COVER STORY: Bulldozing the idea of India

RSS and Gandhi: Sangh Parivar's belated attempts to appropriate national heroes in quest for legitimacy

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Mahatma Gandhi on the historic barefoot march that he began on January 7, 1947, trying to extinguish the flames of intolerance in Bihar and East Bengal’s Noakhali. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

The Hindu right wing has been trying to appropriate the legacy of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Subhas Chandra Bose in a bid to acquire legitimacy. All of them despised the Sangh Parivar.

It is characteristic of upstarts and social climbers to drop names. They imagine that this would ensure acceptance in “high society”. It, however, ensures certain ridicule and contempt. The same is very true of the Sangh Parivar’s belated attempts to appropriate Gandhi, Ambedkar and, lately Subhas Chandra Bose as their idols. The attempt is bound to fail. Every one of the three despised the Sangh Parivar.

Let us begin with Gandhi. Four features that no serious student of public affairs should overlook mark the Sangh Parivar’s current stance on Gandhi. There were stray references in the past but the enthusiasm is recent, sudden, orchestrated and motivated. One has only to read Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) supremo Rajendra Singh’s speech on Vijayadasami day in 1997 to be struck by this (Organiser, October 26). It begins with homage to Rama (one paragraph), followed by remembrance of the founder K.B. Hedgewar (one paragraph), and praise of Mahatma Gandhi (two exuberant paragraphs). But he is dropped as the orator warms up to his un-Gandhian themes. Hedgewar dominates, as does Ram, but only in the context of Ayodhya.

Rajendra Singh launched the campaign on October 2, 1997, Gandhi’s birth anniversary, and hoped to lead it to a climax on January 30, 1998, the 50th anniversary of Gandhi’s tragic assassination. On October 2, he addressed a mammoth rally of RSS cadres, at which Atal Behari Vajpayee was also present, and waxed eloquent on Gandhi. Earlier, BJP president L.K. Advani had also discovered rare qualities in Gandhi during his Swarna Jayanthi Rath Yatra to celebrate 50 years of Independence. There was, however, no reference to Gandhian teachings in the four-day training camp of the BJP at Jhinjauli in Haryana. It was the “thought of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, a president of the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s ancestor, which was propagated” (The Telegraph, September 4, 1997). In public, on October 2, Rajendra Singh used language never heard from those quarters: ‘Gandhiji is one of the shining navratnas [nine gems] among the sons of Bharatmata”, adding: “He is held in reverence by the [sic] society though not decorated by the government with Bharat Ratna”. This was a cheap bid to score over others and emerge as Gandhi loyalists. Incongruously, the other topics he covered were Ayodhya, Kashi, Mathura and Swadeshi. The RSS announced on October 8, 1997, the launch of a mass-contact programme, commencing from January 12, on ‘Swadeshi’.

On October 17, 1997, Sushma Swaraj, then general secretary of the BJP, angrily declared that Mahatma Gandhi was not the monopoly of the Congress party. This was in reference to Congress president Sitaram Kesri’s jibe that the BJP was trying to “hijack” Gandhi. By itself, her statement is very true. Only, the issue is not one of anyone monopolising a national hero but of a political movement opposing him ferociously while he lived, rejecting his ideology for decades, and suddenly hailing him as one of the nation’s navratnas. And all this while continuing to espouse a credo fundamentally antithetical to his.

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There is nothing genuine or spontaneous about this recent and sudden conversion. The orchestration and timing reveal the motives. The Sangh Parivar profited enormously by the Partition of India. Gandhi’s assassination arrested that trend. The damage caused by this self-inflicted wound has not yet healed. It took the RSS-BJP 30 years to achieve some respectability—thanks to the Emergency—and 40 years to come close to acquiring power at the Centre. That, as Advani never fails to remind us, was due to the Ayodhya campaign. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, caused a setback. Yet in 1996 the BJP emerged as the largest single party in the Lok Sabha, only to discover that few were willing to sup with it.

Stigmas can never be wiped out, least of all one that is earned by the assassination of a national hero. Forgiveness can be earned by penitent conduct, of which there is no sign. On October 5, 1997, Organiser published an advertisement by a Delhi publisher for six “Readable Attractive New Books”, two of them by Gopal Godse: Qutab Minar is Vishnu Dhwaja and Gandhi Ji’s Murderer After. The third book advertised is May it Please Your Honour, which contained Godse’s statement in court. Another is by the judge who ordered the locks of the gates to the Babri Masjid opened on February 1, 1986, in flagrant breach of the law. Organiser is hardly likely to accept advertisements for books critical of the RSS.

