Organisers of a government-backed campaign to feature Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) figures on British currency for the first time have clarified that Mahatma Gandhi is not under consideration.
Confusion arose following incorrect weekend reports that Gandhi was being lined up as the first non-white person to be honoured on legal UK tender.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on Sunday that he had asked the Royal Mint to consider how to celebrate the achievements of BAME individuals on UK coinage.
It came after a two-year campaign by the We Too Built Britain movement, which has put forward figures such as British-Jamaican Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole and Second World War spy Noor Inayat Khan for recognition.
It has never proposed Gandhi, and the mix-up appears to have stemmed from an announcement made by former chancellor Sajid Javid in October, in which he said he had separately asked the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (RMAC) to consider a commemorative Ghandi coin.
While commemorative coins are by definition legal tender, they cannot be used in shops and banks like any other cash, and have limited exchange value.
Sunak has also written to We Too Built Britain campaigner Zehra Zahidi, saying: “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.
“I am writing today to the chair of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (RMAC), Lord Waldegrave [...] asking the RMAC sub-committee on themes to consider recognising this very great contribution on our nation’s coinage.”
The reports suggesting Indian independence leader Gandhi was set to become the first non-white person to feature on British currency sparked a backlash.
Former Tory parliamentary candidate Zehra Zaidi, who spearheaded the We Too Built Britain campaign, insisted it was nothing to do with the group and called for people to focus on the campaign’s success.
“There are two separate projects in terms of the Royal Mint,” she told HuffPost UK.
“One, a Gandhi commemorate coin which has created buzz in India. Another, endorsement by the Chancellor of our history making campaign for the first ethnic minority hero on legal tender.
“After four days of headlines on Gandhi, a decision made in 2019, we would like the chance to talk about the 2020 history making decision by Rishi Sunak and those heroes and themes that we suggested for legal tender.
“Only people of national importance can be on legal tender. The absence of any ethnic minority person suggested there had not been any contribution of significance to appear. This is far from the case. Ethnic minority communities helped build Britain. Let’s celebrate them.”
Considered by many as India’s greatest leader, Gandhi has also been regarded by some historians as a racist.
Broadcaster Jad Adams quotes him as referring to Black people as “kaffirs”, a deeply offensive term, in a speech in 1896.
“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir,” Gandhi is quoted as saying.
“And whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy his wife with and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
In 2016 Ghana announced it would remove a statue of Gandhi from its main university because of his “alleged past racist comments”, though it paid tribute to his role as a civil rights leader.
BAME figures such as Walter Tull, the British Army’s first Black officer, have featured on commemorative coins in the past but so far no non-white figures have appeared on coinage or notes in mainstream circulation.