A.G. Noorani | Frontline Magazine, February 8, 2013
Whitewashing Godse is part of the Sangh Parivar’s sordid game to redefine India’s polity.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and its ancestor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, have always felt embarrassed and uneasy about Nathuram Godse. They very well knew that Gandhi’s assassin had strong links to their parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). As Gandhi’s Boswell, Pyarelal, records in his memoirs, “members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in their radio sets on the fateful Friday for the ‘good news’, and sweets were distributed by the members at many places” (Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase; page 750).
There was another reason besides. V.D. Savarkar’s acquittal notwithstanding, many were convinced that he was privy to the murder; most notably Bombay’s Home Minister Morarji Desai (vide the writer’s article “Savarkar and Gandhi’s murder”, Frontline, October 5, 2012). But Savarkar was also the BJP’s ideologue. He was the one who coined the term Hindutva and distinguished his theme of hate elaborately from the ancient and noble faith of Hinduism.
L.K. Advani began his bid for the Prime Minister’s office in 1990 with the cry of Hindutva which he developed in speech after speech. Fate willed otherwise, not least because of his opportunism, tactical blunders caused by an excess of zeal and, of course, an obscene exhibition of ambition which the country does not like. Advani has fallen by the wayside. To his dismay, a protégé has emerged to lay claim to that very office and on that very plank of Hindutva—Narendra Modi.
Advani’s palpably false denials in his autobiography, My Country, My Life, reflected the embarrassment. Two, in particular, need to be nailed to the counter: One is that “the RSS had some differences with Gandhiji regarding his approach to securing India’s freedom. But these were minor, which never detracted from the high regard the Sangh had for the Mahatma.”
The RSS’s bible is Bunch of Thoughts (1966), written by its longest-serving supremo, M.S. Golwalkar. He pours out his contempt for Gandhi and the Congress in shrill denunciations of both. Advani could not possibly have been unaware of the book. Here are those passages. There were, Golwalkar wrote, in the main “two types of movements against the British rule in our country”. One was the armed revolution by the revolutionaries.
“The other movement led by the Congress has had more disastrous and degrading effects on the country. Most of the tragedies and evils that have overtaken our country during the last few decades and are even today corroding our national life are its direct outcome.” That was the Congress led by Gandhi. A few pages later the reference becomes more pointed even though the name is avoided for tactical reasons. The references are to Gandhi’s plank of Hindu-Muslim unity and to his advocacy of non-violence: “Those who declared ‘No Swaraj without Hindu-Muslim unity’ have perpetrated the greatest treason on our society.” So much for Advani’s claim of “the high regard the Sangh had for the Mahatma”.
Imagined and ancient wrongs
The attack on Gandhi becomes stronger when Golwalkar turns to non-violence. “They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life-spirit of a great and ancient people. To preach impotency [sic] to a society which gave rise to a Shivaji who, in the words of the great historian Jadunath Sarkar, ‘proved to the whole world that the Hindu has drunk the elixir of immortality’, and to break the self-confident and proud spirit of such a great and virile society has no parallel in the history of the world for sheer magnitude of its betrayal. …here, we had leaders who were, as if, pledged to sap all manliness from their own people. However, this is not a mere accident of history. This leadership only came as a bitter climax of the despicable tribe of so many of our ancestors who during the past twelve hundred years sold their national honour and freedom to foreigners, and joined hands with the inveterate enemies of our country and our religion in cutting the throats of their own kith and kin to gratify their personal egoism, selfishness and rivalry. No wonder nemesis overtook such a people in the form of such a self-destructive leadership.” The Sangh Parivar is haunted by imagined and ancient wrongs which it is sworn to correct by attacking Muslims and Christians.
What is meant by self-destruction? Two decades after the assassination, the RSS mouthpiece (Organiser), then edited by K.R. Malkani, could remember Gandhi, on January 11, 1970, only in these terms in its editorial: “It was in support of Nehru’s pro-Pakistan stand that Gandhiji went on fast and, in the process, turned the people’s wrath on himself.” So, Nathuram Godse represented “the people” and he perpetrated the murder as an expression of “the people’s wrath”.
