Gandhi’s ambivalence on race

Mayank Bhatt
12 min readOct 13, 2020

By Mayank Bhatt

Gandhi — a successful barrister in South Africa (1893–1914)

Recently, during the Black Lives Matter agitation in the United States, some protestors defaced a statue of MK Gandhi (1869–1948) because of his anti-black views when he was in Africa between 1893 and 1914. Earlier, in 2019, students of Manchester, UK, demanded that Gandhi’s statue, which was received by the city council as part of the 150th birth anniversary celebration of Gandhi, should be rejected because of his “well-documented anti-black racism.”

Of course, the first stone to be thrown at Gandhi was in 2018, when the world was suddenly made aware of Gandhi’s racism by the students and the staff of the University of Ghana who launched #Ghandimustfall protest and demanded the dismantling of a statue of Gandhi that had been installed on the university campus in 2016.

The statue was a gift from the Government of India. The students and staff of the university argued that during his African sojourn, Gandhi was an anti-black racist who denigrated Africans. In 2015, the Gandhi statue in Gandhi Square, Johannesburg was almost covered with white paint by a young protestor before he was arrested.

In 2013, two South African academics Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed published The South African Gandhi Stretcher-bearer of Empire. They succeed in unmasking Gandhi’s racism by studying four of Gandhi’s key campaigns — the South African War, the Bhambatha Rebellion, mobilization against fingerprinting in the Transvaal, and the 1913 strike.

Contextualizing the book’s premise, the authors explain, “This is not a story that stops at the door of moralism, delinked from the context in which Gandhi found himself. It situates Gandhi’s life against the backdrop of the profound socioeconomic change taking place in South Africa during these decades and the myriad of contestations and new subjectivities that these changes brought in their wake.” [1]

In these mass agitations that Gandhi launched in South Africa, Desai and Vahed produce documentary evidence in form of Gandhi’s appeals through his newspaper Indian Opinion and in his petitions to the colonial rulers to treat Indians on par with the Whites and uses then prevalent racial slurs such as “raw Kaffir” to describe the black Africans.

“Gandhi… emphasized the Aryan connection of Indians in his “Open Letter” to the Natal Parliament on 19 December 1893:

‘I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan… This belief serves as the basis of operations of those who are trying to unify the hearts of the two races, which are, legally and outwardly, bound together under a common flag. A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir… The Indians were, and are, in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon brethren, if I may venture to use the word, in the various departments of life — industrial, intellectual, political, etc.’

The Gandhian vision sought to embrace diasporic Indians and claim affinity with Europeans as (civilized) Aryans and imperial citizens. This vision was conspicuous in its exclusion of Africans. Gandhi’s newspaper Indian Opinion, for example, had little to say about Africans.” [2]


Many biographers have claimed that Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893 as Mohandas Gandhi and returned to India in 1914 as the Mahatma Gandhi. In South Africa, Gandhi honed the skills of organizing mass movements using non-cooperation and nonviolence when he led the South Africa-based Indians to fight for their rights.

It was in South Africa that he set up his first farm — Phoenix Settlement — where he first began to put into practice his vision of a civilization that was humane, in consonance with nature, and one that he would replicate at different places in India. It was also during his journey from England to South Africa in 1909 that he fervently wrote Hind Swaraj, his manifesto for a better world based on the principles of nonviolence. In 1915, Gandhi was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind for his contribution to ambulance services in South Africa. Gandhi returned the medal in 1920 as part of the national campaign protesting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and in support of the Khilafat Movement.

Gandhi’s ambiguity on race, it would seem, has been conveniently brushed under the carpet. Before Desai and Vahed incendiary book, Joseph Lelyveld, an American journalist, published Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India minutely examine Gandhi’s attitudes towards black Africans. And conclusively prove that there is little doubt that Gandhi in Africa was an anti-black racist.

In evaluating Gandhi’s position and pronouncements on race-related matters from the contemporary socio-cultural mores and the global sensitivities around racism, even a cursory reading of Gandhi’s writings in South Africa reveals a surprising level of insensitivity and intolerance toward the local black Africans.

