Give us a statue of Ambedkar, not Gandhi: Ghana university professor Ọbádélé Kambon

INTERVIEWc& nbsp;CASTE

Give us a statue of Ambedkar, not Gandhi-
Ghana university professor Ọbádélé Kambon

SAGAR

13 January 2019

Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon, a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies​ in the University of Ghana​, discussed the need to destroy improper propaganda about Gandhi—or, as he terms it, “ImpropaGandhi”—because he fought for upper-caste Hindus and not against colonialism. 

COURTESY OBADELE KAMBON

In December 2018, students of the University of Ghana removed a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from their campus. Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, had unveiled the statue when he visited the university, which is located in the country’s capital city of Accra, in June 2016. It spurred a campaign called Gandhi Must Fall, during which the university’s staff and students contended that Gandhi was racist and called for the statue’s removal.

One of the leaders of the campaign, Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon, a research fellow at the university’s Institute of African Studies, claimed that standard bureaucratic procedures for installing the statue were bypassed. In conversation with Sagar, a staff writer at The Caravan, Kambon discussed the need to destroy improper propaganda about Gandhi—or, as he terms it, “ImpropaGandhi”—because he fought for upper-caste Hindus and not against colonialism. He drew parallels between Gandhi’s views on the black community in Africa and the Dalit community in India. Referring to the offensive slur used to denigrate the black community and Gandhi’s usage of the term, Kambon said, “He would have shot down as many Kaffirs as he had bullets, if he had the opportunity.”

Sagar: How was the Gandhi Must Fall movement conceived and executed?
Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon: Pranab Mukherjee’s lecture was publicised but the statue was not. I was driving down the road and I saw this new statue—it was Gandhi. My first thought was, these people have no idea who Gandhi is. So, I took a couple of photos with my phone and sent an email with 52 of his most racist quotes. That is what started the conversation on campus. We have thousands of people in our university staff list, and dozens of people were involved in the back and forth conversation. So, a lot of people were like, “We had no idea, we just saw the movie, we thought he was great, this is a surprise.” Then, of course, you had the knee-jerk reaction, “I saw the movie, it was great, he must be great. I don’t know what this is about.” I address this idea of cognitive dissonance. What happens when people are confronted with new information, when it doesn’t gel with current beliefs—they start trying to rationalise, dismiss or just ignore it, because it causes this type of tension and uncomfortability in them.

The then vice chancellor sent out an email reply during the course of the exchange. Most likely, he was the one who commissioned or allowed the placing of the statue to go through—it didn’t go through the academic board, or the normal bureaucratic channels—it just popped up on campus, without any feedback from those in African studies or history, who would know who Gandhi was in relation to African people. In the email, he said he thought that Gandhi changed when he got older. After this I sent another email. I went into his role in oppressing the Dalits and calling them “Harijans,” which [means] “bastard children of Devadasis”—a term coined in the 1400s by poet Narsinh Mehta; it is very clear why the Dalits themselves do not like that term. 

Dr Ambedkar wrote about what the Congress and Gandhi had done to the untouchables in terms of coercing him into signing the Poona Pact—it was a violent act of coercion, and he really spoke in disparaging terms about it, as most Dalits do till this day. I gave all that background information—some about Gandhi, some about Dr Ambedkar saying that Gandhi was the worst enemy of the untouchables.

What people did not see is that he was against black people, whether they happen to be continental Africans or not. He was an Indo-Aryan, upper-caste Hindu; he was always fighting for upper-caste Hindus and he was never fighting for black people there in India.

S: So, you are saying that Gandhi was defending his caste rather than fighting for the black community and against the British in Africa?
OBK: It comes off very clearly in his writing at the time that he is not for black people. From 1893 to 1913, he was always saying—these Kaffirs, we don’t want to work with them; even when it comes to striking, we are not trying to strike alongside these Kaffirs. In 1906, according to his autobiography, he had this huge epiphany. [Gandhi took a vow of celibacy and stated that he learnt the error of his ways.] But some of the worst things that he said and did were after that so-called vow.

