A new book has dug up an old charge - that Mahatma Gandhi was a racist. The Gandhi of the late 19th century, the Gandhi of the South African phase held controversial views on race, saw Indians as closer to white people and didn’t want to make common cause with the oppressed black majority. The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire, written by two South African scholars, makes some of these points.
This news is not especially surprising, given that the subversive reading of Gandhi had received some airing in the past. What has been bypassed in the heat of discussion over the early 20th century Gandhi, though, is that in 21st century South Africa, some Indians continue to be racist.
I spent three months earlier this year in South Africa. The country has a complicated apartheid history and 20 years after its abolition, is still dealing with and healing from that fractious policy. White on black racism is spoken of, but the more insidious brown on black kind lies further below the surface.
Indians, who had also suffered under the segregation laws imposed by the colonial rule, later fortified during the apartheid regime which classed white people on the top of the pyramid. So it is not surprising that they would be seen as victims of racism rather than perpetrators of it. That, however, is not necessarily a correct assumption.
Indians comprise about two per cent of the population in South Africa, and have been settled there for several generations – some descended from the indentured labourers brought in the 1860s, others from the second wave of migrants, the free merchants, who started coming after the 1880s.
Durban has a strong concentration of Indians. My first brush with a South African Indian was on a public bus in that city. It took no time for a fourth generation Indian couple to strike up a conversation with me and my family seated on the bus - a conversation studded with casually racist comments. These were made in an off-the-cuff manner with the air of spouting incontrovertible truths. We don’t really have anything to do with "them", said the woman, lapsing into Hindi, in the presence of several other black people on the bus. They haven’t done much for the country, the husband continued, it’s Indians who’ve built it and prospered. The couple made remarks on the blacks' "lack of work ethic", and said that they have eaten up resources and contributed little.
This was a common refrain – black people are not as smart, underqualified and good for nothing. Another man told me, in front of his black employee, how lazy black Africans are. "Only good for drinking," he continued, unabashed and wholly convinced of the veracity of his prejudice masquerading as argument.
Another woman looked suspiciously at her black employee and asked if he had washed his hands before handling a bunch of documents. It was not a question I heard being asked of anyone else in the room. The implication was clear - black people cannot be trusted on hygiene.
Another common diatribe was ranting against the party of the anti-apartheid struggle, which has been in power since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC has been pilloried on many grounds – corruption, mismanagement, failure to provide basic services. But a section of the Indian public that I encountered was more than happy to hark back to the good old days of white apartheid rule as if it were a golden time, pointing out that the current leadership was poorly educated, unprepared to govern, inefficient and lazy. The fact that in the so-called better time of before, a racist government was in power only seemed to be a minor inconvenience.
A black girl I knew told me she never liked interacting with Indians because of their clannish tendencies and how they treated the other black students in her school in a supercilious and high-handed manner.
It is not surprising then that the barely concealed racial antagonism bubbling below the surface between the blacks and Indians erupts from time to time. In 2013, it did so when charges of racism were made by hotel staff hosting the wedding of a prominent Indian family.
More recently, during a spate of vandalism incidents and statue defacements involving white colonial figures – most famously that of white imperialist Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town – a Gandhi statue in Johannesburg also got the same treatment. A group flung paint on the statue, an opportunity that many took to exhume the racist dimensions of Gandhi's past.
My observations were gathered entirely anecdotally. Naturally some people are more racist than others, and the Indian community in South Africa is large and largely well-adjusted. Several Indians played a prominent role in the struggle against apartheid. But that even a fraction of the settled Indian population thinks they are superior to black people, and does not hesitate to show this, suggests that in whatever form, racism persists.
So why in a country where Indians themselves were discriminated against and deemed inferior would they end up becoming perpetrators of racism?
Apartheid was a brutally divisive system, separating different groups by race and colour, with the whites on top. Racial classifications meant Indians were identified as a separate category enjoying a better position, as compared to the blacks who were at the lowest end of the scale. This meant Indians were badly off, but still could assert their superiority over some group.
Some have spoken of racial tensions in economic terms – ethnic jealousy among the blacks over the relative prosperity of the Indian community. Of course, others have pointed to the legacy of Indian society in all its divisive glory over caste and class. In India itself the continuing reprehensible attitude towards "black" people and darker skin shades is not new. (India was most famously in the top five in a 2013 survey on the most racially intolerant countries.)
Gandhi’s views on race are well-known. They are also known to have evolved during his time in South Africa. The ANC has itself defended attacks on Gandhi and remarked on his impact on the country’s history.
But that has hardly insulated all Indians from the same charge. A black woman told me she was no longer willing to work for her Indian boss because of the sustained denigration she faced at her work place. After she left, she sent a message to her former boss. "You treated me badly," it said. "I could no longer stay on."