Our history is a battleground. What we remember and what we forget, writes Anil Nauriya, is essential to the control of the national narrative
Nearly a month after Gandhi’s assassination, Sardar Patel, the then home minister, wrote, on February 27, 1948, to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and placed the blame squarely on “a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under [Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through”. At the time, Patel still made a distinction between the fanatics led by Savarkar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which he suggested was “not involved”.
However, a few months later, on July 18, 1948, Patel wrote somewhat differently to his cabinet colleague, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a past president of the Hindu Mahasabha: “As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha… as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible.” Even in his February letter to Nehru, Patel had recorded that Gandhi’s assassination was “welcomed by those of the RSS and the Mahasabha who were strongly opposed to his way of thinking and to his policy”. In a letter dated September 11, 1948, to the RSS leader MS Golwalkar, Sardar Patel remonstrated with his addressee over the fact that “RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death.”
There is enough material implicating the RSS and the Mahasabha over their responsibility for Gandhi’s assassination. In some respects one is treated as more blameworthy than the other and in other respects the roles get reversed. This exercise, of assigning levels of blame and responsibility to the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, has continued virtually up to the present day. The interaction between these two streams, now together, now apart, their aspiration for ascendancy and influence in India after independence and their representations of their own history and that of the country, have been an important aspect of Indian politics since 1947.
On various occasions, the two streams seemed to draw apart. In 1951, Syama Prasad Mookerjee formed the RSS-backed Jana Sangh ostensibly because the Mahasabha was not willing to open up its membership to all citizens, irrespective of religion. In April, 1980, the Bharatiya Janata Party, resuscitated from the embers of the Jana Sangh, sought to refashion its historical antecedents by defining itself as being committed to Gandhian socialism and by making liberal use of portraits of Jayaprakash Narayan, who was emblematic of the struggle against the Congress regime in the mid-1970s, immediately before and during the Emergency. By February, 2003, with the BJP’s demolition programmes, both religious and political, largely accomplished and its victories at the hustings, their historical memories began brazenly to be recast once more. The BJP, especially the Advani faction, sought to reincorporate Savarkar into its political pantheon, introducing his portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament and plastering over his past politics of assassination and undertakings given to the British. In the current leadership of the BJP, the two streams represented by the RSS and by Savarkarism appear completely to have converged.
The debates over Gandhi and his assassins need to be seen in the context of this continuing exercise of manipulation, of ‘memory’ employed to subserve current politics. This manufacturing of historical memory had started soon after the assassination itself. The narrative widely publicised, especially in potentially majoritarian circles, attributed the assassination of Gandhi to the Partition of India, thus holding him responsible for Partition while promoting amnesia, both about the origins of Hindu and Muslim separatism and the colonial role.
Added to the litany of charges against Gandhi were those of Muslim ‘appeasement’ and his insistence that Pakistan be given Rs 55 crore, its share of the moneys due from the British, as they left India. The facts, of course, tell a more complicated story. Sardar Patel, in his 27 February, 1948, letter to Nehru, while holding that the conspiracy leading to Gandhi’s murder had been restricted to a small circle of persons, also wrote that these “men… have been [Gandhi’s] enemies for a very considerable time—the antipathy can be traced right back to the time when Bapu went for his talks with Jinnah, when Godse went on fast and some others of the conspirators went to Wardha to prevent him [Gandhi] from going”.
Nevertheless, the Hindutva narrative promoted by the assassin’s party gained some currency. Even a bench of the Bombay High Court in 1969, ruling on a case involving a compilation of articles written by Godse’s brother, appeared to accept that the assassins were motivated by Gandhi’s policy of appeasement. And that “Gandhiji’s life”, as the court (seemingly paraphrasing the purport of the articles) said, was “the price which was paid for the decision that the country be partitioned and the subsequent decision to pay the cash-balances to Pakistan in the face of its aggression on Kashmir”.
Within a few weeks of that Bombay High Court ruling, a report by an inquiry commission that had been examining the assassination since 1965-66 showed that a conspiracy to murder Gandhi likely pre-dated the question of payments to Pakistan, or the fast he announced on January 12, 1948. The commission also found that GV Ketkar, a prominent denizen of Pune, knew as early as October-November, 1947, that the person who ultimately pulled the trigger was planning to assassinate Gandhi.
