In the general elections of 2019, the high-decibel campaign was around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims of being the foremost nationalist, based on the successful “surgical strikes” on Pakistan. Amid this came Kamal Haasan’s remark that independent India’s “first extremist was a Hindu”, referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. Footwear was flung at the actor-turned-politician and an FIR was filed against him. But he remained steadfast in his stand: “I cannot change my hero and I can't accept the villain as hero.”
Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in the Malegaon bombing case, now elected Member of Parliament, sprung to declare Godse a deshbhakt, a patriot. Sensing popular outrage, the Prime Minister said he could not “forgive Pragya from his heart”. More interesting was the emergence of a curious definition of “terrorist”— a Hindu cannot be one, we were told by BJP president Amit Shah.
The emergence of Godse at the centre stage of Indian politics did not come out of nowhere. On the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination this January, the central image was not, as usual, of a nation mourning the death of the independence icon, but a celebration of the day as shaurya diwas in Aligarh. Television was dominated by an effigy of Gandhi being shot at. The optics were Bollywood-style, tomato-sauce blood oozing out of Gandhi’s heart. The woman pulling the trigger was the general secretary of the local unit of the Hindu Mahasabha. Video and TV channels had been invited to record the event.
During Modi’s first-term in office, there were attempts to build a temple to Godse. One instance was in Gwalior, on 15 November 2017, the day Godse was hanged, observed as balidan divas (day of sacrifice) by some radical Hindu outfits. The building of the temple was thwarted by the district administration, but a bust was installed and consecrated.
Deshbhakt, balidani, worship-worthy: what does one make of these epithets for Godse? Is there popular interest in or even admiration for him, as a macho hero who had the “courage” to eliminate the legendary Mahatma? Or is there support for the politics he represents, the politics of Hindutva, and all it stands for? Whatever the answer, Godse is clearly not part of some lunatic fringe, which the BJP can disavow as and when it pleases. Godse, Savarkar, BJP, RSS are part of one political spectrum, with Hindutva at its core.
A basic question one needs to ask is, why are the Hindu communalists at pains to appear as nationalist? The simple answer is because they want to camouflage their communal objectives behind the veil of nationalism. But since they had no role in the Indian national movement, history has to be distorted, especially in the textbooks sponsored by BJP governments. Secular and democratic nationalism is reviled, as are Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and, of course, the communists. Minorities, especially Muslims, are presented in a negative light. Gandhi is vilified. There is silence in the textbooks on the murder of the Mahatma, and on Godse’s links with the RSS and, later, the Hindu Mahasabha.
Hindu Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the author of Hindutva, the quintessential text of Hindu communalism, was the mastermind behind the conspiracy to murder Gandhi. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Rao Apte were its executors. Savarkar’s role in the Gandhi murder conspiracy came out after his death, when his close associates, Kasar and Damle, corroborated the approver’s statements before the Justice Kapoor Commission of Enquiry set up in 1965. The Commission concluded, “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.” No statement made in a Commission of Inquiry can be used in evidence against the individual who made it; this made it possible for the truth to be told freely.
At the Gandhi murder trial, Savarkar disowned Godse. Godse, in turn, denied Savarkar’s involvement. This was despite the well-known fact that Godse and Apte were activists of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as well as followers of Savarkar. Savarkar financed their newspaper Agrani, later named Hindu Rashtra. They were organisers of the Hindu Rashtra Dal, a volunteer organisation set up by Savarkar.
At the level of the organisation, the attempt was to erase the association with Gandhi’s murder in the public eye. The RSS donned the mask of a cultural organisation from which, in 1951, emerged its political wing, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
This playacting did not impress the leaders of the day, who saw the conspiracy for what it was. Few saw Godse as an individual pushed to the extreme, as the assassin had presented himself at his trial: “I firmly believed that the teachings of absolute ‘Ahimsa’ as advocated by Gandhiji would ultimately result in emasculation of the Hindu community….The accumulating provocation of years culminating in his last pro Muslim fast, at last, goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhiji should be brought to an end immediately. When the top rank leaders of the Congress with the consent of Gandhiji divided and tore the country—which we consider as a deity of worship— my mind became full with the thoughts of direful anger…. I do say that my shots were fired at the person whose policy and action had brought rack (sic) and ruin and destruction to lacs of Hindus.”
Jawaharlal Nehru had no doubts about the complicity of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha in Gandhi’s assassination: “These people have the blood of Mahatma Gandhi on their hands and pious disclaimers and dissociation now have no meaning.” In a speech in New Delhi on February 2, 1948, he pointed to who these people were: “It was one of the votaries of this demand for Hindu Rashtra who killed the greatest living Hindu.”
Sardar Patel, then home minister, was clear that it was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.
A question remains: despite all the facts on record, why is Godse glorified, Gandhi vilified and Savarkar selectively remembered as a revolutionary?
A meeting in honour of Godse, was held in Bombay on November 19, 1993, in the Patil Maruti temple at Dadar, Bombay. His younger brother, Gopal Godse, an accused in the Gandhi murder conspiracy case, read out Nathuram’s call for the creation of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) and a Hindu Rashtra. The audience repeated the lines, which were in Sanskrit, solemnly, as if they were taking an oath. The speeches were full of hatred for Gandhi, admiration for Nathuram Godse and communal venom. Dharmabhushan SG Shevade hailed Gandhi’s murder to loud applause. Gopal Godse asked the audience to donate liberally for “liberating the Sindhu river by bringing Pakistan under Hindu Rashtra”. Nathuram Godse wished his ashes be scattered only in the Sindhu river — he had said in jail that other rivers were polluted with Gandhi’s ashes. Gandhi was described as the father, not of India, but of Pakistan. The day of his killing was declared a day of celebration. Gandhi’s assassination was termed as vadh, the killing of a demon. Gandhi was called a traitor, Nathuram Godse hailed as a national hero, who, by killing Gandhi, saved India from another partition. Gandhi was described as a “fanatic” and “bloodsucker” who had the blood of innocent Hindus on his hands.
On May 16, 1991, Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena leader, said in Pune: “We are proud of Nathuram. He saved the country from a second partition.” In 2002, The Hindu reported that “Britain’s Sangh Parivar celebrated India’s Independence Day today by resolving to ‘advocate Godse’s outlook and action’ and challenge every anti-national Mulla-Commie”. Bipin Patel, a hardcore Hindutva activist, warned that “if in the meantime a Gandhi comes to create hurdles in the way, then that Gandhi would need to be put out of the way”.
The BJP government of the day took the initiative to have Savarkar’s portrait installed in Parliament in 2003 despite widespread protest. To add insult to injury, it was placed opposite Gandhi’s portrait. One can see that it is awkward for a party with nationalist claims not to have any freedom fighters on its rolls. Hence, Savarkar was to be cast as a nationalist icon, as krantiveer, the brave revolutionary.
Savarkar’s repeatedly asking for pardon during his stay in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans and his not taking part in any nationalist activity after his release, is elided. It is well-documented that he petitioned Sir Reginald Craddock, a visiting British official, for his release, offering to be loyal to the English Government.
What is at work then is that the national past get reconstructed in keeping with communal ideology. As we saw, Godse and Savarkar are fashioned as national heroes whereas Gandhi is portrayed as the deshdrohi (traitor). In the communal rewriting of our past Gandhi’s murder is painted as asuravadh (slaying of a demon), not as shahadat (martyrdom) as it has been seen all these years. This inversion takes place while selectively appropriating the Mahatma. Modi’s lip service to Gandhi is in line with this. Gandhi is invoked for his attention to cleanliness, his trademark glasses the logo of Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Savarkar, despite being a longstanding public critic of Gandhi, shed tears and waxed eloquent about his admiration for the icon at the murder trial. Similarly, Modi said he could not forgive Pragya from his heart for praising Godse as a patriot, but stopped short there. She remained a BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha seat from Bhopal. The similarity could not be more evident.
In 1948, even those who had supported Hindu communal politics had recoiled from them, shocked beyond words by their role in Gandhi’s murder. What we see in recent years is the rusting of the moral compass in politics. Savarkar was brought into Parliament, despite public knowledge of his role in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi. Pragya Thakur, herself accused of an act of terror, and who hailed Godse as a deshbhakt, has entered Parliament after a huge electoral victory.
Does this suggest a new normal? Kamal Haasan said: “I cannot change my hero and I can't accept the villain as hero.” But we seem to be mesmerised by the villain.
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