NEW DELHI – On Jan. 30, 1948, shots rang out in New Delhi that plunged the entire Indian subcontinent into silence. Mahatma Gandhi, architect of India’s freedom struggle and rigorous practitioner of nonviolent civil resistance, was shot dead at point-blank range by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.
Ever since, historians have contemplated a vexing question: Was it just a single man who killed Gandhi, or was the assassination the goal of an entire ideology? At the time, the Hindu nationalist movement washed its hands of the murder. But in 2015, nothing demonstrates the loss of contemporary Hindu nationalism’s moral compass so much as its new campaign to anoint Godse a national hero.
What was the chief attribute of Godse’s so-called heroism? Perhaps his persistence. It would be hard to find a more determined stalker in history. Godse had, with a band of co-conspirators, been shadowing and confronting Gandhi since the early 1930s and had been part of two previous attempts to assassinate him. A member first of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (India’s most powerful Hindu nationalist group then, as now) and then a more radical outfit called the Hindu Mahasabha, Godse was one with the Hindu nationalists of his time in their hostility toward Gandhi, a committed but resolutely independent-minded Hindu.
Like many in the movement, Godse was inflamed by Gandhi’s rejection of martial resistance to the British colonialists, his insistence on speaking as a Hindu and, eventually, his (often anguished) part in the disputes and negotiations that led to British India splitting up into the nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947, followed by the bloodbath of Partition.
For Godse, Gandhi’s treachery was so self-evident, and the call of the motherland to his own soul so insistent, that the murder of Gandhi was the only way of setting Indian history back on an even keel. At his trial, he charged Gandhi for having “brought rack and ruin and destruction to millions of Hindus” and argued that “There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and for this reason I fired those fatal shots.”
It’s fair to say that in the seven decades since, few Indians have seen reason to agree with Godse; most have perceived the terrible flaw of logic, not to mention the moral blindness and messianic self-congratulation, involved in his progression from diagnosis to solution. This extended even to those who, ideologically, were on Godse’s side. Many Hindu nationalists were appalled by Godse’s act, and they belatedly took away from it a lesson more in line with Gandhi’s own thinking about the destructive effects of violence than of Godse’s view.
Well, no more. Consider a strident new campaign by today’s Hindu Mahasabha to rehabilitate Godse as an Indian hero on par with or even higher than Gandhi. It has identified a site in the north Indian city of Lucknow where it intends to build a temple in Godse’s name. And on Jan. 30, the organization plans to release a film called “Patriot Nathuram Godse” to emphasize Godse’s “immense contribution to nationalism.”
According to this scandalous reasoning, because Godse too was inspired by “love of his country,” his motives must be seen as more important — and worthy of emulation — than his crime. The general secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha said in a report published in the Hindu:
“A distorted picture of Godse has been created in the media because of the Congress rule in the country. Now, we have a sympathetic government under Narendra Modi. What better time to make corrections to that negative portrayal of him (Godse),” Sharma said.
Why give such importance to the deliberately provocative statements of a fringe organization? Shouldn’t liberals defend the right of their opponents to statements and actions that they themselves see as inflammatory or wicked?
Certainly, I don’t support the court case now lodged against the Godse film, one that seeks to stop its release on the grounds that it might “incite people on communal lines.” Not only is it illogical to try to suppress some kinds of argument, or art, because they could corrupt adults, but at the end of the day, Indian society cannot be protected from parts of its own self, too.
But what’s even more interesting is that no other Hindu nationalist organization, including the RSS — the guiding light of rancorous Hindu nationalism in India — has uttered a word of criticism of the Hindu Mahasabha’s recent statements on Godse. The movement is so unwilling to reveal any internal disagreement that it ends up endorsing, by its silence, the actions of its most extreme fringe.
Thus, the RSS can’t bring itself to criticize the Hindu Mahasabha’s new cult of Godse worship and its glorification of violence, although a few sharp words from one of its top leaders would certainly silence the Mahasabha.
And further up the chain, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and a former member of the RSS, can’t bring himself to say a word against the RSS’ new campaign to “reconvert” non-Hindus to Hinduism, although its warlike rhetoric is a tremendous distraction from the development program and economic reforms that were at the core of his election campaign last year.
A few critical words from Modi in a public forum would at once rein in the RSS. But that’s apparently too much to expect from the prime minister, who just in 2008 wrote a book about 16 men who had shaped his life and thought — all of them members of the RSS.
I don’t have to point out the long-term consequences of this unfolding movement. Under the umbrella of laissez faire extended by a sympathetic government for the next four-plus years, the Hindu nationalist movement will compulsively become ever more strident, because it can’t stop itself from allowing the frantic tail from wagging the — admittedly feckless — dog.
Eventually, the fallout will consume the government itself.
If for no reason other than self-interest, the prime minister must, as custodian of India’s equilibrium, break the negative cycle the Hindu nationalist movement has inaugurated so early in his tenure. It is hardly unreasonable to ask (especially from someone who has defended himself resolutely against serious allegations of religious violence in the past) what Modi thinks about the arguments of those who feel that as long as they can insert “love of Hinduism” or “love of nation” into an argument, all actions that proceed thenceforth are justifiable.
Even the killing, in cold blood, of a peace-loving opponent.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel “Arzee the Dwarf” is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.