To frame the issue in terms of Gandhi and Godse, the man who pulled the trigger, diverts attention from an examination both of the matter of Savarkar’s involvement in the assassination and from the larger conspiracy that appears to have emerged. The trigger-pulling assassin was significant primarily as an instrument and/or expression of a larger conspiracy and of Savarkarite bitterness toward Gandhi’s attempts to settle with the Muslim League. These attempts were described in Savarkarite discourse as “appeasement”.
Hindutva narratives consistently evade all responsibility for Partition in spite of Savarkar’s own support for sectarian nationalism. Savarkarism defines the nation on the basis of religious community. This is reflected in Savarkar’s declaration on August 15, 1943: “I have no quarrel with Mr. Jinnah’s two-nation theory. We Hindus are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations.” A further Savarkarist tenet condones killing to make religious community-related points. The German versus Jew analogy is made in Savarkar’s writings, when speaking of his notion of the Hindu nation and those outside it. As we have seen, the killer aspect of Savarkarism was noted by Sardar Patel in his letter to Nehru, where he held the fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha, led by Savarkar, responsible for assassinating Gandhi.
The role played by the Hindu Mahasabha at each stage from 1928 onwards in complicating any settlement of the communal problem is throughout suppressed from Godse’s statement at his trial. Significantly, the Mahasabha appears to have allied itself with the Muslim League on more than one occasion. While it criticised Gandhi for talking to Jinnah in 1944, the Mahasabha supported the League in Sindh and Bengal in the 1940s. In a contemporary account, Manek J Gazdar observed: “It is significant to note that in both these provinces, the League had the support of the Hindu Mahasabha.” Another perceptive observer noted a similar tendency. Writing on Gandhi’s fast in prison in February, 1943, Humayun Kabir recalled (in an essay collection published in 1969) that: “All parties except the League united in presenting a demand for his unconditional release and a solution of the deadlock but the British whose attitude had stiffened as a result of recent successes in North Africa and elsewhere remained obdurate. It was perhaps not without significance that on this as also on many previous occasions there was a strange agreement in the attitude and pronouncements of Messrs Jinnah and Savarkar.”
It is important to emphasise that Savarkar and Jinnah wanted the same thing, separation on religious grounds, and Gandhi was an obstacle. Your enemy’s enemy, as both appeared to understand, is your friend. There was, though, yet another aspect beyond the Hindu-Muslim, and later India-Pakistan, lens through which Gandhi’s assassination is perpetually seen.
This includes the incident in Pune on June 25, 1934 during Gandhi’s anti-untouchability tour. The Indian Annual Register (1934, Volume 1) reported it thus: “A bomb was thrown on what the assailant believed was the car containing Gandhiji on his way to the Municipal Building, Poona to receive an address. Seven persons, including the Chief Officer of the Municipality and two constables who were in the car, were injured. Gandhiji who was following in another car narrowly escaped.” The Kapur Commission, which investigated Gandhi’s assassination in the mid-1960s, devoted ten pages to an alleged July 1944 attempt to kill Gandhi in Panchgani. The attack is not widely known, or rather remembered, but a Pune newspaper in October, 1966, asserted that Godse and some 20 Hindu Mahasabha workers had been present and were arrested but later let off. The Kapur Commission was unable to establish the facts one way or the other.
Another incident, which took place in Wardha, is recorded in a Special Police Report of September 8, 1944 which was produced before the Kapur Commission. A man called LG Thatte along with eight others led a party outside Sevagram Ashram, and threatened to shoot Gandhi. Thatte was carrying a long and sharp knife and was prosecuted under the Arms Act.
In June, 1946 there was an attempt to derail Gandhi’s train while he was travelling from Bombay to Pune. The Kapur Commission found the evidence on this to be inconclusive. In view of the earlier attempts to assassinate Gandhi from 1934 onwards, the question is to what extent Gandhi’s challenge to caste led to the bitterness against him among a section of Hindu conservatives.
This can perhaps be better contextualised if we pay attention to the Marxist socialist Narendra Deva’s insightful assertion that Gandhi was “in no sense an orthodox Hindu. On the contrary, he breaks almost every rule and practice enjoined by orthodox Hinduism.” The socialist Ram Manohar Lohia wrote in 1950: “The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was not so much an episode of the Hindu-Muslim fight as of the war between the liberal and the fanatical in Hinduism. Never had a Hindu delivered greater blows on fanaticism in respect of caste, woman, property or tolerance. All the bitterness was accumulating. Once before an attempt had been made on Gandhiji’s life. It was then obviously and openly for the purpose of saving Hinduism in the sense of saving caste. The last and successful attempt was outwardly made for the purpose of saving Hinduism in the sense of protecting it from Muslim engulfment, but no student of Hindu history can be in doubt that it was the greatest and the most heinous gamble that retreating fanaticism risked in its war on liberal Hinduism.”
