Written with a contribution from Zaeem Shaikh
As conversations of race and injustice take place across the nation, a worldwide removal of statues and memorials honoring slave owners, colonialists, confederate soldiers and other controversial figures has reached an all-time high in the last few weeks.
A petition was recently created on change.org Tuesday evening to remove a bust of the 20th century activist Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as Mahatma, from the Fresno State Peace Garden.
The petition comes on the heels of protestors defacing and demanding the removal of the statues honoring the Indian activist worldwide, citing racist ideologies against Black Africans professed by Gandhi through his writings as the reason for the removals.
Akhnoor Sidhu, a rising senior at San Joaquin Memorial High School, said she started the petition to raise awareness about Gandhi and all the racist remarks towards minority groups like low-caste Hindus, women and the Black community.
Most people know Gandhi for his peaceful protest against British rule, “but what history and what our history classes are not teaching us is the other side to it,” Sidhu said.
Looking at the Indian independence movement, Sidhu said Gandhi wasn’t the only one who played a part, citing the role of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, an Indian revolutionary who was executed at the age of 23.
A question within the petition was proposed, “How will the historians teach and explain that Gandhi was uncharitable in his attitude towards the Black race and see that we are glorifying him by erecting a statue on our campus?”
In the petition, a timeline of examples is detailed of Gandhi expressing anti-Black African ideologies in his early 20s. Sidhu said she spoke to a professor in Ghana who helped her get the evidence for the timeline.
During his 20s, it was discovered that Gandhi’s beliefs were that Europeans were the most civilized, Indians were almost as civilized and Africans were uncivilized.
Gandhi’s opinion on the Black African race includes a letter written in 1903 while in South Africa stating that white people there should be the “predominating race” and Black people were “troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”
The petition also cites the removal of a Gandhi statue on the campus of the University of Ghana in 2018, two years after it was erected, as the reasoning for Fresno State to follow suit and remove the Gandhi bust from the Peace Garden.
“I hope for people to learn about the truth and not just be blinded by what’s portrayed in the history books and classes,” Sidhu said. “Honestly as a member of the Punjabi, Sikh and South Asian community, it’s very important for not just me but for everyone in my community and other communities to stand by the Black community and take down a statue of someone who’s perpetuated racism throughout his life.”
As of Friday morning, the petition has over 3,500 signatures. By comparison the petition for the removal of the University of Ghana statue from 2016 sits around 2,600, but people have started signing it once again in the last few days.
Response from Fresno State
On Wednesday Fresno State President Dr. Joseph I. Castro released a statement to The Collegian that addresses the petition for the removal of the Gandhi bust.
“The Fresno State Peace Garden was established 30 years ago as a student-led initiative in support of peace and nonviolent activism. The statues erected in the garden over the years are tributes to a diverse group of individuals who dedicated their lives in the pursuit of equality, social change and justice through peaceful methods,” Castro said. “The garden reminds us all that change is possible, and that the fabric of society is greatly strengthened when individuals have the courage to stand up for a just cause.”
Castro also mentions that the individuals honored in the Peace Garden –Gandhi, Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Addams– embody the spirit of peaceful and constructive activism.
As a result, Castro applauds those calling for accountability of figures in the past, but to keep in mind the lasting contributions of those figures have made to history and society.
“We applaud those who call for a clear-eyed look at history and the individuals who shaped it. We also urge everyone to consider carefully the overall significance of each individual’s lasting contribution to a just and fair society,” Castro said. “On that basis, we believe those we honor in the Fresno State Peace Garden occupy an important place in history and should continue to guide us in promoting courage, social justice and tireless efforts to make the world a better place.”
Sidhu said the basis to remove the Gandhi statue is a moral one in response to Castro’s comment.
“It’s just about morals, what’s right and what’s wrong,” Sidhu said. “And if President Castro or his committee believes that someone who’s a womanizer, who said racist comments against the Black community and believed in the caste system is good for Fresno State students to grow in that environment, then he can keep it.”
Fresno State Professor Emeritus of philosophy Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor declined to respond on the petition.
Although Kapoor did not have a formal statement of the petition, he did say he has been in contact with university administration and is currently familiarizing himself with the petition and its contents.
Kapoor was instrumental in the initiative to have a memorial in the Peace Garden honoring Gandhi and since its construction in 1990 he has helped organize an annual celebration of Gandhi’s birthday on campus.
In the last year, Kapoor has also brought both Ela Gandhi and Dr. Rajmohan Gandhi, both grandchildren of Gandhi, to Fresno State as guest speakers.
Response from the Sikh Student Association and Jakara Movement Club
The Fresno State Sikh Student Association (SSA) and the Jakara Movement Club (JMC) released a joint statement Friday morning on the petition to remove the statue.
“Removal of the Gandhi statue will ensure respect to not one single group but to all,” the statement said. “Fresno State is a greatly diverse campus consisting of many minority groups which Gandhi has discriminated against and having to walk across campus seeing that statue every day is a slap in the face to those students.”
The organizations said that they reject the message on the statue, which reads “my life is my message.”
They added that Gandhi’s message displays that “racism, misogyny, and sexual misconduct is accepted and encouraged.”
“Your presence on the Fresno State campus encourages students to follow in the footsteps of your flawed message, which contradicts the core values of the establishment of California State University, Fresno and what it means to be a Bulldog,” the statement said. “We reject you and your philosophy. It’s time you leave our campus.”
History of Gandhi bust on Fresno State campus
The design for the 1,500 pound bronze sculpture was first created by former student James Zerl Smith, as his clay sculpture of the Indian figure’s head would serve as the basis for the bust featured on campus.
Initially costing $40,000, the effort to construct the bust was initiated by a $15,000 allocation from Associated Students Inc. and the final $25,000 being fundraised from private donors.
The dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 2, 1990, the 121st anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. His grandson, Dr. Arun Gandhi, former Fresno Mayor Karen Humphrey and more than 1,000 people were in attendance as the monument was unveiled.
Every year since then, Fresno State has held an annual celebration of Gandhi’s life centered around the date of his birth, and this past October marked the 150th birthday celebration.
But in 2013, the celebration to honor his 144th birthday was when students responded to the event by organizing a “March for Truth on Gandhi.” During the scheduled celebration, nearly 25 students gathered at the bust and proceeded to march around the Peace Garden for two hours waving placards, handing out flyers and engaging with passerbys. The event was ultimately cancelled.
The events that took place during this past year’s celebration included an observance of Gandhi’s life in the Peace Garden, the Gandhi Global Legacy International Conference and a teaching of “Gandhian Legacy and Challenges Ahead in the 21st Century: Personal Perspectives” by Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Gandhi.
The bronze sculpture of Gandhi’s head currently sits at the center of the Fresno State Peace Garden next to the Henry Madden Library.