Gandhi's legacy cannot be allowed to fade away

Indian politicians have long used Gandhi’s legacy of secularism, non-violence and tolerance in a cynical and opportunistic manner to further their political agenda, but today Gandhi’s legacy has glimpses of irony

Nandni Mahajan Oct 02, 2021
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Mahatma Gandhi

On 30 January 1948 in New Delhi, capital of a newly independent India, Mahatma Gandhi was stopped on his way to a prayer meeting by a young man Nathuram Godse. A Hindu ultranationalist, Godse shot the 78-year-old "Father of the Nation" in his chest three times. Nascent India was orphaned.

A member of the Hindu Mahasabha, Godse blamed Gandhi for India’s partition and detested him for being sympathetic towards Muslims. While Gandhi worked for a secular and united India, extremists like Godse saw Hindus and Muslims as separate entities who could not co-exist in independent India.

In India these days we see a resurgence of an extremist Hindu mindset among right-wing and Hindu nationalists. It would be safe to say that extremist views never left the sub-continent despite Gandhiji’s effort, but today with the noticeable support from those in power, the fringe is more vocal than ever – a disturbing trend that worries me as a 22-year-old Indian.  

Indian politicians have long used Gandhi’s legacy of secularism, non-violence and tolerance in a cynical and opportunistic manner to further their political agenda, but today Gandhi’s legacy has glimpses of irony.

During his recent meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden remarked, “Gandhi’s message of non-violence, respect, tolerance matters the most today, maybe more than ever.”

Rising hate crime, extremism

At home in India, the reality is seemingly ugly - there has been a rise in hate crimes against minorities since the present government came to power. A report by India Spend shows that between 2009 and 2019, as many as 90 percent of reported hate crimes occurred post-2014.

The concept of “Hindu nationalism” is becoming political and many are now advocating for a “Hindutva ideology” to establish in India a hegemony for Hindus and Hinduism. Politicians are also banking on these extremist positions to appeal to voters. The forthcoming elections to Uttar Pradesh - India's largest state that shares a border with the national capital and would be the fifth-largest country by population (240 million) had it been an independent state -  will be a litmus test.

The Hindu Mahasabha, which has existed for over a century, has attempted to celebrate January 30 as Shaurya Diwas (Gallantry Day) 'to commemorate" what they called "the courage" displayed by Godse.

When Prime Minister Modi condemned cow vigilantes the Mahasabha called him “anti-Hindu”, asked him to resign, and supposedly sent a legal notice to retract his statement.

Gandhi's detractors  

Politicians from PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and some of its workers have gone on record to glorify Godse. Pragya Thakur, an MP, referred to Godse as a “patriot”. Modi said he would never forgive her for this statement and  Thakur later apologized but continued to hold onto her seat.

Anantkumar Hegde, another BJP member of parliament and former union minister, tweeted that Godse would be proud of the changing narrative about his life in present-day India. Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah immediately ordered a disciplinary probe but Hegde continues as an MP.

Hegde has also criticized India’s secularism and remarked that the BJP would amend the Constitution to remove the word “secular”.

None of this is to say that Gandhi was without flaws, but the apostle of non-violence never claimed to be perfect either. While the BJP has been quick to condemn pro-Godse remarks, their lack of stern action and letting politicians who spew hate continue to hold onto their chairs (elected or nominated)  sends out an encouraging message towards intolerance. If more politicians jump on this bandwagon, citizens are likely to follow.

After President Biden’s statement, PM Modi came back home and encouraged Indians to buy more khadi products to mark Gandhi’s birth anniversary. This would be cosmetic if Mahatma  Gandhi’s legacy of tolerance, non-violence and secularism are nudged into fading away.

(The writer is a graduate in international studies from Deakin University, Australia and currently works as an independent researcher. The views expressed are personal and not shared by editors of South Asia Monitor. She can be contacted on Twitter at @justnandni.)