An image that jarred me the most this week was a photograph of the Indian Prime Minister standing by President Donald trump as he signed the guest book at Sabarmati Ashram. He signed the book saying, “to my great friend Prime Minister Modi, thank you for this wonderful visit”.
Sabarmati Ashram is probably one of the most sacred places in India. This is where Mahatma Gandhi, who is the “father of the nation” (not the one Donald Trump chose to elevate) lived for twelve years of his life with his wife and his followers. It is from here he launched the “Dandi March” which was a significant moment in the resistance against the British. The Bhagwat Gita was recited here every day as per the ashram schedule.
I visited this place about a decade ago. It is a museum today. The atmosphere along the Sabarmati River is still serene and stirs the soul. It can transport you to a time when things were simpler, while the world was in as much turmoil as it is today.
Even though Gandhi has become passé to many in India, and has been reduced to just a face on a currency note, it so happens, Indian politicians like to drape themselves in him whenever an opportunity arises.
So for any dignitary visiting the country, the ashram has become a requisite stop. More so since Narendra Modi became prime minister, as the ashram resides in his home state of Gujarat. This gives him ample opportunity to drape Gandhi to his hearts content.
Every visiting head of state now visits Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. Xi Jin Ping was wined and dined here sometime back, and now it was Donald Trump’s turn.
After delivering on a promise of a stadium full of people in white hats cheering, which looked as fake as a North Korean parade, Trump was taken to the ashram. There he was seen spinning the “Charkha”, the wheel that Gandhi had turned into a symbol of resilience while churning the Indian independence movement.
Here were two men who did not belong here in every sense of the word, posing for cameras. Neither one of them would have found themselves in Gandhi’s circle if he were alive today.
Narendra Modi was and still is a foot soldier for the RSS. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh) is the ideological backbone of the BJP, the political party Modi usurped much like Donald Trump did, with the Republican party. A populist strong man, he has managed to win two elections with a landslide unheard of in modern Indian politics.
The RSS ideology was also the one that guided Nathuram Godse to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. To have Narendra Modi now promote Gandhi, just seems jarring and nauseating to say the least.
I wondered what Modi really thought about the whole affair, when the RSS leaders openly held Gandhi responsible for partition and for allowing Muslims to remain in India. Narendra Modi rarely takes questions from anyone, so we would never know. The RSS in the recent past has tried to soften its image a little, yet it still holds true to its founding principles of India being a nation for Hindus, and has had a resurgence in the present climate.
Donald Trump, who has made no secret of his xenophobia, racism and just about everything repulsive to the human spirit, was standing in this hallowed ground, probably not knowing anything more than the name Mahatma Gandhi, which he would most certainly struggle to pronounce. The lack of any gold in the architecture and him having to remove his shoes must have irritated him the most. If he had seen the movie “Gandhi” by Richard Attenborough, the ostentatious depiction of The Raj would have intrigued him more than anything else.
Trump had just come from butchering the name of another illustrious Indian, Swami Vivekananda, in front of a stadium full of applauding mostly Hindus. The optics of the whole affair was loathsome to say the least.
Modi and his political party rose on the heels of a desecration of an ancient structure. A Mosque was torn down by a violent mob claiming it had in-turn desecrated a temple that once stood there.
Last year a court ruled that the vandalism was legitimate and permission was granted for a temple to be returned to the site. After two decades of litigation, the vandals were absolved of their crime by the Supreme Court. Modi, a foot soldier that got it done then, was finishing the task as prime minister. This was seen as a promise kept by a party that is now ruling the country with an overwhelming majority in parliament.
For many across the spectrum, the rise of Modi has been seen as also the reclamation of Hindu pride. Many see him as the unabashed guardian of Hindu identity as he publicly exhibits his religiosity visiting temples and engaging in rituals. Many see him as finally restoring Hindu divinity and dignity to its rightful place, which they claim was banished and buried by decades of secularism and a western hegemony. Which is broadly now termed and dismissed as a left, liberal, Marxist, communist, secular force.
So in this moment of Hindu revivalism of sorts, the fault lines that have always existed between communities, are now being heightened.
The re-litigation of Indian history has become a preoccupation of many academics and politicians alike. The history that was written before “now”, is being called into question and is considered suspect, as the authors are seen as tainted by a western Hinduphobic/Indophobic imperialist bias.
