Teesta Setalvad is co-editor, Sabrangindia. She comments on a new book on Gandhi.
The murder of Mahatma Gandhi, or more dramatically put, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was the first act of terror committed in independent India, as I wrote in the introduction to the volume, Beyond Doubt-A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination (2015, Tulika). It was also, I wrote, a declaration of war and a statement of intent.
It was a declaration of war by a section of society which remained largely on the fringes during the independence struggle and was committed to religion-based nationhood, and wanted India to become a Hindu rashtra.This was a section that bore visceral dislike toward the idea of composite culture and inclusive nationhood advocated by the Mahatma.
It is this ideology that unashamedly rules India today.
Any discussion on the assassination, therefore, needs to address the issues around the killing, the motives of the assassins. It should also examine further why Gandhi and what he stood for posed such a dire threat to the worldview of the killers.
Whenever the murder is discussed, and the factors responsible for the killing tossed around, public memory can often become carelessly selective, unwarrantedly perhaps spawning a dangerous ambivalence. I refer here specifically to the July 21 article that deliberately or otherwise skips crucial bits of the event. There are also several inaccuracies in the report that has carelessly quoted from earlier published articles.
Setting the record straight
There is need to set the record straight. The killing of Gandhi was not an isolated act but the last successful one of a series of attempts that began as early as 1934. Since the first attack on June 25 1934, there had been a total of five attempts on Gandhi’s life: in July and September 1944, September 1946, and January 20, 1948, ten days before he was actually shot dead.
Nathuram Godse was involved in two of the previous attempts besides the last one – that is, in a total of three, completely upsetting the comfortable narrative of Godse’s actions not being pre-meditated and coldly and carefully planned.
This aspect is completely missing from the article that fails to ask (while superficially relying on a sinister justification for the killing that Godse’s belief that “Gandhi helped create Pakistan” was the reason behind the killing) why some groups of persons found Gandhi and his beliefs so thoroughly repugnant that they had to eliminate him.
It was Gandhi’s commitment to composite nationhood as opposed to a religion-based state (Pakistan or Hindu Rashtra) and his support for the law against untouchability (he made a historic speech in the Central legislature in 1935) that made him enemy No 1 for all those who dreamt then – and conspire even today – to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra.
One of the crucial reasons for editing the volume Beyond Doubt was to bring to readers in English the seminal work of senior journalist and writer Jagan Phadnis who researched the killing back in 1998 as also the important contribution of Chunibhai Vaidya from Gujarat. These works along with historian YD Phadke’s analysis of the Kapoor Commission Report published in Communalism Combat are crucial reading for serious readers on the subject, and are included in the volume.
That the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was banned by the government of India within two days of the assassination, through a Government Resolution dated February 2, 1948, is surely a critical part of the narrative, which is absent in its recounting 68 years later. The language of this resolution, reproduced in Beyond Doubt, is unequivocal when it speaks of the determination of the government of India
“to root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country and imperil the freedom of the Nation and darken her fair name. In pursuance of this politics [the GR says] the GOI has decided to declare as unlawful the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the Chief Commissioner’s Provinces. Similar action is also being taken in the Governor’s provinces.”The banning of the RSS within five months of India becoming independent and within two days of the dastardly killing of Mahatma Gandhi has been linked to the ‘undesirable and even dangerous activities carried out by individual members of the Sangh who 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….The objectionable and harmful activities of the Sangh have, however, continued unabated and the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victims. The latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself.” The GR was first published in the August 2004 issue of Communalism Combat, as part of the cover story, titled Hey Ram.
Ban and lifting the ban
The story does not end here. The communications between the Government of India through then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhai Patel with the RSS also show up the falsehoods perpetrated by the Sangh, which has tried to distort even this part of history.
On September 11, 1948, the famous letter written by Patel to RSS chief MS Golwalkar strongly decries the systematic hate tactics of the Sangh before and after Gandhi’s assassination. This letter has been quoted in full in Desraj Goyal’s Rahstriya Swayamsevak Sangh (First published in 1979, Revised edition in 2000, Radhakrishna Prakashan Pvt Ltd, New Delhi).
More importantly, this and another letter written by Patel to the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee dated July 18, 1948 make clear the links between the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.
The September 11, 1948 letter is of particular significance as it outlines the kind of activities the RSS was observed to indulge in.
