MUMBAI — He is the revered father of Indian independence, and it was what would have been his 150th birthday. And yet, on Wednesday, vandals attacked a memorial to Mohandas K. Gandhi, painted “traitor” in lurid green across his picture, and may have stolen some of his ashes.
Police officials in Rewa, in central India, where the memorial was attacked, said they thought it was an inside job. There were no signs of a break-in, they said, and the thick green paint used to deface the picture of Gandhi was being used by workmen at the memorial.
Given Gandhi’s global status as a titan of peaceful resistance, the vandalism might seem unthinkable. But it appeared rooted in the same kind of Hindu nationalism that inspired his assassin to shoot him in 1948, and which has been on the rise in India in recent years.
Chanchal Shekhar, Rewa’s inspector general of police, said that detectives were taking writing samples from the people who worked at the memorial to see if they matched the scrawl found on Gandhi’s picture.
There were widespread reports that a small container of Gandhi’s ashes were also missing from the memorial, suggesting that they had been taken by the vandals. But Mr. Shekhar said it was unclear if the ashes had been looted, and the matter was still under investigation. The memorial received a small urn of Gandhi’s ashes soon after his death and the urn is now missing, but it may have been moved years ago, he said.
This is hardly the first such attack. In June, a Gandhi statue in eastern India was decapitated.
Similarly, some right-wing Hindus have built statues to Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, the Hindu religious fanatic who shot him.
Ramachandra Guha, a leading Gandhi biographer, said right-wing Hindus have hated Gandhi for a long time. But under the current government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his popular Bharatiya Janata Party, which is rooted in Hindu nationalism, “they have become more emboldened.”
“It’s worrying,” Mr. Guha said. “Gandhi is our greatest export. Gandhi is to India what Shakespeare is to England.”
Gandhi was a lawyer from an upper-caste family who mobilized millions of Indians in peaceful protests in the 1930s and 1940s, pressuring British colonizers to leave. That set the ball rolling for large parts of Africa and Asia to also seek independence.
His methods — boycotts, mass strikes and seizing the moral high ground — inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and many other champions of social change.
But India’s far-right wing is still furious at Gandhi for urging equality between Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of Indian society, and Muslims, about 14 percent. Gandhi accepted the creation of Pakistan, a Muslim-majority state that was also carved out of British India.
In a New York Times Op-Ed article published on Wednesday, Mr. Modi commemorated Gandhi’s birth day and praised his unswerving bravery, peaceful tactics and devotion to the poor.
“In Gandhi, we have the best teacher to guide us,” Mr. Modi wrote.
But what was missing in Mr. Modi’s piece was any mention of the religious harmony that Gandhi espoused.
Many Indian intellectuals believe India is more dangerously polarized between Hindus and Muslims than it has ever been, and they have been urging Mr. Modi to condemn hate crimes against Muslims. Mr. Modi is unusually quiet; so far he has said nothing about the attack on the memorial.
“Modi’s relationship to Gandhi is curious and interesting,” Mr. Guha said.
When Mr. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, he did not talk much about Gandhi or make a big deal of his birthday, Mr. Guha said.
But since he became prime minister five years ago, Mr. Modi has channeled Gandhi as a way to appeal to moderate Hindus and people outside India. He adopted the image of Gandhi’s famous circular glasses as the symbol of his Clean India campaign, and has taken foreign leaders, such as Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, to pay respects at memorials.
After Gandhi died, some of his ashes were sprinkled in the Ganges River and dozens of small batches were given to memorials around India.
Ram Kirti Sharma, an activist with the Indian National Congress, the country’s leading opposition party, of which Gandhi was a member, said he was shocked when he visited the memorial in Rewa on Wednesday and learned the ashes were missing and the picture had been defaced.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “This can only happen in today’s India. It is sad; I feel disgusted, angry, but also frightened.”
Gandhi died long ago, he added, but now “people want to kill his ideas.”