In the city of Cerritos a statue of Gandhi symbolizes immorality and hypocrisy.
I’m one of those people who thrive on inspirational and encouraging quotes from prominent people, gnawing on them for sustenance in my hunger for enlightenment. My writing and photography often include quotes to impart wisdom as I emphasize the message of my work.
Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi’s popular quote encourages us to “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” On October 2, his clichéd words spread all over social media sites, in observance of Gandhi’s birthday and the International Day of Non-Violence. For many, it was a time for reverence and celebration.
But what happens when the man on the pedestal contradicts the perception of his admirers?
Several times a week I drive through the intersection of Carmenita St. and Alondra Blvd. in Cerritos, California, where a 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Gandhi stands sentinel over traffic. Erected last year outside of The Chugh Firm office building, its benign presence seemed welcomed until vandalism knocked Gandhi’s likeness off its pedestal a few months ago.
Local news reported the event as an attempted theft but since then, the effigy has been the center of controversy, inciting a protest in Cerritos City Hall last month. Reinstatement of the statue prompted a group, Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), to express their vehement opposition in a letter addressed to Cerritos Mayor Bruce Barrows and other city council members.
I asked OFMI coordinator, Arvin Valmuci, to explain the group’s opposition to the statue’s reinstatement, which lies in the life Gandhi modeled for the nation:
“Gandhi was instrumental in influencing national treatment of women in India. He said ‘my life is my message’ and the life he modeled for the nation was one of sexually exploiting his grandnieces and many other teenage girls under the guise of performing ‘celibacy experiments’ and invoking his religious convictions when denying his wife medicine that would have saved her from death before weeks later taking the same medicine to save his own life [sic].”
For many people in Cerritos, Gandhi’s statue symbolizes dishonesty, immorality, and hypocrisy. Bhajan Singh, Director of OFMI, says, “The Cerritos Gandhi statue is an offense to progressive human values of life, liberty, and equality.” Singh questions why a city would “idolize someone who abused his grandnieces sexually and his wife psychologically, sympathized with Hitler, and spread racial segregation in South Africa before Apartheid?”
Cerritos City’s formal response to OFMI’s letter states the Gandhi statue occupies private property. However, Valmuci says they don’t acknowledge their responsibility in approving the installation of Gandhi’s statue, nor do city officials “refuse to reject his sexism, racism, and casteism.”
How do I reconcile the Gandhi I’ve idealized to the one I know now?
Rita Banjeri addresses this quandary in her article, Gandhi to Asaram: Who Empowers the Sex Crimes of ‘Gurus?’ Spiritual leaders like Gandhi procure a mass following whose reverence for him blinded them to the truth. He was a sexual predator while he espoused non-violence in fighting for the independence of India. Yet his ideology was enough for the majority of his supporters to disregard his immoral acts.
In my work as an abolitionist, fighting for the rights of sexually exploited victims, I can’t minimize the facts I’ve learned about Gandhi. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
I’ve met young victims of human trafficking, child labor, and the sex trade, stripped of their dignity by men in positions of power. Their degradation meant nothing, marginalized because the community revered the perpetrators. There are no words to express the depth of rage and helplessness I’ve felt when confronted with these reactions.
Rita Banjeri also published an article today that challenges us to face the truth of Gandhi’s exploits and his manipulation of power in his leadership. Her words have made me realize that I shouldn’t be careless in my use of quotes when attaching them to sensitive messages or photographs.
The truth lies in our actions and I hope we have the courage to live it even when it’s not popular.