As the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) risks defining Muslims as ‘infiltrators’, Tushar Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, joins the protest to save India’s heart and soul.
Last week 25,000 protesters gathered in Mewat, in the Indian state of Haryana, to begin the historic five-mile walk to Ghasera village. It was here, 72 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi made the same journey during the turmoil of partition, visiting the area with the promise of a dignified life for local Muslims.
While millions have retraced Gandhi’s steps before, this time felt different. Against the backdrop of a new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) passed by the Indian parliament last week, which many believe is openly discriminatory against Muslims and relegates them to second-class citizens, honouring Gandhi’s words of religious harmony and reconciliation felt like a powerful political statement. “Mewat has witnessed many protests, but this is the biggest in our life,” resident Shahzad Khan told local media.
As India has seen some of the biggest protests in four decades, the image and legacy of Gandhi, known as the “father of India” for his role in independence, has been omnipresent. Across India people have voiced fears that the new act, passed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s right wing, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, risks destroying the secular, pluralistic India that Gandhi dedicated his life to building.
It was no accident that on the same day that protesters marched in Mewat last week, thousands of demonstrators gathered at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai, the spot from which Gandhi gave his famous “Quit India” speech to the British government in 1942.
Among the millions who have taken to the streets defending Gandhi’s inclusive vision of India has been Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Arun Gandhi. “For the first time in independent India,” said Tushar Gandhi, “laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion.”
Tushar Gandhi has dedicated much of his life to his great-grandfather’s legacy, establishing and running the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai, but he said with the passing of the new citizenship law something had shifted. “Everybody has a turning point in their life. If being thrown out of the train was a turning point in my great-grandfather’s life, I think this issue of trying to change the soul of my nation is the turning point in my life,” he said. In 10 years, he added, this country “won’t be India any more. It will be a fascist dictatorship. And, mind you, it will be a dictatorship using democratic process, and that is even more dangerous”.
Under the new legislation all Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants who arrived from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2014 will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship.
However, the same will not apply for Muslim immigrants. In conjunction with a planned initiative by the BJP government to begin a national register of citizens (NRC), where every person in India will have to present paperwork to prove their Indian lineage, the new act means that it is only Muslims in India who face the possibility of being defined as “infiltrators”, to either be deported or put into detention centres being built across the country.
Tushar spoke of his pride at seeing Gandhi’s image being brandished as thousands of protesters defied the bans on public gatherings by the authorities and turned out on to the streets in a wave of peaceful mass civil disobedience reminiscent of Gandhi’s movement 90 years ago.
“Just think of the far-sightedness of that man in 1930,” said Tushar. “When he was asked to send out a message to mankind, he wrote, ‘I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might,’ and today we are again fighting a battle of right against might, so it’s very natural that he becomes the icon of the protest.”
He was also adamant that the effects of the citizenship act would be felt far beyond India’s borders.
“There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology.”
While Modi has often described himself as a follower of Gandhi, Tushar said that this was meaningless in the face of the Hindu nationalist agenda being pushed by Modi’s BJP government, which aims to irreparably fracture the country down religious lines. “It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.
Over a week since the passing of the citizenship act, the protests in India have showed no sign of abating and indeed have gathered even more momentum over the weekend. Like so many, Tushar Gandhi said he would keep turning out on the streets to fight for an India where religion did not determine your status as a citizen.
“We will have to keep up the momentum, we will actually have to increase the intensity of the protests if we are to bring this government to its knees,” he said. “Because you must remember this is an arrogant government. It is not going to come to its knees that easily.”
While the authorities are increasingly meeting the protests with suppression and violence, with the death toll from the demonstrations reaching 17 by Saturday, Tushar said it was more important than ever that Gandhi’s legacy remain at the heart of the protests.
“A long-drawn-out agitation can only be sustained if it is peaceful and non-violent,” he said.
This article by Zoe Osborne and Hannah Ellis-Petersen was first published in The Observer on 19 December 2019.