The End of Gandhi’s India?

This year, as the world marked the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, Indian voters repudiated his legacy by re-electing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By doubling down on Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism, Modi and his party have rejected Gandhi's vision of interfaith harmony and political pluralism.

BANGALORE – On October 2, the world marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi – the greatest Indian of modern times. In a New York Timesop-ed for the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most powerful living Indian, duly praised his country’s independence leader. Between recalling the admiration for Gandhi of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, and others, Modi saw fit to tout his own government’s commitment to sanitation and renewable energy.

That is a lot of ground to cover. Yet for this reader, the commentary was most striking in what it did not say. There was not a word about the cause for which Gandhi lived – and sacrificed – his life: interfaith harmony. From the 1890s, when he was an organizer for a small community of diaspora Indians in South Africa, to his death in 1948, by which time he was the acknowledged “Father” of a nation of over 300 million people, Gandhi worked to build unity and solidarity between Hindus and Muslims. While in South Africa, many of the meetings he organized to protest against discriminatory laws were held in mosques. And when he returned to India, he fasted and embarked on several long pilgrimages to build trust between Hindus and Muslims.

Gandhi had fought the British, non-violently, for an independent and united India. In the end, he achieved independence but not unity. When the British finally gave up the subcontinent in August 1947, they partitioned it. Pakistan was explicitly created as a homeland for Muslims. But, owing to Gandhi’s efforts, India itself was established as a nondenominational state: the new constitution forbade discrimination on religious grounds; the Muslims who remained were to be treated as equal citizens.

For the first two decades after independence, minority rights in India were carefully safeguarded, owing chiefly to the determination of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to prevent India from becoming a Hindu Pakistan. In more recent times, however, India’s large (and mostly poor) Muslim minority has come under increasing attack. This is partly because, after Nehru’s death, the ruling Congress Party shunned progressive Muslim voices in its efforts to cultivate the ulema (Muslim clergy) for votes. But it is also because the traditional opposition party, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has emphatically rejected Gandhi and Nehru’s vision of political and religious pluralism.

From the mid-1980s, the country was riven by a series of communal riots in which Hindu mobs taunted their Muslim compatriots with the slogan Pakistan ya Babristan! (Go to Pakistan, or be sent to the graveyard!) The bloodiest riot was in 2002, in Gujarat, where Modi was then serving as chief minister. The episode badly tarred Modi’s image, and even resulted in his being barred from entering the United States for a while.

But having rebranded himself as a Vikas Purush (Man of Development) and devised a platform promising inclusive growth, Modi was able to prevail in the 2014 general election. That outcome led to another wave of hate crimes against Muslims, which Modi proved either unable or unwilling to prevent. His first term in office yielded nothing for the economy, so he and the BJP contested the 2019 elections on a platform of jingoistic nationalism. Pakistan was depicted as the “Enemy Without,” and Indian Muslims and secular liberals as the “Enemies Within.”

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Notwithstanding Modi’s public posturing in the pages of Western newspapers, he and his party remain committed to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra: a state run for and by Hindus. There is currently just one Muslim among the BJP’s 300-odd members of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament). Worse, senior BJP leaders routinely insult and intimidate Indian Muslims without provocation, demanding that they prove their “loyalty” to the Motherland.

It is no accident that Modi failed to mention Hindu-Muslim harmony even when praising Gandhi. His silence speaks for itself. Meanwhile, on October 1, Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, the home minister and current BJP president, offered his own implicit message to India’s Muslims. “I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and Christian refugees, you will not be forced to leave India by the Centre,” he said in a speech in Kolkata. “Don’t believe rumors,” he added. “We will bring a Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will ensure these people get Indian citizenship.”

Notably absent in these remarks was any reassurance for Muslim refugees, including those from Bangladesh, whom Shah previously referred to as “termites.” The purpose of his speech was clear: Indian Muslims should be careful what they say, or they could find themselves stripped of citizenship and deported.

As Gandhi’s biographer – and as an Indian citizen who is committed to pluralism – I am deeply worried about the escalating demonization of my Muslim compatriots. The democratic, secular republic that Gandhi fought for is being transformed into a Hindu majoritarian state.

Yet as a historian, I have no illusions about what we are witnessing. India, once an exception, is now converging toward the South Asian norm. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are both Buddhist majoritarian states, and their minority populations – Tamil Hindus and Rohingya Muslims, respectively – are treated as second-class citizens (and much worse). Likewise, Bangladesh and Pakistan are Muslim majoritarian states, where Hindus (and sometimes Christians) have historically been persecuted.

As we enter a new decade, it is clear that Modi, Shah, and the BJP are committed to joining the club of ethno-nationalist states. In pursuit of that end, they have decisively repudiated the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru, inaugurating a dark new chapter in the history of modern India.

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