If there is anything in common in the political environments of the U.S. and India today, it's that both democracies have leaders whose ideology is shared by the assassins of two great icons of resistance against bigotry.
This month, as the world remembers Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death, the U.S. is not only being led by a bigoted president, white supremacy has rather become mainstream.
MLK was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray, a white hater who detested the slain leader’s campaign for equal rights for the blacks and his struggle against segregation laws. Ray believed that his action will be welcomed by a white majority who weren’t willing to give up their privilege and power, which came from the exploitation of blacks.
Though the U.S. has come a long way since then and the country has already elected its first black president, Barack Obama, the last presidential election turned the clock back once again. Riding on anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, Donald Trump became the president, giving legitimacy to alt-right and white supremacist groups. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a spike in racist violence both in the U.S. and Canada. People who think like Ray have become more vocal and aggressive under Trump.
The situation is no different from the one in India, where under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government, violence against religious minorities has grown. Incidentally, this year marks the 70-year anniversary of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, a towering leader of India’s passive-resistance movement against British occupation.
Gandhi greatly inspired MLK, who led the peaceful civil disobedience movement against segregationist laws while remaining a strong critic of violence. MLK also visited India.
Incidentally, both MLK and Gandhi were highly religious. While MLK was a practising Christian, Gandhi was a devout Hindu. Both these men drew inspiration from their spiritual beliefs, and yet believed in coexistence with other communities.
Gandhi was shot to death by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who was against Gandhi’s idea of a pluralist and diverse India. Godse hated Gandhi for advocating for the accommodation of minorities in a Hindu-dominated India, so the Hindu extremist murdered him on January 30, 1948.
Godse belonged to Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu ultranationalist organization that always desired to turn India into Hindu theocracy. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India is a political wing of the RSS.
In fact, RSS ideologues were influenced by fascist leaders of the 1920s through 1940s, and the idea of racial superiority was never alien to them. They saw Hindus as a supreme race and real custodians of India. Much like the RSS praised controversial political figures like Hitler in the past, many Hindu groups now praise Trump for his anti-Muslim stance.
Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, Muslims and other minority groups continue to live under constant fear from Hindu fanatics, who have become emboldened and often indulge in violence with impunity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reveres a controversial figure, VD Savarkar, who was charged but later acquitted of being part of the conspiracy with Godse to kill Gandhi.
The toxic environment both in the U.S. and India is a reminder of the ugly reality of bigotry that's becoming stronger every day. A “white U.S.” or a “Hindu India” isn’t what King or Gandhi envisioned.
They both believed in an inclusive society with no room for hatred and disharmony. It is time to reclaim the space that is increasingly being encroached upon by the forces that took away the lives of these two men in their pursuit for intolerant and exclusionary nation states.