January 30th marks the 75th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi, better known as “Mahatma” (“Great Soul”) was one of the political leaders of India’s independence movement from British colonial rule in 1947. Almost six months after India’s independence, he was assassinated at the age of 78 by a Hindu nationalist.

Gandhi is still revered worldwide for the principle of non-violence – but nowadays he is also questioned for some things.

Claim: Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler are said to have been friends, a myth that pops up again and again. Letters addressed by Gandhi to Hitler that begin with “Dear friend” and end with “Your sincere friend” are said to serve as proof of this.

DW fact check: Wrong.

It is correct that Gandhi wrote to Hitler – one letter on July 23, 1939 and one on December 24, 1940. This is well documented, including in Gandhi’s writings himself (Vol. 76, p. 156 and Vol. 79, p. 453). But nowhere in the letters is it apparent that the two were connected by any kind of friendship. Rather, in his first letter, Gandhi implores Hitler not to start a war, and in his second letter, when World War II has already begun, to seek peace. However, the dictator never saw the letters – the British prevented the delivery according to agreeing sources, including the Indian historian Vinay Lal and the US political scientist Kelly Rae Kraemer.

Lal, who has already done a lot of research on Gandhi, explains the “Dear Friend” salutation used in an interview with DW as follows: Gandhi believed that while people could commit monstrous acts, they weren’t monsters – not even Hitler. “So there’s a reason why Gandhi writes to Hitler the way he does,” explains the professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

In her specialist article, Kraemer also classifies the salutation and the ending salutation in this way of thinking typical of Gandhi. Treating one’s opponent with respect and friendliness, and thereby perhaps being able to convince them more easily, was part of Gandhi’s basic attitude of non-violent resistance, the “Satyagraha”.

Claim : In many posts on social networks, Gandhi is attested to have prejudices against blacks. A Gandhi statue was also removed from the University of Ghana campus in 2018 because of such accusations of racism. In 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, thousands signed a petition in London for the statue there to be torn down.

DW Fact Check : True (for a period of time)

Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 with a short break. There, the young lawyer developed into an activist against injustice and discrimination – which, however, he initially only addressed as a problem to the Indian diaspora in South Africa in relation to the whites. Gandhi did not champion the blacks but looked down on them, as scriptures show.

In the first volume, on page 410, Gandhi writes something like: “Our life is a constant struggle against the humiliation that the Europeans want to inflict on us, who reduce us to the level of the raw kaffir. i.e. Red.: Kaffer or in English kaffir is a term used earlier in South Africa for black people whose racist connotations increased in the late colonial phase and during apartheid] want to belittle], whose occupation is hunting and whose sole aim is to gain a certain number of cattle, to buy himself a wife, and then live his life in idleness and nakedness.”

The historian Vinay Lal explains: “If someone were to ask whether Gandhi was a racist, then the answer, based on a certain period of his time in South Africa, is yes.” Other experts have also expressed similar views, particularly critical about go Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed took this to court in their 2015 book The South African Gandhi.

The well-known journalist and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha writes in an article in the newspaper “Telegraph India” that Gandhi was undoubtedly a racist in his 20s. But in his mid-30s, still in South Africa, he stopped describing blacks as inferior to Indians, and instead spoke out in favor of equal rights, as he explains using several examples.

Lal also shares the assessment that Gandhi later reduced his prejudices. Another testament to this is that Gandhi received four African Americans in his ashram in 1936. Gandhi said he believed the next great phase of “Satyagraha,” nonviolent resistance, would be fought by African Americans.

That being said, according to the historian, there are several points that should be considered when assessing the early biased statements. “His concern was the possibility that the Indian diaspora – hitherto in the social hierarchy between whites and blacks – could lose rights and be placed on the same level as blacks.” And, Lal continues, no one ever asked Gandhi to To become an advocate for black people in South Africa. And if he had just done it, many would certainly have seen it as presumptuous.

Gandhi’s later stated goals were peace and equality for all people. A quote attributed to him reads: “Nor do I believe in inequalities between people.[…] The thought of the superiority of any one person over another is a sin against God and men.”

Most experts conclude that Gandhi reversed his initial racist tendencies toward blacks over the course of his life. He was later considered a great inspiration for the black freedom fighters Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Claim : A picture has been circulating on social media of Gandhi in London with a child dressed in Tibetan clothing, the Dalai Lama. The two are said to have met in the UK capital.

DW fact check: Wrong.

The picture shows Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. But the photo is a montage because the two never met. The original image of Gandhis, at 10 Downing Street, London, is held by Getty Images, and is dated November 3, 1931 – that would be a few years before the birth of the Dalai Lama, who according to his official website was born in 1935.

There you will also find the original picture of the Dalai Lama as a child (under this link the second picture in the article).

Analysis of the photo using special software, Forensically, also suggests that it has been manipulated. When extraneous content is added to an image, it usually leaves visible traces. The error level analysis shows that the figure of the Dalai Lama appears lighter than the rest of the image.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English-language daily newspapers, the Dalai Lama also confirmed that he “only met Gandhi in his dreams”.

Claim : Like this Twitter user, some claim that Gandhi, as an old man, slept under the same bedclothes with young women – and both he and the women were naked.

DW fact check: Correct.

For decades, Gandhi practiced “brahmacharya,” a way of life of sexual abstinence. According to his own statements, he has not had sex with his wife Kasturba since 1901.

Several sources and Gandhi say that after the death of Kasturba in 1944, he began to sleep and bathe with very young naked women in the same bed. In Volume 94, Page 137 of his Collected Works he writes: “I may have touched thousands upon thousands. But my touch never had the meaning of lust.”

For Gandhi it was a way of testing the steadfastness of his continence and will. These experiments are also mentioned in the diaries of Gandhi’s great-niece Manu, one of the women involved. It is undisputed that Gandhi slept naked in a bed with women. As far as is known, no sexual acts ever took place.

Another question is the evaluation of this approach. In an interview with the Times of India, historian Kusoom Vadgama criticizes that Gandhi abused his position of power and used women as guinea pigs.

Nevertheless, Vinay Lal finds it important to consider that the three women involved – his grandnieces Manu and Abha and his personal physician Sushila Nayar – all belonged to his most intimate circle and were therefore familiar with his way of thinking.

Author: Ines Eisele

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The original of this article “Five myths about Mahatma Gandhi in a fact check” comes from Deutsche Welle.