India

Gandhi’s great-granddaughter on Bolsonaro’s visit to memorial: “Distortion of legacy”

A senior lecturer of religious studies at Yale, Supriya Gandhi granted exclusive interview to Brasil de Fato

Gandhi led nonviolence movement for India’s independence and was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948 by an advocate of Hindu nationalism
Gandhi led nonviolence movement for India’s independence and was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948 by an advocate of Hindu nationalism - AFP

The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is visiting India for the Asian country’s Republic Day celebrations and confirmed that he will pay a visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, a venue that celebrates the leader of the Indian independence movement in the first half of the 20th century.

A major figure in the global story of civil rights and liberation movements, Gandhi used nonviolence as a weapon for the struggle against economic, political, and social oppression.

Despite ideological differences, Bolsonaro is expected to place flowers on the tomb where Gandhi’s ashes are laid to rest, following the example of the former Brazilian presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Bolsonaro will visit the memorial at the invitation of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, a key advocate of the Hindu supremacist ideology and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Established in 1980, the party had originally ties with the paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), responsible for the murder of Gandhi in 1948. Today, however, the party claims to be aligned with the ideas of the independence movement leader.

Like Bolsonaro, Modi is the head of a far-right government, who pushes economic liberalization and market deregulation policies. He is accused of persecuting minorities and opposition groups, and has been criticized in recent months for discriminating against muslims by proposing changes to the country’s citizenship act.

The professor of religious studies and Gandhi’s great-granddaughter Supriya Gandhi granted an exclusive interview to **Brasil de Fato**, in which she argues that Bolsonaro is joining the Indian government in their appropriation of Gandhi and distortion of the pacifist leader’s ideas and legacy. “They want a Gandhi stripped of his power and radical edge,” she said.

Supriya Gandhi holds a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University and is a senior lecturer at Yale University, in the United States.

In this interview, a few days prior to the 72nd anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, she also criticized the repressive measures of the Indian government and spoke about the relevance of her great-grandfather’s lessons.

Read the interview:

**Mahatma Gandhi left behind a series of criticisms and proposals about Indian society in the first half of the 20th century. Which one remains most relevant to India today?**

I think they all are. Gandhi was very prescient. Today, populist leaders and their supporters thrive in a post-truth world, clamp down on democracy and propel humanity towards ecocide. Gandhi reminds us of the connections between democracy, truth-seeking, pluralism, and environmental stewardship. 

**Does the idea of nonviolence continue to be debated by workers in India or is it treated as something out of date, seven decades after Independence? Why?**

The idea of nonviolence shines through the peaceful protests that are surging throughout the country against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act. Time will tell whether these protests will continue and expand. They are already forging solidarities across class, caste and religion. The state is cracking down on these protests with repressive measures.

**Considering Gandhi's legacy to Hinduism in India, isn't it a contradiction that fundamentalist religious groups are accused of committing acts of persecution and repression against Muslims today? Is it possible to assume that, if he were alive, Gandhi would be condemning these acts and the BJP's stance in these conflicts?**

It is not a contradiction, as these acts of violence are perpetrated by those who admire the ideology of Gandhi’s assassin. This steady drip of violence is no aberration; it is part of a multi-pronged strategy to show minorities their place and ensure perpetual social strife. 

**Gandhi's legacy is at stake. Political leaders around the world use their image and words in contexts that appear to be inappropriate. In Brazil, for example, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for announcing a tribute at the Gandhi memorial on his visit to New Delhi in the coming weeks. Bolsonaro acts as an advocate for the arms industry and has a violent speech against minorities. How do you see this type of tribute and how do you analyze the appropriation of Gandhi's legacy by politicians considered authoritarian like Bolsonaro?**

Bolsonaro has much in common with the leadership of the current dispensation in India, not least a complete disregard for democratic norms and the urgency of the environmental crisis. It is not surprising that he will join the government here in their appropriation of Gandhi and distortion of Gandhi’s ideas and legacy. The ruling government and allied groups seek to purge the facts about Gandhi’s assassination. They want a Gandhi stripped of his power and radical edge.

Edited by: Vivian Fernandes