At the time he was writing his autobiography, he didn’t know that he could be fact-checked later, in 100 searchable volumes via PDF. After that so-called vow in 1906, you [had] him saying that, “Black people are one degree removed from animals.” When he was serving in the jails, that is where he is saying, they “live like animals.” 

He duped so many people with his autobiography. Those people didn’t have a chance to fact-check because it wasn’t until 1998–1999 that you could have access to the right things—especially in Hindi and Gujarati. How in the world are these black people who can’t read Gujarati or Hindi supposed to be able to know this is what he was saying about them? And more so, how were they supposed to know that he was actually lying until they go back and check all that he said from 1906. When he went to India, he was fighting against Dalits, condemning their Mahad satyagraha. [Mahad Satyagraha was a satyagraha led by Ambedkar to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad, Maharashtra.]

S: Do Gandhi’s works in Gujarati and Hindi portray the real picture of his personality?
OBK: He was also saying highly inflammatory stuff in English, but then again, if you don’t have access to collected works you will never get the full scope. I am working on an article that is dealing with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and why all three of them are pushed down the throats of black people as heroes. Those are not the ones who I ever look up to, although I can’t speak for the entire black race. But there’s a reason why our white enemies shove them down our throats as “these are the best for your race.” South Africa, the US, and India—in all three places, black people are subjected to genocide, according to the UN definition of what genocide is.

But, we are told by those three that the solution to our problem is closer proximity to those who are committing the genocide. First, we are told that our problem in the US is that we are not integrated—so once we integrate with these white enemies who are subjecting us to genocide, our problems are solved. Martin Luther King is telling us that the ones who are stabbing us, killing us, lynching us, subjecting us to genocide—our whole problem is we aren’t close enough to them yet. That’s like someone who has knife, chopping you and stabbing in the chest then just telling you to go closer to them. How insane is that! Therefore, we are given a solution that is never a solution—it exacerbates the problem of genocide.

Now, look at the same thing in South Africa. We are being told the problem is apartheid and the face of anti-apartheid is Nelson Mandela. But, being apart from white people is not our issue; the issue is we are subjected to genocide. Then, the same thing in India, we are told that the problem is untouchability—you cannot touch us, you cannot come into our temples, you cannot draw water from our tanks. But although our problem is genocide, the solution we are given is that, “You can now come close enough to touch us, so shut up, you don’t have any issues.” And the face of amelioration of untouchability, rather than the annihilation of caste, is Gandhi. No, the problem is genocide, which cannot be solved by simply moving closer to the ones who are perpetrating and perpetuating it.

Once we know the problem is genocide, then we need to know what to do about those Indo-Aryans, Indo-Europeans who are subjecting us to genocide. But because they have misdiagnosed our problem, all three are ceaselessly shoved down our throats as these are the heroes you should look up to. But these are not our heroes. If we choose our heroes, we will choose someone like Marcus Garvey. Where is his statue here at the University of Ghana? We will choose someone like Mangaliso Sobukwe to follow his footsteps.

We do not get to learn of any of our luminaries, what we get is Gandhi. In India, if you want to give us a statue, give us a statue of Ambedkar. That is whose writings we can relate to as black people.



Kambon said, “We do not get to learn of any of our luminaries, what we get is Gandhi. In India, if you want to give us a statue, give us a statue of Ambedkar. That is whose writings we can relate to as black people.” 

COURTESY OBADELE KAMBON

S: India has always objected to discussing caste, in the context of racial discrimination, on international platforms. What are the similarities between racial and caste discrimination?
OBK: It is a correlation, not causation. [For] people who are not very aware of Hinduism—in terms of the symbolism, there are colours associated with different castes—the Brahmins are associated with the colour white, the Kshatriyas are associated with red, the Vaishyas are associated with yellow and black is for Shudras and down. This is white on top and black on the bottom—this is the same strong correlation that you see in Indian society.

Dr Ambedkar spoke against the idea of an Aryan invasion; however, a force of those Aryans came as a military. You have indigenous people who are very dark because they are close to the equator. They had not undergone the genetic changes that went on, such as mutation of the gene SLC24A5—the significant genetic factor that makes whites white. All humanity came from Africa, but we find that in southern India, those who are still black they did not undergo mutation, and they are still close to the equator.

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