Archive for February 2018

Sonia Sarkar travels to South Africa, the land where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came into his own, and stumbles upon an unpleasant reality.

” You gave us Mohandas Gandhi, we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi” – Nelson Mandela

When Durban resident Thabi Myeni was nine, she learnt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a peace-loving freedom fighter and one of South Africa’s struggle icons. Says Myeni, a student of KwaZulu-Natal University, “That Gandhi was anti-Black, I discovered only now.” Since the discovery, the 20-year-old’s list of national heroes – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Teboho “Tsietsi” MacDonald Mashinini – has grown shorter by a name.

As an Indian visiting South Africa, one would like to believe that Gandhi is widely celebrated here. In recent times, the Indian government has also enforced that narrative.

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the train from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg, the same one that the young Gandhi was thrown out of in 1893. He also launched a permanent exhibition showcasing the lives of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at the Old Fort in Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, former prison complex and currently seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Last year, minister of state for defence, V.K. Singh, inaugurated a Gandhi museum in Durban.

But interactions with locals reveal a growing resentment against Gandhi. In 2015, Gandhi’s statue at Johannesburg was painted white by a man who was part of the larger campaign against Gandhi. Protesters demonstrated with placards reading “Racist Gandhi must fall”. Around that time the hashtag #Ghandimustfall took Twitter by storm. (Ghandi is a popular way of spelling Gandhi in South Africa.)

In 2012, the African grassroots organisation, Mazibuye African Forum, rejected the suggestion that Gandhi should be respected as an anti-colonial figure in South Africa’s history. And even before that, in 2007, several thousand copies of US-based Indian academic Velu Annamalai’s Gandhi: A Stooge of the White South African Government, which depicts Gandhi’s proximity to the Whites, were circulated in Durban.

Many believe that fuelling the Gandhi hatred further was the 2015 book, The South African Gandhi. Written by South Africa-based professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, one of the points the book makes is that Gandhi’s South African avatar was an Empire loyalist. The writers dwell on how Gandhi regarded the Boer-Brit war (1899-1902) as an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the Empire.

The other grouse – and perhaps a bigger one – against Gandhi is voiced by Vahed. He says, “While he was in South Africa, his concern was solely with the Indian minority.”

Indeed, historically, there is no evidence to show that Gandhi had any links with Black leaders of South Africa such as Solomon Plaatje, John Langalibalele Dube and John Tengo Jabavu or their fight against racism.

Founder of the revolutionary socialist party, Black First Land First, Andile Mngxitama says present-day Blacks regard “Ghandi” as a tool of colonialism. “He is no hero of ours,” says Mngxitama. “He supported more taxes on the impoverished African people and turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Empire on Africans,” he adds.

Lawyer Princewill Ubani, who runs a blog called Facts About Africa, is well acquainted with Gandhi’s racial speeches. He tells The Telegraph, how at a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi stated that the Europeans in Natal wished to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir“, whose occupation was hunting and whose sole ambition “to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

Says Ubani, “He [Gandhi] used the racial slur ‘ kaffir‘ repeatedly to refer to native Blacks. That’s the equivalent of a White calling an African-American ‘nigger’ in the US.”

When Ubani posted Gandhi’s racist comments on Twitter in 2015, comments poured in from fellow South Africans. One wrote, “I wish he was alive so I could shoot him again.” Another person commented, “This is why I’m always complaining about other Indians not caring about Black rights.”

In 1893, at the request of a wealthy Gujarati merchant, the 24-year-old barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, arrived in South Africa to resolve a commercial dispute with a family member. Eventually, he started raising concerns of the Indians who lived there – mostly indentured labourers, passenger migrants, traders, moneylenders and petty shopkeepers.

One of the main concerns of Indians was the bill that sought to disenfranchise them – the Natives Legislative Assembly Bill of 1894. In their petitions against it, the Indians, with Gandhi as their spokesman, complained that it would “rank the Indian lower than the rawest Native”.

In the paper “Gandhi and the Black People of South Africa”, James D. Hunt writes: “When his civil disobedience began Indians were jailed with the Natives, and Gandhi led protests over being given the Native diet and about having to share cells with them.”

Ela Gandhi is the granddaughter of the Mahatma and the caretaker of the Gandhi museum at Durban’s Phoenix settlement, which is also considered the birthplace of Satyagraha. When asked about Gandhi’s discriminatory ways, she says, “His views were a result of his lack of contact with the African people in the early years of his stay in South Africa. His later experiences made him understand things differently and his views changed.”

Adds Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, “Gandhi was not born a Mahatma. He was born an ordinary person but had the innate desire to become a better person. As a young barrister he was full of arrogance and British culture.”

Gandhi might be a much debated, even disliked figure in present-day South Africa, but loved or hated, he has always been part of the popular discourse of the country.

“Many of those fighting apartheid did take lessons from Gandhi. His philosophy remains embedded in the culture of South Africa as it does globally,” says Sello Hatang, the CEO of Nelson Mandela Foundation, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation. Mandela himself was inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence.