In a remarkable coincidence, irrefutable evidence of the RSS’ connection with Gandhi’s assassination surfaced in recent years—just as it was about to claim the Gandhian heritage. Gopal Godse, brother of Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram, published his book, Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, in December 1993. Speaking in New Delhi on the occasion of the release of his book, Gopal Godse revealed what many had suspected—they had both been active members of the RSS (The Statesman, December 24, 1993). Soon thereafter, in an interview to Frontline (January 28, 1994), he provided the details and angrily scotched Advani’s attempts to disown them:

“All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah [intellectual worker] in the RSS. He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.”

Asked about Advani’s claim that Nathuram had nothing to do with the RSS, Godse replied: “I have countered him, saying it is cowardice to say that. You can say that RSS did not pass a resolution, saying, ‘go and assassinate Gandhi’. But you do not disown him [Nathuram]. The Hindu Mahasabha did not disown him. In 1944, Nathuram started doing Hindu Mahasabha work when he had been a baudhik karyavah in the RSS.”

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On January 11, 1970, two decades after the assassination, the RSS mouthpiece (Organiser), then edited by K.R. Malkani, could remember Gandhi only in these terms in its editorial: “It was in support of Nehru’s pro-Pakistan stand that Gandhi went on fast and, in the process, turned the people’s wrath on himself.” So, Nathuram Godse represented “the people”, and the murder he perpetrated was an expression of “the people’s wrath”. In 1961 Deen Dayal Upadhyaya said: “With all respect for Gandhji, let us cease to call him ‘Father of the Nation’. If we understand the old basis of nationalism, then it will be clear that it is nothing but Hinduism.”

The Times of India noted editorially on October 17, 1989: “Mr Advani, while holding forth on ‘Bharat Mata’, now goes so far as to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was the Father of the Nation.” None should be surprised at a photograph showing the RSS supremo, M.S. Golwalkar, sharing, at Pune in 1952, a platform with V.D. Savarkar, who narrowly escaped conviction in the Gandhi murder case.

Nailing the lie

This is not the first time that the Sangh Parivar has tried to invoke Gandhi’s name in order to cover up its politics while rejecting all that he stood for. Some years ago, one L.C. Pounj, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of the United Kingdom, handed over to the Indian High Commission a letter “conveying the view of Hindus” there on the Ayodhya issue. It quoted “the views expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in the Navajivan dated 27.7.1937 on the controversy relating to Sri Ram Janmabhoomi” in the wake of “the riot of 1934” (Organiser, September 23, 1990). It was said to support the Parivar’s stand.

Two months later, the BJP got into the act. Its general secretary, Krishan Lal Sharma, wrote to none other than the country’s Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, quoting two paragraphs allegedly written by Gandhi, not in Navajivan, but in Harijan Sewak of the same date, July 27, 1937. This was reported in The Times of India of December 3, 1990. It is important to note that Sharma claimed that he himself had seen a copy of that Hindi weekly.

The very next day, The Times of India published a report by its Research Bureau nailing the lie. Gandhi had written no such article. When confronted with this, Sharma now said he had come to know of the article from a local publication Vishwas (Trust) which had “reproduced” it. Changing his tune, he asserted that the responsibility for verification lay with the Prime Minister. “It is for the Prime Minister to deny its authenticity.” The Times of India of December 4, 1990, said: “Despite repeated requests from The Times of India Research Bureau, the BJP central office was unable to produce a copy of the original Harijan Sewak or Navajivan, which, according to them, carried the dubious article.”

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Undeterred, Sharma wrote a second letter to the Prime Minister quoting Gandhi, once again, in support of the Parivar’s stand on Babri Masjid. This time he cited Volume 26, page 65 of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. In a reply to a letter written by a reader of Young India, Gandhi was said to have commented that he did not think a mosque was sacrosanct if it was built in an unauthorised or forcible manner. The letter was said to have been “published in the issue of 5 February, 1925 and in Sewak of 23 June [sic] 1950” (The Statesman, December 6, 1950). As we shall see, this lie was also nailed to the counter. Sharma’s assurance to the Prime Minister bears recalling: “Neither my party nor I am in favour of demolishing any mosque. That is why the BJP president, Mr. L. K. Advani, has suggested relocation of the Babri Masjid structure at some other place with honour.” Two years later, almost to the day, the mosque was demolished in Advani’s presence and with his approval.

Ajai and Shakuntala Singh, who had “searched through The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, all the ninety volumes”, could find no such letter (Mainstream, January 12, 1991). They asked Sharma “or any of the Gandhian scholars” to enlighten them. Another article by Vishnu Nagar in the same issue of Mainstream quoted a speech by Gandhi on November 30, 1947, in Delhi, where mosques were being taken over and converted to temples: “Forcible possession of a mosque disgraces Hinduism and Sikhism. It is the duty of the Hindu to remove the idols from the mosque and repair the damage.” Further: “By installing idols in the mosques they are desecrating the mosques and also insulting the idols.”

