75 years after Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu nationalism troubles India
As Mohandas K. Gandhi shepherded a throng of his acolytes through the spacious gardens of Birla House, the New Delhi homestead where the aging independence leader spent his final months, he did not notice the pistol hidden in the hands of his killer. In an instant, Nathuram Godse, a 37-year-old Hindu nationalist, fired three shots at the nonviolence activist and stunned a nation already engulfed in violence.
“Gandhi crumpled instantly, putting his hand to his forehead in the Hindu gesture of forgiveness to his assassin,” reads a U.P.I. account of the assassination from Jan. 30, 1948. Gandhi, then 78 years old and wearied by a five-day fast, was rushed back into Birla House, where he died. His assassin was immediately taken into custody and met with “a forest of fists” from shocked onlookers, The New York Times reported. The assassin was hanged in prison the following year, despite clemency requests from two of Gandhi’s sons.
Prime Minister Modi has continued to publicly commemorate Gandhi, but the B.J.P. has simultaneously rejected Gandhi’s emphasis on reconciliation and nonviolence.
Godse claimed he was spurred to violence by Gandhi’s “accumulating provocation of 32 years” and his support for Muslims amid bloody clashes with Hindus. In 1947, King George VI of England had appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten to administer the partition of British India, splitting it into a newly independent India and Pakistan, which became an Islamic republic nine years later. The partition of India produced what the Pakistani-born historian Ayesha Jalal termed a “murderous orgy,” which in turn resulted in a catastrophic refugee crisis that displaced approximately 15 million people.
The bloodshed was shocking and abhorrent. An estimated one million people, including children, were slaughtered while “blood trains” shuttled survivors of attacks in transit and murdered refugees across recently drawn borders. Some 83,000 women were raped and abducted. Gandhi’s lifetime of teaching peace had concluded in a crimson blur of violence.
Referred to as the Mahatma, an honorific meaning “great soul” in Sanskrit, Gandhi was revered and closely studied in subsequent decades by pioneering scholars and peace advocates, including Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Maritain and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1999, Time magazine named him a top contender (behind Albert Einstein) for “Person of the Century,” and his birthday, Oct. 2, is celebrated annually as the International Day of Non-Violence.
But 75 years after Gandhi’s death, when Hindu nationalism has risen to the highest echelons of the Indian government, his legacy in the nation he helped liberate is complex and, in some cases, denigrated. “Attacks on what Gandhi stood for have accelerated [throughout India] in recent years,” Rajmohan Gandhi, a historian and grandson of the Mahatma, said in an email to America. “Nonviolence is ridiculed, and there is an escalation of hatred for, and violence against, Muslims and Christians.”
Seventy-five years after Gandhi’s death, when Hindu nationalism has risen to the highest echelons of the Indian government, his legacy in the nation he helped liberate is complex and, in some cases, denigrated.
This month, approximately 40 staff members of an Indian Jesuit community development organization were assaulted on a train by Hindu extremists, who have accused Christians of forcing Indigenous persons to change their religion. In October, a group reportedly associated with right-wing Hindu nationalists desecrated a Christian church and assailed congregants in the northern city of Roorkee.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai has denied any attempts at forced conversions by Christianity missionaries, calling the practice illicit. Yet “anti-Christian vigilantes are sweeping through [Indian] villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshipers,” reported The New York Times in December.
Andrea Melji, a professor of international studies at Hawaii Pacific University, told America that Gandhi’s legacy in India is “not as straightforward as many might assume,” explaining that he has long been divisive in his native country while being held up as a nonviolent hero in the West. Many Hindu nationalists felt that Gandhi “had caved in too easily to the demands of the [All-India] Muslim League,” which supported a two-state solution for independence.
“The truth is that [the] majority of Indians intensely dislike him but are forced to sing his bhajan as the world keeps reminding them of Gandhi and what the world, not just India, owes to the Mahatma,” reads a 2021 opinion piece from India’s National Herald.
How did India arrive at a moment when its great icon of independence is assailed and disfavored? The answer lies in the history of Hindu nationalism.
Unconcerned with the existence of the historical Jesus and dismissive of Christ’s divinity as the Son of God, Gandhi was nonetheless transfixed by the Sermon on the Mount, from the Gospel of Matthew.
Inflamed by an extensive history of Christianization in India and repeated Muslim-led invasions of the subcontinent, initiated by the teenage general Muhammad ibn al-Qasim in the eighth century, Hindu supremacists wanted to replace the British Raj with upper-caste Hindu rule. But Gandhi, himself a devout Hindu, would not substitute Crown authority for control by any one ethnic or religious group, calling for unity among Hindus and Muslims.
