Controversy over Gandhi statue in Guyana which President Burnham had installed
While observing Mahatma Gandhi’s 152nd birthday at the latter’s statue in Promenade Gardens and Middle St in Guyana, the Indian High Commissioner’s suggested that the location be renamed after the icon of non-violent protest has generated some controversy. A number of Afro-centric individuals and groups contend that Gandhi had no nexus with Guyana, and more germanely was “racist” towards Africans. Thus vitiating the suggestion since Promenade Gardens and Middle St, along with the present Parade Grounds, are hallowed soil for African Guyanese because 27 enslaved Africans were executed there following the 1823 Rebellion.
I can appreciate the objections but they need clarification. Firstly, the area presently designated as “Parade Grounds” has already been recognised as hallowed grounds with the sod turned in 2019 for a monument to be constructed to honour the 1823 martyrs. Secondly, in one his last acts before he died, President Burnham renamed “Murray St” – named after the Governor overseeing the executions – on the southern side of Parade Grounds as Quamina St to honour one of the leaders of the uprising. President Burnham was fully cognizant of the history of the 1823 Rebellion and its nexus with Parade Ground. Middle Street, which now separates Parade Grounds from Promenade Gardens was a “Middle Walk” in 1823, between two fields originally separated by canals. It is unlikely that the slaves brought from the Courts to be executed would have been taken across the canals to the present Promenade Gardens section.
On the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Gandhi in 1969, it was President Burnham who installed the statue in the Promenade Gardens. PM Indira Gandhi had visited Guyana in 1968 and made the arrangements, in recognition the role that Gandhi had played in the abolition of Indentureship that had brought half of Guyana’s population to these shores. Gandhi’s nexus with Guyana was the role he played to abolish Indentureship, which African Guyanese long agitated for. At the installation, President Burnham and Min of Information Martin Carter fulsomely praised Gandhi for his advocacy of non-violence. Dr Jagan, a Gandhi admirer, also spoke but with the 1968 rigged elections fresh in his memory, was reticent on non-violence.
Gandhi did change his views because of his own lived
The assertion that Gandhi was a “racist” is based on several statements made early in his South African sojourn between 1893 and 1914. As with everything, we have to place this in context. In 1893, the 23-year-old Gandhi had just completed law studies in law in England after a British education in India that stressed European superiority especially their hierarchical racial placement of the peoples of the world. Just as Queens College and Bishops in British Guiana did with even Africans and Coloureds here. The more “educated” we were, the more hegemonised we became. Like the whites in South Africa, Gandhi referred to Blacks as “Kaffirs” which is today equivalent to the “n-word” in that part of the world. But then, the Arabic-derived word meaning “unbeliever” was widely used across East and South Africa, much as the word “negro” was used up to the 1950’s here, without comment.
Gandhi is also accused of fighting for Indian indentureds rights but did not do so for Blacks. This is quite true but again, there is the context. After the British Government took over India in 1857 from the East India Company following the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence, one of the first acts of the new Empress of India Queen Victoria was to declare that as subjects of Britain, Indians were entitled to the same rights as Whites. This was the law and as a lawyer Gandhi was hired to use it to insist that Indians, himself included, not be treated as second class. It is true that he did not represent Blacks who did not possess those rights but there was no legal construct of “South African” citizenship then to allow him to do so.
But as he continued his sojourn in South Africa his views matured and became more inclusive of Africans before leaving. In his “Satyagraha in South Africa”, he was very positive about Zulus and in 1931 said their exploitation was “radically wrong”. He was in touch with WEB Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah and Kenyatta. It is more to his credit that he did change his views because of his own lived experiences. So let’s not commit the fallacy of presentism and judge him by today’s standards.
Which revered leader is without faults and skeletons, let them cast the first stone.
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