Mahatma Gandhi

Who was Gandhi, and why is there a statue of him in Manchester's Cathedral Yard? Find out more in this blogpost by MA student Gemma.

By Karen Shannon · July 20, 2021

Statue of Gandhi
Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Cathedral Yard, Manchester, by Ram V Sutar (25th Nov 2019 / material: bronze)

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Cathedral Yard, Manchester, by Ram V Sutar (25th nov 2019 / material: bronze

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”


Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) was born to an affluent but humble family on the 2nd October 1869 in Porbandar, within the Kathiawar Agency of the British Raj, or the Indian state of Gujarat as it is now known. His father, Karamchand Gandhi was the dewan, or prime minister, of the princely city and his mother, Putlibai, was a woman renowned for her faith coming from a Pranami family, a religious sect that upheld elements of Mohammedanism and Hinduism and focused upon the god, Krishna. It is said that Putlibai’s religious devotion had a profound effect upon her youngest son, and that it is through the Pranami faith that Ghandi found himself influenced. It taught charity, chastity, peace between religions and the importance of modest and humble life; such teachings and his mother’s admirable example would come to define Gandhi’s formative years. He became one of the most noticeable figures in the fight for Indian independence from Britain and an advocate for civil rights, he championed against oppression through the means of peaceful protest.


Although he is known for his peaceful protests against British rule in India, Gandhi had a complicated relationship with Britain. The Gandhi family undoubtedly benefitted from princely rule under the British Raj and Mohatma Gandhi once branded his family a “notorious band of robbers”, who had worked their way up in the system of oppression to become one of the most prominent and wealthy families within Porbandar. His schooling was heavily influenced by English standards of education, with an equal focus on writing, language and arithmetic as there was on cultivating English manners, transforming him into an ‘English Indian’, someone supposedly ‘superior’ to those around him for his grasp of Englishness – a common tactic within colonialism. In 1888, Gandhi left India to pursue a degree in Law from the University College in London and during his three-year stay in the city, he adopted “English” customs and even took dancing lessons, but it was the London Vegetarian Society where his main attentions lay and even went on to be elected to its executive committee. But there were other influencing factors occurring in the UK and Ireland at the time, Home Rule in Ireland was being vehemently debated in parliament and with the striking parallels between the situation in Ireland and India, it was a situation that Gandhi and other Indian students studied carefully. By summer 1891 his schooling was complete and upon passing the Bar examination, he returned to India and became a barrister in Bombay. This would be an unsuccessful endeavour for Gandhi, who was unable to cross-examine witnesses before a judge and ultimately he gave up the pursuit of becoming a barrister and returned to his family.


The opportunity arose in 1893, for Gandhi to relocate to South Africa and become the lawyer to the cousin of Dada Abdullah, a successful shipping merchant. Unable to attain what he deemed to be meaningful work in India, Gandhi jumped at the opportunity to travel to South Africa and although the post was initially only a year long, he ended up staying there for twenty-one years. It is said that upon his arrival in Durban (a British Colony at the time) Gandhi considered himself as a “Briton first and an Indian second”, but South Africa would not be the liberating experience he had hoped it would be. Almost immediately, Gandhi was subjected to racial prejudice by the white settlers and authorities. Beaten and belittled in the streets, Gandhi and other persons of colour suffered horrendous and violent racism, but the experiences he suffered there awakened him to the cause of civil rights and would come to define his political views and ethics. As in keeping with the Hindu teachings, Gandhi was a pacifist but he served and encouraged other Indians to serve as stretcher bearers during the Boer War and the Zulu wars. Here he witnessed further discrimination committed by the British, who would often stop them from treating the Zulu wounded – Gandhi’s ambulance unit lasted only two months and during his experiences during the Zulu conflicts, his disillusionment with the west truly became enshrined. Gandhi, who previously had little to no interest in politics, became politicised due to his South African experience. Not only was he a successful lawyer, he was the executive director of the Natal Indian Congress and of the Colonial-born Indian Education Associations, and through these organisations he fought tirelessly for the rights of Indians in South Africa.


Gandhi returned from South Africa with a newly invigored sense of nationalism and a strong desire to see India gain its independence from the British Raj. He joined the Indian National Congress (INC) and would take over leadership of the political party in 1920. During his tenure, he characterised the use of non-violent civil disobedience in the form of non-co-operation with British authorities. Which resulted in the British army attacking demonstrators, most notably the Amritsar Massacre in 1919. Gandhi himself would be imprisoned in 1922 for sedition and sentenced to six years, of which he served two. Then, in March 1930 he embarked on his famous Salt March, walking over 200 miles in protest against the tax on salt. He also embarked on a hunger strike whilst imprisoned for a second time in 1932, in protest of the Communal Award passed by the British Government. Independence in India would prove to be a long and bloody road and Gandhi believed that to be successful, India would have to be united. Sadly, this was not the case and with the outbreak of WW2 and Viceroy Linlithgow’s pledge of India’s support without the consultation of the provincial governments, the INC encouraged all of the elected representatives to resign in protest. With this betrayal, the leader of the All-India Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, persuaded members to adopt what would become known as the Lahore Resolution – the division of India into two separate nations. Partition and the formation of Pakistan in 1947 was a violent affair and it was one of Gandhi’s biggest disappointments.


Manchester may seem like a bit of a peculiar spot to have a statue of Gandhi, considering that he had only been to the city briefly in 1931, on his way to visit mill workers in Lancashire. Yet, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, his statue was unveiled outside of Manchester cathedral in celebration of the cities “multi-cultural and multi-faith” society. The 9ft bronze statue depicts Gandhi in his traditional dhoti and  shawl, astride with a large walking stick, is very reminiscent of his famous Salt March and symbolic of his message of non-violence. The statue itself was donated to the city by the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur (SRMD) and privately paid for by the Kamani Family. It is the representative of Manchester being a vibrant city of many cultures and faiths, but it is also in response to the Manchester Arena attack that occurred in 2017, serving as a poignant reminder to Gandhi’s teaching that love always overcomes hate.


When plans were first announced to permanently install Gandhi’s statue in the city centre, many protested the idea on account of anti-black racism which is present in his early writings. The attempt to stop the statue was spearheaded by students in Manchester who penned an open letter to the council accompanied with the social media hashtag #GandhiMustFall. Alongside racist remarks made, they also stated that Gandhi was being used as a propagandist tool by the Indian government. This followed a similar situation that occurred on the University of Ghana campus, where a statue of Gandhi was removed in 2018 following a petition by lecturers.