The small and big Gandhi memorials all over South Africa are proof of the embeddedness Hatang talks about. Johannesburg’s central business district, where Gandhi appeared at the courthouse, is called Gandhi Square. There is a Gandhi Memorial in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg to commemorate the protests by the Indian community in 1908, when the anti-Asian Black Act came into existence. There is also a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital in Durban.

A lot of these memorials came up during the Mandela years, when the idea of a multicultural or Rainbow nation was still popular. “But that Rainbow faded as economic problems and race tensions surfaced,” says Vahed.

Other social scientists also point out that the tension between Indians and native South Africans is not new. There are reasons enough for this. During the apartheid era (1948-1991), Indians managed to build their own institutions of education and trade networks, while the Blacks enjoyed minimum rights. Even after apartheid ended, a significant portion of Indians was well placed to take up new opportunities – economic and political – but a large section of Blacks was still doing menial jobs. This animosity has only intensified over the years.

Blacks believe that like Gandhi, Indians are also influenced by colonial conditioning. Last July, South African revolutionary socialist political party Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, said the success of Indian businesses in KwaZulu Natal was based on their strategies of exploitation and monopolisation of the economy. Educated unemployed Blacks believe Indians are being given preference for jobs and government tenders. Many young Blacks have, in fact, resorted to violence to press forth their demands.

In this climate, it has become easier to project a racial hostility stemming from political, social and economic inequalities onto a representative figure. Hence, the altered reading of Gandhi. Says Hatang, “Gandhi and his statues have become sights of contention over the hierarchy of inequality that apartheid sowed and its continued manifestations in democratic South Africa.”

In “Gandhi And The Black People Of South Africa”, Hunt puts things in perspective. He speaks of the general tendency to wish that heroes would have been consistently heroic throughout their lives. And then drawing attention to the reality of Gandhi, he writes, “Gandhi began as a perfectly ordinary intelligent lawyer trying to establish a career. In time he transformed himself into something else. It is that transformation which should interest us.”



The ruling Sangh has taken upon itself the task of educating our educators. Sonia Sarkar takes a close look at the altered grammar of teachers’ training programmes .


LESSON PLAN: Atul Kothari (right), national secretary of Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, addressing teachers at CPDHE
Picture: Sonia Sarkar

A class is in progress. A man in white kurta-pyjama and a blue Nehru jacket is on the dais. He chants, ” Hey Prabhu, mrityu do Akhand Bharat mein… Dear Lord, I wish to die in undivided India.” Next, he extends both hands towards the audience and asks, ” Sauda manzoor ki nahin… Are you game or no?” “Yeeeesss,” the audience responds in chorus. “So raise both your hands,” the man commands. “Bharat Mata ki jai!” he cries out thrice and the audience repeats after him and, thereafter, dissolves into claps and cheers.

The venue: Delhi University’s Centre for Professional Development in Higher Education (CPDHE). The occasion: An orientation programme and refresher course for university teachers. In the audience are 220 central university teachers from across the country.

Nationalist chest thumping is the new normal. Here too, the class leader is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader, Indresh Kumar; no surprises there. The surprise, if at all, lies elsewhere.

Picture: Sonia Sarkar

The point of the four-week orientation and three-week refresher courses is to widen the repertoire of educationists through lectures by seasoned academics and professionals. The thrust of these is supposed to be on the use of e-learning in curricula, innovations in classroom teaching, stress management, conflict management, environmental threats… The exercise is non-negotiable for career advancement and crucial to promotions.

In previous years, the CPDHE’s speaker list has included former election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, historian Irfan Habib, former Delhi University vice-chancellors Deepak Nayyar and Deepak Pental. So what’s with Indresh Kumar raising slogans now?

Ask and you learn that since 2014, teachers’ orientations have developed a Right spin. The list of speakers drawn up by the CPDHE now frequently includes the likes of Indresh Kumar, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, Right-wing ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, Prafulla Ketkar, and so on.

Discussions and addresses, no matter what the broad title, eventually boil down to lectures on the “bad influences of the West”, Jawaharlal Nehru’s vices and, of course, Akhand Bharat. The last refers to the RSS belief that one day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, and indeed vast parts of Afghanistan, will reunite through popular goodwill. The talks are delivered in Sanskritised Hindi, ignoring the fact that many attending teachers are from non-Hindi speaking states.

This particular winter morning, Indresh Kumar and the other speakers are supposed to speak on the topic “Eternal Indian Culture, Spiritualism and Life Values”. The panel is diverse – the newly appointed vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University, Gurmeet Singh; professor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, Wangchuk Dorjee Negi; and the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Talat Ahmad. And, of course, there is Indresh Kumar.

All very well, except that the programme comes to be so tweaked that Kumar gets more than an hour to hold forth on Hindutva, while the others have to wrap up their speeches in five to seven minutes.

Once on stage, Kumar perhaps forgets he is not campaigning for votes. And that among his audience are qualified educators across disciplines. Soon, his speech outgrows the subject at hand. First comes some Congress bashing. He tells the teachers, “Congress under the leadership of Nehru didn’t get freedom for India; he divided the country.”

