What Historians Say About The Myths Around Mahatma Gandhi's Life

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

Mahatma Gandhi, widely considered to be the architect of India’s freedom struggle, earned international repute for single-handedly spearheading a non-violent movement. Gandhi’s journey from being a lawyer to becoming a pioneer of the freedom movement is nothing short of legendary. His ideas have inspired leaders around the world, including Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Dalai Lama, among others. Gandhi’s life, however, has been surrounded in controversies, owing to his experiments and unique view of life.

On his 71st death anniversary, we take a look at 7 controversies surrounding the Father of the Nation:

1) Allegations of being a racist

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


Mahatma Gandhi’s critics have often accused him of being a racist. 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 the aftermath of a plague, Gandhi had written the problem would persist as Indians and Africans were being “herded together indiscriminately at the hospital”.

However, some believe that highlighting these statements is unfair as he made them when he was young and ‘ignorant’. His grandson Tushar Gandhi said that he arrived in South Africa as a 24-year-old lawyer and was undoubtedly “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks”.

Gandhi’s perception of 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) Accounts of his personal life

It’s no secret that Gandhi created quite a flutter because of his controversial decision to practise 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. However, according to Gandhi’s own accounts, he admitted to 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 she was a girl. 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 believed that semen had magical powers. “One who conserves his vital fluid acquires unfailing power,” he had said, according to the book. 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.”

Objections were also raised when news started doing the rounds of his 18-year-old grand-niece being one of the women Gandhi slept with. Gandhi justified it saying, “If I don’t let Manu sleep with me, though I regard it as essential that she should wouldn’t that be a sign of weakness in me?”

3) Gandhi’s alleged failure 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 even visit Bhagat Singh when he was on hunger strike in jail. However, the author agreed that during his meeting with the Viceroy, Gandhi pleaded for the suspension of Singh’s capital punishment.

Eminent scholar Anil Nauriya also argued that Gandhi did whatever he could to put maximum pressure on the Viceroy against the hanging of Bhagat Singh. He had sent Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, MR Jayakar and Srinivasa Sastri to the Viceroy to plead for the commutation of the freedom fighter’s death sentence.

4) Gandhis views on Jews and mass suicide

In 1938, when the Nazis systematically destroyed synagogues in Germany and Austria, Gandhi advised Jews to be voluntarily prepared for massacres. 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 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 the British in the Zulu uprising in South Africa. His support to the British was to legitimise India’s claims to full citizenship under the British Empire. The British rejected this idea and later accepted Gandhi’s other offer of letting a group of Indians volunteer as stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. He appealed to 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 found it difficult to explain his support for the British Empire.

6) Gandhi and untouchability:

Courtesy: The 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 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 have accused Mahatma Gandhi of dividing society into caste lines by coining a new term ‘Harijan’ for Dalits. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy has also slammed Gandhi for his “casteist tendencies”. She cited an essay written by 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,” adding, “In South Africa,  a Tamil Dalit family afflicted with leprosy stayed in Gandhi’s ashram despite the objections of the inmates.”

7) Gandhi’s role in India’s 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 ‘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.”