Before leading his historic push for India’s independence from the British Empire, Gandhi famously led civil rights movements in South Africa, another British colony, between 1893 and 1915, when he was in his mid-20s through his mid-40s.
While Gandhi’s time fighting for the rights of Indians in South Africa is often now mythologized as the heroic precursor to his later efforts in India, the dark side of this tale reveals that Gandhi’s motivations in South Africa included his strident racism against the local black populations there.
“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir [a slur now classified as hate speech and generally considered to be the equivalent of “nigger” in the United States] whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness,” Gandhi said during an address in Bombay in 1896.
“Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals,” he wrote in Indian Opinion in 1908
An oft-recited turning point in Gandhi’s life involves his being thrown off a train for refusing to move out of first class, which was reserved for whites, early on during his time in South Africa. However, during both that incident and the entire civil rights movement that followed, Gandhi wasn’t so much campaigning for Indians’ rights in and of themselves, but more so that Indians simply be given more rights than the local blacks.
“A general belief seems to prevail in the colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than the savages or natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir,” he said.
When the British moved to placing the Indian and black populations together, Gandhi harshly resisted, writing to the local health officer in 1905, “Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian location should be chosen for dumping down all kaffirs of the town, passes my comprehension. Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population, and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”
“We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.”
In his 2011 book, Subhash Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, author Romain Hayes explains that, after the two met in 1931, Gandhi called Mussolini “one of the great statesmen of our time,” and went on to write the following in a letter to a friend:
“Many of his reforms attract me. He seems to have done much for the peasant class. I admit an iron hand is there. But as violence is the basis of Western society, Mussolini’s reforms deserve an impartial study.”
#MeToo – would he survive today?
For starters, he often kept pairs of girls as his daily companions to address his needs right down to basic movement, with Gandhi referring to them, according to Adams, as his “walking sticks.”
Moreover, Gandhi made things uncomfortably personal in both routinely bathing with these girls and habitually starting the day by asking them if they’d had a good bowel movement.
What’s worse, even if we can believe that these teenage girls had the ability to consent to any of this, it’s not clear that there was any consent in the first place.
According to Adams, Gandhi first met one of his most famous companions, Sushila Nayar, when she was just six and was brought to him by her mother. There, with the girl on his lap, Gandhi asked her mother to gift her to him. Nayar didn’t become his just then, but did return as a teenager and became Gandhi’s close companion.
According to Adams’ biography, in addition to tending to his needs regarding bathing and bowel movements, Gandhi tasked his young female companions with regularly giving him massages while he was in the nude. Reportedly, he liked mustard oil and lime juice to be used during these massages.
After Gandhi’s father died while Gandhi was off having sex, and once again after coming to the realization that he couldn’t serve humanity while also consumed by lust, a thirty-something Gandhi decided that he must take a vow of chastity — and tested that chastity in some rather odd ways.
Although he forbade men and women (even husbands and wives) from sleeping together while at his ashrams, Gandhi had many women — some of them teenagers, some of them married — sleep nude in his bed.
The year before his death, a 77-year-old Gandhi cast a then 33-year-old Sushila Nayar (who Gandhi had asked to be given to him as a gift by her mother when she was just six) out of his bed in favor of a younger woman: Manu, his 18-year-old grandniece.
Gandhi explicitly stated that sleeping with Manu in the nude yet resisting sexual temptation was his most important experiment in chastity, telling her that “[we] must put our purity to the ultimate test.”
At that same time, he also pulled Abha, the 18-year-old wife of his grandnephew, into bed with him — and things quickly became problematic. When Gandhi began publicly speaking about his sleeping arrangement, even those in his inner circle asked that he remove the girls from his bed. He initially refused; finally, after several of his close associates parted ways with him over the matter, he relented.
Nevertheless, he asked that Manu share their sleeping arrangement with the world once he died. When that happened just months later, however, Gandhi’s associates, including his son, made it clear to Manu that she should keep her mouth shut.
Given his extraordinary chastity experiments, Gandhi is on record as being particularly concerned about avoiding any kind of ejaculation.
In describing his philosophy of celibacy, he stated that he strove to be “One who never has any lustful intention, who, by constant attendance upon God, has become proof against conscious or unconscious emissions.” He thus complained about the nocturnal emissions he suffered and said that, “One who conserves his vital fluid acquires unfailing power.”
What’s more, he kept none of this to himself, instead making his views on semen and ejaculation part of his sermons, and even asserting that his avoidance of ejaculation was essential in helping India reach independence, stating, “I hold that true service of the country demands this observance.”
According to the Guardian, he: “believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality;” argued that women should be responsible for sexual assaults carried out upon them; contended that fathers are justified in killing daughters that have been sexually assaulted in order to preserve family honour; labelled women who used contraceptives as whores; and once chopped off the hair of two female followers who were being harassed so that the perpetrators would stop.