Why Gandhi statue should have been left standing

Mahatma Gandhi will long remain on our conversations. One of the reasons is that this year India will be marking his 150th birthday.

The year-long celebration includes commemorative activities recalling his ideals. These will find their height on October 2nd, the date of his birth in 1869.

 His application of Satyagraha, a concept based on truth, and that describes nonviolent civil disobedience, won India its independence from Britain. It also inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. This made him a global icon.

In Africa, one of the most notable of his admirers was the renowned pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkuruma, who became Ghana’s first president.

Due to the recent event in Ghana, the Mahatma has been in African news a lot lately, though it has nothing to do with his birthday.

The debate continues to rage as to whether he was a bigot, particularly after faculty and students at the University of Ghana protested his supposed racism against Africans during his sojourn in South Africa as a lawyer in the early 1900s.

Even before the removal of his statue from the University of Ghana in December 2018, his was already a problematic iconography as has long been lamented by some observers in South Africa. It only seemed to deepen with the Ghana case.

However, while it may be a matter of opinion, one may not begrudge anybody their point of view, even if they should decide to pull down a statue.

But I disagree with them. The Gandhi statue at the university should have been left to stand.

As previously noted in this column, removing the Gandhi statue is only a reminder that icons may not always be without a blemish. Even the most deserving among us, can be malignly argued against. No hero is without a past, even the supposedly holy.

And yet, those who have left an enduring mark deserve to be remembered. Because of this, it has always seemed that history has a soul, with statues being one symbol of it.

For this reason, it has been perplexing someone may want to get rid of them. As  the South African columnist Chris Thurman wonders, “Instead of approaching the statue as a static monument with a fixed meaning that must either be endorsed or condemned, why not commission an artist or group of artists to propose a creative response?”

He was referring to the removal in April 2015 of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from South Africa’s University of Cape Town.

One might argue whether Rhodes or Gandhi is the worse regarding their racist attitudes towards Africans, but the argument regarding the stay of their statues is the same.

Sculptures of such towering figures should be looked at within the larger historical context, taking into consideration the past that bore them vis-à-vis our present realities and the future it might inform.

Commenting on the removal of the Gandhi statue at the University of Ghana, a law student told the BBC: "Having his statue means that we stand for everything he stands for and if he stands for these things [his alleged racism], I don't think we should have his statue on campus."

She may have had a point, but there is a far more nuanced and powerful way to reckon with such statues.

Thus the above argument to counter her misgivings; that, one would not necessarily have to agree with the claimed historical abuse, but that the said statue may also provide an opportunity for debate and discussions; that the arising differences and controversies should illuminate not only the past but the future.

In a similar vein, a letter writer to the Daily Telegraph had pointed what should be obvious, that "The trouble… is that almost every person of that era held opinions that were commonplace at the time but are at odds with modern thinking.  Taken to its extreme, this approach would lead to the eradication of almost every building and statue commemorating notable figures of the past.”

Gandhi was a man of his time, though not everyone liked him even in India. This is despite placing him on a high moral pedestal with the name Mahatma, which means ‘Great Soul’.

He was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and was assassinated in 1948 at the age of 79 years by a rightwing Hindu extremist.

Celebrating his life and ideals may be a national thing for India, but Gandhi’s legacy belongs to humanity for the good it is worth.

In June 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2nd October, his birthday, the International Day of Non-violence.

During last year’s commemoration of the Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres articulated the legacy: "Gandhi proved that non-violence can change history.

Let us be inspired by his courage and conviction as we continue our work to advance peace, sustainable development and human rights for all of the peoples of the world."

The views expressed in this article are of the author.