In rural Mississippi, court fight rages over symbol of nonviolence | Courthouse News Service
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In rural Mississippi, court fight rages over symbol of nonviolence

It was supposed to be a symbol of the growing economic partnership between rural Coahoma County and India. But to some, the bust of Mahatma Gandhi at the local courthouse represents more sinister ideals.

(CN) — Officials in Coahoma County no doubt thought they were doing something nice for the residents of this majority-Black Mississippi county.

When the Government of India offered officials here a bust of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, it seemed like a simple “gesture of goodwill,” as one local official put it in a deposition this year.

But as officials soon learned, Gandhi is not a universally beloved figure — and not everyone was happy about the bust.

An anti-Gandhi activist last year sued Coahoma County, arguing officials had installed the bust in front of the local courthouse without following proper procedures. The lawsuit has drawn this rural county of just around 21,000 residents into a much bigger fight over the legacy of the nonviolent icon.

The roots of the controversy trace back a couple years. Jon Levingston, a local economic development official, was pitching Indian businesses on moving to the region when he met Swati Vijay Kulkarni, the Indian consul general in Atlanta. 

Kulkarni offered him a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, the self-sufficient pacifist who helped India gain its independence.

To Levingston, the offer felt equivalent to an American official offering a George Washington statue to another country, he said in a deposition in January. After a “brief conversation” with the local sheriff, the bust was on a truck headed for the Coahoma County courthouse.

The larger-than-life bronze bust is identical to ones at Atlanta consulate and the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. 

It was a recognition of growing economic ties between India and this small Mississippi county. At least five Indian companies have set up operations here and elsewhere in the state, providing 400 jobs and generating more than $250 million per year in the poorest state in the nation. 

In October 2021, local officials in Coahoma County held a ceremony to commemorate the bust. It was a quiet affair, with little more pomp than a ribbon-cutting.

Kulkarni, who spoke at the event, compared Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. — a major American symbol of peace, and an especially resonant figure in the Deep South. 

Like King, she said, Gandhi was an “extraordinary inspiration” and an advocate for “peace and compassion.” She argued he appealed to “all religions and all cultures.”

Enter Nanak Bhatti, a Georgia-based Sikh activist who last year sued Coahoma County over the bust. In court documents and in interviews with Courthouse News, he argued local officials had broken state law when they approved the bust without public notice, debate or a vote of the county Board of Supervisors. 

The Gandhi bust, Bhatti said in an interview this year, commemorates a “very violent person” and “pedophile sex criminal.” The case is ongoing, despites protests from local officials that Bhatti should not be able to sue at all.

Bhatti’s lawsuit comes amid a worldwide reckoning over the legacy of once-celebrated historical figures. In the United States, officials have removed public statues of figures like Christopher Columbus. In the United Kingdom, the death last year of Queen Elizabeth II sparked fresh conversations over the legitimacy and purpose of the royal family.

Even Gandhi, the so-called father of peaceful resistance, is not immune from these trends.

Critics point to possible abuse involving young female relatives, his controversial writings on race and sex and the troubled aftershocks of Indian independence, which left up to two million people dead and led to India and Pakistan becoming nuclear-armed enemies. Gandhi experts who spoke to Courthouse News for this story acknowledge that the legacy of the nonviolent icon has grown increasingly fraught.

There are Gandhi critics, and then there’s Bhatti. A logistics coordinator by trade, he has devoted a not insignificant amount of his own time and money towards challenging Gandhi’s legacy in Coahoma County and beyond.


He was once affiliated with Organizations for Minorities of India, an Indian religious-freedom group that also publishes anti-Gandhi viewpoints on its website. He has waded into Gandhi fights elsewhere in the country, including in the Atlanta area where he lives. 

In 2021, when protesters damaged a Gandhi statue in Davis, California, Bhatti showed up at a protest in the college town to register his support. 

If “they are angry that the statue has been desecrated,” Bhatti told a local NBC affiliate, “they should not have put the statue in the first place.”

