Gandhi Jayanti 2021

Gandhi smiling, August 1942; (source)


Today, October 2 is the birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as Mahatma Gandhi.  In India, Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated as a national holiday.  Honoring Gandhi’s legacy, in June 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 2 as the International Day of Nonviolence.

This morning Pacific Time (evening in India) I had the honor to participate in an online gathering of Gandhian nonviolence practitioners and scholars convened by the Gandhi King Foundation and its dedicated director, Prasad Gollanapalli.  Most of the participants were Indian citizens, with colleagues from the U.S., South Africa, Sri Lanka and other countries.  I spoke briefly to share concerns of particular relevance to participating citizens of the U.S. and India.  I set out below some thoughts I shared with colleagues on the Zoom call, along with further reflections on this day.

Today, as in each year on this day since 2014, when he became the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has used this holiday to proclaim his deepest and most humble praise for “Bapu,” even as Gandhi represents the antithesis of the toxic ideology of Hindu nationalism that has enabled Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consolidate power in the majority Hindu nation.

India’s BJP leadership is unhindered by moral consistency.  

Alongside tweets and public statements declaring his reverence for Gandhiji as “Father of India,” and claiming allegiance to his national legacy, Modi is unembarrassed to express adulation for ideologues of Hindu supremacy and anti-Muslim hatred.

As an illustrative example, consider Mr. Modi’s tweet earlier this year (May 28, 2021):

“Tributes to the great freedom fighter and patriot Veer Savarkar on his birth anniversary.”  

And this is Modi’s tweet from 2019:

Who was Vinayak Damodar (Veer) Savarkar, and why does it matter?

Founder of the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva, Savarkar served during World War Two as president of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party dedicated to “the maintenance, protection and promotion of the Hindu Race, culture and civilization for the advancement and glory of the Hindu Rashta [Hindu Nation].”

Seeking to “Hinduize all Politics and Militarize Hindudom,” Savarkar proclaimed his attraction to Italian Fascism and the German Third Reich as exemplary models for for future Hindu rule in India. 

Even in 1949, five years after Hitler’s genocidal regime collapsed into ruin, Savarkar wrote, in his book Hindu Rashtra Darshan:  

“Nazism proved undeniably the savior of Germany under the set of circumstances it was placed in.”.  

Savarkar did not hide his disdain for Gandhi, whose inclusive vision of an independent India for all citizens clashed with Savarkar’s vision of Hindu nationalism.   A close advisor to Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, Savarkar was arrested as an an accomplice to the murder; according to testimony, Savarkar met with Godse, and was overheard blessed him (“be successful and return”) shortly before the killing took place.  Acquitted due to lack of corroborating evidence, Savarkar was re-investigated by an independent government commission after his death in 1966.  In September 1969, the Kapur Commisison published his findings:  “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

This is the “great freedom fighter and patriot” whose “courage and unflinching commitment to a strong India” are lauded on his birthday anniversary each year, four months before the national Gandhi Jayanti celebrations.

How can Modi, or anyone, venerate both Savarkar and Gandhi? It is not possible to do so in good faith.

Where, then, is the BJP’s true allegiance?  

Words betray the truth, and actions follow.

This is the summary paragraph for the India chapter of of the Human Rights Watch World Report 2021:  

“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, academics, and others critical of the government or its policies.  The government continued to impose harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir since revoking the state’s constitutional status in August 2019 and splitting it into two federally governed territories.  Attacks continued against minorities, especially Muslims, even as authorities failed to take action against BJP leaders who vilified Muslims and BJP supporters who engaged in violence.”

At the conference this morning I expressed my belief that Mahatma Gandhi would fiercely oppose the ethnic nationalism of Modi and the BJP as a perversion of the principles of inclusive democracy, human rights and interfaith solidarity for which he lived and for which he was assassinated.  

Gandhi campaigned tirelessly to promote Hindu-Muslim unity in his country, risking his life in hunger strikes to protest sectarian violence, fighting through uncompromising nonviolence to create a free India for every race, religion and ethnic group — for all people.

If Gandhi were alive today, I said, I believe that he would condemn and fight against the rise of Hindu nationalism in India today, including and especially actions taken by BJP leadership locally and nationally to provoke resentment against religious minorities.

In 1906, the Legislative Council of the Transvaal enacted the “Asiatic Ordinance Bill” requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians, men, women and children, forcing them to require ID cards.  This law codified white supremacy and prejudice against Indians as so-called “colored” persons.  Gandhi dedicated himself to nonviolently resisting and overthrowing this legislation because it was an unjust law, subjecting an entire community to humiliation and indignity, degrading the human personality.  

If Gandhi were alive today, I said, I believe that he would lead nonviolent protest against Indian government repression in Jammu and Kashmir, efforts to strip Muslims of citizenship in Assam and other states, and other violations of the human and civil rights of non-Hindu citizens and communities. 

How do we honor Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King?  

It is not enough to praise their spiritual depth, their moral conscience.  

Our responsibility is to follow their teachings and example, to do what they told us to do, and what they would have done.  

In a 1953 sermon, Dr. King said:  “Today we need prophetic voices willing to cry out against the false god of nationalism.”  

Today we must be those voices.  

And if the false god of nationalism takes root — in Washington D.C. no less than in or Delhi — we must take those voices to the streets in nonviolent direct action.

If the democratic will of the people is crushed by a coup or subverted by a fascist regime, charismatic politician, or political party, we must mobilize in disciplined satyagraha — mass civil resistance based on the force of truth and love — to defend democracy, justice and human rights. 

If we adhere to the principles and methods King and Gandhi taught us, by their liberating words and courageous example, we shall overcome.

Jonathan D. Greenberg