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Gandhi Beyond Gandhi: The Space of Translation in History

- Dr. Neilesh Bose*

Mohandas Gandhi may be understood from a variety of angles, such as those of a saint, an activist, a political leader, and depending on the vantage point and time period, a racist, a sexist, and a casteist. He was also a trained lawyer, as legal historians such as Charles DiSalvo will always remind us.[1] His legacy is likely to continue to appear as a site of contestation, as vociferous criticisms appear in stronger ways in our day and age. Instead of dissecting his many words and actions, I suggest that a global history of interpretive engagement with Gandhi comprises the most important tool in the broad apparatus of Gandhi studies, after statues of Gandhi are being toppled throughout the world, especially in African and African diasporic locales.

I. How Gandhi Fell

In early 2016, the President of India announced a trip and a gift of a Gandhi statue to Accra, Ghana. As recounted by the then Vice-Chancellor Aryeetey, soon after the statue appeared at the University of Ghana, a protest campaign arose, garnering two thousand signatures, led by scholars and students. The leader of the movement, Professor Akosua Ampofo, listed six racist quotations from Gandhi during his time in South Africa. Professor Ampofo also mentioned that no historical personalities from Ghana’s anti-colonial past had become memorialized in statues. Additionally, Obadele Bakari Kambon, at the Institute for African Studies, researched Gandhi’s time in South Africa and produced fifty-two citations of racist statements by him, while arguing that proper procedures were not followed in determining the installation of a Gandhi statue. Kambon also researched on, in a manner reminiscent of an earlier generation of scholars in critical African studies, a potential parallel between Dalits and Black Africans. He claimed that a statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the great Dalit activist, scholar, and critic of Gandhi, would be more appropriate for Ghana. Through studying the work of Black Consciousness scholar Dr. Runoko Rashidi, who in the 1970s began to promote the newly formed Dalit Panthers in conversations about Black Consciousness, Kambon’s understanding of Gandhi came primarily through reading Ambedkar and selective strands of African history. In the words of Kambon, the social movement Gandhi Must Fall began in order to destroy the myths generated about Gandhi, such as the embrace of non-violence. For Kambon, the notion of Gandhi as a non-violent activist was a myth that required destruction. He and others have pointed to Gandhi’s support for the British in the Boer War and the World War I as elements of the argument against his memorialization in Ghana. After a series of agitations, officials at the University of Ghana dismantled the statue in 2018. Talks have begun about replacing it in another part of Ghana and the administration of Ghana is presently considering this.[2]

Since this movement, comparable campaigns have occurred in Malawi, the site of a potential new statue and convention center named after Gandhi. Protests of over three thousand people led to the stalling of that project. In Manchester (a city Gandhi traveled through on his way to Lancashire in 1931), a movement led by students tried to stop a new statue from being built, though it was built anyway. Similar protests have occurred in numerous places, including corners of North America, such as parts of eastern Canada (incidentally where C.F. Andrews, Gandhi’s friend and promoter, spent time) and parts of the U.S.A. (in Texas, California, and New York). However, none of these protests made international headlines or achieved the removal of statues, as was done in Ghana.[3]

Gandhi began to fall because of a rising preoccupation with his time in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914, as the empirical basis for a history that would destroy ‘myths’ about him. This approach is relatively new, a product of the twenty-first century and the contemporary relationships between India and Ghana. These contemporary relationships feature the link between Ghana’s gold and oil and India’s geopolitical power and aspirations for influence in the region, given that India funded the construction of the Ghanaian palace. Another recent development is the availability of communications technology and circulations of Gandhi’s own writings online, as well as awareness of Ambedkar and Dalit histories today. Such an emphasis contrasts with the appropriations of Gandhi in earlier points in history. Indians are likely to know of Maulana Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, and J.C. Kumarappa, major bearers of Gandhian activism and thought. But what about figures in the world of Africa and the African diaspora, the world of Kambon?

II. Gandhi in North America

The recognition of Gandhi first appeared, in the inter-war period, by New York-based white American preacher John Haynes Holmes. In 1921, he began to see Gandhi as a Jesus-like figure. In a sermon, Holmes asserted that “He lives his life; he speaks his word, he suffers, strives, and will some day nobly die, for his kingdom upon earth.” Gandhi provoked a range of reactions in U.S. pacifist and theologian circles of the 1920s and 30s, including a largely negative dismissal by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In his 1932 Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr offered a critique of pacifism and non-violence as inadequate in a violent society. Yet, the Quaker, Richard Gregg changed the American Pacifist perception of Gandhi. Gregg was fascinated by Gandhi’s activism in the 1920s and spent time in the Sabarmati ashram in the late 1920s. He wrote a host of works praising Gandhi, interpreting non-violence as his signature contribution, again in a religious context. His 1932 Gandhism versus Socialism and 1934 Power of Nonviolence appreciated Gandhi, as opposed to Niebuhr. Another pivotal thinker of the 1930s would be A.J. Muste, the trade unionist and anti-war activist. In the context of the Great Depression, Muste returned to Christianity after a bout of disillusionment through a mystical experience. He wrote about Gandhian non-violence and interpreted it in analogously religious terms.[4]