Here is a sample of that insensitivity, Gandhi is addressing an audience in India during his first visit to India in 1896: “Ours 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 whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy his wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” [3]

Lelyveld’s work is an exploration of Gandhi’s evolution as a leader of the masses from a hesitant start in South Africa to emerge as a self-assured world icon in India. The book became controversial because the author alluded to homoerotic love letters exchanged between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach, the German-Jewish architect with whom Gandhi lived in Johannesburg. The Gujarat government, then led by Narendra Modi, banned his book. And the Indian government paid a little over $1m to buy the Kallenbach-Gandhi correspondence in a private deal ahead of a planned auction in London in 2012.

However, Lelyveld’s book provides a different perspective to Gandhi’s supposed racism: “Whether, on account of race, he put hard-living, uneducated, meat-eating Africans in a separate category of humans from that of hard-living, uneducated, meat-eating Indian ‘coolies,’ or the third-class passengers whose behavior appalled him on Indian trains; in other words, whether for him, race was a defining characteristic or, finally, as incidental as caste.

“How do we reconcile these two contrasting Gandhis, each circa 1908 in South Africa…can one be seen as more real or enduring than the other? Put another way, can what he says to a white audience be taken as more genuine than what he says to Indians? The answer is so far from being obvious that the only possible conclusion seems to be that Gandhi’s views on race — on blacks in particular — were now contradictory and unsettled. Considering what they had been, this has to be seen as an advance.” [4]


While there is no denying the overtly racial tone of Gandhi’s appeal, and Desai and Vahed, as well as Lelyveld provide ample examples of such racist petitions, letters, appeals and journalistic writings of Gandhi, it may perhaps be pertinent to contextualize Gandhi’s racism with his callow age. In 1893, he was 24 years old. He may have experienced some form of racism in England when he was there to become a barrister, but the racism in South Africa was stark and cruel.

He observes, “I was hence known as a ‘coolie barrister.’ The merchants were known as ‘coolie merchants.’ The original meaning of the word ‘coolie’ was thus forgotten, and it became a common appellation for all Indians.” [5]

Rajmohan Gandhi, ever ready to take up cudgels on behalf of his grandfather, argues, “But wasn’t the younger Gandhi at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks? He undoubtedly was, especially when provoked by the conduct of black convicts who were among his fellow inmates in South Africa’s prisons. This too is no “discovery.” I wrote about it in detail in The Good Boatman in 1995, and dozens of other scholars have referred to it.

“After all, Gandhi too was an imperfect human being. However, on racial equality, he was greatly in advance of most if not all of his compatriots; and the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle for black rights. Here is what Gandhi said in 1908 (in a Johannesburg speech), referring specifically to Africans, Asians, Europeans and the mixed: “If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen?” (May 18, 1908).

“In 1908, the commingling of all the races of the world was a bold thought for anyone, Indian or otherwise, to express.” [6]

But Desai, in his rebuttal, is unrelenting. “Rajmohan is keen to argue that once Gandhi realized that empire was bad (in the 1920s), he became its foe. But what does it say about Gandhi that during his time in South Africa, he saw empire as a benign, if not progressive, force? What did Gandhi have to say about empire at work? One ‘where all races would be equal,’ as Rajmohan says he believed? He could only envision this because he wrote Africans out of history. When he did write about them, it was of the ways in which empire could further exploit and subjugate them.

“So, it is not just a question of Gandhi’s racism and belief in empire, but his view that Indians should be allowed to join whites in this system of racist super-exploitation. As for nursing the sick, his other passion besides empire, Gandhi did not care for those dying in British concentration camps. His ambulance missions were limited to showing loyalty to empire.” [7]


Gandhi’s views changed gradually over the years. Lelyveld provides an example of this transformation. When Gandhi was “asked long after he returned to India by a visiting delegation of black Americans whether he’d ever made common cause with blacks during his time in South Africa, Gandhi replied, implying he had to resist the impulse: ‘No, I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause.’ A few years later, a quarter of a century after he returned home, he told a black South African, ‘Yours is a far bigger issue.’ This Gandhi, the full-blown Mahatma of 1939, is doing some retrospective tidying up.” [8]

British historian Jad Adams, notes, “In writing about Africans nearly thirty years later, in 1924, he would comment: ‘It is only vanity which make us look upon the Negroes as savages. They are not the barbarians we imagine them to be.’” [9]

