White House photo @realDonaldTrump Wikimedia Commons 24 February 2020
This evening, after speaking to a joint session of Congress India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a State Dinner at the Biden White House.
It is a rare moment of political convergence in Washington: bipartisan shame.
On the “red side of the aisle,” the Modi/BJP anti-democratic Hindu nationalism is a perfect match for the ascendant Christian nationalism of today’s GOP. (Modi was banned from the US under President George H. W. Bush for alleged complicity in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat when Modi had been Chief Minister.)
On the “blue side,” the triumph of realpolitik, a White House diplomatic coup, a “balancing” of Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia. Daniel Ellsberg is dead and it seems that Henry Kissinger, at 100, has become the unofficial sage of the Democratic Party. Jimmy Carter at 98, by contrast, is in the shadows; his administration’s “human rights diplomacy” was junked a long time ago (during his own tenure, in fact, as he declared the so-called “Carter Doctrine” justifying US military intervention in the Persian Gulf.)
Sam Altman (OpenAI), Tim Cook (Apple), Sundar Pichai (Google) are on the White House guest list, and so is Hunter Biden and Martin Luther King III. According to the official White House statement: The White House state dinner will “strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defense, clean energy, and space.”
Today, we have a reversal of Marx’s 18th Brumaire: first, the farce of Trump-Modi hysteria at the “Namaste Trump” celebration in the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, India (and the shit-eating grin of his “sword dancing” in the Saudi palace, etc), and now the tragedy of Modi’s White House sanctification (as MBS of Saudi Arabia, still bloody from the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, is our friend again).
Two weeks ago I spoke via Zoom at a conference in Johannesburg South Africa honoring Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. The title of my talk was: “Against Religious Nationalism: Gandhi, King and Mandela as Leaders of Interfaith Solidarity”
Here is a video recording of my Johannesburg conference remarks (26 minutes; passcode: 98#sxaPu)
Here is the text of the concluding portion of my talk, as it relates to today’s and this evening’s events in Washington:
Gandhi’s radical vision of egalitarian pluralism and religious tolerance, his commitment to interfaith alliances, and his rejection of communalism generally and Hindu supremacy specifically, infused his actions, writings and speeches throughout his political life. I especially encourage you to re-read Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Indian Home Rule, perhaps the fundamental statement of his political beliefs. “I broaden my Hinduism by loving other religions as my own,” Gandhi wrote; in the struggle for freedom and democratic society in India, “we can do nothing without Hindu-Muslim unity.” Gandhi practiced what he preached, starting with his South Africa satyagrahas, on which he worked side-by-side with Muslim leaders. Where did Gandhi choose to organize the mass burning of South African registration cards? At a Johannesburg mosque. In India he decried Hindu-Muslim animosities, which he diagnosed as psychological disinformation fostered by British imperialism’s strategy of divide and rule.
Gandhi’s rejection of Hindu nationalism was vehement. His opposition to ideologies of Hindutva and right wing volunteer and paramilitary organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, known as the RSS, was fierce and unrelenting.
“If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dreamland,” he wrote. “The Hindus, the Mahomedans, the Parsees, and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity if only for their own interest.”
To successfully throw out the British required a civic nationalism based on unity of all people who live within India’s borders in an unshakable alliance against imperialism. This was more than a political strategy. The transformation of India to self-rule required required a social and interpersonal transformation Gandhi called “heart unity.”
The first thing essential for achieving such unity is for every Congressman, whatever his religion may be, to represent in his own person Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jew, etc, shortly, every Hindu and non-Hindu. He has to feel his identity with every one of the millions fo the inhabitants of Hindustan. In order to realize this, every Congressman will cultivate personal friendship with persons representing faiths other than his own. He should have the same regard for the other faiths as he has for his own.
On January 29, 1948, the day before his assassination, Gandhi wrote that each Hindu leader of independent India “must be a believer in the ideal of inter-communal unity, equal respect and regard for all religions and equality of opportunity and status for all irrespective of race, creed or sex.’
Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse was a Hindu nationalist and RSS member who murdered him precisely because of Gandhi’s pluralism, because Gandhi called on fellow Hindus to reject and abjure Hindutva ideologies and to oppose Hindu Nationalist organizations like the RSS, of which Godse was a loyal member.
The RSS was abolished in February 1948 in response to Gandhi’s assassination. It was reinstated in July 1949, less than 18 months later.
Today in 2023, the RSS, through brilliant strategy, disciplined organization, and the patience of the long game, has successfully achieved hegemony over Hindu society by means of its volunteer and cultural activities; over the Indian national and regional governmental institutions, through the electoral dominance of its political and parliamentary front, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and through the ethnic politics of grievance, fear and hate, especially in relation to India’s Muslim minority. The first BJP Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee, who served three terms between 1996 and 2004, and his deputy Lal Krishna Advani, who had encouraged anti-Muslim mob violence, called the RSS their mata, their mother.
In a 1999 essay, the Indian scholar Aijaz Ahmad noted that “In 1996, when the BJP first formed a government… there was much fear expressed that fascism had finally come to India. I had then argued that a distinction must always be made between the parent organization namely the RSS, which was undoubtedly fascist, and its parliamentary front, the BJP, whose function was to play strictly by the rules of constitutional democracy, gather more and more support for its own projects and thus pave the way for a future government of the RSS itself…
“The fundamental premise of my argument here is that India is at present undergoing a revolutionary process. We do not recognize it as such because it is a revolution not of the Left but of the far Right. Whether this revolution will fail or succeed is far from clear… The cultures of cruelty spreading all around us are part of this far Right revolutionary offensive because the values of democratic, secular civility must be made to crumble from the inside.
Ahmad’s analysis, written twenty four years ago, was prophetic.
Narendra Modi has proven himself to be a far more adept politician and effective BJP leader than Vajpayee or his mentor Advani. Among other achievements, Modi has forged a far more robust version of Hindu nationalism by skillfully overcoming the chasm that had previously separated the elite from poorer castes.
But Modi’s rise to power included his role as BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat during a horrific incident of mass communal violence in 2002. Modi was cleared of legal responsibility. Nevertheless, the British Foreign Office concluded that Modi was ‘directly responsible’ for the killing of more than a thousand Muslims, and in 2005, George W. Bush’s State Department denied Modi’s diplomatic visa application and revoked his business visa.
All of that seems like a long time ago.
Modi became India’s Prime Minister in May 2014 and his regime has remained in power since. Enormously popular, he is often ranked in popular opinion polls as the greatest prime minister in Indian history. In February 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump stood side by side with Modi before a cheering crowd of 100,000 in Ahmedabad, praising Modi’s recent landslide victory like no other… on the face of the Earth.”
During the years of Modi’s BJP leadership, the revolutionary process Admad identified has come to an apotheosis, and Gandhian pluralism has been eviscerated. Tragically, the culture of democratic, secular civility Gandhi lived and died to sustain has crumbled from the inside, replaced by virulent forms of Hindu nationalism that Gandhi had fiercely opposed throughout his life, with a corrosive effect on minority rights and freedoms. For an comprehensive analysis of the officialization of Hindu hegemony over the Indian state under Modi’s BJP leadership, and the corrosive effects on Indian society, I recommend Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy by the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, published in translation by Princeton University Press in 2021.
In conclusion, we must face Dr. King’s most trenchant question: Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?
We who care about the legacy of Gandhi, King and Mandela cannot be silent when this legacy is corrupted and perverted by regimes that oppose everything they stood for.
We must follow the example of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. As President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma fulsomely praised Nelson Mandela and claimed the mantle of his leadership as he corrupted and betrayed Mandela’s values and legacy. Responding with moral courage and steadfast allegiance to Mandela’s legacy, the Mandela Foundation fiercely condemned Zuma’s hypocrisy and called for his resignation.
