* Gandhi lived and spoke as a Hindu

* Atal Bihari Vajpayee included Gandhian socialism as one of the party’s five guiding principles

* The play Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy gave Godse a whole new set of cheerleaders

* The Swachh Bharat Yojana campaign reduced Gandhi to a hygiene evangelist

In today’s parlance, it could well have been described as “complicated”. The Hindu Right, indeed, has always had a troubled relationship with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its frontal organisations had fundamental differences with Gandhi on the question of Hindu-Muslim unity, a belief that was central to his world view. Then, of course, Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, remained an RSS member till the very end.

Equally troublesome for the RSS was the fact that Gandhi lived and spoke as a Hindu. “For the RSS, dealing with Gandhi’s promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity came later. For them, the real problem was Gandhi’s declaration that he was a proud Hindu,” says commentator and Congress MP Kumar Ketkar.

After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, there was a widespread moral revulsion to the killing — not just in India but across the world. This outrage could well have been the factor that prompted the RSS to — albeit grudgingly — seek to include him into its pantheon, portraying him as a Hindu icon, even though it has largely been viewed as tokenism.

For years, Gandhi’s name has figured in the morning prayers at shakhas (RSS gatherings). There is some dispute on when it was first included in the RSS’s pratha smaran (morning invocation). Seshadri Chari, the former editor of the RSS organ The Organiser , believes the name was added in the invocation back in 1950. One-time RSS ideologue K Govindacharya, however, had told this writer that his name was only included in 1964-65, which is endorsed by author DR Goyal (who joined the RSS in 1942 but quit, disillusioned, in 1947) in his seminal book on the RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh . Curiously, a third swayamsevak states that when he joined the RSS in 1979, there was no mention of Gandhi.

Yet in 1980, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the RSS’s political affiliate since 1980 — was formed, replacing the Jana Sangh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee included Gandhian socialism as one of the party’s five guiding principles to widen its net.


Face-to-face: The portrait of Savarkar, unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament during Vajpayee’s prime ministership, hangs directly opposite to the one of Gandhi


“Atalji coined it to distinguish it from the socialism promoted by China and Russia — a Hindutva-based socialism; socialism in the Indian way,” Chari explains.

Gandhi vs Godse

But if there has been some degree of discomfort — and a great deal of opportunism — in taking Gandhi on board, Godse, and the latter’s ideological mentor, VD Savarkar, have always been heroes for the Hindu Right, even if not always officially acknowledged. In 1995-96, Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy , a Marathi play in which Godse is seen as justifying the killing of Gandhi, was staged in Gujarat, after being banned by the then Congress government in Maharashtra. Later, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power in Maharashtra, it revived the play there despite continuing protests. It had official sanction as the then RSS sarsanghchalak , Rajinder Singh, had remarked that Godse had not been wrong in opposing Gandhi, but his method was not correct.


Paradigm shift: There is renewed deification of Nathuram Godse (second from right in this file image from his trial for the assassination of Gandhi); his mentor Savarkar (with glasses) is in the last row


The play gave Godse a whole new set of cheerleaders, among whom were young non-resident Indians, for it had been staged abroad as well, Ketkar adds. Homage was paid to Savarkar, too. During Vajpayee’s prime ministership (1998-2004), a portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament: It hangs today directly opposite to one of Gandhi. And that’s an affront to all Gandhi stood for, former Union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar underscores. Since there is “a clear lack of icons in the Sangh Parivar cupboard”, the RSS has “stolen” Gandhi from the Congress to fight its contemporary battles “of unreason against reason”, he says.

But “you can’t saddle two horses, and you can’t claim the legacies of two persons if they are on opposite sides of the story,” exclaims historian Mridula Mukherjee, commenting on the RSS-BJP combine’s attempts to claim the legacies of Gandhi and Godse simultaneously.

“Godse and Gandhi were the exact opposites not only because Godse was Gandhi’s assassin but because for Gandhi, Hindu-Muslim unity was among the basic principles of the Indian freedom struggle, along with anti-untouchability, the charkha and non-violence. Can we forget that the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 started on the issue of Khilafat, the alienation of Muslims by the British government?” she asks.

This “doublespeak”, she contends, is part of the RSS’s character. “It wants to project itself as a mainstream body to large sections of Hindus who are not interested in their extremist ideology. They know they can’t afford to be on the wrong side of Gandhi. As for Godse, they are addressing their core voters.”