The writers had apparently not noticed two thorough exposures of the lie in People’s Democracy, December 9, 1990. It recalled that as far back as 1950, Jivanji Desai of the Navajivan Trust, publishers of Gandhi’s works, had to debunk an exactly similar claim by one Ramgopal Pandey “Sharad” of Ayodhya. He had cited an article from Navjivan of July 27, 1937, while Sharma had cited one of the same date from Harijan Sewak. The Times of India’s Research Bureau had found that there was no issue of the Sewak of that date, the closest ones being those of July 24 and 21, 1937. Navajivan had ceased publication in 1932, which explains why Sharma had shifted ground only to come a cropper once again.

People’s Democracy reproduced the text of Desai’s article in the Harijan Sewak of July 13, 1950, entitled “Concocted Letter & Article”. Apparently, Pandey (“Sharad”) had written a book Shriramjanmabhoomi Virodhiyonke Kala Karnamey (Black Deeds of the Ramjanmabhoom Opponents) published by its Sewa Samiti at Ayodhya. He claimed to have written to Gandhi on May 15, 1937, received a reply from Mahadev Desai, “private secretary”, dated May 20, from Wardha notifying that Gandhi would express his views in the Hindi Navajivan or Harijan. Sure enough, there came an article in Navajivan of July 27, 1937, which Pandey reproduced in full in his book.

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Jivanji Desai opined that both Mahadev Desai’s letter and the quotation from Navjivan article, said to be written by Gandhiji, “are forged”. No Hindi Navajivan existed in 1937. Its Hindi edition was Harijan Sewak. Jivanji Desai had gone through the files of Harijan Sewak as well as Harijan (in English) and found that the alleged article “is equally concocted and false”. Other details fortified the conclusion. Neither Mahadev Desai nor Gandhi was in Wardha around May 20, 1937. They were in Gujarat.

People’s Democracy reprinted an article by K.G. Mashruwala, a close associate of Gandhi, in Harijan and Harijan Sewak of August 19, 1950, entitled “Muslims of Ayodhya”. It contains an authoritative and contemporary account of the Masjid’s takeover on December 23, 1949, based on Akshya Brahmachari’s testimony. It puts paid to the lies retailed about the takeover by the Parivar. The episode of Gandhi’s article reveals the depths of mendacity to which high officials of the BJP can stoop. No apology is forthcoming for it to this day.

Campaign of calumny

The BJP had, at its first plenary convention in Bombay (now Mumbai) on December 28, 1980, affirmed “Gandhian socialism”’ as one of its five commitments. It was then struggling for respectability. In October 1985, its national executive abandoned it but, sensing the reaction, the national council restored it formally. That was the year after its parliamentary debacle.

Differences between Gandhi and the RSS were profound and irreconcilable. They disagreed on British rule, the use of violence, on Muslims and, most important of all, on India’s composite culture. “The culture of Delhi belongs to both the Hindus and Muslims and not exclusively to either,” Gandhi said on September 11, 1947 (CWMG 89:77). In December 1969 the Jana Sangh said that “any talk of composite culture” was dangerous. Advani denounced the concept at the BJP’s Agra session on April 8, 1988. He had joined the RSS at about the same time as the Quit India Movement, he told Christophe Jaffrelot. Three members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council resigned in 1943 when Gandhi went on a fast (N.P. Sarkar, M.S. Aney and Homi Mody). The pro-Hindu Mahasabha, joined the Council. Aney, who was pro-Mahasabha, later became High Commissioner to Ceylon.

Golwalkar did not include Gandhi’s name among the very many illustrious names he listed in 1939 on page 42 of his book We or Our Nationhood Defined. His Bunch of Thoughts (1966) excoriated Gandhi at several places unmistakably, without mentioning him by name, especially in Chapter X on “Territorial Nationalism” as distinct from “Cultural Nationalism” (by which the RSS and the BJP swear even now).

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After denouncing Communists, Golwalkar turned to the Congress. “The other movement led by 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” (1968 edition, page 145). He added in an insidious passage (page 153): “Here we had leaders who were, as if, pledged to sap all manliness from their own people.” It was “a self-destructive leadership”.

Soon after Independence, Gandhi interacted with the RSS and its supremo, Golwalkar. He had received complaints about its activities from Asaf Ali, president of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee in 1942 (CWMG 76:401). RSS men obstructed his prayer meeting on April 3, 1947. Gandhi called it “a big organization”. A letter came from the RSS disowning them (CWMG 87: 195, 202).

Gandhi met Golwalkar in September 1947. He told an RSS rally on September 16 that he had mentioned to Golwalkar the various complaints about the Sangh that he had received in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Delhi. The Guruji had assured him that though he would not vouch for the correct behavior of every member of the Sangh, the policy of the Sangh was purely service of the Hindus and Hinduism and that too not at the cost of anyone else. The Sangh did not believe in aggression. It did not believe in ahimsa. It taught the art of self-defence. It never taught retaliation. (CWMG 89: 193).

