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Gandhi statue sparks tussle in Cerritos

A group of Indian immigrants wants a likeness of the nonviolent leader removed from an intersection because they say Gandhi perpetuated the caste system and was a Hitler ally.

October 13, 2013|By Marisa Gerber
  • The Organization For Minorities of India calls for the removal of a statue of Indian nonviolent leader Mohandas K. Gandhi in Cerritos in September.
The Organization For Minorities of India calls for the removal of a statue… (David McNew, For The Times )

B.J. Singh peeked down at the timer on the lectern. The mayor said everyone could speak for five minutes — not long when you're trying to unravel a lifetime of history lessons.

An Indian immigrant with a tiny American flag pinned to the lapel of his navy suit, Singh introduced himself, thanked the leaders of the city he's called home for 12 years and cut to the chase. Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian nonviolent leader, wasn't the man that city leaders think he is, Singh explained, before asking the mayor to remove a bronze statue of the world leader erected at an intersection in Cerritos.

"What if somebody put up a statue of Hitler?" Singh asked. "Or let's say Mao?"

A woman in the front row gasped at the comparisons. A man holding a dossier from the Coalition Against Gandhi Statues nodded and the City Council sat stone-faced — just as it would through another hour or so of feisty back-and-forths with roots half a world away.

The impassioned meeting last month, followed two days later by a protest at City Hall, spotlighted the efforts of a fringe group of Indian immigrants working to change Gandhi's legacy. It's the latest in a string of foreign cultural conflicts that have through the years emigrated to the Southland with its patchwork of peoples.

In the late 1990s, protests roiled Orange County's Little Saigon — the most concentrated population of Vietnamese expatriates in the country — after a man posted a picture of communist leader Ho Chi Minh at his video store. In 2009, about a century after the Ottoman Empire massacred more than 1 million of their ancestors, Armenian Americans protested outside the Turkish Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard. And this summer, the city of Glendale waded into a fierce international dispute when officials unveiled plans to memorialize the "comfort women" used as sex slaves by the Japanese army during World War II.

And now, splintered views on Gandhi are causing a ruckus in southeast Los Angeles County.

The Organization for Minorities of India — the same group that has sought the removal of similar statues across the country and in Canada — holds that Gandhi perpetuated the caste system, allied himself with Adolf Hitler and was a sexual deviant who slept naked with his grandnieces.

Although their efforts were unsuccessful in San Francisco, Ottawa and Michigan, Bhajan Singh Bhinder — one of the group's leaders who traveled from his home near Stockton to attend the council meeting — said their vigilance has helped scuttle plans to install statues in Texas and Las Vegas.

"It makes a difference," he said. "It's not true that nobody listens to us."

Although Gandhi has had some critics in India for years — a good number of whom are Dalits, or members of the lower castes, UCLA associate professor of history Vinay Lal said the Organization for Minorities of India takes a more dramatic stance than even that minority.

"There are people that are ferociously opposed to Gandhi," Lal said. "But these people really go to the extreme.... There isn't this kind of anxiety in India."

Lal, who grew up in New Delhi and teaches courses on Gandhi, said the organization takes partial truths and arrives at flawed conclusions. Gandhi did once write a letter to Hitler asking him to reconsider his ways, Lal said, and he conducted an experiment in self-control by sleeping naked with young women.

"Criticism isn't the problem," he said. "But their understanding of Gandhi is absolutely impoverished."

Back at the council meeting last month, Naresh Solanki listened in disbelief to statements from fellow immigrants who like him were taught to preface Gandhi's name with "Mahatma" — Sanskrit for "great soul."

"It's just crazy," said Solanki, who sits on Cerritos' Planning Commission. "It's not that Americans are against Indians. It's Indians against Indians."

Then came a speaker defending Gandhi and, eventually, a couple of others who pleaded for the statue's removal. When one faction clapped, the other clapped louder. Halfway through the meeting, Mayor Bruce W. Barrows reminded the audience that even if the city wanted to remove the statue, it couldn't.

Installed as part of a Cerritos program that requires developers to either give money to the city's public art fund or pay to put in their own artwork, the Chugh Firm chose the latter and commissioned an Indian sculptor to make the piece. Though the law firm did need the council's blessing initially — it came in 2011 — Barrows said that because the statue is on private property the city doesn't have legal standing to remove it.

Even though the land belongs to the firm, it's still easily accessible from the public sidewalk.

On a night in April, someone unhinged the 600-pound chunk of chiseled bronze from its concrete pedestal. The sheriff's detective who wrote the report on the incident said that although there were no leads in the case, he thinks someone planned to steal the statue and resell the metal but had trouble hoisting the heavy statue.

The firm didn't hear grumblings about the statue until after it was reinstalled over the summer, attorney Sherwood Tung said. But since the firm's views of Gandhi haven't changed, Tung said there were no plans to have it removed.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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