“Gandhi’s resolve that a free India would have a democratic government based on universal franchise and equal rights for all Indians was anathema to…the Hindu elite,” his grandson explained.
Hindu extremists attempted to subvert Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in part through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary group begun in 1925. (Gandhi’s assassin Godse had joined the R.S.S. in 1932.) Over time, paramilitary forces formed a powerful political party, now called the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The B.J.P. has ruled India from 2014, with the energetic Narendra Modi as the party’s unquestioned leader and India’s prime minister,” Rajmohan Gandhi said.
In an essay on the modern history of Hindu nationalism, Dr. Melji describes how fighting between Muslims and Hindus surged in India during the 1990s. In December 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque in northern India with hammers and spears, intensifying clashes between Hindus and Muslims and resulting in thousands of deaths. Three months later, a dozen bombings across Mumbai, then known as Bombay, killed 257 people in what was viewed as Islamic terrorism.
Gandhi, himself a devout Hindu, would not substitute Crown authority for control by any one ethnic or religious group, calling for unity among Hindus and Muslims.
Prime Minister Modi has continued to publicly commemorate Gandhi, even penning an affectionate tribute to him in The New York Times. But the B.J.P., which the United States has criticized for calling Muslims “termites” and potentially encouraging genocide, has simultaneously rejected Gandhi’s emphasis on reconciliation and nonviolence.
Hindu supremacists have blamed Muslims for shortages in government food rations for the indigent, promoted boycotts against Muslim-owned businesses and engaged in numerous lynchings, with B.J.P. support. Last January, a Hindu nationalist group dedicated a library to Nathuram Godse and explicitly praised him for assassinating Gandhi.
Still, Rajmohan Gandhi remains optimistic. “The future belongs to empathy and democracy, not to hate and supremacy,” he said.
The disintegration of Gandhi’s legacy in South Asia ought to concern Catholics as well. A serious student of world religions and a philosopher possessed of an ecumenical mindset, Gandhi was influenced by Christian thought—and vice versa.
Unconcerned with the existence of the historical Jesus and dismissive of Christ’s divinity as the Son of God, Gandhi was nonetheless transfixed by the Sermon on the Mount, from the Gospel of Matthew. The Christian pacifist writings of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian literary giant who experienced a moral conversion toward the nonviolent Jesus in the late 19th century, greatly influenced the Mahatma, who viewed Christ as an important teacher. “Though I cannot claim to be a Christian in the sectarian sense, the example of Jesus’ suffering is a factor…in my undying faith in nonviolence, which rules all my actions, worldly and temporary,” Gandhi wrote in 1939.
The disintegration of Gandhi’s legacy in South Asia ought to concern Catholics.
Peter Gonsalves, S.D.B., associate professor of media education and peace communication at the Salesian Pontifical University, in Rome, and a former consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, described how Gandhi connected Christian teaching to his own Hindu faith through a “complex hermeneutical process.” For example, Gandhi explicitly related the Sermon on the Mount to the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture. He reformulated his understanding of ahimsa, the key tenet of nonviolence or “non-injury” in Indian religions, after studying the Christian concept of charity.
Gandhi’s enduring influence on the Catholic Church is evident. During the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, L’Osservatore Romano ran a front-page editorial by an anonymous author known only as “X,” connecting Gandhi to Aquinas and praising him as an “exceptional man.” In a 1969 letter to V. V. Giri, then the president of India, Pope St. Paul VI commended Gandhi on the occasion of his centenary. “Gandhi had a high appreciation of the value of human dignity, and a keen sense of social justice,” the pope wrote.
More recently, Pope Francis, whom Father Gonsalves identifies as perhaps the most Gandhian pontiff in church history, focused the entirety of his 2017 World Day of Peace message on nonviolence, mentioning the Mahatma by name.
“Many Christians saw in [Gandhi] a Christian,” said Father Gonsalves.
Sudarshan Kapoor, a longtime Gandhian peace educator and a professor emeritus at the California State University, in Fresno, stated that while current politics in India is based on “power and force and militarism,” nonviolence is not dead. He noted a recent yearlong protest by Indian farmers that remained largely peaceful as it succeeded in overturning new agriculture laws farmers claimed would leave them vulnerable to opportunistic private investors.
“I am very hopeful that Gandhi’s spirit of nonviolence will remain alive,” Mr. Kapoor told America. “It’s not going to go away.”