NOEL KING, HOST:
Mohandas Gandhi was born 150 years ago today. His civil disobedience campaign helped India free itself from British colonial rule. And civil rights leaders around the world ended up taking cues from Gandhi. But in 2019, some of his habits and his teachings are being scrutinized. NPR's Lauren Frayer has the story.
USHA THAKKAR: His mattress, his writing table, his footwear.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Usha Thakkar runs a Gandhi museum in a Mumbai villa where the Mahatma, the great soul, stayed in the 1920s. Here is where he taught followers to spin their own fabric. And he launched Satyagraha, his movement for truth and nonviolent resistance. After Gandhi died and this house became a museum, it got a special visitor Thakkar recalls, a fellow freedom campaigner from the United States.
THAKKAR: Martin Luther King was here, 1959. Of course, he was booked in a very good hotel. But he said I'm not going anywhere else. I'm going to stay here.
FRAYER: To sleep here.
THAKKAR: Yes. And they didn't know what to do.
FRAYER: Curators scrambled to haul two cots into Gandhi's bedroom for the civil rights leader and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Afterward, King announced he was adopting Gandhi's doctrine as his own.
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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available.
FRAYER: But now, six decades later, black Africans are rejecting Gandhi.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A statue of Mahatma Gandhi has been removed from a university campus in Ghana.
FRAYER: Activists in Ghana and Malawi are angry about his early writings. In 1903 when Gandhi was in South Africa, he wrote that white people there should be the predominating race. He also said black people are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.
RAMACHANDRA GUHA: Gandhi was a racist.
FRAYER: Ramachandra Guha is Gandhi's biographer.
GUHA: He thought in his 20s that Europeans were the most civilised, Indians were almost as civilized and Africans were uncivilized. However, he outgrew his racism quite decisively, and for most of his life as a public figure, he was an anti-racist talking for an end to discrimination of all kinds.
FRAYER: Including gender discrimination. Gandhi championed women in politics, but he was also obsessed with his own celibacy. In his late 70s, he slept naked with his grandniece when she was in her late teens. He said he wanted to test his willpower. Nowadays, we would call that abuse. Gandhi was all too human to be a saint, India's first prime minister famously said. But the mahatma is treated as a saint here, as the father of the nation.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh, father of our nation, you made a sensation when you got us independence without any violence
FRAYER: Nine-year-olds recite Gandhi rhymes at a poetry slam in Mumbai. Gandhi's face is on Indian currency. His portrait hangs in government offices.
SAILAJA GULLAPALLI: So you can see the footprints now. This is exactly the spot where he was assassinated.
FRAYER: The garden in New Delhi where Gandhi was shot dead in January 1948 - just months after India's independence - is now a memorial. Sailaja Gullapalli gives tours.
GULLAPALLI: When people come here, they get highly emotional. Some of them have tears in their eyes and go back with a very heavy heart.
FRAYER: The man who shot Gandhi was a follower of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism. He wanted India to be a Hindu country, says Yogesh Kamdar, whose parents were freedom fighters alongside Gandhi.
YOGESH KAMDAR: The Hindutva type of, you know, ideology considered him to be an enemy because he was talking of secularism and not of Hinduism.
FRAYER: Gandhi's vision won out, and India became a secular country. But some Hindu nationalists still don't accept that. And some extremists actually celebrate Gandhi's murder.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting in foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in foreign language).
FRAYER: Members of a far-right Hindu group shot and burned Gandhi's effigy on his death anniversary this year. In May, a parliamentary candidate from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's mainstream party called Gandhi's assassin a patriot.
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PRAGYA THAKUR: (Speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: That shocked the country. Pragya Thakur was forced to apologize but nevertheless won her election. She is an outlier, though. Most Indian politicians admire Gandhi. Kamdar, the son of Indian freedom fighters, says even those who don't still have to tread carefully.
KAMDAR: You know, very grudgingly, though, and maybe as a part of strategy. They also adopted Gandhi as an icon. They had to, rather. Otherwise it is very difficult to survive politically.
FRAYER: Prime Minister Modi is headlining events for Gandhi's 150th birthday. The Mahatma's signature round spectacles are the logo for Modi's Clean India campaign - something Gandhi inspired. On weekends in Delhi, crowds pay their respects at the spot where Gandhi was cremated. Among them is Harsh Parikh (ph), age 17. He and his friends debate the freedom leader's tactics.
HARSH PARIKH: When someone says, like, oh, he was great, there's always some criticism. Like, no, he could have got us freedom way before and all that.
FRAYER: What Harsh and his friends are discussing is at the very heart of Gandhian philosophy, says biographer Guha.
GUHA: His absolute insistence on nonviolence, which young men see as pussyfooted and weak-kneed and, dare I say it, feminine and hence not macho enough.
FRAYER: Gandhi's restraint can look naive to countries struggling to confront terrorism; so can some of his other ideas in today's booming globalized India, like his swadeshi movement, emphasizing small-scale local industries.
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FRAYER: A 76-year-old man sits with a spinning wheel at the other Gandhi memorial across town. There are so many across India.
Why do you come here? Why do you do this?
MUSADDILAL GUPTA: (Laughter) Because I'm very much impressed with Gandhi and his work. As a tribute to him, every Friday I come here.
FRAYER: Musaddilal Gupta (ph) is a retired civil servant who escapes here for an hour a week to spin his own thread as Gandhi taught.
GUPTA: His principle are so strong. You may or may not accept it. But the day will come when (speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: "The day will come when this palace of cards will fall," he says, "and Gandhian principles will remain." Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi.
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