In 1961, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya said: “With all respect for Gandhiji, let us cease to call him ‘Father of the Nation’. If we understand the old basis of nationalism, then it will be clear that it is nothing but Hinduism.”
The Times of India editorially noted on October 17, 1989: “Mr Advani, while holding forth on ‘Bharat Mata’, now goes so far as to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was the Father of the Nation.”
On October 5, 1997, Organiser published an advertisement by a Delhi publisher for six “Readable Attractive New Books”, two of them by Gopal Godse: Qutub Minar is Vishnu Dhwaja and Gandhiji’s Murder and After. The third book advertised was May it Please Your Honour, the assassin’s statement in court. Another was by the judge who ordered the locks of the gate to the Babri Masjid opened on February 1, 1986, in flagrant breach of the law. Organiser is hardly likely to accept advertisements for books critical of the RSS.
On Nathuram Godse, Advani asserts that Godse had “severed links with RSS in 1933… had begun to bitterly criticise the RSS”. This was flatly contradicted by none other than Godse’s brother Gopal, who was also an accused at the trial for conspiracy to murder. He published his book Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in December 1993. Speaking in New Delhi on the occasion of the release of his book, Gopal Godse revealed what many had suspected—they had both been active members of the RSS (The Statesman; December 24, 1993).
Soon thereafter, in an interview to Frontline (January 28, 1994), he provided the details and angrily scotched Advani’s attempts to disown them: “All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah [intellectual worker] in the RSS. He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.”
Asked about Advani’s claim that Nathuram had nothing to do with the RSS, Gopal Godse replied: “I have countered him, saying it is cowardice to say that. You can say that RSS did not pass a resolution, saying, ‘go and assassinate Gandhi’. But you do not disown him [Nathuram]. The Hindu Mahasabha did not disown him. In 1944, Nathuram started doing Hindu Mahasabha work when he had been a baudhik karyavah in the RSS.”
It was a foolish attempt by Advani to whitewash a sordid record. A similar attempt was made by Ram Jethmalani, on April 13, 1981, at Kochi. Godse and Gandhi “shared the same political philosophy [sic] of a United India” (The Times of India; April 14, 1981). He was then vice-president of the BJP. Not surprisingly, he is now a staunch supporter of Narendra Modi’s ambition to become Prime Minister.
Whitewashing a sordid record
Now, a stronger attempt has been mounted by that very Delhi publisher who specialises in books by this tribe (Gandhi and Godse by Koenraad Elst; Voice of India; 183 pages, Rs.250). The back cover lists books by Elst and others attacking Islam and Christianity. The book’s aim is not concealed. Gautam Sen’s foreword makes it clear beyond doubt. Gandhi’s assassination was a “political offence” committed in justified indignation by a thoughtful man. “Godse’s lengthy speech to the court highlights the profoundly political nature of his murder of Gandhi. Nathuram Godse surveys the history of India’s independence struggle and the role of Mahatma Gandhi and judges it an unmitigated disaster in order to justify Gandhi’s assassination. …The impressive achievement of Dr Elst’s elegant monograph is to highlight the actual ideological and political cleavages that prompted Mahatma Gandhi’s tragic murder by Godse. A refusal to understand its political rationale lends unsustainable credence to the idea that his assassin was motivated by religious fanaticism and little else besides. On the contrary, Nathuram Godse was a secular nationalist, sharing many of the convictions and prejudices of the dominant independence movement, led by the Congress party. He was steadfastly opposed to religious obscurantism and caste privilege and sought social and political equality for all Indians in the mould advocated by his mentor, Veer Savarkar.”
Sen adds: “Quite clearly, Gandhi’s assassin was not the raving Hindu lunatic popularly depicted in India, but a thoughtful and intelligent man who was prepared to commit murder.”
Elst laments the consequences of Godse’s deed: “The enormous harm done to the Hindutva movement itself and to larger Hindu interests”. His book seeks to mitigate the damage by whitewashing the foul crime.
