Was Gandhi saint or sinner? Debate rages over new Davis statue

A bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in Davis’ Central Park on Sunday, sparking praise and protest, awe and anger and plenty of loud but nonviolent civil disobedience.

The Gandhi Statue of Peace, a 6-foot-3-inch, 650-pound gift from the Indian government installed on the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence, has so far been anything but peaceful. What would have been Gandhi’s 147th birthday Sunday put one of the most revered figures of the 20th century on trial as about 75 protesters from throughout Northern and Central California accused Gandhi of racism, genocide and rape – everything from the perpetuation of India’s caste system to the creation of the Islamic State.

Using megaphones to lead chants of “Gandhi, Gandhi you can’t hide, you committed genocide” and “racist Gandhi,” the protesters nearly drowned out a panel of speakers while about 400 people in support of the statue – the majority of them Indian Americans – tried to listen.

The protesters – many of them Sikhs with grievances against the Indian government – had turned the Aug. 30 Davis City Council meeting into a three-hour tribunal. That night, dozens of speakers hotly debated whether Gandhi was a saint or sinner, beacon of justice or bigot, an “apostle of peace” or pedophile.

“This is a really difficult situation,” said Davis Mayor Robb Davis, who had hoped to delay the statue’s installation until both sides could sit down together and work through the controversy in the spirit of nonviolent resolution.

But on Aug. 30, the majority of the council – over impassioned protests by Sikhs, Muslims and Dalits, members of India’s untouchable caste – outvoted Davis and Vice Mayor Brett Lee, who also favored a “pause” to allow all sides to weigh in. When the council earlier this year approved the statue on its consent calendar, it was “mistakenly viewed as a noncontroversial item,” Lee said.

Sunday, the protesters paused only to allow children to read poetry and the mayor to address the crowd. “Welcome to Davis, Mr. Gandhi,” he said.

“Can you become their friend as they hurl their vitriol?” the mayor continued, referring to the protesters. “We welcome you with some fear and ask you to shield us from the brokenness of our world.”

The mayor warned both sides not to indulge in narcissism and asked them, as Gandhi did, “to engage as peacemakers turning the other cheek again and again and again.”

Gandhi statues have generated protests and controversy throughout California and around the world, but have nevertheless been installed in San Francisco and several other California cities. There is little doubt that as a young lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi sought to distance Indian immigrants from Africans in the eyes of the British colonists, using the racist slur “Kaffirs.”

Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, wrote that his grandfather was “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks,” but said even an “imperfect Gandhi” paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

Gandhi was also called a pedophile by many in the crowd for sleeping nude with his teenage grandnieces to test the strength of his vow of chastity.

“Gandhi was a child molester,” said Tej Maan, a former Yuba City councilman. “It’s like Bill Cosby, who was everybody’s hero – look at him now.”

Sacramento Sikh activist Amar Shergill said Gandhi – “who by his own words was a bigot and pedophile” – was being used as a propaganda tool by India to obscure “in modern times that there is widespread murder and rape of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits in India.”

Shergill suggested the statue be placed near Davis Art Center, “not in a children’s park. If the statue can go up, it can come down.”

Sham Goyal, the Davis resident who went to India to bring back the statue, called the allegation “fabricated or grossly exaggerated,” and noted that Nelson Mandela credited Gandhi with inspiring his own nonviolent crusade for freedom.

Goyal, an immigrant from northern India, said his father and uncles “literally worshipped Gandhi for bringing them independence from the tyrannical rule of the British – something armed conflicts had not been able to do.”

Goyal, 72, shared with the crowd some of the wisdom of Gandhi memorialized on the statue: “Be the change you want to see in the world. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no cause that I am prepared to kill for.”

He was joined by the Gandhi Statue For Peace Committee, which included Ravinder Trewn, a Sikh businessman from Davis, and Madhavi Sunder, UC Davis law school professor and associate dean.

“In this election year we are witnessing an unprecedented amount of racial and ethnic violence,” Sunder said, calling Gandhi “a hero to millions worldwide” who influenced liberation movements and civil rights movements on five continents.

Venkatesan Ashok, the Indian consul general from San Francisco, declined to respond to the charges against India or Gandhi but told the crowd: “Gandhi was the father of modern India and the apostle of peace,” and said his message of peace, nonviolence and inclusiveness is critical “in a world facing the scourge of terrorism.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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