Gandhi Jayanti, this year, has an immediate political context: Rahul Gandhi’s remark blaming the RSS for involvement in the Mahatma’s murder. Rahul Gandhi faces trial in the Supreme Court for his remark made in 2014. The judges have a delicate task before them, because, in this case, what matters is not just who held the pistol, but also the context of the crime.
Nathuram Godse’s family claims that he remained an RSS worker till the end. His brother Gopal declared in 1994, “You can say we grew up in the RSS… Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavahak [intellectual worker] in the RSS. He said that he (Nathuram) left the RSS… because [Madhav Sadashiv] Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after Gandhi’s murder. But he did not leave the RSS.” However, there is no written evidence of this affiliation and the judiciary will not be in a position to register the testimonies of more than a handful of survivors.
People like Godse are not just products of organisations, but also of the atmosphere created by the hate speeches by members of these organisations. Hate speeches against Gandhi were all pervasive in 1947-48. Supporters of V.D. Savarkar, the father of the Hindutva ideology whose portrait was installed in Parliament in 2003, were particularly virulent about Gandhi.
On August 25, 1947, G.V. Ketkar, a Savarkarite based in Pune, the first stronghold of the Hindutva forces, declared, “Gandhism-cum-false nationalism was enemy number one”. For the Savarkarites, Gandhi’s nationalism was “false” not only because he promoted a multicultural definition of the nation, but also because he was too generous with the Muslims and therefore partly responsible for Partition. In November 1947, Gandhi declared before the AICC, “It is the basic creed of the Congress that India is the home of Muslims no less than that of Hindus. Some say that if we perpetrate worse atrocities on Muslims here than those perpetrated on Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, it will teach the Muslims in Pakistan a lesson. They will indeed be taught a lesson, but what will happen to you in the meanwhile? The wicked sink under the weight of their own evil. I repeat that it is your prime duty to treat Muslims as your brothers, no matter what happens in Pakistan”.
Hindutva forces also accused Jawaharlal Nehru’s government of not defending the Hindus of Pakistan and not helping the refugees from West Punjab. On December 7, 1947, a gathering of 50,000 at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan was addressed by the Maharaja of Alwar, G.C. Narang, a Hindu Mahasabha (HM) leader from Punjab, Jugal Kishore Birla, another Mahasabha leader and the RSS sarsanghchalak, M.S. Golwalkar. They denounced the government’s “satanic” attitude. Refugees from West Punjab were attracted by this campaign — in 1947, they were half a million such refugees in Delhi (according to the 1941 census, the city’s population was 918,000). They had benefitted from the social work of the RSS and HM.
At Kingsway Camp, people shouted “Gandhi murdabad” when he started to read from the Quran. Refugees raised the same slogan in front of Birla House, after the Mahatma started a fast to force the Indian government to give Pakistan what he thought was its due after Partition. At another demonstration led by HM leaders — including the then mahant of Gorakhpur, Digvijay Nath — people shouted, “Down with Gandhism”.
It is in this context that Godse and his compatriots decided to kill Gandhi. Godse was to explain, during his trial, that Gandhism would have meant “not only Muslim rule over the entire country but the extinction of Hinduism itself”. This idea was not his brainchild, but fuelled by well-developed propaganda. During his trial, Godse declared that “in putting an end to Gandhi’s life, I have removed one who was a curse to India… who had, during 30 years of an egoistic pursuit of hare-brained policy, brought nothing but misery and unhappiness”.
By mentioning such a long span of time, Godse reminds us that the hostility to Gandhi in some Hindu nationalist quarters was not new. It had taken a violent turn in 1934, when Gandhi had been attacked in Pune during his tour for the emancipation of Dalits (whom he called Harijans). But this hostility harked back to 1920, when Bal Gangadhar Tilak rejected the Gandhian notion of ahimsa in politics. Godse was well aware of this genealogy. During his trial, he said, “I had never made a secret about the fact that I supported the ideology of the school which was opposed to that of Gandhiji… The teaching of absolute ahimsa… would ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu community and thus make the community incapable of resisting the aggression… of other communities, especially the Muslims”.
If the judiciary has to arbitrate between the two schools of thought, the trial of Rahul Gandhi will acquire a different dimension. Justice G.D. Khosla, who was on the bench of the East Punjab High Court which started the final hearing of the accused’s appeal, wrote in The Murder of the Mahatma, “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”. The debate on the Gandhi murder is a delicate matter. This is probably why the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi — the source of most of the quotes above — is so difficult to find.