(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.
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.