UC Berkeley students advocate awareness, protest on Gandhi’s 150th birthday

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Wednesday afternoon — the 150th birthday of Mohandas Gandhi — members of the UC Berkeley Sikh Student Association, or SSA, and other Indian student organizations gathered under Sather Gate, holding signs that said “Gandhi was anti-Sikh” and “Gandhi was a sex offender.”

The demonstration was intended to protest the mainstream idealized image of Gandhi — revered as the leader of India’s independence movement and the “father of the Indian nation” — as someone who was nonviolent and “loves all,” according to SSA spokesperson and one of the organizers of the event Bhajan Singh, who is also a global activist for the awareness of Gandhi’s lesser-known alleged actions. SSA was joined by members of organizations including the Jakara Movement chapter in Berkeley, totaling 50 protesters at the height of the demonstration.

“We want to bring to the attention of the world that the Hollywood Gandhi and the mythological Gandhi has very sharp contradictions with the historical Gandhi,” Singh said. “People need to know that.”

ASUC Senator Sumrit Grewal said Gandhi has been wrongly used as a “diplomatic idol” for the past century, and she was glad the demonstration raised awareness of this. According to Singh, SSA’s protest was motivated by India’s use of Gandhi’s pacifist image as a diplomatic instrument while the Sikh community and other minorities in India face persecution.

Singh said he has also noticed a lack of acknowledgment of Gandhi’s controversial actions in the U.S. education system, adding that Gandhi should be held accountable for his alleged abuse of women.

“In spite of all this information, it’s shocking that academia … in our society continue to propagate a myth,” Singh said.

Campus sophomore Andrea Juwono, who witnessed the demonstration, said before the protest, she hadn’t known about Gandhi’s controversial actions.

Juwono added that the protest encouraged her to conduct her own research and sparked conversation between her and her friends.

“I think it definitely brought his name more recognition so people can know that he’s not a one-dimensional person,” Juwono said. “I do think it was giving into shock culture and could be potentially damaging to have the conversation be so polarized.”

Sitara Bellam, an ASUC senator and campus junior, who represents UC Berkeley’s South Asian community said the protest was representative of the conversations her community wants to have.

Bellam added that she will be hosting a community town hall in the upcoming weeks for students to engage in this line of dialogue.

“We hope to fire up the young minds and hearts of the Berkeley students,” Singh said. “They have (a) heart for truth, and we want the Berkeley minds and hearts to stand for truth when it comes to Gandhi and let the world know the truth.”

Emily Hom is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hom_emily.