A pair of lawsuits in Coahoma County, Mississippi seek declaratory judgment and an injunction against a bust of Mahatma Gandhi that was erected as part of an economic partnership with the Indian Consulate in 2021. (Crossroads Economic Alliance via Courthouse News Service)

“Many of the places where the statues have been installed, I've been trying to get them removed,” Bhatti said in a recent interview with Courthouse News. To do this, he protests Gandhi statues and tries to educate people about what he sees as the icon’s problematic legacy. He lobbies local governments when he hears word of a proposed Gandhi statue.

In this case, Bhatti said he was acting independently and using his funds for the lawsuit. Should he lose in county court, he vowed to appeal.

The Indian Ministry of Culture and the Atlanta Consulate did respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Officials in Coahoma County, including Levingston, did not respond or otherwise declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

Still, court records suggest that local officials had no idea they were wading into a controversial morass.

When Levingston was first offered the bust, “I said, I'm sure our community would be honored to have the man known as the Prince of Peace and an inspiration to the American Civil Rights Movement here in our community,” he explained in his January deposition. He cited “Gandhi's achievements and the inspiration that he provided people,” including to other nonviolent icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

But like Bhatti, a growing number of activists and experts are calling this legacy into question.

Take groups like Racist Gandhi, a Georgia-based organization that argues Gandhi showed prejudice towards Black people, including during his years in South Africa. The group holds that “Confederate and Gandhi statues should be treated the same.”

Bhatti told Courthouse News he has no affiliation with Racist Gandhi — and yet in April 2022, he helped the group organize a small protest against the bust in front of the Coahoma courthouse. 

His fellow protesters, most of whom were Black, argued Gandhi’s actions primarily benefited the elite and that his views on native South Africans revealed a prejudice towards Black people. They argued a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. would be more appropriate for Coahoma County.

“Throughout history, we have heard that Dr. Martin Luther King implemented the tactics of Gandhi and so we know of him as it relates to nonviolent tactics to achieve justice,” Cardell Wright, one protester from the event, said in a telephone interview later. “But recently, we have uncovered research that suggests or insinuates that Gandhi really, truly did not care for Black people.” 

“He called them dirty, he called them animals and things of that nature,” Wright added. "So once that information came out, then we realized that in our community, that statue of Gandhi would not be feasible or appropriate.” 

Even in academic circles, Gandhi’s legacy has been thoroughly analyzed. In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a similar bust of Gandhi at California State University in Fresno prompted similar outrage, with more than 6,000 people signing a petition calling for its removal, and a similarly robust show of support.

Further complicating Gandhi's legacy is the current government of India, which has continued to promote Gandhi even as it doesn’t exactly embrace his nonviolent principles. The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has ties to a violent and far-right Hindu nationalist group.


In his nearly 10 years in power, critics say he’s overseen a rise in violent Hindu nationalism, including through a controversial citizenship law, which critics call anti-Muslim, and a proliferation of vigilante “cow protection” groups. (Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism.)

Just this year, a prominent Sikh nationalist was gunned down at a temple in British Columbia. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of involvement, prompting a diplomatic row.

That activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, had advocated for a separate Sikh state within the boundaries of India. While Bhatti says he and many other Sikhs reject that idea, he also said he “wouldn’t doubt” that India was involved in Nijar’s death.

In this uncredited photo from the late 1920s, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi works at his loom. The loom, which to Gandhi signified self-reliance and simplicity, later came to symbolize Gandhi and his nonviolent legacy. (Wikipedia via Courthouse News)

In the aftermath of the Gandhi controversy at California State University, Veena Howard, a professor there who specializes in Gandhi and other topics, wrote an op-ed in defense of Gandhi in The Fresno Bee. 

In her piece, Howard acknowledged his early prejudice against Black Africans but said his views had later changed, calling him an “ever evolving man.” And even in South Africa, she wrote, Gandhi had organized other Indians “to confront South Africa’s unjust, racist laws.”

