In 2019, India, and the world, celebrated the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi eulogized him in countless speeches, recruiting every Indian mission abroad to organize events in the Mahatma’s honor. But what was striking in all these government-led celebrations was the absence of Gandhi’s most famous and foundational ideological stance – his complete commitment to non-violence.
Gandhi was presented as a pioneering champion of sustainable development, cleanliness and even solar energy – but his embrace of non-violence and civil disobedience was rendered invisible.
That was perhaps unsurprising in light of the constant incitement, hate and violence emanating from the Modi government and the compliant officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janatiya Party. Add to that the current government’s Hindu nationalism, to which Gandhi was utterly opposed, and – perhaps most grievous of all – the prime minister’s political mentoring of a militant Hindu nationalist who exalts not Gandhi, but his assassin.
Even for Modi, it seems, there are still limits to how far he can peddle outright hypocrisy.
Gandhi was everywhere in India last year, and many Indians marked his anniversary with genuine enthusiasm and reverence. Indeed, the last five years were dedicated to Gandhi by Modi, who launched an ambitious nation-wide mission entitled "Clean-India" for which Modi won the coveted "Global Goalkeeper" award from Bill Gates. Cleanliness was indeed one of Gandhi’s essential values: he considered it a step towards spirituality and self-realization.
Not to be left out, the United Nations celebrated its 74th year replete with Gandhi symbolism and a high-level dialogue, attended by Modi, dedicated to examining Gandhi’s relevance in the contemporary world. Gandhi was apparently so attuned to sustainable development, alternative energy sources and climate change that his example was consistently evoked during the inauguration of the solar energy park at UN headquarters last September.
But it is a gross misrepresentation and flattening of Gandhi’s legacy to style him solely as a clean energy guru. Even worse is the Modi government’s appropriation of Gandhi as a like-minded proto-BJP supporting activist, not least when another feature of last year was the institutionalization of arrogance, violence and sacralization of weaponry, anathema to Gandhi’s believes which revolved around ahimsa (non-violence) and humility.
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One of Gandhi’s most non-negotiable principles regarded non-violence - ideational as well as physical. To him no violence was legitimate, even if it was sanctioned by the state.
His stance brooked no exceptions: Indeed, he courted considerable controversy when he called for the exercise of non-violence and civil disobedience against the Nazi party in Germany. He didn’t reply to a letter from the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who managed to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, who wrote a letter to him asking how could Jews could really fight their extermination in the Holocaust with non-violence.
Gandhi’s deep commitment to non-violence, in all situations, became an international cause celebre during his leadership of the Indian independence movement. His non-violence was based in humanism, and not nationalism; he was even willing for the British to rule India for another decade if the alternative was acquiescing to violent resistance or armed struggle against them. For the same reasons, he firmly opposed the partition of India because it would trigger enormous violence and division – which is exactly what happened.
It is this Gandhian non-violence and humility that have been so publicly abandoned by the very leaders who claimed him as their own in 2019. Modi is best known for his commanding and autocratic way of conducting politics. He is also notably vain and self-important. He once wore a suit decorated with thousands of iterations of his own name when he hosted Barak Obama for an official visit in 2015. He prefers to concentrate power in his own hands, and he knows how to be ruthless.
He refused to express any remorse after the violent deaths of more than a thousand Muslims in Gujarat while he was state governor, and mandated to protect them. He once abruptly ended an interview with a renowned TV anchor because he didn’t want to be asked if he felt sorry at all about the riots whose ferocity and bigotry led them to being termed "pogroms."
It is no wonder, then, that Modi reinvented Gandhi as the patron of cleanliness, and dedicated five years to revering hygiene and toilets or, even better, for solar energy. Modi chose not to evangelize about Gandhi’s non-violence: it would have been ridiculous. Modi stands for a hyper-masculine, militant nationalism that justifies lots of violence. Imagine how the fragile, modest figure of Gandhi would have looked like next to a leader who actually boasts about his 56-inch chest.
Modi’s whole ideological maturation occurred within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hard right political grouping with the least respect (actually open disdain) for Gandhi’s non-violence. Each October, the RSS celebrates the festival day of Dussehara by putting lethal weapons on display and worshipping them. Modi has participated in this Hindu ritual - the Shashtra Puja - too.
That ritual was glamorized as well as officially legitimized when Rajnath Singh, India’s defense minister from the BJP, conducted the Shashtra Puja ritual on the newly commissioned Rafale fighter jets during his official visit to France last year.
It is no small irony that in the year dedicated to Gandhi, one of the Indian government’s most senior ministers adopted as standard practice a ritual of worshipping weapons.
But the irony reaches its height in Modi’s adoption of Pragya Singh Thakur as a (successful) candidate for the BJP in the 2019 elections. Thakur, still on trial on terrorism charges relating to plotting a 2008 bomb blast in the town of Malegaon which targeted Muslim pilgrims coming out of Friday prayers and killed six people, including a ten year-old girl.
Modi was evidently attracted by Pragya's uncompromising attachment to Hindutva politics and an aggressive and militant form of nationalism. She calls herself a saint, and wears her holiness on her sleeve, literally: she wears only saffron robes, the color associated with Hinduism.
But there is more to her ideology. Pragya Singh Thakur considers Nathuram Godse, the militant Hindu who assassinated Gandhi in 1950, a patriot. She declared this view in May 2019 while she was campaigning for the national elections, and again when she was already ensconced in Parliament in November.
Godse, it should be remembered, killed Gandhi precisely because of his preaching of non-violence and entreaties to end Hindu-Muslim riots. For Godse, Gandhi betrayed Hindus, favored Muslims after partition and sought a fair post-Partition financial settlement with Pakistan. Godse thought Gandhi’s path of non-violence would turn India’s Hindus into a weak, vulnerable and impotent population.
Pragya Singh is not the only BJP activist and official who abhors Gandhi’s non-violence. Many even commemorate the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination as a "Day of Sacrifice," in memory of what they see as Godse’s holy heroism, killing Gandhi for the sake of a strong Hindu-only nation.
Gandhi’s relevance for contemporary India is more desperate than ever, in a political environment led by the government that normalizes hate, violence and bigotry. Gandhi’s statue, which stands outside India’s Parliament, is a forlorn witness to the death of his core ideas.
That Modi led the official celebration of Gandhi’s 150th year is a sad facade. Neither "Clean India Gandhi" and "Sustainable Development Gandhi" capture the real Gandhi. He cared, first and foremost, for human compassion, empathy and self-reflectivity. He refused violence for the sake of a state or a Hindu nation - and put his own body in the line of fire against it.
It is the people of India who need to reach out to and reclaim Gandhi. University students are leading the way, rising up – at the cost of their own safety - to protest discriminatory laws, unrestrained violence and incitement against minorities and attacks on the fundamental right to dissent.
They, and other principled protestors, are the truly worthy heirs of Gandhi, and the last line of defense today against India’s ruling political class, which will not be satisfied until they have re-engineered the Mahatma into a Muslim-baiting, brutalizing Hindu nationalist.
Khinvraj Jangid is Assistant Professor and Co-Director at the Jindal Center for Israel Studies at the OP Jindal Global University in Delhi