Left leader Sitaram Yechury agrees. “The BJP-RSS wants to claim Gandhi’s legacy for international consumption, and that of Godse to ensure internal communal polarisation,” says the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yechury holds that the BJP “simply can’t break out of Gandhi’s overpowering presence. They completely negate the core of Gandhi, which was an inclusive India, and instead emphasise peripheral issues.”

With the arrival of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, this project of venerating both Gandhi and Godse simultaneously has taken a new turn. Even as the BJP-RSS combine is officially working hard to appropriate those sections of Gandhi’s legacy that suit it, distorting his message to fit its agenda and scrubbing out those parts that are not in sync with its ideology, the “loony” fringe of the Hindu Right family — as spokespersons of the BJP and RSS describe them — has taken on the task of amplifying the appeal of the Godse cult.

As the nation celebrated Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary last year, Modi on October 2, 2019, wrote an opinion piece titled “Why India and the world need Mahatma Gandhi” in The New York Times . On February 17 this year, the RSS initiated a national debate on Gandhi’s legacy: RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat described Gandhi as a “hard-core Hindu” at the launch of a book called Gandhi Ko Samajhney Ka Yahi Samay (It’s time to understand Gandhi), written by educationist JS Rajput. Also noteworthy was the venue —– Delhi’s Gandhi Smriti, where Gandhi was gunned down.

Journalist and BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta admits that there has been a “greater acknowledgement” of Gandhi over the last six years. “When a political party grows, it is obvious that it should enlarge its boundaries of belief structures... Parts of Gandhi that are appealing are the ethical dimensions of his political-personal behaviour, his larger role in the freedom struggle,” he says. The BJP, he adds, “also recognises, acknowledges and has taken on board swadeshi...”

The core of Gandhi, he adds, was that he believed in the role of ethics in political life. “Gandhi was both a political leader and ethical guide and that explained his popularity. He believed in the regeneration of life through cleanliness and simplicity,” Dasgupta says.

Shortly after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in 2014, it undertook a key project for which Gandhi was made ‘brand ambassador’. For the Swachh Bharat Yojana campaign, he was reduced to a hygiene evangelist — and an image of the distinctive horn-rimmed glasses worn by him was placed outside every public toilet. Nowhere in the campaign, however, does the Modi government link Gandhi’s passion for hygiene with his desire to cut through social prejudice and end the practice of manual scavenging by members of the Dalit community.


In thy name: In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance launched the Swachh Bharat Yojana campaign, which reduced Gandhi to a hygiene evangelist; an image of the distinctive horn-rimmed glasses worn by him was plastered outside public toilets


Modi also sought to sell his controversial Citizenship Amendment Act by claiming in his speeches that it was in line with Gandhi’s thinking. On December 22, 2019, addressing a gathering in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, he said the Mahatma had inspired him to draft a Bill that would provide “a measure of help and relief” to members of minority communities who had fled to India from three neighbouring countries to escape persecution.

“These concessions conform to the very spirit of Gandhi’s thought... those who have used his name to pontificate about the state of the nation and continue to use his surname for their vested interests, better listen carefully... Gandhi has said, whenever our Hindu and Sikh brothers and sisters living in Pakistan feel they want to come to India, they are welcome,” he said.

In a recent article in the wire.in , journalist Ravish Kumar quotes what Gandhi had actually said on July 10, 1947: “If people flee their homes in Sindh and other places out of fear and come here, shall we turn them away? If we do so, with what face shall we call ourselves Indians? How can we chant the slogan Jai Hind? Welcome them saying, this too is your country just as that is your country. This is how we should deal with them. If nationalist Muslims are also forced to leave Pakistan and come here, then they too will live here. As Hindustanis, we all have the same standing. If this cannot be, then Hindustan cannot come into being.”

Sidelining the core message

But most critical to its deployment of Gandhi as a Hindu icon, and inclusion in its pantheon, is the way in which the RSS-BJP combine has begun to downplay his central theme of Hindu-Muslim unity and insist that it was a peripheral part of Gandhi’s message. For instance, BJP spokespersons insist that the Swachh Bharat campaign, its talk of Swadeshi and village economy have all been inspired by Gandhi, and acknowledge that they disagree with Gandhi on his belief in the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in building India. Most important, they play up the assertion that Gandhi was a good Hindu, almost a Hindutva icon. Didn’t he die with Ram’s name on his lips: “Hey Ram”, they ask.

