Mixing Modi with the Mahatma as India marks Gandhi’s anniversary

Arun Sankar, AFP | Children wear masks of Mahatma Gandhi at a school in Chennai Sept. 30, 2019, ahead of Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary.

As India marks the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth on Wednesday, critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi of opportunistically appropriating the legacy of the "father of the nation" while ignoring the lessons of Gandhi's assassination.


October 2 -- or Gandhi Jayanti, as the day is known -- has long been a national holiday in post-Independence India. It marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the bespectacled, partially clothed “father of the nation” whose portrait adorns public offices across the country.

Commemoration ceremonies for the Mahatma -- which means “great soul” -- are held at schools, universities and government offices, statues garlanded, prayers chanted and hymns are sung before everyone goes back to their daily lives, disregarding most, if not all, of Gandhi’s precepts, which are often difficult to accommodate in a globalised, consumerist world.

This year, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth in 1869, the official commemorations on display have been on a scale like never before. Gandhi Jayanti 2019 ceremonies kicked off last year, with the formation of an anniversary executive committee chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and are set to end on October 2, 2020.

In effect, the official 150th anniversary of a man regarded as an apostle of austerity actually spans two years. But since Modi has linked his signature Swachh Bharat -- or “clean India” -- campaign as a “tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th anniversary", the birthday party may just never end until the prime minister declares the country officially neat and tidy.

Modi and Gandhi are the same’

Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has gone to extraordinary lengths to appropriate the legacy and symbolism of one of the 20th century’s best-known icons of peace and tolerance. A new mega memorial in the western Indian state of Gujarat marking Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March features paeans to the current prime minister, including plaques heralding “a monumental tribute from one great visionary to another” and a quiz on Modi’s life.

Even Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s retreat on the banks of the Sabarmati River, has not been spared, with panels and displays on Modi, leading critics to decry the “Modi-fication” of a hallowed site.

Most disconcerting for many Gandhians though are the symptoms of a chronic identity crisis, with the prime minister and his turbocharged publicity teams often mixing up Modi with the Mahatma.

At a book launch on Gandhi, for instance, then culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, declared the country was “fortunate to have another Gandhiji in the form of our prime minister", using the respectful “ji” suffix to Gandhi’s name.

A 2017 calendar issued by a government body replaced the image of the Mahatma in his iconic pose at a spinning wheel with a photograph of Modi. Howls of protest followed, including a demonstration by some employees of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, the public office promoting the handspun “khadi” textile that brings out the calendar.

But the confusion continues, with the disorientation spreading across continents.

US President Donald Trump appeared to be another victim of a mix-up during Modi’s recent US visit, when he told reporters: "I remember India before was very torn. There was a lot of dissension, fighting and he [Modi] brought it all together. Like a father would. Maybe he is the father of India."

Reacting to the US president’s statement, Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi quipped: “Trump may also like to replace George Washington with himself.”

At a massive “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, a Modi supporter dressed as Gandhi -- complete with khadi loincloth and wire-rimmed glasses -- told journalists, “Modi and Gandhi are the same. They are saints, fakirs.”

Overlooking Gandhi’s death anniversary

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the identity amalgamation and beatification of a prime minister who, they say, is turning India into a Hindu nationalist heartland that is unwelcoming to its minorities, particularly Muslims and lower-caste Dalits. Modi’s vision, they say, of Hindutva (literally “Hindu-ness” or a Hindu state) is the very antithesis of everything the Mahatma stood -- and died -- for.

January 30, 1948, the day the Mahatma was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who disagreed with Gandhi's efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, is a low-key day on the official Indian calendar. Although it’s a day fraught with lessons for modern India, Gandhi’s death anniversary is not marked on a national scale, which according to some Gandhian scholars, is a pity.

“Governments have never marked Gandhi’s death anniversary. It has strangely never been a public holiday ever, it’s just a normal day of work. That’s strange especially since probably the most important thing is not his date of birth, but the day he died and the manner in which he died is something that must be remembered,” said Tridip Suhrud, one of India’s most prominent Gandhi scholars and provost of the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

But for the Modi administration, an official commemoration of Gandhi’s death anniversary that would draw attention to the context and violence of the Mahatma’s murder is far more complex.

More than 70 years after Gandhi’s assassination, the sectarian rage and frustrations that drove the killing of the greatest Indian of the 20th century by a fellow Hindu are alive and well and are being stoked by the Modi administration and its Hindu supremacist supporters. The links between Hindu supremacist ideologues, who are acknowledged heroes of Hindutva supporters, and Gandhi’s killers are also open sores that the current government prefers to conceal than heal.

Sharing mentors with Gandhi’s foes

Mahatma Gandhi was shot at point-blank range barely six months after India gained independence from Britain while the frail, 78-year-old “father of the nation” was on his way to prayers on a New Delhi lawn. His assassin, Godse, an advocate of Hindu nationalism, was a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation in which Modi once served as a full-time worker.

A shadowy and violent organisation, the RSS is the ideological fountainhead of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the RSS does not disclose its financial assets, it calls itself “the world’s largest voluntary organisation” with a millions-strong membership. It is also the nucleus of the sangh parivar, or RSS family, that includes trade unions, youth groups, prayer associations, women’s groups as well as the BJP.

