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Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.

63 comments for: Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

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