Did the RSS kill Mahatma Gandhi?

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It’s a simple, straight answer, which — unfortunately for the Hindu outfit as well as its rivals — has a complex grammar

For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi has always been a tricky affair. Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, was an activist of the RSS. The group — like many other fundamentalist outfits such as the Hindu Mahasabha — hated Gandhi and his nationalist, egalitarian and secular ideas. The RSS was banned immediately after Gandhi was killed. And Sardar Patel, the first home minister of India, then stated that members of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha had expressed joy and distributed sweets when Gandhi was killed. The RSS has been dragged into Gandhi’s killing a number of times by several leaders and academics over the years. Congress leaders such as Sitaram Kesri and Arjun Singh had earlier accused the RSS of assassinating Gandhi. In 2004, Singh said that the RSS’s biggest achievement was the assassination of Gandhi, a statement he stood by despite legal pressure from the Hindu nationalist group. Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation, a 2010 book edited by Pranab Mukherjee, says in a chapter on the Nehru era that Gandhi was shot dead by “a member of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha”. Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is the latest politician to revive this decades-old debate, and has irked the RSS once again.

To be fair, the RSS has always denied having any role in Gandhi’s assassination, though it hasn’t clearly distanced itself from the ideology of the assassin. Godse had clearly stated in his written statement, during the trial, on why he killed Gandhi. “So strong was the impulse of my mind that I felt that this man (Gandhi) should not be allowed to meet a natural death so that the world may know that he had to pay the penalty of his life for his anti-national and dangerous favouritism towards a fanatical section of the country,” he said.

Both the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS shared the same views on Gandhi and his approach towards Muslims. In 1966, MS Golwalkar — who was the was the second Sarsanghchalak or supreme commander of the RSS — wrote: “Those who declared ‘No Swaraj without Hindu-Muslim unity’ have perpetrated the greatest treason on our society,” in a direct reference to Gandhi. In January 1970, an article in the Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, stated: “It was in support of Nehru’s pro-Pakistan stand that Gandhiji went on fast and, in the process, turned the people’s wrath on himself.” Here, Godse is equated with the “people’s wrath”.

But despite these ideological similarities, the RSS still maintains that it was not involved in the assassination. Its defence rests mainly on two arguments — one, it says, the role of the RSS as an institution in the killing was never proved; and two, Godse had left the organisation in mid-1930s. Technically, the first take is true. The government did not implicate the RSS bureaucracy in the murder, and the ban was lifted a year later. In a letter written to Pandit Nehru in 1948, Patel said: “His assassination was welcomed by those of the RSS and the Mahasabha who were strongly opposed to his way of thinking… But beyond this, I do not think it is possible… to implicate any other members of the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha.”

But the second claim, about the membership of Godse, is contentious. In his written statement submitted during the trial, Godse was vocal about his ties with the Sangh. “About the year 1932, late Dr. Hedgewar of Nagpur founded the Rashtriya Swayam Sangha in Maharashtra also. His creations greatly impressed me and I joined the Sangha as a volunteer there of. I am one of those volunteers of Maharashtra who joined the Sangha in its initial stage. I also worked for a few years on the intellectual side in the Province of Maharashtra,” Godse says in his statement (page 40).

Those who challenge the RSS’ claim that Godse was not a member at the time of Gandhi’s killing have pointed out that the structure of RSS is in such a way that it’s easy for the brass to disown its own members if need be. For example, the RSS doesn’t publicise its membership record. Even now, no Sangh member carries a membership card. So if the RSS says Godse left the organisation in the 1930s, there are little ways to prove it wrong, if its wrong, that is. Interestingly, Gopal Godse, younger brother of Gandhi’s assassin and one of the conspirators of the murder, had challenged the RSS’ claim. Speaking in New Delhi after releasing Nathuram Godse’s book, Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Godse had said he and his brother had been active members of the RSS. Later, in an interview with Frontline, he said: “All the brothers were in RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah in RSS. He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.”

For the RSS, the debate is a high-stakes affair now. For one, its political arm — the BJP — is ruling the country. So its name being dragged into the assassination of the father of the nation would not do it any good. The RSS strategy, of late, is to go on a legal offensive against any prominent personalities that blame it for Gandhi’s assassination. That may work in silencing individuals, but the outfit’s past and present can make its future suitably tense.

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