India: Still the Land of Gandhi?

By William Stark

02/16/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Last year, thieves stole Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes and wrote “traitor” across his picture at a memo­rial in central India. The act of vandalism raised important questions: Is India still the land of peace and inclusion that Gandhi envisioned? Or, has it dis­missed these principles in favor of violence and Hindu nationalism?

The news of the vandalism was met with a degree of public approval in India. As surpris­ing as this reaction may be to an international audience, it is consistent with the increas­ingly radical Hindu nationalism sweeping through the country. A prominent member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party, the BJP, recently called Gandhi’s assas­sin “a patriot” while campaigning for a seat in Parliament. She won the race just a few days later and currently represents Bhopal, the capi­tal of Madhya Pradesh.

A national debate must take place as to whether Gandhi’s teachings on general social issues can be separated from his doc­trine of acceptance for religious minorities. Since taking power in 2014, the BJP-led government has overseen a dramatic rise in Christian persecution in India. In 2014, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) docu­mented 147 violent attacks on Christians in India. In 2018, that number more than doubled with EFI documenting 325 vio­lent attacks on Christians. Hundreds of Christians are attacked for their faith every year, with the violence reaching record lev­els in 2019.

Gandhi’s legacy, however, is broader than just the advancement of religious freedom. His stance on other issues, like public sanitation and healthcare, have proven more palatable to the ruling Hindu nationalists. Prime Minister Modi, for example, regularly cites Gandhi in support of his public health campaigns, and refers to him as a personal and national inspiration.

But Modi’s regular references to Gandhi’s legacy are inappropriate and misleading, according to Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson.

“The current Indian regime,” Professor Gandhi said, is “using a fragment of Gandhi to destroy the core of Gandhi. The core of Gandhi is equality and especially minority rights.”

India is at a crossroads. It cannot claim to stand by the vision set out by Gandhi if it chooses to dismiss one of his central princi­ples–that the freedom to practice one’s religion is integral to the health of the Indian nation.

Gandhi’s message of tolerance is making him increasingly distasteful to India’s modern Hindu nationalists who argue that non-Hindus have no place in India–a nation, they claim, that is exclusively Hindu at its core.

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