Vineet Mehmi is a sophomore politics major.
When a 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi was violently vandalized and decapitated in Davis, California Jan. 26, a hate crime against the Indian community was committed. The Indian independence leader left behind a meaningful legacy of nonviolence, so the recent campaigns to smite and downplay his life’s work are appalling. While there have been many attacks against his controversial legacy, it is heartbreaking to see such an important symbol of peace be degraded.
When the Indian Students Association sent an open email about the statue’s defilement to the University on Feb. 5, it went unanswered. As the vice president of the Indian Students Association, I found it severely disappointing that USF can have such a deep admiration for Gandhi and his work, and yet fail to take action and stand for him in a time like this. A statement on the website of USF’s Institute of Nonviolence and Social Justice reads, “Our research, educational, and advocacy activities are infused with and supported by the core values that motivated Mahatma Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s life and work,” showing a clear embrace of the principles of Gandhi. Furthermore, there have been events held in the past aimed at discussing the importance of Gandhi and his work, for example an Oct. 10, 2019 event called “Why Gandhi and King Matter Today: A Teach-in to Honor the 150th Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Birth.”
Growing up Punjabi (one of the ethnic groups of Northern India), I am well-aware of Gandhi’s controversial reputation. He opposed fellow civil rights leaders who used violence and had a complicated history with Punjabis, more specifically, the Sikhs. Among several disputes, Gandhi was reported to have deeply offended the Sikh people by positioning them as a sect of Hinduism rather than recognizing Sikhism as its own distinct religion. Further, Gandhi reportedly refused to understand the teachings of Sikhism.
Despite these controversies, we must remember that Gandhi was a human being like the rest of us, even though his legacy is larger than life. While we should not exonerate Gandhi for his wrongdoings, it would be ignorant to discredit the vast impact Gandhi has made, both on India and the world.
So many of us casually use Gandhi’s concise, insightful words to supplement our public speaking presentations or emphasize points in our writing. We’ve all seen the iconic photographs online of Gandhi and his followers staging peaceful protests. His peaceful messages resonate all over the world. For USF to not offer our open letter the dignity of a simple email response, Gandhi is denied the recognition he deserves. USF has used Gandhi’s name at times to promote their values and events, they should also stand up for that name when the man’s legacy is threatened.
Perhaps USF administration deemed the desecration irrelevant to the USF community because the statue is in Davis and not San Francisco. The hate crime is, in fact, not only relevant to the USF community because it wounded so many members of our Indian student body, but because standing against all injustices, especially those specifically brought to the University’s attention, should be a priority to a University which prides itself on advocating for social justice and equality for all.
However, it was encouraging to hear that the U.S. Department of State recently came out to formally condemn the statue’s vandalization. India’s Ministry of External Affairs commented: “The government of India strongly condemns this malicious and despicable act against a universally respected icon of peace and justice.” On top of that, the city of Davis has responded responsibly to the atrocity, by promising full accountability for those who committed the crime and by launching a thorough investigation into the statue’s debasement. Additionally, citizens of Davis recently rallied to reinstate the statue.
I am disappointed in USF’s unwillingness to acknowledge and respond to this atrocity and how it has impacted members of its Indian student body. We must hold the University accountable for this ignorance and demand that they advocate more strongly for the issues that minority groups on campus bring to their attention. As we work toward a more nuanced understanding of our historical figures, it is our duty to consider if an individual like Ghandi’s misdeeds outweigh the good they imparted on the world. Gandhi’s legacy of peace does not warrant the vandalization of his monument. As the man himself taught: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Editor’s Note: While the administrators Mehmi sent his open letter email to have yet to respond, he did receive a response and meeting with ASUSF Senate.