Mahatma Gandhi on race relations between Indians, White people and Africans

By Yasser Latif Hamdani 

Will the real Gandhi please stand up?

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the most extraordinary men in human history. While he is respected as the founding father of India by most Indians, his impact is truly global, more than any other leader from the subcontinent. He continues to inspire millions around the world and amongst those who claim to be the great man’s devotees have been leaders as diverse as Dr King and Robert Mugabe, freedom fighters like Mandela and presidents like the US President Barack Hussain Obama.

 Given the global and universal nature of Mahatma Gandhi’s impact, it is the duty of a researcher and a seeker of truth – to use Gandhiji’s own vocabulary- to place on record those things that can at most only be blind spots and minor blemishes on a global figure. After all Gandhiji was human and never claimed t be God, even if his followers thought he was. 

I therefore reproduce here Bapu’s statements on race relations taken directly from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. These are a series of writings Gandhiji indulged in during his South Africa period. He was well in his 30s and a political leader and activist of great renown.  I reproduce these statements without comment.  Some of the greatest men have had their shortcomings, from Jefferson to Lincoln. Gandhiji was no exception.  This should be taken in a spirit of inquiry and should not be considered blasphemy (since these are Gandhi’s own words not mine) against Mahatma Gandhi’s memory.  A point of clarification : Kaffirs = native Africans.  Gandhiji in these letters and writings seem to entertain a two-race theory which he never seemed to recant.


“The last week has been very busy. We have not had a moment’s leisure. We saw Mr. Theodore Morison of Aligarh and the well-known Mr. Stead of the Review of Reviews. Mr. Stead has boldly come out to give us all the help he can. He was therefore requested to write to the same Boer leaders that they should not consider Indians as being on the same level as Kaffirs

Indian Opinion, 15-12-1906, CWOMG Vol. 6, pg 183


“The cell was situated in the Native quarters and we were housed in one that was labeled ‘For Coloured Debtors’. It was this experience for which we were perhaps all unprepared. We had fondly imagined that we would have suitable quarters apart from the Natives. As it was, perhaps, just as well that we were classed with Natives. We would now be able to study the life of Native prisoners, their customs and manners. …Degradation underlay the classing of Indians with natives. The Asiatic Act seemed to me to be the summit of our degradation. It did appear to me, as I think it would appear to any unprejudiced reader, that it would have been simple humanity if we were given special quarters. …the Governor of the gaol tried to make us as comfortable as he could…But he was powerless to accommodate us beyond the horrible din and the yells of the Native prisoners throughout the day and partly at night also. Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought amongst themselves in their cells.”


Indian Opinion 7-3-1908, CWOMG Vol. 8, pg 120


“Apart from whether or not this implies degradation, I must say it is rather dangerous. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty, and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company “


Indian Opinion, 7-3-1908, CWOMG Vol. 8, pg 135


I have, though, resolved in my mind on an agitation to ensure that Indian prisoners are not lodged with Kaffirs or others. When I arrived at the place, there were about 15 Indian prisoners. Except for three, all of them were satyagrahis. The three were charged with other offences. These prisoners were generally lodged with kaffirs. When I reached there, the chief warder issued an order that all of us should be lodged in a separate room. I observed with regret that some Indians were happy to sleep in the same room as the Kaffirs, the reason being that they hoped there for a secret supply of tobacco, etc. This is a matter of shame to us. We may entertain no aversion to the Kaffirs, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is no common ground between them and us in the daily affairs of life. Moreover, those who wish to sleep in the same room have ulterior motives for doing so.

Obviously, we ought to abandon such notions if we want to make progress.


Indian Opinion, 6-1-1909, CWOMG Vol. 9, pg 149


“It is one thing to register Natives who would not work, and whom it is very difficult to find out if they absent themselves, but it is another thing and most insulting to expect decent, hard-working, and respectable Indians, whose only fault is that they work too much, to have themselves registered”


What is a Coolie, Indian Opinion 2151904, CWOMG Vol. 4, pg 193



“The whole affair is as much a disgrace to the Indian community as it is to the British Empire. The British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets|

Indian Opinion, 29-2-1908, CWOMG Vol. 8, pg 105


“His Excellency has, moreover, justified the definition of ‘coloured person’ on the ground that it is a legacy from the old Government. But British Indians object to the definition for that very reason. Their position is this. The ordinances will not in practice apply to them. The Boer Government insulted the Indians by classing them with the Kaffirs. Now there is no occasion to perpetuate a needless insult” |


Indians in the O.R.C, Indian Opinion, 6-1-1906, CWOMG, Vol. 5, pg 177-178


“It reduces British Indians to a status lower than that of the aboriginal races of South Africa and the Coloured people.”

Indian Opinion 15-9-1906, CWOMG Vol. 5, pg 419-423 


On Minority White rule in South Africa:


“We, therefore, have no hesitation in agreeing with the view that in the long run assisted Asiatic immigration into the Transvaal would be disastrous to the white settlement. People will gradually accommodate themselves to relying upon Asiatic labour, and any White immigration of the special class required in the Transvaal on a large scale will be practically impossible. It would be equally unfair to the Natives of the soil. It is all very well to say that they would not work, and that, if the Asiatics were introduced, that would be a stimulus to work; but human nature is the same everywhere, and once Asiatic labour is resorted to, there would not be a sustained effort to induce the Natives to work under what would otherwise be, after all, gentle compulsion. There would be then less talk about taxing the Natives and so forth. Natives themselves, used as they are to a very simple mode of life, will always be able to command enough wages to meet their wants; and the result will be putting back their progress for an indefinite length of time. We have used the words ‘gentle compulsion’ in the best sense of the term; we mean compulsion of the same kind that a parent exercises over children”


Indian Opinion, 9-7-1903, CWOMG Vol. 3, pg 359-360


“What the British Indians pray for is very little. They ask for no political power. They admit the British race should be the dominant race in South Africa. All they ask for is freedom for those that are now settled and those that may be allowed to come in future to trade, to move about, and to hold landed property without any hindrance save the ordinary legal requirements”


Petition to Natal Legislature, CWOMG, vol3, pg 330


“…The petition dwells upon “the co-mingling of the Coloured and white races”. May we inform the members of the conference that, so far as the British Indians are concerned, such a thing is practically unknown? If there is one thing, which the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is the purity of type. Why bring such a question into the controversy at all?”


The Transvaal Chambers and British Indians, Indian Opinion 24-12-03, CWOMG Vol. 4, pg 89


“Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian Location should be chosen for dumping down all the 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 Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly “

Indian Opinion, 10-4-04, CWOMG Vol. 4, pg 130-131