When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made statements eulogising Mahatma Gandhi at the Madison Square Garden in New York, I was struck by his audacity and confidence. One can interpret the event in two ways. One, the RSS has formally surrendered to the man whose memory it has tried to erase from the minds of Indians; and second, this is another attempt by the Sangh to appropriate Gandhi and his legacy to gain legitimacy for its ideology and occupy the space vacated by a demoralised Congress.
The RSS has always had a complicated relationship with Gandhi. Its leadership has hated Gandhi from the core, but has had no option but to praise him in the public domain, especially after his assassination. The RSS, in its thought and action, is the opposite of Gandhi, who espoused non-violence as a way of life and used it as a political tool to earn freedom from Britain. Ahimsa was so close to his heart that when Congress workers burnt a police thana in Chauri Chaura, he called off the movement, despite strong protests by Jawaharlal Nehru and prophecies by others that Gandhi would be finished. The RSS detests ahimsa and calls it “impotency” and, in its convoluted sense of history, blames non-violence for “foreign invaders” ruling the Indian subcontinent. Ahimsa, according to the RSS, has made this country weak. The RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, has termed Gandhi’s ahimsa as a “great betrayal” perpetrated over Indians. “They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life spirit of great and ancient people,” he wrote in Bunch of Thoughts. Violence is part of the RSS ideology. It formally worships arms. Modi has continuously been talking about Gandhi, but he has not mentioned a word about Gandhi’s biggest political experiment, ahimsa.
Gandhi was the undisputed leader of the freedom struggle and Modi praises him no end. It is ironic that the ideology he represents has no respect for the independence movement led by Gandhi. In Golwalkar’s words, “The movement led by the Congress has had more disastrous and degrading effects on the country. Most of the tragedies and evils that have overtaken our country during the last few decades and are even today corroding our national life are its direct outcome.” Golwalkar wrote the said words in 1966, so one can’t blame him for writing in a huff. Golwalkar, who was the longest-serving sarsanghchalak of the RSS, was loathe to accept that Gandhi wanted Hindu-Muslim unity as the fundamental element in his struggle to attain freedom. The evil Golwalkar refers to is Muslim influence in society.
The RSS was born as a reaction to Gandhi’s call to support the Khilafat movement in 1919, which the conservative Hindutva forces saw as an attempt to appease Muslims. The truth was that Gandhi saw in the Khilafat movement an opportunity to unite Hindus and Muslims and resist the divisive politics of the British empire. The RSS viewed the riots that took place in Pune in 1923 as a direct result of Muslims being emboldened by Gandhi’s support. It was convinced that a strong, militant Hindu organisation was needed to counter the resurgence of Muslims. A bitter Golwalkar wrote: “Those who declared no Swaraj without Hindu-Muslim unity have perpetrated the greatest treason on our society.” The use of the word “treason” was no accident. The emergence of Jinnah had sharpened his logic; the division of India and the birth of Pakistan in the name of Islam gave credence to the RSS narrative in the eyes of its supporters. And this narrative reached its logical ascendency when Gandhi sat on fast unto death raising the demand that Rs 55 million, which was due on India, be handed over to Pakistan, despite Pakistan’s military attack in Kashmir. The government of India finally succumbed to this pressure.
According to Christophe Jaffrelot, this was the immediate reason for Gandhi’s murder. Nathuram Godse pulled the trigger, but the RSS has always denied any involvement. However, it always refers to the ghastly act as “Gandhi vadh” in its internal communication, which is a sacred act like Raavan vadh or Meghnad vadh in the Ramayan. Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal has written in his memoirs, “Members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in their radio sets on the fateful day, Friday, for the good news and sweets were distributed by members at many places”.
The RSS claimed that though Godse had been its member, he had quit the organisation long before the assassination. The RSS claim was based on Godse’s statement in court, where he said he had not been in the RSS since 1934. But his brother and co-accused, Gopal Godse, had a different story to tell. In an interview to Frontline in 1994, he said, “Nathuram Godse had become the intellectual chief in the organisation. He said he had left the RSS. He said it because after the assassination of Gandhi, Golwalkar and the RSS, both were in deep trouble. But he never quit the RSS.” The RSS has no membership record and it is impossible to verify Godse’s claim.
After the Gandhi assassination, the RSS was banned, Golwalkar was arrested and the RSS continues to face questions about its role in the murder. So, with Modi praising Gandhi, it will be pertinent to ask him and the RSS a few questions: one, has the RSS shunned violence and accepted ahimsa as a core value? Two, has the RSS discarded Golwalker’s words and accepted Gandhi’s formulation of Hindu-Muslim unity? Three, has it forgiven Gandhi for accepting the division of India? Four, has the RSS accepted that the killing of Gandhi was not a vadh but a criminal act and Godse was rightly sent to the gallows? I am convinced that the RSS will not have affirmative answers for any of the above, as that will be against the basic premise for its existence. Politics is a different ballgame and Modi is a master in the game of politics. So, the debate will continue.
The writer, a former journalist, was an Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Delhi in Lok Sabha elections