The United States established a federal holiday to honor the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth with a federal holiday. In each year of his presidency, Donald Trump issued fulsome proclamations honoring Dr. King and claiming allegiance to his vision of equality and justice, while at the same time Trump empowered a the racist white backlash seeking to eviscerate the civil rights gains Dr. King and the Black Freedom Movement had achieved.
In the United States, we must have the courage of the Mandela Foundation to publicly denounce all efforts by anti-democratic leaders and organizations in the United States, most especially the Republican Party, still in thrall to the MAGA movement, to claim and hijack Dr. King’s legacy for purposes antithetical to Dr. King’s life’s work. We must remind our fellow citizens of the racist and anti-semitic origins of White Christian nationalism and the America First movement. We must quote Dr. King in our churches and communities: “One cannot worship this false god of nationalism and the God of christianity at the same time.” Nor can we align with a MAGA-infused Republican Party and claim allegiance to Dr. King’s dream. “The two are incompatible and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them exist together.” We must adhere to King’s conviction that “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” And we must reiterate Dr. King’s insistence that “The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
In India, Prime Minister Modi often praises Mahatma Gandhi and seeks to associate his own regime with Gandhi’s legacy, even as Modi remains silent as Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, is celebrated by RSS and BJP colleagues. Citing his own public sanitation program, which indeed is important and laudable, and anti-poverty campaign, Modi humbly situates his own leadership of India in this august lineage. But we who care about this lineage must reject Modi’s claims. On the contrary, Modi’s tribute to “Beloved Bapu”, and his efforts to bask himself in his light, is a bald-faced ploy to hijack Mahatma Gandhi for purposes antithetical to everything Gandhi stood for. Modi’s use of Gandhi is no less Machiavellian and Orwellian than Trump’s efforts to cleanse his racism by false praise of Dr. King and Zuma’s claims to legitimacy by false praise of Mandela.
We must be very clear about this. It is impossible to be a member of the RSS, or a supporter of Modi’s BJP, and legitimately claim to be a Gandhian.
I understand that this might be a controversial statement for some conference participants. As Dr. King emphasized in the 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, we have an obligation to evoke controversy when we believe that constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth.
So I will be very clear about this.
I do not believe that it is possible to support the Modi-led BJP government without dishonoring the values and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
Nor do I believe that it is possible to have supported the Trump-led GOP government, or to support Trump’s candidacy for President in 2024, without dishonoring the values and legacy of Dr. King.
“The two are incompatible and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them exist together.”
When Indian civil society mobilized in a nonviolent movement to protest India’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, they did so in the true spirit of Gandhi, who would have joined their marches in the streets, and initiated a hunger strike against the Modi regime.
To honor Dr. King, we must become prophetic voices willing to cry out against the false god of nationalism.
To honor Mahatma Gandhi, we must commit ourselves to the healing practice of heart unity, and denounce ethnic supremacy in all of its forms.
To honor Nelson Mandela, we must exorcise the demon of tribalism, racism and religious intolerance.”
We must dedicate ourselves to resistance against anti-democratic projects in each of our nations, and all forms of hatred and violence, using all of the tools of Gandhian nonviolence we can mobilize.
Jonathan D. Greenberg
See also Pankaj Mishra, “The Big Con: Modi’s India and the New World Order, “London Review of Books, 4 May 2023, and
‘Maya Jasonoff, “Narendra Modi Is Not Who America Thinks He Is,” New York Times, 22 June 2023.
“The Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) escalated its crackdown on civil society and the media. Authorities prosecute activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, and other critics on fabricated counterterrorism and hate speech laws. They have shut down rights groups using foreign funding regulations or unfounded allegations of financial irregularities. The government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims. This, coupled with vilification of Muslims and other minorities by some BJP leaders, and the police failure to act against government supporters who commit violence, has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity.”