In a phone interview with Courthouse News, Howard stressed that as an advocate for civil rights, Gandhi’s legacy cannot be denied.

“The history of the United States fighting against racism is directly connected with the nonviolent struggles of India,” Howard said. “That's why [Gandhi] statues are there, as a reminder of the connection between Gandhi and the struggles in [places like] Mississippi.” 

Other Gandhi defenders — including those with ties to the American civil-rights movement — make similar points. 

Speaking at conference in Fresno in 2019, James Lawson, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, argued Gandhi’s legacy mattered because he helped the western world move beyond “a conquest civilization” and towards “a notion of justice and truth.”

But when it comes to Gandhi’s legacy, others aren’t so sure that the good outweighs the bad. GB Singh, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was born and raised in India, recalled that while growing up, he was taught to view Gandhi as a “national hero.”

Doubts creeped in later in life, as he learned more about the iconic figure, including his early support for white supremacy in South Africa and his descriptions of Black Africans as “troublesome” and “very dirty.” Singh came to believe that Gandhi’s popular legacy was not exactly accurate. Among other things, he cited an influential 1983 article from Commentary, a conservative Jewish magazine, which criticized Gandhi’s apparent inability to stop bloodshed in the wake of Indian independence.

These days, Singh counts himself as a Gandhi critic. He’s published two books on the icon, including “Gandhi Behind the Mask of Divinity” in 2004 and “Gandhi Under Cross Examination” in 2009. 

“I can tell you this man viscerally hated Black people,” Singh said in an interview. He thinks the Government of India has intentionally and misleadingly tried to link Gandhi’s legacy with that of the American civil-rights movement in an attempt to “bring credibility and credit to the Indian state.”

It’s hard to say how common views like Singh’s and Bhatti’s are. But the Gandhi Foundation, a London-based nonprofit that seeks to promote the legacy of Gandhi, reveals signs that others may be cooling towards the once-beloved figure.

According to the group’s 2020 annual report to the United Kingdom’s Register of Charities, the foundation only had 190 dues-paying members that year. Membership numbers have been “declining in recent years,” the group acknowledged in its charity filings, “and efforts to address this have not yet reversed the trend.” (The Gandhi Foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Back in Coahoma County, Senior Circuit Court Judge Charles Webster has so far shown little interest in these complex ethical and philosophical questions.

Instead, Bhatti’s case against the county may ultimately come down to more technical questions, including whether the Sikh activist has standing to sue.

Lawyers for the county say that Bhatti, a Georgia native, rented an apartment in Coahoma County to establish the residency necessary to file the lawsuit. At a hearing in early September, John Wheeler, an attorney with Mitchell, McNutt & Sams Law Firm, said Bhatti had “no connection to Coahoma County” — an argument Webster seemed somewhat receptive to. 

“It is a little bit unusual that a non-resident would come into the state of Mississippi to express a grievance about an action going on in Coahoma County,” Webster said at the hearing.

Also at issue is whether Coahoma County installed the bust without following proper procedures, including providing an opportunity for public comment. Michael Cory, a partner at Danks, Miller, & Cory in Jackson who represents Bhatti, argues local officials have been “essentially neglecting their obligations.”

“If a board allows something like this without a vote,” Cory argued at a recent hearing, “I don't think that's good government.” The Mississippi Association of Supervisors, which advocates for county governments, declined to comment on the case. 

At the hearing on September 8, Judge Webster promised a quick ruling. A second but similar lawsuit from a local Black resident is on hold pending resolution of this case.

Even if Bhatti can show that Gandhi has indeed become controversial, that won’t necessarily help his case.

While legal arguments have centered on standing and proper government procedure, Wheeler, the attorney for Coahoma County, offered the court a simpler explanation for why Bhatti was suing.

”He’s a native Indian,” Wheeler said of Bhatti, “and his interpretation of Gandhi's lifetime work is offensive to him.” On that point at least, Bhatti would be hard-pressed to disagree.

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Categories / Courts, Government, International

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