These individuals predate a series of organizations that emerged in the early 1940s after Gandhi had established himself as a global figure, such as the Harlem Ashram in New York City, the Ahimsa Farm in Ohio, and what became the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). In all of these groups, members read and considered Gandhi in detail, reading about him in order to build a non-violent movement in the United States.[5] In 1935, Rev. Howard Thurman and Rev. Edward Carroll travelled to India on a ‘pilgrimage of friendship’, funded by the student Christian movement in India and the USA. Both, Thurman and Carroll, met Gandhi in Bardoli. Gandhi asked about voting rights, lynching, discrimination, public school education, and churches. The whole interaction appeared in Harijan.

The most famous interpreter of Gandhi from the United States remains Martin Luther King Jr., who attended a lecture by Mordecai Johnson in 1950. The experience led him to a detailed study of Gandhi’s works. On a 1959 trip to India, King called nonviolent resistance “the most potent weapon available to an oppressed people in the struggle for freedom.” In a tribute to Gandhi about the influence he had had on his thought, he saw “a synthesis of Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes in this struggle for freedom and human dignity.... His spirit is a continual reminder to oppressed people that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.” King’s thoughts on Gandhi came after decades of engagement with a particular variant of Gandhi’s writings, in a context far from the colonial Indian landscape that had nurtured those politics.

Of the many African-Americans who cited Gandhi as an inspiration, the lawyer, civil rights activist, and Episcopal priest Anna Pauline ‘Pauli’ Murray (1910 – 1985) conducted a full-scale comparison of colonized Indian subjects and Africans-Americans in her ‘notes on non-violence’. Written in 1940, she notes India’s population, Gandhi’s many imprisonments, differences in wages, and population distinctions between the two societies, in order to craft a particularly American satyagraha.[6] The version of Gandhi ingested by American activists depended on the post-1915 Gandhi, minus any reference to what he did or said in South Africa.

III. Gandhi in Africa

Interpretations of Gandhi in African contexts emerged later in the classic era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. In this new world, activists often repurposed the history of anti-colonial protests for immediate organizational needs in the early post-colonial era. In these years, South Africans interpreted Gandhi in three particular stages after his assassination in 1948. The first includes a group of activists, termed the ‘Radicals’ in South African history, who organized on lines of direct non-violent action in resistance to apartheid-era laws. Such radicals include Yusuf Cachalia who, along with Yusuf Dadoo, Fatima Meer, Zainab Aswat, Monty Naicker, and others, organized the 1952 Defiance Campaign, the first large-scale mass campaign organized under one common front. This campaign entailed a creative reinterpretation of Gandhian satyagraha by including a multi-racial alliance, in which Indians alongside Africans worked together to do things like burn apartheid passbooks, openly court mass imprisonment, and refuse to comply with apartheid business and housing laws. The methods drew on Gandhi’s own actions, though the multi-racialism was definitely a new element introduced by these activists of the apartheid era, absent in Gandhi’s own time.

At the same time, the rising leader Albert Luthuli explored Gandhian tactics in the 1950s, in a series of meetings after the Defiance Campaign. Religion, in the form of Christianity, attuned to a politics of sacrifice, engagement with one’s opponent, and the persuasion of enemies through non-violent means, formed a major element of Luthuli’s politics of those years. In 1993, before the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela delivered a speech claiming that Gandhi’s career was inspirational for particular needs at particular times. This appropriation of Gandhi demonstrated a reference to non-violence not within religious frameworks as in the United States of America, but inside the need for a multi-racial alliance in politics during a time of transition in South Africa. The details of Gandhi’s comments about Africans or his precise goals in South Africa made no appearance, as the practicality of his methods and the symbolic importance of his heritage surged to the forefront.

Beyond the land of Gandhi’s sojourn in South Africa, a West African engagement with Gandhi also occurred throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as seen on the pages of newspapers like the West African Pilot and Daily Comet. Figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Kenneth Kaunda wrote about Gandhian techniques in their politics and also reflected on Gandhi’s importance for African struggles for self-determination. As the balance of imperial power remained uncertain in the mid-1940s, at the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester, Nkrumah discussed the methods of Gandhi, satyagraha, and direct boycott, “endorsed as the only effective means of making alien rulers respect the wishes of an unarmed subject people.” In 1950, nearly three years after the partition of colonial India had reached its bloody and brutal denouement, activists in much of Anglophone Africa began mobilizing on a greater scale than before. In the then ‘Gold Coast’, Kwame Nkrumah led Positive Action, in the January of 1950, modelled directly after Gandhian non-violent resistance. As Nkrumah himself mentioned in the All-African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958, the entire purpose of the conference was to formulate concrete plans and work out the Gandhian tactics and strategy for an African non-violent Revolution.

Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai’s densely researched analysis of Gandhi’s time in South Africa focuses on his alignment with the empire, his fights for race privilege for Indians in imperial and frontier South Africa, and his inability to see Africans as fellow travellers in his activism.[7] Even as they demolish the myths that have emerged in Gandhi’s name, they end this indispensable work with a note of lament: “He has lived with us all our lives as we played on the very streets that he walked, and listened to stories about his exploits in the country of our birth. We have read the books. We have watched the movies. We leave him with some reluctance.” What remains for historians to address is not the myth, destroyed many times over by now. Rather, what is important for the world to consider is the mythopoetic power of Gandhi, likely to endure beyond our current time.[8]

In contrast to a focus on his time in South Africa, in his later period (1915-1948), Gandhi evokes different resonances. Scholars, such as Robert Ado-Fenning in West African history and Ali Mazrui in East African history, both focus on Gandhi’s actions and leadership in the Indian part of his political life in the 1920s and 1930s.[9] This was a time of mass campaigns, non-violent methods of public protest, boycotts, and fasts. This time period also formed the source of inspiration for prominent leaders like Nkrumah and Azikiwe. That focus of Africans on the Indian phase of Gandhi’s career contrasts with the contemporary generation of Gandhi Must Fall activists, in which the focus has been on the South African phase, from the 1890s and 1900s, when notoriously racist statements have been uncovered from the long Gandhian oeuvre. This recent focus evinces no reference to the Indian phase of his life from 1915 to 1948, nor an awareness of African interpreters of Gandhi. Missing, as well, from recent focus are the last few years of his life, from 1946 to 1948, when he overturned and radically revisited many of his earlier held convictions, notably about religion and caste.

IV. Gandhi and the Space of Translation

Near the end of Gandhi’s life, D.D.T. Jabavu travelled to the World Peace Conference in 1949 with Manilal Gandhi, the second son of Mohandas Gandhi. Jabavu, a Black African from the Eastern Cape who worked with African Americans as well as activists and educationists of many types, travelled to India on a mission to gather with others to explore important ideas facing the world, such as peace. Jabavu writes in his travelogue after India’s independence, but also at the onset of formal apartheid, of how Gandhian ideas transcended the particularities of Gandhi’s own documented life. Jabavu also wrote about Gandhian satyagraha and delivered a speech at Fort Hare about how to follow Gandhi’s footsteps, just as Albert Luthuli at Howard College in the United States in 1950.[10]

The Black, ‘Asiatic’, and Indian racial categories of Gandhi’s time do not translate to the post-colonial present, nor do they match the language of the Atlantic world. Rather than attempting translations of these categories, one may instead look to histories of entanglements that get hidden from view in the rush to the judgment of Gandhi. A rise in the critiques of Gandhi throughout the Gandhi Must Fall movements peaked in 2018, though they have returned with calls to recognise the ongoing brutalities faced by Black people in multiple contexts, overlooking histories of friendships, shared spaces and intimacies, as well as conflicts that do not fit any available narrative.[11] Friendship as well as conflict may uncover active spaces today in contemporary Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and the United States of America. In early twentieth century New York, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, in the era of Asian exclusion, Indian workers often assimilated into Black and Puerto Rican families and neighborhoods.[12] Even if she is not a product of this particular history, the current Vice President of the United States of America, Kamala Harris, is a product of global engagements between Black and Indian people in contexts outside of Africa or India.

The historical record in western Africa shows a dynamic history of African-Indian engagement, such as the experience of African soldiers deployed in South Asia during World War II, returning to Ghana and Nigeria early after the war. Doubtlessly, this interaction enabled the rise of African Hindu monks, such as Kwei Essel, who became Swami Ghanananda. After studying in India in the 1960s, Essel/Ghanananda built a new religious community in West Africa, informed by India. Leopold Senghor, well known for Negritude, also set up an Indo-African Studies unit at the University of Dakar in 1974, to study the linkages and possible common origins of African and Dravidian (southern) peoples of India.[13] These engagements show that Black and Indian lives have related to each other in ways that do not easily add up to the racial, national, or majority/minority categories of our present day.

Our current world includes racialized violence, state-directed expulsions, imperialist wars, and aggressive blockages against immigration from poorer regions of the world into powerful ones, as in Gandhi’s time in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. A study of Gandhi’s life and works, inclusive of the creative acts of his interpreters, does not solve all the problems that have arisen within the problem spaces of race and colonialism in the modern era. However, such a study is indispensable for exploring how the modern world came to be and how people have tried to change it. Such an expansion of our understanding of Gandhi is a reminder that the remarkable entanglements, contained in shared histories of colonialism, deserve our recognition, as great leaders inevitably fall from their once larger than life pedestals in the imagination.

