Indian PM Narendra Modi pays his respects to a statue of Mahatma Gandhi

Muslims in Modi’s India: What Would Gandhi Say?

Published on 03 Mar 2020

“I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew– and so are all of you,” the father of India Mohandas Gandhi once allegedly told some of his followers during the height of anti-Muslim tensions before the 1947 partition of India. During his lifetime trying to create a multi-ethnic and multi-religious secular democratic India, the Mahatma (Sanskrit for “great soul”) helped push for Hindu-Muslim harmony, uplift the plight of Dalits (aka “untouchables”) and promote gender equality throughout the land. But Mahatma Gandhi’s vision was shattered on January 30, 1948 in New Delhi when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a militant Hindutva extremist who shared a similar political ideology to that of the current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi.

Both Gandhi’s assassin and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both have been proud members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group.  

According to award-winning Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the RSS was historically “inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested ‘race pride at its highest’ by purging the Jews.” 

Mahatma Gandhi’s dreams of a vibrant multi-religious secular democracy seem to be completely unraveling under Narendra Modi’s watch. Numbering over 200 million (roughly 13% of the population), Indian Muslims are the largest minority in the country and also the demographic group that has suffered the most in terms of overall economic disenfranchisement, abject poverty and political repression in recent years.

In recent years, the plight of Indian Muslims has gotten worse under Modi’s tenure. In 2019, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned India about its “divisive policies” towards minorities- especially Muslims- in their country. “We are receiving reports that indicate increasing harassment and targeting of minorities – in particular Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged and marginalized groups,” she said in her 2019 annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Furthermore, right-wing supporters of Modi have increasingly perpetrated hate crimes against Muslims, sometimes in an effort to scare their communities into moving away, other times to punish them for selling beef in what are known as “beef lynchings” (since cows are considered sacred in the Hindu religion).

Most recently, President Donald Trump kicked off his first official visit to Narendra Modi’s India in a February 2020 meeting of self-proclaimed nationalists in the two largest democracies in the world. Award-winning Indian Muslim journalist Rana Ayyub wrote in the Washington Post recently that Donald Trump’s first stop with Narendra Modi was an ashram where Mahatma Gandhi once lived. With no irony whatsoever, Modi allegedly explained the historic significance of Gandhi’s pluralistic teachings on nonviolence while peaceful Muslim protesters took to the streets to voice dissent against a controversial anti-Muslim citizenship law. This resulted in an anti-Muslim pogrom where baton-wielding police and violent Hindu mobs targeted Muslims, killing at least 47 people.

Although Narendra Modi was called “India’s Vladimir Putin” by British historian William Dalrymple, just last year, Donald Trump referred to Narendra Modi as “the father of India,” a title reserved for Gandhi for leading the nonviolent struggle for independence as a secular democratic nation. Unlike Gandhi, the current prime minister of India is accused of trying to establish a Hindu Rashtra (a Hindu-centric political state) where Muslims and other minorities would be relegated to second-class citizens for the foreseeable future. 

Even before the most recent anti-Muslim pogrom in New Delhi, many people also forget that Modi’s government also revoked the statehood of the Muslim-majority population of Kashmir last year and placed its entire population under a communications blockade and political lockdown for months. Since that crackdown did not receive much global condemnation, the Modi government then pushed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act which would strip citizenship from at least 2 million Muslims in the state of Assam alone. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah- Modi’s closest political aide- wants to extend this anti-Muslim legislation nationwide. In the past, Shah promised to remove Muslim “infiltrators” from India and has previously described Muslims at a political rally in overtly genocidal terms as “termites” who he wanted to throw into the Bay of Bengal. 

During his first official visit to India, President Trump defended Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim citizenship bill when he told reporters: “I don’t want to discuss that. I want to leave that to India.” By not even discussing it, Trump tacitly endorsed Modi’s anti-Muslim policies by publicly telling the press corps that he raised the issue of religious freedom with Modi and that the prime minister was “incredible” on the subject. 

As long as Narendra Modi remains in power, India’s status as the world’s largest secular democracy is teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Based on the xenophobic rhetoric and right-wing Hindutva policies coming from the current prime minister, Mahatma Gandhi must be rolling over in his grave.