While Savarkar and his acolytes cashed in on the resentment referred to by Lohia, inasmuch as this built-up resentment provided them with a certain reservoir of social support, their primary problem with Gandhi and the Congress lay in their differing concept of India. Although its own narratives on the partition of India have provided grist to the Hindutva mill and were offered as an explanation for the assassination of Gandhi, it seeks to erase its own divisive role from national memory.
It was, as the eminent barrister KL Gauba, author of a book on Gandhi’s assassination, underscores, Savarkar who first made the two-nation theory the ideological basis of a political formation, the Hindu Mahasabha, at least by the late 1930s. The Muslim League formally adopted the theory after that. Gandhi never did. Savarkar, in the presidential speech from the Hindu Mahasabha platform in December 1939, attacked the territorial concept of nation: “This conception has… received a rude shock in Europe itself from which it was imported wholesale to India and the present war has justified my assertion by exploding the myth altogether”. Instead he propounded the alternative conception that “…we Hindus are marked out as an abiding Nation by ourselves”.
Jinnah’s formal adoption of the two-nation theory came soon after this and is simply the other side of the coin. Surely Savarkar must rank among the ideological forebears of Pakistan. Similarly, having spoken of equal rights for all in Pakistan in August, 1947, Jinnah relapsed to speak Savarkar’s language in December that same year. At the League Council meeting in Karachi, Jinnah spoke of Pakistan as a “Muslim State” (though not an “‘ecclesiastical state”). And on March 28, 1948, apparently unmoved even by Gandhi having staked his life for a composite concept of Indian nationhood, Jinnah said: “Pakistan is the embodiment of the unity of the Muslim nation and so it must remain.” Recall that in 1943 (quoted above), Savarkar was saying he had “no quarrel with Mr Jinnah’s two-nation theory”, that it was a “historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations”.
Gandhi’s definition of nation was one of composite Indian nationhood while Savarkar’s concept of nation, like Jinnah’s, was religion-based. Gandhi’s understanding of Indian nationhood is summed up succinctly in a statement he issued a fortnight before his death:
“Delhi is the Metropolis of India… it is the heart of India. Only a nitwit can regard it as belonging to the Hindus or the Sikhs only. It may sound harsh but it is the literal truth. From Kanya Kumari to Kashmir and from Karachi to Dibrugarh in Assam, all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Jews who people this vast sub-continent and have adopted it as their dear motherland, have an equal right to it.”
The purpose of manipulating historical memory—of asserting, for instance, that Gandhi was murdered because he enabled Partition, when his murderers actively courted Partition—is to control and shape the contemporary narrative. The BJP once claimed, however ahistorically, to be a party of Gandhian socialism, with JP, the ‘Lok Nayak’, as its lodestar. It is now openly Savarkarist, his portrait most frequently the backdrop of photographs of the party president. By introducing Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament’s Central Hall in February, 2003 the NDA government disturbed a 55-year-old understanding that there would be no glorification of the politics of assassination. There has been an unmistakable convergence of the RSS-controlled BJP and Savarkarism.
Mahasabha and RSS members prior to independence acted to injure the concept of a composite Indian nation. The battle with Congress was joined soon after the Savarkarite faction took control of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937-38. The May Day march in 1938 was attacked by the Mahasabha and RSS in Pune. As the veteran socialist, NG Goray, wrote in the Congress Socialist of May 14, 1938: “Who attacked the May Day procession? Who assaulted men like Senapati Bapat and [Gajanan] Kanitkar? Who tore up the National Flag? The Hindu Mahasabhaites and the Hedgewar Boys did all this… They have been taught to hate the Muslims in general as Public Enemy Number 1, to hate the Congress and its flag which is pro-Muslim, to hate socialists and communists who are anti-Hinduism… They have their own flag, ‘the Bhagwa’, the symbol of Maratha Supremacy. And their leader is called ‘Rashtra Dhureen’, i.e Fuehrer!”
Such are the memories they would like us to forget.
This essay was published in the Jul-Sep 2019 issue.