Earlier, on September 12, Gandhi told his prayer meeting that he “had been told that the hands of this organisation too were steeped in blood. The Guruji assured him that this was untrue. … It stood for peace and he had asked Gandhiji to make his [Golwalkar’s] views public” (CWMG 89: 177).

Gandhi, obviously, was not assured, for he told the All India Congress Committee (AICC) two months later, on November 15: “I have heard it said that Sangh is at the root of all this mischief … Hinduism cannot be saved by orgies of murder’ (CWMG 90: 43). The next day (16 November) he spoke of “the Hindu Mahasabha assisted by members of the RSS who wish that all Muslims should be driven away from the Indian Union” (CWMG 90: 50). He had received complaints about their behaviour in Rajkot also. “Is it true that they have harassed the Muslims? If not, who has?” (CWMG 90: 143).

Gandhi went on a fast from January 13. The RSS was among the signatories to the declaration embodying assurances to Muslims that persuaded Gandhi to break his fast on January 18 (CWMG 90: 444). Still, Gandhi was none too assured. It would be a breach of faith if they broke the assurances “in other places. I have been observing that this sort of deception is being practised in the country these days on a large scale” (CWMG 90: 445).

This cold point of the record must be read with the testimonies of two close associates, Jawaharlal Nehru and Pyarelal Nehru wrote to Sardar Patel on October 29, 1948: “I remember Bapu telling me after his first meeting with Golwalkar that he was partly impressed by him but at the same time did not trust him. After his second or third meeting he expressed a very strong opinion against Golwalkar and the RSS and said that it was impossible to rely upon their word. They appear to be highly reasonable when talked to but they had no compunction in acting in exact contradiction to what they said. My own impression has been the same.”

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Pyarelal’s account is fairly detailed. His comments are pertinent. He was the Mahatma’s devoted Boswell and privy to his confidence: “It was common knowledge that the RSS … had been behind the bulk of the killings in the city [Delhi] as also in various other parts of India” (page 439). He records: “A member of Gandhiji’s party interjected that the RSS people had done a fine job of work at Wah refugee camp. They had shown discipline, courage and capacity for hard work. ‘But don’t forget,’ answered Gandhiji, ‘even so had Hitler’s Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini.’ He characterised the RSS as a ‘communal body with a totalitarian outlook’.”

On January 20, two days after Gandhi broke his fast, one Madanlal Pahwa threw a bomb which exploded some 20 metres away from where Gandhi was sitting. Someone said it was the prank of an irresponsible young man. Pyarelal writes: “Gandhiji laughed and explained. ‘The fool: Don’t you see, there is a terrible and widespread conspiracy behind it?” Ten days later, that conspiracy accomplished its objective. Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse in conspiracy with others. Pyarelal’s record of what became known later is very relevant today and bears quotation in extenso:

“A letter which Sardar Patel received after the assassination from a young man, who according to his own statement had been gulled into joining the RSS organisation but was later disillusioned, described how members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in their radio sets on the fateful Friday for the ‘good news’. After the news, sweets were distributed in RSS circles at several places including Delhi. When the RSS was later banned by an order of the government, the local police chief in one of the Indian States, according to the Sardar’s correspondent, sent word to the Organisers to close their office ‘for thirteen days’ as a sign of mourning, and disperse but not to disband. The rot, was so insidious and widespread that only the supreme sacrifice could arrest or remove it.”

That rot has now reappeared and is desperate to quell its stench by dousing itself with the scent that surrounds the name of Gandhi—a man against whom, as Pyarelal recalled, they had waged “a sustained campaign of calumny … for over a quarter of a century”.

Ambedkar’s warning about RSS

As for Ambedkar, the most telling fact is that he abandoned Hinduism and accepted Buddhism, a faith persecuted for long by Hindus. Richard Eaton has described in this journal the Hindus’ destruction of Buddhist houses of worship.

Read Ambedkar’s classic Pakistan or The Partition of India [Thacker & Co., Bombay (as it then was fortunately; 1946]. He wrote also Hinduism: Religion or Infamy. In the former work he wrote (at pages 354-5) “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with liberty. Hindu Raj must be prevented at all cost.”

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Read also Ambedkar’s other classic What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables (1945). The indictment here is even more damning. What would Dr Ambedkar have said of the RSS, BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal were he alive today?

Even more spurious is the claim to Subhas Chandra Bose. He was in truth a follower of C.R. Das who forged a Hindu-Muslim pact in Bengal. Never in all his life did Bose share even the faintest taint of communalism.

The bastion of Hindu philosophy, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, published a book on the freedom movement Advent of Independence (1963) by A.K. Majumdar. There is not a hint of Bose’s affection for the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. He died in 1945 before the birth of the Jana Sangh in 1951.