From not doing enough for Bhagat Singh to his sex life: 7 controversies about Mahatma Gandhi

Read about seven controversies surrounding Mahatma Gandhi's life and the views of historians on those issues

Mahatma Gandhi is widely recognised as one of the most iconic leaders of India. He is not only seen as a pioneer of the Indian independence struggle but also as an ambassador of peace and non-violence the world over. Born on October 2, 1869, Gandhi’s journey from a nebulous Mohandas to Mahatma of India is nothing less than legendary. His ideals have inspired great leaders around the world like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. However, the great leader also faced his fair share of controversies owing to his ‘bizarre’ experiments and an esoteric view of life.

Take a look at 7 controversies surrounding the Father of the Nation:

1) Mahatma Gandhi was a racist:

Indian Ambulance Corps – Gandhi is fifth from the left in the middle row.

Critics of Mahatma Gandhi often accuse him of being a racist. There are various accounts corroborating this fact. In several of his early writings, he referred to South Africans as Kaafirs, an Urdu slur used to denote non-believers. In 1893, Gandhi wrote to the Natal parliament saying that a “general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”. In 1904, he wrote to a health officer in Johannesburg requesting the council to “withdraw Kaafirs” from an unsanitary slum where a large number of Africans lived alongside Indians as he felt “strongly” against “mixing of Kaffirs with Indians”. In 1905, When Durban was reeling under a plague epidemic, Gandhi had written the problem would persist as Indians and Africans were being “herded together indiscriminately at the hospital”.

However, some commentators are of the view that pinpointing these statements amounts to taking a simplistic view of his complex life. Gandhi’s’ grandson Tushar Gandhi said that Gandhi arrived in South Africa as a 24-year-old lawyer and he was undoubtedly “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks”. Historian Ram Chandra Guha wrote in his book Gandhi Before India that advocating “comprehensive equality for coloured people was premature in early 20th century South Africa”. Some also attribute his early views on black Africans “due to his own experience of threat of sodomy by inmates while he was jail.”

Gandhi’s perception on race and culture gradually evolved after his return to India. From being a supporter of the British empire, he became a staunch anti-imperialist.

2) Controversies about his sex life:

It’s no secret that Gandhi created quite a flutter due to his controversial ways of practising chastity. Gandhi took a vow of Brahmcharya when he was 38 years old, which in other words meant that he would refrain from having sex and lead a spiritual life. According to Gandhi’s own accounts, he initiated the ritual of sleeping naked with his young female companions. In the book Gandhi: Naked Ambition published in 2012, some of the accounts of his personal life were revealed.

Sushila Nayar, the sister of Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal Nayar, used to sleep and bathe with Gandhi since her girlhood. He said,

While she is bathing I keep my eyes tightly shut. I do not know … whether she bathes naked or with her underwear on. I can tell from the sound that she uses soap.

He also had a belief in the magical power of semen. “One who conserves his vital fluid acquires unfailing power,” he said. In one of his letters, he wrote, “Vina’s sleeping with me might be called an accident. All that can be said is that she slept close to me.”

Later, he was joined by his 18-year-old grand-niece Manuben. When objections were raised to his behaviour, he made it a point to continue this practice. “If I don’t let Manu sleep with me, though I regard it as essential that she should,” he proclaimed, “wouldn’t that be a sign of weakness in me?”. By 1947, Abha, wife of his grand-nephew Kanu Gandhi, also became a part of the entourage and they slept with Gandhi together.

3) He did not try to save Bhagat Singh:

Another criticism that Gandhi faced was his attitude towards Bhagat Singh’s trial and eventual execution. Some are of the view that Gandhi could have saved Bhagat Singh and that his failure to save him remained marked a black spot in his political career. In his book The Trial of Bhagat Singh, author AG Noorani writes ‘Gandhi’s efforts in saving Bhagat Singh’s life were half-hearted because of his failure to make a strenuous appeal to the Viceroy for the commutation of his death sentence to life.’ Noorani further wrote that Gandhi did not care to see Bhagat Singh when he was on hunger strike in jail. However, the author agreed that during his meeting with the Viceroy, Gandhi pleaded for suspension of capital punishment.

