Student politics these days is frequently self-parodying. The Gandhi Must Fall campaign at Manchester university is a perfect case study.
Manchester city council has approved plans for a nine-foot statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside Manchester Cathedral. The idea is to promote peace in the wake of the horrific Manchester Arena attack. Who could possibly object to this?
Sara Khan, Manchester students’ union’s ‘liberation and access officer’, that’s who. She is leading the campaign against the statue on the grounds that the Indian independence leader made racist comments about Africans.
This follows the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, which unsuccessfully tried to have a statue of the long-dead colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College.
That movement actually began at the university of Cape Town, which successfully had a statue of Rhodes removed. Similarly, Gandhi Must Fall started in west Africa, where a Gandhi statue was removed from the university of Ghana.
Raging against statues – pre-existing or planned – is always unwise, however nasty a historical figure is. More often than not it is an exercise in moral preening rather than serious politics.
But, in any case, to put Gandhi in the same bucket as Rhodes, as this campaign clearly does, is particularly ridiculous.
Gandhi did hold some racist views about black Africans. He spent 21 years in South Africa, and, as the protesters note, he called the people there ‘savages’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘dirty’. He was also born to an elite Indian family in 1869, at a time when such views were mainstream. Which is at least worth bearing in mind.
Plus, while Rhodes – one of the most enthusiastic British imperialists of his day – was responsible for the death, suffering and subjugation of millions, Gandhi led a movement that gave rise to the biggest democracy the world has ever known (independent India), expanded freedom to millions upon millions of people and inspired millions more around the world to agitate for their own liberation.
He was an imperfect figure in many ways. But his history-making contribution to the anti-colonial struggle far outweighs his older regressive attitudes on race. To dispense with him altogether on this basis is historically illiterate and, frankly, potty.
Perhaps we can expect no less from Khan and her woke ilk – she hit the headlines last year for being part of a group that painted over a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which was displayed in the students’ union. Even though the poem itself, ‘If’, contained nothing objectionable, Kipling expressed racist views elsewhere and therefore the work apparently had to be erased.
The idea that students are so vulnerable that they can’t even walk past a statue of a long-dead colonialist, or a poem written by someone who had, by today’s standards, questionable views, is one of the more depressing developments in student politics recently.
Rhodes Must Fall leaders at Oxford said the statue’s presence on campus was an act of ‘violence’ against them. Young radicals used to think they could make history, now they think they’re being beaten up by it.
But the Gandhi Must Fall movement is perhaps even more depressing.
No one wants to celebrate people like Cecil Rhodes today and for good reason. The statues are just there and most people just feel that tearing them down will do nothing to redress the historical wrongs he both personally committed and more broadly represents. At the same time, doing so would feed the victimised, Year Zero mentality of student campaigners.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of reasons why we should celebrate the contribution of figures like Gandhi, a man who fought for freedom and self-rule against unspeakable odds. It is an act of remarkable arrogance and moral purity to think people like him should be dispensed with because they were imperfect.
That ‘liberation’ officers in a students’ union genuinely think they hold the moral high ground over someone who helped liberate millions of people is both hilarious and tragic. Gandhi must not fall.
Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked