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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 has 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 Times op-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.