India is marking the 150th birthday of Mohandas Gandhi, the man known as the father of the nation, and across the country there are exhibits, commemorations, marches, prisoner releases and even a 1,000-foot-long greeting card.
But the celebrations this week mask a deeper unease. A century and a half after the birth of the revered leader of India’s independence struggle, Gandhi and his legacy are getting an update — and much of it is not positive.
Even as admiration for Gandhi remains widespread, aspects of his life and philosophy are increasingly a source of controversy. Scholars have highlighted the racist language he used as a young man living in South Africa as well as his defense of India’s caste system.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, India’s right-leaning Hindu nationalist ideologues have long had an ambivalent relationship with Gandhi. Some view his dedication to nonviolence as a form of weakness, or think he betrayed the cause of Hindus with his support for religious pluralism. Earlier this year, one politician from the ruling party even described the man who assassinated Gandhi as a “patriot.”
In many parts of the world, “Gandhi is seen broadly as a nice, decent, open-minded, reasonable guy who advocated nonviolence, justice, peace and so on,” said Ramachandra Guha, a historian and author of a two-volume biography of Gandhi. But in India, “his ideas and legacy have been deeply contested.”
Gandhi is often given the title “Mahatma,” or “great soul,” and many in India refer to him simply as “Bapu,” a word for father. He inspired leaders such as Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that Gandhi served as a “continual reminder” that “it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.” But in his long life in the public eye — his collected works comprise nearly 100 volumes — Gandhi delved not only into politics, but also economics, religion, sexuality, sanitation and even diet.
One recent critique centers on Gandhi’s two decades in South Africa as a younger man. During that time, he repeatedly referred to black South Africans using a racial slur and described them as inferior to Indians, views that prompted a university in Ghana to remove a statue of Gandhi late last year.
A growing number of writers and scholars have also criticized Gandhi for his views on India’s caste system, saying he was a conservative who believed in preserving hereditary roles for different caste groups in Indian society rather than eradicating them.
Gandhi denounced the practice of treating certain people as “untouchable” or somehow polluting. Yet he also believed in having a “harmonious social order,” said Anand Teltumbde, one of India’s preeminent scholars on caste and the author of a recent manuscript on Gandhi. “The caste system provided that order,” Teltumbde said.
Other scholars say that Gandhi advocated a gradual reform of the system because he did not want to alienate the upper castes, which were crucial to the independence struggle.
On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to Gandhi at an event in Gujarat, the home state of both men. Gandhi was an advocate for better sanitation, and Modi is using his 150th birthday to celebrate the government’s “Clean India” campaign, which has constructed millions of toilets nationwide. Because of the program, India’s rural areas have essentially eradicated the practice of defecating outside, Modi said, although experts cast doubt on that claim.
Modi also praised Gandhi in an opinion piece published in the New York Times, saluting him for giving “courage to millions globally” and for envisioning “a world where every citizen has dignity and prosperity.” Modi challenged “thinkers, entrepreneurs and tech leaders” to find innovative ways to spread Gandhi’s ideas.
Modi’s emphasis on honoring Gandhi in association with the cleanliness campaign strikes some of those who knew him as a strategic choice. Although Gandhi did advocate improved sanitation, they say, it was not his central message. Those connected to the current Indian regime are using a fragment of Gandhi to destroy the core of Gandhi,” said his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The core of Gandhi is equality and especially minority rights.”
Modi “exalts Gandhi as a prophet of cleanliness and recycling,” added Guha, Gandhi’s biographer. “He never talks about what Gandhi lived and died for, which was Hindu-Muslim harmony.”
Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist. Godse was a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization that is the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. (Modi spent much of his life as a full-time RSS worker.)
In May, Pragya Thakur, days before she was elected to India’s Parliament for the BJP, hailed Gandhi’s assassin Godse as a “patriot.” Modi said Thakur’s remarks were “condemnable” and she apologized, but the party ultimately took no action against her.
Some rue the fact that Gandhi is becoming irrelevant in today’s India. He has been reduced “to a ritualistic presence in our collective life,” Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University who goes by only one name, wrote this month. “He has been made a lifestyle guru, a feel-good presence — something he never was.” To embrace Gandhi would mean reviving “a politics of dissent . . . which sometimes requires going against one’s own people.”
When Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi, his grandson Rajmohan was 12. Now Rajmohan is 84, older than Gandhi was when he died. Rajmohan said he took heart from a recent video of an Indian high school student reciting a poem praising Gandhi that went viral.
“There is a stubborn core of people who have understood him and know that Gandhi represents the better angels of the Indian nature,” said Rajmohan. Gandhi is “not finished in India — no, sir.”