Godse worship goes mainstream in India
In the early 1990s, the veteran Gandhian, Sushila Nayar, was in the temple town of Ayodhya on a mission to promote communal harmony. At an inter-faith prayer meeting, she led the singing of a hymn much beloved of the Mahatma, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. When she came to the line Ishwar Allah Tero Naam, a group of protesters marched to the stage and stopped the singing. The elderly Nayar, seeking to placate them, said: “Hum Gandhiji ki taraf sé aaye hain (We have come on behalf of the memory and legacy of Gandhi)”. The protesters answered: “Aur ham Godse ké taraf sé (We have come on behalf of Godse)”.
Back then, and for many years afterwards, commentators considered those who worshipped Nathuram Godse marginal and irrelevant. Things may be changing. A Member of Parliament (MP) in the last House, Sakshi Maharaj, praised Godse, and was yet renominated by the BJP. In this election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Bhopal, Pragya Thakur, praised Godse. Although the prime minister later distanced himself from her remarks, her sentiments were spontaneously endorsed by several other BJP candidates across the country. Notably, all these Godse bhakts won their seats, and by very large margins.
The cult of Nathuram Godse is no more marginal; but mainstream. Its members include not only BJP MPs but also prominent Sangh ideologues. In a recent television debate, the well-known Gujarati writer, Vishnu Pandya, called Pragya Thakur “a saint”, no less. Of her praise of the Mahatma’s murderer, he commented: “Godse was a patriot, and so was Gandhi.” Pandya is no ordinary Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) worker; he is a Padma Shri awardee and the current President of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi.
In the Mahatma’s lifetime, the Hindutva hatred towards him had two prongs; they thought his non-violence weak and effeminate, and they opposed his asking for equal rights for Muslims. More recently, this animosity has acquired a third dimension; namely, his anointing Jawaharlal Nehru rather than Vallabhbhai Patel as his political successor. While Nehru lived, right-wing Hindus principally disliked him because, like Gandhi, he resolutely opposed India becoming a Hindu theocratic State, the mirror image of Pakistan; after his death, they disliked Nehru because of the dynasty which (illegitimately) claims his mantle.
That no one man could have stopped Partition; that Gandhi did more than anyone else to stem the wounds of Partition; that Patel and Nehru were comrades, not rivals; that a civilised society does not discriminate on the basis of religion — all these facts are suppressed or denied in the Hindu Right’s perverse, paranoid, understanding of history.
Especially in the last year of the Mahatma’s life, the RSS expressed a venomous hatred of him in public. (This is documented in detail in my biography of Gandhi). After he was murdered — by a former member of the RSS — they fell silent. In the 1950s and 1960s, they rarely referred to him. After the 1970s, they began to praise him, albeit in muted terms. For them, he was now a patriot, albeit one of many. They could never bring themselves to call him what Subhas Chandra Bose had memorably named him: the father of the nation.
Even while diminishing Gandhi’s role in the freedom struggle, the RSS was careful to distance itself from Godse. This may no longer be true. With the hubris produced by this resounding election victory, their real feelings about the matter seem to be manifesting themselves. Hence Pandya’s remark: “Godse was a patriot, and so was Gandhi.” The Mahatma is here equated to his murderer, with the murderer’s patriotism mentioned first.
Godse was a deshbhakt; and so was Gandhi. That is the RSS view. The view of those to the Right of them is less equivocal; Gandhi was a traitor, and Godse was a deshbhakt, indeed a great deshbhakt because he eliminated a traitor. This view is contained in a rash of WhatsApp forwards, and in conversations among some sections of the Right, a widely held view (especially in North India) is not just that Godse was right in murdering Gandhi, but that he should have murdered him earlier, before the Mahatma’s last fast asking Indians to give equal rights to those Muslims who chose to express their own deshbhakti by staying behind in our country, which was also theirs.
The RSS might dissemble and equivocate, but for the hardline Hindutvawadi the position is clear: Gandhi was the original anti-national — because he did not stop Partition, because he asked India to give back to Pakistan the money that India owed, because he loved Muslims (and Christians) as much as he loved Hindus. The man who eliminated this anti-national thus must be a true patriot.
Some of those who venerate Godse while simultaneously detesting Gandhi now sit in Parliament, sent there by Indians who find their views utterly congenial. That this is happening in the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth is a grim and cruel irony that we have to live with.
I began this column with a few Godse worshippers in the 1990s in Ayodhya. The public servant who told me the story about them added this prophecy: that Indians had once kicked out the Buddha, and we would do the same to Gandhi. Twenty-five years later, the Godse worshippers do not any more number in the few thousands, but in the millions. Their representatives sit in Parliament.
India turfed out the Buddha because we found his ideas of social equality antithetical to our love of social hierarchy. Now, many Indians wish to turf out the Mahatma because they find his ideas of interfaith harmony antithetical to their love of majoritarian bigotry. Perhaps we should let the rest of the world own and affirm Gandhi, just as they have owned and affirmed the Buddha.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World
The views expressed are personal