possible, live under its own government.”)

There is much to be learned from Gandhi and his efforts to gain self-determination for his folk. But we must see that struggle for what it was — a distinct people’s fight for a separate, distinct nation — before we can even begin to learn.

In response to the rise of White nationalist politics, which stressed racial separation, Gandhi wrote in his Indian Opinion of 24 September 1903:

“We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race.” (27)

On 24 December 1903, Gandhi added this in his Indian Opinion newspaper:

“The petition dwells upon `the co-mingling of the colored and white races’. May we inform the members of the Conference that so far as British Indians are concerned, such a thing is particularly unknown. If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is the purity of type.”