Opinion |

In Modi’s ‘New India,’ Mahatma Gandhi Is Out, His Assassin Is In

Modi's Hindu nationalists have turned Gandhi's killer into a hero of India, feeding vigilante violence against Muslims, redefining 'patriotism' as blind obedience and tarring anti-Modi dissent as terrorism

Swati Chaturvedi
Swati Chaturvedi
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A supporter of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in Ahmadabad, India holds a statue of Narendra Modi after he was announced as the party's candidate for prime minister in 2013
A supporter of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in Ahmadabad, India holds a statue of Narendra Modi after he was announced as the party's candidate for prime minister in 2013Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki
Swati Chaturvedi
Swati Chaturvedi

Mahatma Gandhi, 'Father of the nation,' pioneer of non-violence to protest powerful oppression, and India’s best known calling card to the world, truly has no place left in Narendra Modi’s self-described "New India."

Gandhi would have faced an avalanche of slurs accusing him of being "anti-national," (ie unpatriotic, sliding towards traitorous), "sickular" (a corruption of secular, and now, in this Hindu nationalist era, a term of abuse) and an "urban naxal" – an attempt to tar any media or intellectual anti-Modi dissent with the same brush as the ongoing rural Maoist insurgency in the country’s north east, it’s a phrase which has no meaning but which the government officials are fond of using. Of course, Gandhi would also have been told to "go to Pakistan."

The Mahatma might have faced jail time for advocating "love jihad" (an imaginary crime, much in favor with the government these days, based on the unfounded myth that Muslim men attract Hindu women by pretending to be Hindu and then force them to convert to Islam).

Gandhi would have been bundled into jail for being a "Maoist" and a "naxalite": with his penchant for standing with the weakest and the most oppressed, he would have stood with the people of India’s tribal areas, who are fast being dispossessed of their land and rich minerals by billionaire cronies of the Modi government.

His solidarity might have gotten Gandhi shot by the security forces in an "encounter" - an Indian euphemism for a staged death, where people are shot in cold blood and then a pretense is made that they tried to evade custody or attack the police.

An Indian boy looks at a mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall of the Delhi police HQ on the anniversary of his death, shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist extremistCredit: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal

Gandhi would have fasted for days on end if he’d seen how frighteningly routine lynching in the name of God has become, where helpless Muslims and Dalits (the lowest caste in India’s caste system) are lynched because they’re accused of killing cows, in a slow orgiastic ritual of mob violence filmed by the culprits. Gandhi, a pious man, died with "Hey Ram" as his last cry, when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on 30th January, 1948.

He would never, ever have imagined that those words would become a call to violence, that before they were beaten to death, those victims would be forced to chant "Jai Shree Ram," "Victory to Lord Ram," or that when Muslims were targeted in last year’s Delhi riots, the mob told them if they wanted to stay in India, they had to chant the same words.

If he was alive, Gandhi would have protested the weaponization of his beloved Lord Ram into a tool to oppress Muslims and Dalits, and he would have been repelled by the vigilantes who, in the name of protecting the holy status of cows and to end the eating of beef, take a particularly sadistic delight in forcing Muslims to chant Hindu religious slogans.

Cow vigilantes came to prominence as part of India’s violent polity during Modi’s first term as prime minister. Since then, from 2014 onwards and during the seven years of his first and now second term, violence over the ownership and eating of cows has become such a norm that it is barely reported anymore.

The first of this wave of lynchings was reported in September 2015, when a village mob attacked the home of 52 year-old Mohammed Akhlaq and killed him, because they suspected him of slaughtering a cow. Incredibly, after his murder, the meat found in Akhlaq’s freezer was sent for a forensics test, as if to justify the mob’s crime. The meat was found to be mutton, and not beef. 

Muslims were the target of 51 percent of the violence centered on the issue of cows and 86 percent of the 28 Indians killed in 63 violent incidents, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of the English-language media. 

A bruised Asgari Begum, mother of Indian Muslim farmer Mohammad Akhlaq, beaten to death by Hindu villagers after rumors the family had slaughtered a cowCredit: AP

Dalits and Muslims work in the slaughterhouse and leather industries. Their livelihood has been effectively criminalized and these workers, the poorest of the poor, repeatedly face mob attacks with no redress.

Gandhi would have been shocked by the glorified ‘afterlife’ of his assassin. Godse had close links with the founder of Hindutva, the self-styled ‘Veer’ (‘Brave’) Savarkar. Savarkar showed less bravery when, agitating for independence, he was imprisoned by the British colonial rulers and begged to be released, offering fulsome letters of apology.

Every year since Modi came to power, pro-government, pro-Hindutva social media has glorified Godse on Gandhi’s birthday, 2nd October, a concerted campaign that ensures their hand-picked hashtag trends to the top of Twitter. In 2020 and again this year it was the Hindi phrase "Long live Nathuram Godse," in 2019 "May Godse be immortal."

A tweet glorifying Gandhi's assassin from a member of the BJP national executive committee

The BJP proudly claims Hindutva as its ideology, and has hung a giant portrait of Savarkar (charged as a co-conspirator in Gandhi's killing) opposite the portrait of Gandhi in the New Delhi parliament building.

The mothership of India’s Hindu nationalist groups, is the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization founded in 1925 which claims to be a Hindu cultural body, inspired by Savarkar’s right-wing nationalism and which forbids women to be members.

Modi grew up in the RSS and was a pracharak (preacher) of theirs; much of the BJP are RSS members, from the elite leadership (Modi, Amit Shah, the home affairs minister and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and the rank-and-file of the party).

Members of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) march in front of a mosque during an event in Bangalore, IndiaCredit: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

The RSS now claims to have a cadre of six million volunteers. It has been banned officially four times: Once by the British government and three times by the Indian government, including a ban in 1948 following Godse’s assassination of Gandhi, on account of his links with the RSS.

It was most recently banned in 1992 when a Hindu mob destroyed the historic Babri masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, on whose site Modi recently dedicated the foundations of a new Hindu temple.

Those days are long gone: nowadays, the RSS and its acolytes are key players in India’s most powerful political sanctums. One of Modi’s own MPs, Pragya Thakur, herself on bail as a suspect in the bombing of Muslim pilgrims, is a keen Godse fan.

Modi’s crudest instrumentalization of the Mahatma appears in photo sessions where he poses with his trade mark spinning wheel to make khadi, homespun cloth, all the while unraveling the India of Gandhi’s visions.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spinning cotton at the Sabarmati ashram where Gandhi resided, and is now a national monumentCredit: Reuters/ Amit Dave

All this, too, would have astonished and horrified Gandhi.

Bearing in mind Modi’s well-known obsession with his image and his messaging on social media, the fact that BJP officials laud Gandhi’s killer and push those messages out to millions of Indians is no accident. 

Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence and on the protection of India's Muslim minority makes him a political liability. Modi has never publicly expressed any disapproval of the annual glorification of his murderer. Likewise, he has never offered an unequivocal condemnation of the Hindu vigilantes lynching Muslims.

Modi only engages with Mahatma Gandhi abroad, when it is unavoidable, where he loves to bow dramatically before the numerous Gandhi statues that dot the world. He cites Gandhi in his speeches, but only abroad.

In this, at least, Modi offers a rare measure of transparency: His hypocrisy is clear for all to see.

Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. She regularly contributes investigative stories and analysis to NDTV.com and Gulf News, and is a frequent political commentator on television. She is the author of "I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army" (2016). Twitter: @bainjal

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