The Hindu priest on the banks of the holy river Ganges spoke softly, but had a threatening message 75 years after the birth of independent India: his religion must be the heart of Indian identity.
“We must change with time,” said Jairam Mishra. “Now we must cut every hand that is raised against Hinduism.”
Hindus make up the overwhelming majority of India’s 1.4 billion people but when Mahatma Gandhi secured its independence from Britain in 1947 it was as a secular, multi-cultural state.
Now right-wing calls for the country to be declared a Hindu nation and Hindu supremacy to be enshrined in law are growing rapidly louder, making its 210-million-odd Muslims increasingly anxious about their future.
Those demands are at the core of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, and his government has backed policies and projects across the country — including a grand new temple corridor in the holy city of Varanasi — that reinforce and symbolise the trend.
Gandhi was a devout Hindu but was adamant that in India “every man enjoys equality of status, whatever his religion is”.
“The state is bound to be wholly secular,” he said.
He was assassinated less than a year after India and Pakistan’s independence and Partition in 1947, by a Hindu fanatic who considered him too tolerant towards Muslims.
And Mishra believes Gandhi’s ideals are now out of date.
“If someone slaps you on one cheek,” he told AFP, “Gandhi said we must offer the other one. Hindus are generally peaceful and quiet compared to other religions.
“They even hesitate in killing a mosquito but other communities are exploiting this mindset and will keep dominating us unless we change.”
This story was originally published in france24.com . Read the full story here