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Gandhi and Identity Formation


Rakesh Batabyal

THE MAKING OF A POLITICAL REFORMER: GANDHI IN SOUTH AFRICA, 1893-1914
By Surendra Bhana and Goolam Vahed
Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 181, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

It was probably in 1990 that as an impressionable student embarking on a specialized study of history, I heard Fatima Meer, a close associate of Nelson Mandela in the African National Congress speaking about the hopes and aspirations of the Africans, Indians and others in a society emerging out of the shadow of the apartheid system. In reply to one of my questions about the future of the people of Indian origin and their relations with the Africans, her answer was optimistic, characteristic of those who have waged a struggle. She talked about the united destiny of not only the two but of the Whites as well in a republican and non-racist South Africa. In response to a question of assimilation of the Indians with the local African populations, she argued that the Indians and their role, in the past and the future, should not be evaluated merely in terms of the level of social and cultural assimilation as Indians quite often do not even intermingle with their own people if they are not of the same caste. It should rather be viewed in terms of aspirations and dreams and a political system attentive of such aspiration.   It is interesting that in many other locations, the people of Indian origin have been part of the political system, which quite often has taken a racial or ethnic turn, and has resulted in the political marginalization of the Indians in spite of their engagement with the political processes. Fiji, Surinam, Guyana, and closer home Sri Lanka are prime examples of such political developments. It reminded me of the writings of Shiva Naipaul, the deceased elder brother of V.S. Naipaul, who, writing in the wake of the Black power movement in the 1960s, sketched the argument of the Black groups who accused the Indians in the West Indies of looking down upon the Black population and not intermingling with them. The same accusations were heard in Fiji, Surinam, and even in Mauritius. Indians are said to be unwilling to be part of the cultural and political life of the Black population. The resultant attacks on the Indians were blamed on such an attitude.   The underlying logic of such assertions is that it is the Indians who are responsible for the political backlash against them. Recently a popular South African playwright Nklanhla Hlangwane quoted Gandhi to suggest that he regarded the Africans as inferior ...


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