On January 30, 1948, a man called Nathuram Godse shot Mahatma Gandhi three times at close range, killing India’s most legendary peace activist and freedom fighter. Gandhi died as he had lived, his hand raised in a gesture of forgiveness in the face of violence.
In his speech to the court that would try him for murder, Godse – an adherent of a fascist-inspired ideology known as Hindutva, or Hindu supremacism – declared that he had killed Gandhi because he believed the freedom fighter’s teachings of Hindu-Muslim unity would “ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu community.”
Seventy-four years after Godse was executed, the Hindu supremacist ideology he embodied has become mainstream in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have turned Hindutva into state policy. BJP leaders call for India’s secular democracy to be turned into a Hindu ethno-state, where Muslims are subjected to violence and erasure. Politicians gleefully urge Hindus to commit gruesome acts of violence against Muslims, from mutilations to mob lynchings. Hindu militant groups rove in mobs, murdering, provoking riots, assaulting, and destroying mosques and homes with impunity.
Gandhi, with his legacy of supporting interfaith harmony, has been retroactively demonized: he is insulted with slurs by BJP leaders and referred to as a “cancer” by extremist monks, while Godse is now revered by politicians as a “patriot” and a “worthy son of India.” Gandhi’s murderer even has a temple devoted to him.
On the anniversary of the assassination, it is important not to let the supporters of people like Godse destroy India’s legacy of coexistence. Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolence and communal harmony must be revived to prevent the world’s largest democracy from spiraling fully into a theocratic fascist state.
Throughout his years as a freedom fighter, Gandhi remained staunchly against the concept of religious majoritarianism. Instead, he preached that India would not be able to thrive “without an indissoluble union between the Hindus and Muslims of India.”
It was this union, after all, that was key in the success of the Indian independence movement. In all of his campaigns against British colonial rule, Gandhi worked with Hindus and Muslims alike. He went on hunger strikes to protest communal violence. He quoted the Quran alongside the Bhagavad Gita. For his interfaith prayer meetings, he helped compose devotional songs that found common ground between the two different theologies, declaring that Iswar and Allah were one and the same. He valued and uplifted the voices of the minority just as much as he did the majority, to the point where his Hindutva-supporting critics accuse him of “Muslim appeasement.”
Yet Gandhi did not exist in an idealistic bubble; he was no stranger to violence and religious hatred. When the subcontinent’s bloody Partition cleaved India and Pakistan apart in 1947, between one and two million Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others were horrifically killed.
In the aftermath of these horrors, Gandhi sought to heal these communities and restore pluralism. Believing majoritarianism to be the solution, he told followers, was a “false cry.” In one instance, he visited Bihar state, where an outbreak of sectarian violence primarily targeted Muslims – not unlike the rampant mob violence of Modi’s India – and ordered the Hindus of the area to tell their locale’s Muslims “that [this] will never be repeated.”
“Tell them that their misery is your misery, that you are their brothers, that both Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil,” he said. “Hence there should be no ill will between them.”
Further, Gandhi refused to allow India’s Hindus and Muslims to forget their common heritage. This is in stark contrast to today’s Hindutva supporters, who deem Muslims as foreign “invaders” and claim “India is for Hindus.” Yet Gandhi acknowledged and celebrated the common heritage of Hindus and Muslims, calling them “members of a family.”
“Should we not remember that many Hindus and [Muslims] own the same ancestors and the same blood runs through their veins? Do people become enemies because they change their religion?” Gandhi asked. “What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?”
Indeed, Gandhi died while living out this principle: when Nathuram Godse shot him, he was at one of his interfaith prayer meetings, encouraging communal harmony among all Indians by example.
During his trial, Godse predicted that people would one day “find the true value” in the murder of Gandhi. And, looking at the state of the country today – where Muslims are now threatened with genocide in the name of Hindutva – he was not entirely wrong. But India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a different prediction, one that saw past the short-sighted, hateful aspirations of people like Godse and the followers of Hindutva today.
“The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country,” Nehru said in a radio address on the day Gandhi died. “The world will see it, and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”
That light will survive this dark chapter in history, but not without effort. The only way for India to revive Gandhi’s legacy is by working, as he did, to dismantle the dangerous majoritarianism that has left the entire nation spiraling toward bloody fascism. It must reject the violence of Hindutva in order to ensure the safety of not just minorities, but of Indian democracy as a whole. Now, more than ever, India’s needs to follow Gandhi’s light.