Turning the pages on our heroes: The Star columnist

A life-size bronze statue of Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi during its unveiling ceremony at the Indian embassy in Kuwait City.
A life-size bronze statue of Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi during its unveiling ceremony at the Indian embassy in Kuwait City. PHOTO: AFP

Dorairaj Nadason

The Star/Asia News Network

The Star launched its new book on moderation yesterday (Sept 29). The book is a compilation of thoughts penned by some great Malaysians and some colleagues on how they see Malaysia now, a year before the nation (or at least, what was once Malaya) turns 60, and in the future.

I had the good fortune of being allowed to write a piece for the book.

In it, I drew comparisons to the India of Mahatma Gandhi. In his day, it did not matter to Gandhi which holy book was being read - the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible - as long as God was being worshipped. That was moderation.

But much has changed in India since then. Now, religious bigotry and extremism are rampant. It's a lot like the road Malaysia has taken, the only difference being that the bigots in India are largely Hindus.

Gandhi's ideas of moderation were what made him the great man that he turned out to be. He was the mainstay of ahimsa (non-violence).

He lived simply, wore a loincloth and made his wife and children clean toilets - what was considered the work of untouchables - much to their chagrin.

He even coined a new name for the untouchables. He called them Dalits - the children of God - and he gave them a new stature.

All these made the simple lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi the Mahatma, founder of India and the man a country calls Bapu or father.

But how things change. Strangely enough, Gandhi is now being reviled. No, not in his homeland but in faraway Africa, where he started out.

The man who raised the stature of the Dalits and made them equal in the eyes of all is accused of being racist.

It's quite shocking. This was the man of whom Albert Einstein said: "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

In Ghana, a group of academics want a statue of Gandhi pulled down. They say Gandhi held shockingly racist views about Africans.

Almost 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the statue's removal. The petition, written by five academics at the Uni­versity of Ghana, points toward several writings of the Indian leader in which he described Africans as "savages" and made other insults.

According to the book The South African Gandhi, the Indian apostle of peace had regularly "expressed disdain for Africans".

It seems that he had objected to Indians being classified as non-whites in South Africa and referred to native Africans by the derogatory term "kafirs", saying they wanted to live only in "indolence and nakedness".

He is also accused of saying: "We believe as much in purity of race as we think they (the whites) do. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating (sic) race."

Ghana isn't the only African nation to reject Gandhi. In South Africa where he started his adventure to greatness, white paint was splashed on his statue in Johannes­burg as protesters held up placards that read "Racist Gandhi must fall".

Even in his India, there are those who say Gandhi's ideas have become "irrelevant" in this modern day.

"India today has repudiated every­thing he stood for. He did not want industrialisation, he did not want a strong centralised state and he did not want violence or religious intolerance.

"Yet this is India today. He is at best an icon, respected but not relevant," says Rudrangshu Mukherjee, editor of the Penguin Gandhi Reader.

What all this goes to show that heroes are not forever. We in Malaysia should know, as we have our own fallen heroes. Some are still walking in our midst.

Our Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi describes them as old books whose pages have become blurry and need to be placed on a shelf to gather dust.

"They should just remain quiet and not disturb others below. If the book falls," he says, "people will start stepping on it."

Surely, a point to ponder.