The Indian PM suggested the ‘father of the nation’ gained global recognition only after a movie about him was released in 1982 India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) along with world leaders arrive to pay respect at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Raj Ghat on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023. © Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has caused outrage by suggesting that most people worldwide were unaware of Mahatma Gandhi – the leader of India’s struggle against British colonial rule – until a landmark movie was made about him.

The remark about the man known as the ‘father of the nation’, made during an interview with the news channel ABP that aired on Tuesday, triggered a backlash from politicians and on social media. India is currently in the last leg of a six-week general election in which Modi is seeking a third term as prime minister.

“Mahatma Gandhi was a great soul in the world. In these 75 years, was it not our responsibility to inform the world about Mahatma Gandhi? No one knew about him. Forgive me, but the first time there was curiosity about him in the world was when the film ‘Gandhi’ was made,” Modi said in a clip from the interview that went viral on Wednesday.

The prime minister was referring to ‘Gandhi,’ the 1982 classic directed by British filmmaker Richard Attenborough. The biopic was a major hit and bagged eight Academy awards, including ‘best film.’ Modi went on to say Gandhi’s historical contribution was on a par with that of South African anti-apartheid figurehead Nelson Mandela and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

‘God has sent me for a purpose’ – India’s Modi ‘God has sent me for a purpose’ – India’s Modi

Gandhi is best remembered for his civil disobedience movement and promotion of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) to achieve statehood. He was shot dead in 1948, shortly after India gained independence from Britain. The assassination was carried out by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, who blamed Gandhi for the partition of the country into India and Pakistan.

Modi’s comment drew criticism from many corners, including from the opposition Indian National Congress party which, was at the forefront of India’s independence struggle.

Jairam Ramesh, a senior figure in the rival Congress party, suggested Modi had undermined “the legacy” of Mahatma Gandhi. “I don’t know in which world the outgoing Prime Minister lives,” he wrote in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

Social media was then flooded with posts pointing to the recognition Mahatma Gandhi received during his lifetime and after his death.

One commenter on X claimed that Gandhi has been a global icon since the early 20th century and that “several countries got independence based on his ideals.” He noted that Gandhi was declared Time Magazine’s ‘person of the year’ in 1931 and named the “most talked about man in the world” by US newspaper The Burlington Hawk-Eye in the same year.

The Indian prime minister has stirred up a string of controversies while campaigning in the ongoing parliamentary election. In April, Modi was accused of ‘hate speech’ after he claimed that the rival Congress party would distribute the country’s wealth among “those who have more children”, apparently meaning Muslims.

Last week, he triggered an outcry among opposition leaders when he suggested that God sent him for a “purpose.” Rahul Gandhi, the head of the Congress party and Modi’s key rival, quipped that he wondered why God had chosen the PM to help only industrialists, such as the billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.

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