As statues of Gandhi fall, it is worthy to seriously regard the efforts of Pauli Murray and D.D.T. Jabavu, as well as Fatima Meer, and Kwame Nkrumah, and all those whose labours, dedicated to human flourishing, continue to inspire action in the world. These figures deserve a seat at the table, beside the memories cultivated on behalf of Indian devotees of Gandhi, such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), the prominent Muslim theologian and anti-colonial activist, and J.C. Kumarappa (1892-1960), the Tamil Christian environmentalist and economist. It would be impossible to exclude such figures from an assessment of Gandhi’s life and works. It would also be impossible to erase Pauli Murray, D.D.T. Jabavu, or Benjamin Mays. It would then be impossible to erase Gandhi from global histories of race and colonialism that make up a significant portion of the world we now inherit today. Because of his vast reach, Gandhi’s life and works prompt a form of Keats’ ‘negative capability’, of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Negative capabilities are required to make sense of the global history of Gandhi. Armed with such a perspective, one may return to DiSalvo’s hopeful view of Gandhi’s lawyerly experiences in 1908 South Africa, in and around the time of his signature text Hind Swaraj, a searing critique of modernity. Gandhi himself is less important than the space of translation and encounter with his own life and works that have recurred in various forms. In no uncertain terms, these translations and encounters have definitely occurred in African and African-diasporic settings across time and space, as I have shown. Gandhi’s imprint on such encounters offers the opportunity for detailed consideration of the larger forces in the making of modern racialized identities and sources of power, as well as conflict. It is perhaps in that space of translation that the real work of transformation and activism begins.

*Dr. Neilesh Bose is Associate Professor of History and Canada Research Chair of Global and Comparative History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, CANADA.


[1] Of his many works on the topic, see Charles DiSalvo, M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man Before the Mahatma (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2013). [2] See ‘Give us a statue of Ambedkar, not Gandhi: Ghana university professor Ọbádélé Kambon’ (The Caravan, 13 January 2019) <> and Obadele Kambon and Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua, ’The Pro-Indo-Aryan Anti-Black M.K. Gandhi and Ghana’s #GandhiMustFall Movement’ in Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinangamso Nkopo (eds), Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire (London: Zed Books 2018) 186-206. [3] Personal communication with Shobana Shankar, Meera Venkatachalam, and Renu Modi (21 January 2021). See forthcoming conversation drawn from this communication on borderlines: Nilesh Bose, ‘India and Africa in Parallax’ (borderlines, 15 June 2021) <>. [4] See Reinhold Neibuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Scribner 1932) for his critique, yet considerable engagement, with non-violence as a political strategy. On Gregg, see Joseph Kip Kosek, ’Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence’ (2005) 91(4) The Journal of American History 1318 – 1348. The definitive study of A.J. Muste remains Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2014). [5] A recent iteration of this process features Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origin of our Discontents (New York: Random House 2020). [6] See Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2012). [7] Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2015). [8] See Soske’s contribution to a review forum on the book in Burton et al, ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of the Empire’ (2018) 32(1) Journal of Natal and Zulu History 112. [9] Ngugi Wa’Thiongo mentions Gandhi in this context in the novel A Grain of Wheat (Heinemann 1967) 83: “Soldiers came back from the war and told stories of what they had seen in Burma, Egypt, Palestine, and India; wasn’t Mahatma Gandhi, the saint, leading the Indian people against British rule?”. [10] See D.D.T. Jabavu, In India and East Africa/E-Indiya nase East Africa (Cecil Wele Manona tr, Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2020) 181 - 278. [11] See Jon Soske, Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth Century South Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 2017); S Walsh and J Soske (eds), Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, (Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2016); Sana Aiyar, Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press 2015); Anneeth Kaur Hundle, ‘The Politics of (In)security: Reconstructing African-Asian Relations, Citizenship and Community in Post-Expulsion Uganda’ (PhD diss., University of Michigan 2013); Idem, ’Unsettling Citizenship: Race, Security and Afro-Asian Politics in Contemporary Uganda’ (conference paper, University of Victoria, 27 October 2017); and Shobana Shankar, ‘A Tale of Two Gandhis: Complicating Ghana’s Indian Entanglements’ in Omar Ali, Kenneth X. Robbins, Beheroze Schroff, and Jazmin Graves (eds), Black Ambassadors of Politics, Religion and Jazz in India: Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora (vol 3, Charlotte, NC: UNC Greensboro/Ahmedabad Sidi Heritage and Education Center 2020) 49-55. [12] See Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2013). [13] See Shankar (n 11).

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