Marking Gandhi’s 150th anniversary
There is a strong political subtext in Narendra Modi’s push to celebrate the milestoneUpdated: Jul 10, 2019 21:07 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes pride in thinking big. He is also known to have a particular affinity for mega-campaigns and milestones. In his second term in office, Mr Modi has repeatedly highlighted how the country must come together to celebrate two momentous events: the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi this year; and the 75th year of Indian independence in 2022. From getting singers from 124 countries, to singing Gandhi’s favourite, evocative bhajan, Vaishnava Jana Tu, last year, to now urging all Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Members of Parliament to embark on a 150-km padyatra in their constituencies from October 2 this year, the PM has decided to invest both political and diplomatic energy in making Gandhi’s anniversary a grand occasion.
This is laudable. Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom struggle needs little elaboration. His principles — of truth, non-violence, Hindu-Muslim unity, equality by battling caste discrimination — hold resonance in contemporary India. And India’s political class would do well to go back to those values. Mr Modi, in Parliament, referred to the milestone as a national event. Parties across the spectrum, and citizens across ideological divisions, must come together to remember Gandhi.
But there is a fascinating political subtext to the BJP marking the occasion with enthusiasm. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had an uneasy relationship with Gandhi. Both were rooted strongly within the Hindu tradition and used idioms, symbols, and messages that would resonate with Hindus. But this is where the similarities ended. The RSS had a particularly orthodox view of Hindu society, and deep antipathy for Muslims. Gandhi had a more liberal interpretation of Hindu texts, and believed tolerance, pluralism and communal harmony were essential to sustain India both as a society and a civilisation. He was finally assassinated by a man inspired by the more conservative Hindutva orientation, although it must be categorically said that Nathuram Godse was not an RSS member when he killed Gandhi. From then to now, there has been an evolution in the worldview of the RSS and its affiliates, including the BJP, and, from a critical lens, there has been a shift towards reverence. Mr Modi’s push to celebrate Gandhi is a reflection of this ideological shift. This is also in line with the BJP’s political efforts to appropriate a pantheon of national icons who represented other schools of political thought — from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. While some critics find fault with it and focus solely on history, this evolution is actually welcome, particularly if the ruling party truly embraces the values of Gandhi in practice.