Eminent scholar Anil Nauriya argued that Gandhi did whatever he could to put the maximum pressure on the Viceroy not to hang Bhagat Singh. He had sent Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, MR Jayakar and Srinivasa Sastri to the Viceroy to plead for the commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. Historian Kuldip Nayar has often reiterated that Gandhi was concerned about saving Singh’s life, which he claims was evident in the Gandhi-Irwin correspondence.

4) He advised Jews to commit mass suicide:

In 1938 when the Nazis systematically destroyed Germany’s and Austria’s synagogues, Gandhi advised Jews to voluntarily be prepared for massacre also. He wrote,

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany … I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon. … And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy. … The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.

When the Jewish-American journalist Louis Fischer, who wrote a biography titled The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, asked him, “You mean that the Jews should have committed collective suicide?” Gandhi responded: “Yes, that would have been heroism.”

5) Bambatha rebellion:


Mahatma Gandhi was of the view that Indians should serve British in the Zulu uprising in South Africa. His support to British was to legitimize India’s claims to full citizenship under British Empire. The British refused this and later accepted Gandhi’s another offer of letting a group of Indians volunteer as stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. He appealed the Indian population in South Africa to join the war through his writings in Indian Opinion:

If the Government only realised what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and give Indians the opportunity of a thorough training for actual warfare.

Not only the Zulu uprisings, he also rendered support to the British Empire in the First World War. Gandhi once again proposed to raise an Indian ambulance corps that soon got the approval of the British army. Later, Gandhi himself found it difficult to explain his support for the British Empire.

6) Gandhi and untouchability:

Indian Express

While Gandhi advocated the abolition of untouchability, he had firm belief in the caste system. He wrote,”It is as wrong to destroy

It is as wrong to destroy caste because of the out-caste, as it would be to destroy a body because of an ugly growth in it, or of a crop because of the weeds.

BR Ambedkar, though, was against the very notion of the caste system and wanted its complete annihilation. Dalit leaders like Mayawati accuse Mahatma Gandhi of dividing society on caste lines by coining a new term ‘Harijan’ for Dalits. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy slammed Gandhi for his “casteist tendencies”. She cited an essay of Gandhi titled “The Ideal Bhangi”, in which he advises manual scavengers to convert urine and night soil into manure to patronise Harijans and thus establish cast hierarchies.  However Refuting Roy, JM Rahim, coordinator for Centre for Gandhian Studies In South Africa, said  Gandhi fought bitterly with his wife Kasturba as he wanted her to clean the latrine, refusing to allow a bhangi to do it when Kasturba refused to do it. He did the job himself.” “In South Africa,  a Tamil Dalit family afflicted with leprosy stayed in Gandhi’s ashram despite the objections of the inmates,” he added.

7) Gandhi being responsible for Partition: 

Various historians and critics believe that Gandhi was to be blamed for the partition of India. As per historian John Vincent, Mahatma Gandhi was responsible for the ‘shedding of innocent blood during the massacres’, which occurred in the aftermath of the partition of India in 1947. In his book, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division, British historian French Patrick wrote ‘By his use of Hinduism as a political tool, Gandhi unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box that has yet to be closed. … Gandhi alienated many Muslims, and ultimately helped to bring about the rise in fortunes of the Muslim League.”

However, the genesis of Pakistan lies in the Hindu-Muslim conflict that flared up after the creation of Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League. Contrary to a few critics, peace between the communities reached its peak after Mahatma Gandhi supported the Khilafat movement. According to British historian Antony Copley, Gandhi was so much against the partition that he “made some extraordinary proposals like Jinnah should become the Prime Minister of India”, which was obviously rejected by the Indian National Congress. In fact, Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, in a statement in court said that he had “no respect for the present government owing to their policy which was unfairly favourable towards the Muslims. But at the same time, I could clearly see that the policy was entirely due to the presence of Gandhi.”