“But the objectionable part arose when they, burning with revenge, began attacking Mussalmans. Organising Hindus and helping them is one thing but going in for revenge for its sufferings on innocent and helpless men, women and children is quite another thing……..All their speeches were full communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison and enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the valuable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of sympathy of the Government or of the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact the opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. Under these conditions it became inevitable for the Government to take action against the RSS.”
A government of India press note of November 14, 1948 relates to the outright rejection of a representation by Golwalkar to lift the ban on the RSS by the Home Ministry, refers to the "anti-national, often subversive and violent activities of the RSS”.
This press note, also obtained from the archives of the government of India, was first published in the August 2004 issue of Communalism Combat, as part of the cover story, titled Hey Ram.
The government of India took into account the considered opinion of provincial governments before arriving at its decision to ban the RSS. An article of The Indian Express dated February 7, 1948 reports that an RSS leader from Nagpur who had presented Godse with the revolver with which he killed Gandhi had been arrested. Other persons arrested included Professor Varahadpande of the City College, Nagpur.
This news report states that another professor of Nagpur had told his students a day before the assassination that “Gandhiji would be murdered”. An associate of the gang of conspirators, Devendra Kumar, was reported by the same newspaper to have surrendered to the District Magistrate, Mirzapur and taken to Lucknow under armed escort.
There is more such material which forms part of the annexes to the Kapoor Commission which will form part of the second volume of Beyond Doubt that I am currently annotating and editing. For the record, towards the end of the judgement in the Gandhi Murder case, Special Judge Atmacharan made the following remarks in regards to the conduct of the police with relation to the bomb attack on Gandhi on January 20, barely ten days before the day he died.
“ I may bring to the notice of the Central Government the slackness of the police in the investigation of the case during the period between January 20-30,1948... Had the slightest keenness been shown in the investigation of the case at that stage, the tragedy could have been averted.”
The terms of reference to the Kapoor Commission clearly show that it was not within its ambit to investigate whether or not the RSS was involved in the murder. It would be pertinent to again quote from the Government communiqué dated 11 July, 1949 provided in Appendix IV to Desraj Goyal’sRahstriya Swayamsevak Sangh which laid down the conditions for lifting the ban on the RSS.
“The RSS leader has undertaken to make the loyalty to the Union Constitution and respect for the National Flag more explicit in the Constitution of the RSS and to provide clearly that persons believing or resorting to violent and secret methods will have no place in the Sangh..”
Among other conditions was that the RSS would function only as a cultural organisation.
A genuine understanding of the motivations behind the ideology that killed Gandhi cannot skirt around the fundamental issue of religion-based nationhood. The contempt for the Indian Constitution is writ large in MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, which is proudly available on the RSS website even today (for example, see Page 119).
Despite its assurances to the government of India, the Indian tricolour remained anathema to the Sangh for 52 years after India became independent. It was only on January 26, 2002, that the RSS hoisted the tricolour on its headquarters. Until then it was always the bhagwa dhwaj,representing the Hindu nation.
In fact, the English organ of the RSS, Organiser (dated August 14, 1947) carried a feature titled “Mystery behind the bhagwa dhawaj” which, while demanding hoisting of the saffron flag at the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi, openly denigrated the choice of the Tri-colour as the National Flag in the following words:
“The people who have come to power by the kick of fate may give in our hands the Tricolour but it never be respected and owned by Hindus. The word three is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”
It became even more brazen once the first RSS-driven government in New Delhi under Atal Behari Vajpayee came into power as the organisation’s mouthpiece Organiser proudly advertised the books published by Surya Bharati Prakashan, Gandhi Ji’s Murder and After by co-accused and brother of the assassin, Gopal Godse, as also May It Please Your Honour,by Nathuram Godse.
Both the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha have made money by glamourising the killer of Gandhi and claimed proud privilege for the reasons for the killing.
The crux of the issue for the Sangh and those who have opposed its supremacist ideology has always been about who has or has not the right to equal rights and citizenship in the India of today. On this issue Gandhi and the RSS stood on the extreme opposites ends of the spectrum. Not only can no one deny this, but it is this crucial issue that remains central to the debate around which forces were responsible for the murder of the Mahatma.
Teesta Setalvad is co-editor, Sabrangindia.