Recently, KP Shankaran, termed the Desai-Vahed book as an exercise in post-truth historiography. “Because of their indifference to truth, the authors of The South African Gandhi fail to note that while Gandhi was still in Africa, he had stopped using the word “Kaffir” after 1913. The term “Kaffir” according to The Sunday Standard, a Botswanan newspaper, was a general term “from the 16th century to the early 20th century” used to describe “several different black peoples of southern Africa” (November 29, 2012). This is also how the Encyclopaedia of Britannica understood the term in its 1911 edition. We could, therefore, reasonably assume that at the time when Gandhi was using the term it had not yet become, at least, a recognisable racial slur. The Desai-Vahed research also did not reveal that Gandhi was one of the promoters of the First International Conference on Anti-Racism in London in 1911.” [10]

It may be pertinent here to emphasize that all his writings published by Navajivan Trust, which he founded, carry the standard prefatory statement to his readers: “I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.” [11]


Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) had nothing but praises for Gandhi. Writing in Time in 1999, he emphasized, “India is Gandhi’s country of birth, South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen.” [12]

In a letter to India, which was smuggled from prison in 1980, he Mandela wrote, “… in 21 years of his stay in South Africa we were to witness the birth of ideas and methods of struggle that have exerted an incalculable influence on the history of the peoples of India and South Africa.”

In a 1997 speech in Pietermaritzburg, Mandela said, “The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity, for which he stood and acted, had a profound influence on our liberation movement and on my own thinking. They inspire us today in our efforts of reconciliation and nation-building.” And again, in 2003 in a speech in Johannesburg, he said, “Gandhi’s political technique and elements of the nonviolent philosophy developed during his stay in Johannesburg became the enduring legacy for the continuing struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa.”

Mandela was aware of the racist statements made by Gandhi when he was young. He wrote in an article in 1995, “Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”

“His awakening came on the hilly terrain of the so-called Bambatha rebellion… British brutality against the Zulus roused his soul against violence as nothing had done before. He determined on that battlefield to wrest himself of all material attachments and devote himself completely and totally to eliminating violence and serving humanity.” [13]

Of course, Desai is still unconvinced. In his interview to the Times of India, he spits fire. “Gandhi is labelled a racist because he was one. He openly expressed his contempt for Africans, he saw the need for the White rule and was in love with Queen and Empire. So, the African Gandhi is not a Mahatma as Mandela would have it. He spat on the struggles of African people.” [14]


Professor Ernest Aryeetey, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Ghana, agreed to instal the Gandhi statue on the campus, explains, “I learned that he was 23 years old when he went to South Africa and lived there for many years. I read things attributed to him that were undoubtedly racist under any circumstance.

“I read how he referred to blacks as “kaffirs” in some of his early writings and immediately remembered that derogatory expression from my reading of the Christian leader Prester John at school. It was obvious to me that in the early days, he saw his fight to liberate Indians from oppressive laws imposed by white men, as being different from that of the struggle of the black man.

“I have come to view the experiences of Gandhi as very similar to the transformation of Saul into Paul in the Bible. Once I accept the conversion of Paul, I can very easily forgive the early Gandhi. There are no explicit accounts of a transformation like Saul’s, but the tone of Gandhi’s writings changed significantly over time.” [15]


[1] Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi Stretcher-bearer of Empire, Navayana, 2013 and Stanford University Press, 2014

[2] Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi Stretcher-bearer of Empire, Navayana, 2013 and Stanford University Press, 2014

[3] James D Hunt, An American Looks at Gandhi: Essays in Satyagraha, Civil Rights and Peace, Promila & Co., 2005

[4] Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011

[5] MK Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan, 1927

[6] Rajmohan Gandhi, Why attacks on Mahatma Gandhi are good, Indian Express, 9 September 2015

[7] Ashwin Desai, Gandhi’s Empire, Indian Express 25 September 2015

[8] Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011

[9] Jad Adams, Gandhi Naked Ambitions, Quercus, 2010

[10] KP Shankaran, The post-truth history of Gandhi’s racism, Indian Express, 30 September 2020,

[11] MK Gandhi, To The Reader,

[12] Nelson Mandela, The Sacred Warrior The liberator of South Africa looks at the seminal work of the liberator of India, Time, 1999

[13] All Nelson Mandela quotes from Some of Gandhi’s Early Views on Africans Were Racist. But That Was Before He Became Mahatma, ES Reddy, The Wire,


[15] Ernest Aryeetey, The background story to a statue of Gandhi and the University of Ghana, The Conversation, 14 May 2019,




Mayank Bhatt

Mayank Bhatt lives in Toronto with his wife Mahrukh and son Che. He’s an author, blogger, and an advocate of human rights.