Next, he presents some startling statistics. He says, “In a span of two months after Partition, over three crore people were displaced, 10 lakh people died, four lakh women committed suicide to save their honour and 1,300 temples and gurdwaras were destroyed.” Mind you, no source, no attribution offered. There is only his word for it.

Historian and former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Mridula Mukherjee says, “Credible sources quote that there were losses but they were much smaller in number as compared to this. Plus, the figure about women is absolutely off the mark.”

The CPDHE’s orientation programme is thus lost in nationalistic rhetoric, leaving many teachers angry. A few come forward to say as much, but fearing consequences, do not wish to be identified. “They are training to brainwash us. This is not what I came for,” says a teacher from the Northeast.

The teacher’s anger brings to mind a chillingly prophetic film from the 1980s – Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe. In the film, the tyrant king attempts to consolidate his power and position with the help of an ingenious invention – the brainwashing chamber. Systematically, different sections of the populace – peasants, miners, labourers – are rounded up and all individual thought erased and replaced by new pro-establishment chants.

In Ray’s film, the Raja’s most formidable, most intelligent, most indomitable adversary is the educationist. The Raja wants the school shut down and the teachers and students brainwashed.

Orientation programmes and refresher courses are a must for college and university teachers. The invitee list is drawn up by the institution, no direct state interference.

The CPDHE is not alone in thus yielding space and place to the empowered Right-wing. The Academic Staff College of JNU, which is responsible for training teachers, has also upped the number of Right-inspired speakers and trainers in recent times. The director of the Academic Staff College of Jamia Millia Islamia, Anisur Rahman, too admits there is informal pressure from the academic world to invite RSS ideologues. “But I refuse to give in,” he says.

At a JNU teachers’ training programme, a guest prescribed satsang for teachers after retirement. In yet another session, participating teachers were targeted for their proximity to Left-leaning academics. “Since I did my PhD under historian Irfan Habib, a guest speaker told me, ‘Habib has distorted history; now we are going to rewrite history.’ When I objected, he said, ‘If you want a career, you should never object.'”

At a training programme in DU two years ago, when Jesus and Mary College teacher Richa Raj objected to a guest’s speaker’s insistence on lecturing in sanskritised Hindi because according to him, ‘Hindi hamari rashtra bhasha hai,’ she was told off thus : ” Aap shant nahin hai. Aap swasth nahin hai…You are not at peace, you are not well.” Amit Suman, a teacher from Kirori Mal College, who attended the same session, recalls how one speaker likened subatomic particles – electrons, protons and neutrons – to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar.

Does this mean that the Narendra Modi dispensation at the Centre is arm-twisting teachers and higher academic institutions into toeing its political line and becoming propaganda instruments? It isn’t as if politics or governments haven’t influenced or tried to dominate academia in the past, but what’s beginning to unfold on campus institutions is probably a more brazen thrust by the powers to impose its worldview which is often at variance with pluralist and inclusive ideas of India itself.

Blatant myth-making continues full steam. In one of the DU sessions titled “Indian Thoughts and Thinkers”, Mahesh Chandra Sharma, a former BJP MP, brings up Ram Mandir. He also asks, “But what about Luvpur [present day Lahore] that Ram’s son, Luv, had created?”

Kumar talks about banished Chinese forces from Doklam and how Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet was never China’s. “We should get it back,” he thunders. It is a different matter that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still camping in Bhutan’s Doklam area and that historians say there is no evidence that Mount Kailash was part of India. And then suddenly he is talking economics. “I will say, ‘Chinese goods’, you will say, ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq’.” It is all about bombast and marking the enemy to rouse the dormant Hindu in everyone.

At one of these sessions, Ram Madhav, says, “The future of this country depends on whether the last man on this country’s soil has love for it or not.” ” Mitron,” he intones after a fashion that is by now well-known to every Indian. Such is the power of repetition.

A Muslim teacher from the South who attended the CPDHE session says, “The guests tell us lies, they are propagating RSS ideology. This is dangerous.” But voices of protest are rare, most people are aware that the wise thing to do is acquiesce. Gurpreet Kaur, who is from Shri Ram College of Commerce, says, “It is okay to learn these things. We often tend to ignore our past and our culture.”

But veteran academicians are extremely worried. They can see what some of the others are too close to fathom. Says Mridula Mukherjee, “This is not a public space where political leaders can come and speak; this is a platform where subject experts of eminence come to interact with teachers. That’s the norm set by the University Grants Commission.”

“Teachers are being given regressive, and bigoted information, rather misinformation is masquerading as knowledge,” says Upinder Singh, who teaches History at DU. “There is absolutely no connection with what we are supposed to do to become world-class universities and what is happening on the ground.”

CPDHE director Geeta Singh, however, defends her agenda as an exercise in “Indianness”. She says, “Keeping in mind the recent developments in the universities – the JNU episode and the agitation over Rohith Vemula’s death – we need to keep our campuses sanitised; hence these sessions.”

And so it all boils down to sanitisation. Swachh Bharat.