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Under Modi, the Cult of Gandhi's Assassin Has Grown

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University of Virginia

In her current book project, Professor Nair explores India as a "republic of hurt sentiments." This essay discusses the growing honor Gandhi's assassin receives among right-wing Hindus. Also see her article on secularism as a popular movement in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act and an interview on the challenges to secularism.

LIBERAL FURY OVER BJP’S BHOPAL CANDIDATE PRAGYA THAKUR calling Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, a deshbhakt or “patriot,” is along expected lines. What we need, however, is to understand the place of pride that Godse holds in the imagination of the Hindu Right and beyond, alongside the shifting place of Gandhi in this imagination.


Justice G.D. Khosla, one of the three judges of the high court in Simla that presided over Godse’s appeal, has recorded the atmosphere in the courtroom at the conclusion of his impassioned defense. Women teared up, men coughed away their discomfort. Justice Khosla wrote: “Had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse’s appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of ‘not guilty’ by an overwhelming majority.”


Far from Punjab, in Loreto College Calcutta, the future judge Leila Seth recalled being told by nuns that the Mahatma had been shot at the prayer meeting. “For all of us, in Nehru’s memorable phrase, the light had gone out of our lives, and we felt the cold chill of fear and darkness enveloping us. We started speculating as to who the murderer might be. One of my classmates, a Maharashtrian, said with great anger, ‘It must have been a damn Muslim who did it. They can’t be trusted.’ Ironically, it turned out to be a Maharashtrian Hindu, Nathuram Godse.”


A week before Partition, Gandhi met with a black flag demonstration in Amritsar, and had a black garland placed around his neck. Gandhi’s personal assistant, Pyarelal, tells us that he clearly heard chants of “Gandhi Murdabad” outside Birla House in New Delhi, weeks before his assassination. Gandhi was not unused to fierce criticism nor did he shy away from debate, especially in the concluding months of his life. But his style was not confrontational; he chose to meet with his opponents privately, if possible, to convince them of his views. He also did visit an RSS camp in September 1947 and complained to M.S. Golwalkar about the RSS’s violence. The Organiser reported on September 18, 1947:


“Gandhiji had seen the Guruji of the Sangh a few days ago. He had mentioned to him the various complaints about the Sangh that he had received in Calcutta and Delhi. The Guruji had assured him that though he could not vouchsafe for the correct behavior of every member of the Sangh, the policy of the Sangh was purely service of Hindus and Hinduism and that too not at the cost of any one else. The Sangh did not believe in aggression. It did not believe in ahimsa. It taught the art of self defence. It never taught retaliation. [bolded in the original]”


A few months later, as Delhi prepared for Gandhi’s funeral, the homes of Maharashtrian brahmins were attacked. Offices of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS were burnt down because Godse had worked for both organizations. In towns across Maharashtra, where Godse purportedly stayed en route to Delhi to commit the murder, there were riots. Hundreds were arrested. In some homes, sweets were distributed celebrating the death of Gandhi. This, too, needs to be remembered. The likes of Godse and Pragya Thakur have always had a constituency.


In 1964, The Indian Express carried reports of a reception being held to honor Gopal Godse (Nathuram’s brother) and Vishnu Karkare, both of whom had just been released from serving terms of life imprisonment for their role in the assassination. At the reception, G.V. Ketkar, former editor of the Kesari, then editor of the Tarun Bharat, and grandson of B.G. Tilak, described Nathuram Godse as a “deshbhakt.” “Mr. Ketkar added that he thus knew that they were going to kill Gandhiji. As Mr. Ketkar said these things, Mr. Gopal Godse asked him not to speak ‘more about it.’ But Mr. Ketkar said that ‘they will not arrest me now for that.’” [cited in Kapur Commission Report, vol. 1, p. 62.]


Incidentally, the invitation read:


“With respect of love – To rejoice the release from jail of Shri Gopalrao Godse – the brother of Patriot (deshbhakt) (Italics are by the Commission) the late Nathuram V Godse, Shri Vishnupant Karkare and Shri Madanlal Pahwa, we are going to perform Shri Satya Vinayak Puja & Congratulate them by inviting them here: You are therefore requested to remain present for this ceremony along with your friends.”


About 200 people are believed to have attended this reception. The Express’s coverage led to questions being raised in the Bombay legislative assembly and in Parliament, to the detention of Ketkar, and, finally, to the appointment of a commission to inquire into whether there had been a wider “conspiracy” than hitherto known, and whether the government had done its best to protect the life of the Mahatma. 


The commission’s report reveals the enormous ineptitude of various wings of the special police and intelligence branches. On the narrow question of whether key leaders in government were aware of a conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi, the report absolved the government. However, what also emerges is a picture of widespread dissatisfaction against Gandhi and the Congress, especially among people associated with the Kesari and those who continued to hold Godse in high regard.


The close association of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha with Nathuram Godse has been undeniable, even though it has been denied repeatedly. The association of the Hindu Mahasabha with the assassination muddied the prospects of its possible merger with the Jana Sangh in the 1950s. In 1993, when L.K. Advani distanced himself from comments that praised Nathuram Godse, Gopal Godse told Arvind Rajagopal for Frontline that Nathuram Godse had long been a “baudhik karyavah” for the RSS and that he had, in fact, never left the RSS.


A tight circle of Godse’s supporters has long expressed their devotion to Godse in annual commemorative functions, on the day of Godse Jayanti, for instance. But this used to be a close circle, with secret rituals, almost aware that what they were doing was a travesty for most Indians.


At the same time, the more mainstream and vocal members of the Hindu Right went on to appropriate Gandhi. We see this at least from the time of the founding of the Jana Sangh, when some members were forced to reckon with accusations of being supporters of Gandhi’s murderers. It was then that Gandhi’s writings from the early 1920s were selectively used to describe him as a great Hindu sage, a Hindu Veer (brave) who stood, for instance, for cow protection, a cause always dear to the Hindu Right. This is why Narendra Modi can say, albeit a day too late, that he “will never forgive Pragya Thakur for insulting Bapu.” Gandhi, in the hands of the Hindu Right, is denuded of all complexity and contradiction.


Under the government led by Prime Minister Modi, the once-close circle of Godse acolytes has grown much larger. In 1964, when news spread of the reference to Nathuram Godse as a deshbhakt in a private invitation to a private reception, there was uproar in India’s Parliament. Then home minister Gulzarilal Nanda called it “an atrocious manifestation of an ugly mentality bordering on insanity”. Chandra Shekhar from Uttar Pradesh, then an independent member, thought the reception was inciting “the cult of violence and political assassination” and glorifying a person who is “the symbol of political anarchy … political shame.” (Rajya Sabha, 24 November 1964).


Today, Pragya Thakur, candidate of India’s largest political party, and a possible future parliamentarian, can call Godse a deshbhakt to a fair amount of popular approval. This is what mainstreaming of terrorism looks like.


Neeti Nair will appear at "'Hurt Sentiments' and Forbidden Speech in India," January 21, 5:00-6:30 pm.

Originally published in The Print, 19 May 2019.

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