Black Lives Matter, Gandhi and Makarrta  

Jun 22, 2020

The challenge for the Black Lives Matter protesters is to maintain their rage and commitment to their cause as Gandhi did to his, while remaining scrupulously non-violent.

While the demand of some ‘’Black Lives Matter’’ protesters to have statues of Gandhi removed from public places might seem surprising, the truth is that Gandhi’s views in his early years in South Africa were racist.

His early campaign against racist laws was focused exclusively on the treatment of Indians, who, he felt, as ‘Indo-­Aryans’ should be considered equal to “their Anglo-Saxon brethren”. He objected to grouping of Indians and black Africans, writing about the latter in highly racist terms as savages and kaffirs.

While those views are indefensible, they should be considered in context of the times and the stage of development of his views and values. He was only in his 20s and his thinking was conditioned by his childhood in British India and his experience studying law in the UK, both of which made him a loyal subject of the British Empire, which he highly admired. His views of black Africans probably reflected British views of the time.

However, even then, he had embarked on his quest of learning, which he called, “My Experiments With Truth” and his racist views were significantly changed by his experiences in South Africa, something Nelson Mandela eloquently referred to when he said, ‘’You gave us Gandhi, We gave you the Mahatma!” Among the experiences that modified his views was working in the ambulance corps, when he was asked to nurse injured Zulu soldiers.

He wrote, We were only too glad to do this. We had to cleanse the wounds of several Zulus which had not been attended to for as many as five or six days and were therefore stinking horribly. We liked the work. The Zulus could not talk to us, but from their gestures and the expression of their eyes they seemed to feel as if God had sent us to their succour.” Clearly, he had modified his previous racist attitude to the Zulus.

The George Floyd murder has rightly made the ‘’Black Lives Matter’’ protesters angry and given them every right to demand action, including removal of statues of people they consider racist, including Gandhi. However, they would still be wise to follow Gandhi’s choice of peaceful non-cooperation, no matter how the authorities reacted. This wasn’t just idealistic. He was a master tactician and knew that his only hope winning was in the court of public opinion, which was appalled at police violence against non-violent protesters.

Being an exceptionally astute politician, he also carefully chose what to protest against to get the most notice of the local and global media. The best example was the Salt March in 1930 protesting against laws that prohibited Indians from even collecting salt, forcing them to buy it from outlets which charged a tax, a harsh imposition particularly on India’s poor. The march covered some 240 miles from his inland Ahmedabad ashram to coastal Dandi. Thousands joined him along the way, all remaining totally non-violent, even when beaten by the police. The march attracted worldwide attention, with Gandhi picking up salt at Dandi becoming one of history’s most iconic photographs. It India’s struggle against the British global exposure!

His other campaigns, which collectively achieved India’s Independence, included

‘Non-Cooperation’, a non-violent response to the massacre of peaceful protesters at Jalianwala Bagh and ‘Quit India’ a call that resulted in the arrest of Gandhi, Nehru, and others under ‘Defence of India’ rules.

Gandhi’s strategy has proved successful globally, including in Australia. Non-violence helped Martin Luther King succeed in his fight for civil rights and Nelson Mandela win his fight against apartheid. In Australia, activists like Faith Bandler and Charlie Perkins adopted peaceful protest and campaigning to win the 1967 referendum, which finally recognised Indigenous Australians as human beings! In all these cases, the timing was right and the wider public supported change. The mood following George Floyd’s murder is that “Black Lives Matter” and it’s time to do something real and significant about it!

The challenge for the protesters is to maintain their rage and commitment to their cause as Gandhi did to his, while remaining scrupulously non-violent. Fortunately, while protests have resulted in violent behaviour and looting in the US and UK, protesters here have largely adopted a Gandhian approach, engaging in civil disobedience, breaking the law and courting arrest peacefully, despite coercive police action, including the use of pepper spray.

Another lesson from Gandhi that the Black Lives Matter’ campaign should follow is to choose an issue that will achieve the public and media impact that the Salt March did. While there are numerous human rights violations demanding protest and deserving of public support, campaigning for all of them would distract from the main issue, which is that the lives of Indigenous Australians matter.

In choosing how to support this cause, we should listen to what their leaders pleaded for in their “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. “We seek a Makarrta (the coming together after a struggle) Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.” Surely, coming together’ was a modest, reasonable and constructive request. Yet the Australian Government’s response so far has been ungracious, somewhere between lukewarm and negative!

The “Black Lives Matter” campaign could make getting the Government to agree to a ‘Makarrta’ its primary objective by starting a signature campaign to get a million or more Australians to sign a petition calling for one. Agreeing to a ‘Makarrta’ would be a small ‘first step’ for the Australian Government, but a ‘giant leap’ towards Reconciliation of all Australians, a genuine demonstration that, for all of us, ‘Black Lives Really Matter’!

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