The RSS has been banned three times in post-independence India. The first ban was shortly after Gandhi’s assassination, when the group was accused of plotting the murder of the Mahatma, but was later absolved.

Since the lifting of the first ban, the RSS has sought to distance itself from Gandhi’s killing. While the shadowy paramilitary group acknowledges that Godse was a member, the RSS maintains Gandhi’s assassin was an extremist rogue who was not a member at the time of the murder. Godse’s family however maintains he never left the RSS, according to Indian news reports.

Godse’s animus against Gandhi stemmed from the partition of British India and the creation of a Muslim Pakistan in a bloody division that Congress leaders such as Gandhi opposed, but were forced to accept as a compromise shortly before independence.

Like many right-wing Hindu nationalist figures, Godse believed Gandhi pandered to the subcontinent’s Muslims. With the creation of Pakistan, they believed there was no place for Muslims in their vision of a Hindu India.

It was a concept Gandhi, a devout Hindu who believed the new, secular India was a land for people of all faiths, firmly opposed.

He paid for his convictions with his life.

Gandhi’s hunger strikes to protest the killings of Muslims in the newly partitioned India and to force the Indian government to pay Pakistan arrears owed under a partition deal incensed men like Godse and his ideological mentors.

Some of these figures -- such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the formulator of Hindutva philosophy, and former RSS chief M. S. Gowalkar -- are publicly acknowledged “ideological mentors” to Modi.

The BJP’s drive to include these once-sidelined sectarian figures in the pantheon of India’s national heroes has disturbed scholars and Hindutva critics. Its concomitant maligning or refashioning of other freedom fighters, who were members of the Indian National Congress, the party that is now in the opposition, is part of a mass historical revisionism currently under way in India.

It also lies at the crux of the Modi administration’s extravagant embrace of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary and the personal identity muddles propagated by the Indian prime minister’s supporters.

‘They can’t throw Gandhi on the trash heap’

The rehabilitation of Savarkar, for instance, began when the BJP first came to power, when then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, inaugurated a portrait of the Hindutva ideologue in the Indian parliament in a 2003 ceremony boycotted by the opposition.

In sharp contrast, Jawaharlal Nehru -- Gandhi’s political heir and India’s first prime minister -- has been ejected from the legacy pecking order. Nehru is the great-grandfather of Congress politicians, Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), and has turned into a punching bag of the BJP’s anti-political dynasty opposition to the Congress.

Mahatma Gandhi, the heroic figure who championed a non-violent resistance that ousted the world’s mightiest imperial power, presents a challenge to Hindutva propagandists.

“It becomes incredibly complicated since Narendra Modi came to power with the backing of his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and affiliated Hindu sangh organisations, whose followers included the person who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Nathuram Godse made no apologies for it because Hindutva followers were upset by what they viewed as Gandhi’s concessions to Pakistan for which they call him a Muslim-lover,” explained Mira Kamdar, author of “Planet India” in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“But Gandhi is still known as the father of the nation. He was the most visible actor of India’s independence struggle and turned himself into the living symbol of the impoverished masses. They [the Modi administration] can’t throw Gandhi on the trash heap like they do Nehru because Gandhi identified with the poorest of the poor, the iconic visuals of his simple dhoti [loincloth] are something that even today poor Indians can identify with,” noted Kamdar.

The Mahatma’s teachings still have resonance in a country where more than 70 million people live in extreme poverty and the gap between the rich and poor is widening, according to World Bank figures. “Gandhi is very important for the people of India, or at least some people, because he was deeply concerned with injustice and he was deeply concerned with the structures of violence, which includes poverty. For all those who suffer and are oppressed for a variety of reasons, Gandhi remains an important ally,” explained Suhrud.

While successive Indian governments recognise this, Gandhian scholars say they pay scant heed to the Mahatma’s focus on austerity and environmental protection, ethics in public life, self-sufficiency by empowering the village economy and a distaste for big government. But critics say the current administration’s appropriation of Gandhi is on an unprecedented scale in Indian history.

“There’s an emptying out of the icon of Gandhi of political and social significance and a reinvesting of it with all sorts of ideas, such as Apple's "Think Different" campaign using an image of Gandhi. The BJP has sought to conflate the image of Modi and Gandhi as 'father of the nation',” explained Kamdar.

Suhrud though is not overly disturbed by the opportunism of the Modi administration. “Not everything of the past is a burden of the present leadership. For example, is the present leadership in any way responsible for the assassination of Gandhi? The answer is no. That its supporters share the ideological predilection of Gandhi’s assassin is a given. But is the present leadership responsible? The answer is no. Each generation has to come to terms with its ideological ancestors. This government is trying, by saying Gandhi remains the most important leader in India. I don’t find it objectionable or obnoxious. I find it interesting,” he said.

Gandhi’s teachings, Suhrud suggests, were so prescient and pertinent to the human condition, that it can withstand the misappropriations of the empowered. The Mahatma’s works, Suhrud notes, will continue to speak to the world’s oppressed. “The people in grief see Gandhi as an ally. If you’re having a good time, never invite Gandhi to the party. He’s like a bad sofa spring who comes up, pinching your conscience, at the most inconvenient time,” said Suhrud. Referring to the Modi government’s elaborate 150th anniversary showcasing, Suhrud noted, “I think they will pass and that’s the best thing about it. We will produce a few bad books, spend a few millions, but that will pass, which will be good for Gandhi.”

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