India has established a committee to commemorate next year’s 150th anniversary of the birth of the “father of the nation”, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the members include politicians across party lines as well as some foreign representatives, among them the Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Al Gore. Hailing Gandhi as “India’s greatest gift to human-kind”, whose “name finds resonance across the continents”, the committee plans a year-long programme of celebration, commencing on his birthday, October 2, and ending on the same day in 2019.
Mr Modi’s bid to appropriate Gandhi is paradoxical. The prime minister spent most of his formative years in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hardline Hindu organisation which reviled Gandhi for allegedly being too soft on Muslims. The antagonism between the RSS and Gandhi was at its most intense in the months after August 15, 1947, when the subcontinent was freed from British rule but also divided into the separate nations of India and Pakistan. Gandhi went on peace marches and fasts to protect the rights of the millions of Muslims who had stayed in India. He insisted that “India does not belong to Hindus alone”. He told his compatriots that even if Pakistan persecuted its Hindu and Sikh minorities, India “would be betraying the Hindu religion if we did evil because others had done it”. His “basic creed” remained what it had always been—“that India is the home of Muslims no less than of Hindus”.
The RSS, on the other hand, believed that, with the creation of Pakistan, there was no place any more for Muslims in India. Their hatred of Gandhi emanated from the organisation’s head, a polemical preacher named M.S. Golwalkar. In December 1947, as Gandhi continued to campaign for inter-faith harmony, Golwalkar made a speech in which he declared that “no power on Earth could keep” Muslims in India. “They would have to quit the country.” Golwalkar went on to say of Gandhi: “We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.” Six weeks later, Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic who had once been a member of the RSS. Though this person may have been acting as a freelancer, the speeches made by Golwalkar showed very clearly that the organisation detested Gandhi.
Many RSS members were not sorry to see Gandhi being “immediately silenced”. The RSS was banned after Gandhi’s death. The ban was lifted a year and a half later, and in subsequent decades the organisation grew steadily in strength and influence. Its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata party, came to rule large parts of India. While the RSS muted its criticism of Gandhi, its hatred of Muslims remained intense. In his own writings, Golwalkar characterised Muslims and Christians as enemies of the nation.
When Mr Modi became prime minister of India in 2014, he had been in public life for close to 40 years. Joining the RSS as a young man, he was weaned on Golwalkar’s ideas (and prejudices) and even wrote an adulatory biography of him. There is no evidence that he ever dissented from the RSS’s views of Gandhi, or of Muslims. However, since becoming PM, Mr Modi has invoked Gandhi’s name often. He dedicated his flagship programme to rid India of open defecation to Gandhi. And he has made it a point to visit Gandhi’s ashram in the company of foreign leaders. He has gone there with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and, most recently, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This latest celebration of Gandhi is just the most recent attempt by Mr Modi to link his name with a man whom his own mentor cordially disliked. Might it be that he recognises that Gandhi is the most widely admired Indian outside India? And that he wishes to accrue credit for himself by association? That may be so, but it is hard to see this exploitation of Gandhi’s legacy as anything other than rank opportunism. In the four years that Mr Modi has been in power, Muslims have been attacked by Hindu lynch mobs and verbally abused by serving cabinet ministers. India has moved further in the direction of being a Hindu majoritarian state than at any previous time in its history. How can Mr Modi promote Gandhi abroad while at the same time denying what he stood for at home?