There is a notion that is being peddled, that there was a glorious period in Indian history, where Hinduism flourished and knowledge unseen and unheard existed here in the ancient texts. The prime minister has openly said that the fact that Ganesha exists in Hindu mythology with an elephant head on a human body, shows that Hindus had advanced skills in surgery. Some of his supporters at science conferences have proclaimed “Hindu India” had figured out flight and the atom long before the west. Mythology was now being considered history, with conviction in some circles.
And then came the Muslims invading and pillaging the land and destroying a Hindu/Indian utopia. Temples were obliterated. Hindus were killed in droves, women were raped and idols desecrated and many forcibly converted to Islam.
Bollywood films have followed suit supporting this narrative, making historical films using grandiose special effects showing Muslim villains as extreme diabolical barbaric creatures while celebrating the Hindu heroes overtly, showing them to be devout and brave. All the while negating the fact that the British gave us the current identity of India, exploiting divisions between warlords and kings that had existed since the beginning of time.
The plight of Kashmiri Pundits also began to gather attention after being on the fringes since the 90s. Islamic militancy had driven the Pundits out of the valley in the most vile and violent manner imaginable. Government neglect, Islamic fundamentalism with support from across the border and a total collapse of law and order had created a situation that caused thousands to leave their homes in search of security. This was yet another exodus in India’s painful history caused by sectarian violence, which still has no clear resolution in the midst of chaos and more sectarianism.
The undemocratic suspension of human rights in Kashmir under the barrel of a gun and the indefinite incarceration of political leaders is being seen and shown as a start to a resolution to their plight. But this cannot be farthest from the truth.
Also if you are not into temples, idols, rituals, yoga, saffron, tilaks and not following a spiritual leader or some nefarious and flamboyant godman/woman you are considered not a “practicing Hindu”. Whatever that means. And hence you are branded a traitor to the religion and dismissed as a lesser being, an atheist or even worse a “liberal”. In effect using the Islamic playbook of branding someone who does not believe in the one true god/religion, a Kafir. If you are not the right kind of Hindu, you are pretty much an anti-national.
It is in this climate the BJP government passed two controversial bills, which have ignited simmering fault lines across the nation. The CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) were passed with ease in the parliament, as the BJP with its numbers adopted a majoritarian style of governance.
The CAB gives refuge and fast tracks citizenship to people fleeing persecution from neighboring countries as long as they are not Muslim.
In a pluralistic democracy, any law that professes to select or alienate groups of people on the basis of their religion, is theocratic in nature.
The NRC’s goal is to verify citizenship of 1.3 billion Indians by determining who belongs and who does not, by verifying documentation, like a birth certificate or a government issue license. The objective is very similar to what Donald Trump had when he wanted to add a citizenship question to the census form, which was struck down by the US Supreme Court.
Many Indians do not posses documentation to prove their origins. So those who don’t would be left out and then would have to be granted citizenship under the CAB, as long as they are not Muslim.
The government went on the offensive to proclaim these were bills that were not discriminatory and in the interest of the nation. The message that was read between the lines was something different. Two hundred million Indian Muslims are to be rendered second-class citizens or non-citizens, by virtue of their religion.
This bill would give undue power to the person parsing the information to play god, determining who is or isn’t a citizen. In a nation like India, this could lead to profiling and corruption on an unprecedented scale.
As one would expect protests broke out all across the nation. It was only a matter time they would get violent. As supporters of the bill openly exhibited their bigotry, trying to rationalize its merits, the detractors vowed to protect and maintain the secular nature of the nation that was enshrined in the constitution.
Three months of relative non-violent protest, this week erupted in deadly communal mayhem. The Chief Minister under whose leadership the nation saw one of the worst communal riots unfold, now as Prime Minister had another one on his hands. After dozens dead and property pillaged and burned, he appealed for calm. But stopped short of reprimanding his party members and ministers for publicly engaging in words of communal hate over the past months.
Mahatam Gandhi was a religious man. The Hinduism he spoke of and practiced was of an inclusive kind. A kind of Hinduism which is less of an organized religion, and more of a humanistic approach to living, being and breathing. A Hinduism that only sees humanity in every one and nothing else. The kind of Hinduism that is in diametric opposition to all hate of all kind.
If he were around he would be on a hunger strike asking all parties to come to their senses and stop all violence in action, thought and intent. Prime Minister Modi was more interested in showing Donald Trump the Taj Mahal and hiding real India behind walls, not to jar the senses of a man used to living in gilded rooms.
While humans dance on divisions and think they can separate themselves with religious boundaries and intellectual walls, there is a microscopic germ that is here to teach us a lesson.