So even as Gandhi is appropriated and repackaged by the RSS-BJP combine, Godse is being projected as a hero with renewed vigour. Temples to Godse have sprung up all over the country and WhatsApp is full of posts justifying the assassination of Gandhi, emphasising that it was a patriotic act. BJP MPs Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Pragya Thakur have openly praised Godse — and while Modi publicly said he would not “forgive” Pragya for what she’d said (she’d described Godse as a patriot in Parliament), she still remains an MP.

Indeed, contrary to the facts on the ground, the BJP-RSS combine maintains that they are opposed to Godse. “The RSS is totally opposed to the deification of Godse, or holding him in esteem or building temples to him. Even in 1948, soon after Gandhi’s assassination, the RSS had taken a strong stand... The Godse brothers did go to the shakhas , but had serious disagreements with the RSS on the issue of Partition as well as on Gandhi’s appeasement of Muslims,” says Chari.

On the continuing presence of Pragya Thakur in the party, Chari underlined the role of pragmatism in politics.

“No one can teach politics to Prime Minister Modi, but if you think he was paying lip service when he said he would not forgive Pragya, you are wrong. He would definitely have spoken to them and made his displeasure felt. Do you hear Pragya speaking in Parliament any more? There are many ways in which disapproval can be shown. Besides, neither Sadhvi Pragya nor Sakshi Maharaj belongs to the RSS. The fringe elements have been defanged by the RSS and the BJP.”

Dasgupta also downplays the resurgence of an interest in Godse. “There has been a Godse cult on the fringe for the last 30 or 40 years, and it is still very much in existence, particularly among a few individuals,” he says.

There is, however, no “organised” political force behind it, the Rajya Sabha MP adds. “I would contest the idea of a sudden resurgence. It is today a function of social media, it receives much more publicity and there is greater awareness. That’s the nature of the beast. It is actually small and insignificant. If you go out with a microscope, only then you will find it. For instance, there are critics of Gandhi in West Bengal who are not necessarily followers of Godse.”

Aiyar contests this view and points out that “the fringe” can’t last without the Centre’s support. “They are a part and parcel of the organisation. Had the Centre excluded the fringe, then the two proponents of Godse would not be in Parliament.” Yechury, on his part, describes it as “standard forked tongue politics”. The fringe, he stresses, is actually the core. “Godse’s brother had said that all the brothers were RSS karyakartas and that Nathuram was the most promising (of them all).”

Indeed as historian Ramachandra Guha wrote recently in the Hindustan Times, the cult of Nathuram Godse was no longer marginal, but was 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, he pointed out, was no ordinary RSS worker. He is a Padma Shri awardee and the current president of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi.

While Godse is being feted, Gandhi is being recalled at another level. Modi’s acolytes have begun to compare him with Gandhi, describing them both as fakirs. The BJP-RSS combine has hollowed out the core of Gandhi’s teachings and is flaunting him as a great Hindu Indian leader, known and celebrated internationally, a grand and worthy figure to whom Modi can be compared.

If the prime minister’s first term was marked by his conscious creation of himself as a perfectly groomed world leader dressed in monogrammed bespoke suits, his second tenure has seen him consciously change that image — as someone who does not belong in the material world. This began with his much-publicised visit last year to a cave in Uttarakhand, where he was seen in saffron robes, deep in meditation. In recent images, he has been seen with a long white beard, like that of an ascetic or a philosopher.

So does he want to exchange his macho image for that of a saint, perhaps even by displacing the Father of the Nation? Dasgupta’s response is cautious: “If someone aspires to be like Gandhi, there is nothing wrong. Whether that will succeed will evolve with time — one can’t make contemporary judgements.”

A prime minister, he stresses, must be more than a politician. “He must be a guide and inspiration. If Mr Modi is trying to do that, it is a legitimate aspiration. How he will be remembered, only history can judge. Gandhi, for instance, is a far more revered figure today than he was in the 1960s. The Left liberals have now embraced Gandhi — indeed, everyone has, whether they are from the Centre, Left or Right.”

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist