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Why RSS is playing with fire by raking up Mahatma Gandhi

By MK Venu
By formally registering a complaint with the Election Commission against Rahul Gandhi’s remark that “RSS people” were responsible for Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the Sangh Parivar has kicked off a debate, at the official level, on the history of the RSS and its relationship with leaders like Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi.

The RSS has always had 'dual emotion' toward Gandhi. Today, the RSS, through the BJP, wants to reclaim a part of Gandhi’s philosophical legacy of 'trusteeship', as outlined by Narendra Modi at a recent meeting with businessmen in New Delhi. But the RSS also has a past  it wants to forget. This relates to its interface with the Congress, in general, and Mahatma Gandhi, in particular, during India’s partition.

Sardar Patel banned the RSS after Gandhi’s assassination saying the 'violent' ways of the Sangh had contributed to the climate in which Gandhi was killed.

 Why RSS is playing with fire by raking up Mahatma Gandhi

The historical facts, as documented in government archives, seem stacked against the Sangh Parivar

Clearly, the Sangh Parivar wants to reinvent its relationship with Gandhi, even if posthumously. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had also made an attempt to introduce Gandhian Socialism as the core philosophy of a newly-formed BJP in 1981. Of course, this got overtaken by the militant Ram temple campaign later.

The Congress is also in a mood to formally use the Election Commission as a forum to engage in an ideological battle with the RSS. History has become a site of intense dispute between the Congress and BJP as Modi has repeatedly said the Congress doesn’t own the stalwarts of India’s freedom struggle.

For the Congress, a formal Election Commission hearing will serve to highlight the relationship of the Sangh Parivar with Mahatma Gandhi. The RSS, and the BJP, do have a deep sense of discomfort about their past relationship with the Mahatma.

In recent times Narendra Modi has made special efforts to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Patel by suggesting his contribution to Indian nationhood was perhaps not fully appreciated and talked about by 'Congress historians'. Of course, the Congress has retorted by saying the RSS or BJP had no right to talk about Sardar Patel given that Patel had banned the RSS in February 1948 after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

The RSS counters by saying that the ban had got lifted in 1949 after it was found that the RSS, as an organisation, had no direct involvement in Gandhi’s killing. The Home Ministry had concluded then that individual members of the RSS were found to have indulged in acts of violence. Individual members of the Parivar have been found to have used terror tactics in recent times too.

So the RSS’s relationship with Gandhi/Patel may get freshly discussed in the context of the formal complaint brought by the RSS before the Election Commission. Whatever the Election Commission’s interpretation of Rahul Gandhi’s current remarks, the historical facts, as documented in government archives, seem stacked against the Sangh Parivar.

The government’s notification, issued under Home Minister Sardar Patel, on 4 February 1948 had said while banning the RSS, “… In practice the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have not adhered to their professed ideals (fostering feelings of brotherhood, love and service among Hindus). Undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by the members of the Sangh… Individual members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military. These activities have been carried on under a cloak of secrecy…"

This government notification leaves no one in doubt as to what Sardar Patel had thought of the RSS at that point in time.  On 18 July 1948, Sardar Patel wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, rejecting the latter’s defence of the RSS. “The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to (the) existence of the government and state …. And as time has marched on the RSS circles are indulging in subversive activities in increasing measure..”, Patel’s letter said.

So Patel’s charge against the RSS is about helping create a climate of violence and subversion of the state, which led to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

Of course, the RSS has countered this by saying the ban was lifted on 1 July 1949 after the Sangh was formally cleared of any direct  involvement in Gandhi’s murder. The RSS also gave an implicit undertaking that it would not participate in politics directly and remain a cultural organisation. Guru Golwalkar, however, used an alternative strategy of sending individual RSS persons into politics, which, it could argue, was their right.  So that began the tradition of RSS-mentored individuals entering politics, who later formed the Jana Sangh.

Patel’s charge that the RSS did seek to create a violent and subversive climate is borne out by India’s leading historian, Ramachandra Guha’s article written some time ago for countercurrents.org.

In the article titled, 'Golwalkar, The Guru of Hate', Ramachandra Guha says:
 “On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse. Although Godse was not a member of the RSS at the time of the murder, he had been one in the past. And there were reports that in several places RSS members had celebrated this act by distributing sweets. As a precautionary measure, Golwalkar and other RSS workers were put in jail.  Secret documents that this writer has recently seen strongly suggest that even if the RSS was not directly implicated in Gandhi's murder, its main leader was not entirely averse to such a happening. Thus, on December 6, 1947, Golwalkar convened a meeting of RSS workers in the town of Govardhan, not far from Delhi. The police report on this meeting says it discussed how to ‘assassinate the leading persons of the Congress in order to terrorise the public and to get their hold over them’.”In today’s political context, the BJP may not want these historical facts to be brought up through a hearing at the Election Commission.

Though this is not the first time that such a charge has been made against the Sangh Parivar - in the past too Gandhi’s assassination had come up during poll campaigns -  this time the Congress will try to refresh the memory of younger and new voters (over 100 million) about the history of the Sangh Parivar.

MK Venu is executive editor and advisory digital media at Amar Ujala Group.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2014 12:26:09 IST