With a season of civil unrest upon us, many have questioned the authenticity of protesters’ concerns. In this day and age, how can we distinguish the agitators from the real deal?
It turns out that the answer, at least in the present case, may be less baffling than one would expect.
The celebratory spirit of this year’s 19th annual Gandhi Peace Festival held on Oct. 1 was highlighted with the unveiling of a Gandhi statue presented to McMaster University on behalf of the Indian government.
A vastly different scene was evoked, however, at Carleton University, which revealed a similar statue of the Indian icon on Oct. 2, despite strong opposition from a demonstration of protesters representing the Organization for Minorities of India.
The group, whose Facebook page ‘Stop the Carleton University Gandhi Statue’ garnered upwards of 150 fans, resists commemoration of Gandhi across North America.
Their convictions hinge primarily upon the belief that Gandhi’s popular embodiment of peace and non-violence are a pretense of his true legacy, outlined on their website (stopgandhistatue.com) as follows:
“Gandhi is a hero only to a select group of upper-caste Hindu Indians.
To others, he remains a man who unashamedly and unapologetically constructed a legacy of racism against blacks, support for racial segregation in South Africa, cheerleading and participation in British colonial wars of conquest, insensitive and anti-Semitic remarks about the Jewish Holocaust, disturbing amiability towards Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, shocking disregard for the psychological well-being of his grandnieces and consistent belittlement of Indian minorities such as Dalits and Sikhs.”
While perhaps unsettling, these accusations come as no surprise to Dr. Rama Singh, professor of Biology at McMaster and Chair of the Gandhi Peace Festival Committee.
“A few years ago, G.B. Singh, [founder of the Organization for Minorities of India], wrote to me asking why I was wasting my time,” he said.
“Rather than engaging, I simply responded by saying, ‘I am going to assume that Gandhi has all those faults, and in spite of them, the fact that he still could become a Mahatma to the rest of the world means that there is hope for you and me.’”
Singh is critical of the organization’s self-imposed title of ‘Minority,’ noting that the group’s agenda fails to address any concern outside the realm of Gandhi tribute, such as poverty, sexism or racism, that often affect these populations disproportionately.
Singh described the factual validity of the group’s views as “misinterpretations of the events of Gandhi’s life,” providing the example of Gandhi helping to save the wounded during the Boer War as ‘evidence’ of his participation in combat.
“I would say that these people are a disgrace to the Gandhian movement. You don’t have to believe in Gandhi, but Gandhi’s ideas are not only Gandhi’s ideas; they are Martin Luther King’s ideas, Dalai Lama’s ideas, Nelson Mandela’s ideas. These people fought for something. That’s what Gandhi symbolizes. So to fight over Gandhi’s faults is a waste of time,” noted Singh.
Singh further promoted the incorporation of the Gandhian ideology on campus, saying “In my mind putting a statue of Gandhi on a university campus is like having a combined course on ethics, morality, and international development, without the teacher or exam. It is a constant reminder of a man who never compromised on his principles and there is no better way to empower students.”
Singh highlighted the importance of Gandhi’s teachings regarding the reciprocal process of learning. He drew particular emphasis to the need for professors to learn from their students, as given their globalized exposure to the world, they “are more in tune with societal needs and change.”
He stressed that a crucial role of the professor is to “promote student engagement through, for example, courses, dialogues, inter-disciplinary programs, and peace centers.”
“In short,” he added, “I would say it is our job to give them a Gandhian empowerment.”