Elst nails his colour to the mast in the very first paragraph of his preface. “One of our findings is that while Godse’s act was by definition extremist [sic], his criticism of Gandhi was in fact shared by many.” Use of the word “extremist” to characterise a dastardly murder reveals Elst’s stripes. He goes on to add: “This way Godse exacted ‘punishment’ for Gandhi’s alleged pro-Muslim policies…. The next morning, the very last issue of the Hindu Rasthra (a Pune-based Marathi daily edited by Godse) carried the news of Gandhiji’s death on the cover in jubilant language.”
Elst has no patience with Advani’s cant, whether on the links with the RSS or with Savarkar:
“The Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Corps, or simply ‘the Sangh’), of which Godse had been a member, was banned and forced to comply with government demands, especially the drafting of a written Constitution to remove the impression of its being a secret society. Only after complying was it unbanned and its leadership released from prison. The subsequent RSS habit of paying insistent lip service to the dominant ideologies and institutions is partly due to this humiliating episode, which invested the organisation with a permanent inferiority complex vis-a-vis the dominant secularists in the mould of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
“The total lack of support from politicians in other parties during this ordeal convinced the RSS rank and file of the need to start a party of their own. This way, Gandhi’s death was a factor in the foundation of the Jan Sangh (1951-77), later refounded as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party, 1980), that ruled India in 1998-2004.”
Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Savarkar’s acolyte, founded the Jan Sangh to revive the defeated movement and thus overcome the setback caused by the assassination of Gandhi.
The book is essentially a detailed defence, para wise, of the points made by Godse in his statement at the trial on November 8, 1948.
“Nathuram Godse keeps on emphasising the democratic and reasonable character of his own political position.” With friends like Elst, the Sangh Parivar needs no enemies. He lets loose some candid admissions: “During Partition, some Sangh workers were active in taking revenge on Muslims inside India (as eyewitnesses have told me), doing some bullying of their own. That similar martial RSS feats took place in the far more dangerous circumstances of the territory allotted to Pakistan has been disputed by the movement’s habitual critics.” Thus, the RSS also performed inside Pakistan.
Quoting approvingly from Godse’s statement, Elst explains that Godse “thought that Gandhi had become an obstacle to the well-being of the nation to which both of them were devoted. In that case, the interests of the nation had to be put before the lives of its servants.”
On Godse’s disassociation with the RSS, we are told “Nathuram contrived to create the impression that the RSS had little to do with him, simply to avoid creating more trouble for the RSS in the difficult post-assassination months”. Gopal explains: “He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.”
There is really no controversy here. Nathuram Godse never rejected the RSS, but he was not functioning within the RSS structure in the years before the murder. He had chosen to do political work, whereas the RSS scrupulously stayed out of party politics. Ideologically, he still was an RSS man.
As for Savarkar, “Godse was an ardent follower” of his. After a thorough probe a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice J.L. Kapur, held that “all these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group”.
The Sessions Court did not hear the testimony of Savarkar’s bodyguard Appa Ramachandra Kasar and his secretary Gajanan Vishnu Damle in the trial proceedings in 1948-49. The omission is inexplicable. Both, however, testified after Savarkar’s death to the Kapur Commission in 1965-66; crucially on Godse and [Narayan] Apte’s visit to Savarkar on January 23, 1948. Ambiguity on their earlier visits on January 14 and 17 led to Savarkar’s acquittal. Both “sat with him in the garden” and he had blessed them on January 17, “Yashasvi houn ya” (Be successful and come).
On February 26, 2003, the BJP regime had Savarkar’s portrait installed in Parliament House where Gandhi’s portrait had stood for years. It was out to redefine India’s polity. Whitewashing Savarkar and Godse is part of that sordid game. Would you shake hands with an assassin of any of your kin who is acquitted by the court in circumstances like these? Would the leaders of the BJP or the RSS? Yet they want the nation to accept him as a hero because he articulated their credo of communal hate. This represents their true character, their false apologies notwithstanding.