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The Insidious Hindutva Campaign to Place Gandhi and His Assassin on the Same Pedestal
Even on the country's Republic Day, the wholesale questioning of leaders who defended the rights of religious minorities continues apace
Wikipedia Commons. Government of India.
Today is the 73rd anniversary of India’s Republic Day—the day the country, having obtained its independence from British colonial rule, formally embraced its constitution declaring itself a secular republic committed to securing liberty, justice, equality and fraternity for all its citizens. But this is also the day that Indian filmmaker Rajkumar Santoshi has emerged from his decadelong hibernation to release his film Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh (Gandhi Godse: A War). Gandhi refers to India’s famously pacifist and deeply pious founding father. And Godse refers to Nathuram Godse, the Hindu nationalist who shot the 78-year-old ascetic at point blank range because he was enraged over Gandhi’s role in India’s partition in 1947.
The film offers a counterfactual history in which Godse’s assassination attempt fails and he gets an opportunity to duke out his ideological disagreements with Gandhi—particularly Gandhi’s vision of a pluralistic India that respected the equal rights of all faiths. Its purpose seemingly is to present Godse and Gandhi as intellectual and moral equals.
To appreciate just how repugnant this exercise is, imagine if a confederate sympathizer and a Lincoln skeptic made a film Abe Lincoln-John Wilkes Booth: A Debate. Gandhi’s great grandson has already condemned Santoshi and vowed not to see the film because, he points out, in 2002, Santoshi made a film about Bhagat Singh, a revered freedom fighter (whom the British had executed in 1931), that also “demolished” Gandhi. But Santoshi’s latest film deserves to be taken seriously because it offers a revealing glimpse into the tactics and arguments that the Hindu nationalist movement is deploying to ditch the country’s founding ideals and impose its alternative illiberal vision under which Hinduism is the official religion of the country and faiths it considers “non-indigenous”—read Islam and Christianity—are relegated to second class status. That would mean that over 200 million Indians who belong to these faiths would have less space to practice them if not face outright discrimination.
However, to accomplish its ends, Hindutva—as Hindu nationalism is called—needs to rewrite history to knock down India’s founding liberal heroes and build up its nationalistic alternative icons. The timing couldn’t be better for this exercise, given that the movement has at its disposal the powerful weapon of internet-driven propaganda and a poorly educated, susceptible young population—nearly half of India’s population is under 25—that is easily brainwashed.
Rewriting History on Celluloid and Stage
And Indian cinema seems eager to assist.
Indeed, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, arrived on the scene, the Indian movie industry has changed considerably. In the pre-Modi era it delighted in tedious message-movies like Amar, Akbar, Anthony that spouted interfaith platitudes. Now, just as much of India’s news media has become unabashedly jingoistic and pro-government, many mainstream filmmakers have fallen in line with Modi’s aims as they churn out nonsensical pseudo-patriotic fare. Santoshi’s celluloid comeback is in that company.
From the preview and reviews, it seems that Santoshi is attempting a clever trick in Gandhi Godse. He does not reject Gandhi, he simply builds up Godse. But Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has not been that subtle in the past. When the party was last in power in the mid-1990s as part of a coalition government, a play called Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy (I’m Nathuram Godse Speaking), staged in Gujarat, channeled the feelings of many Hindus that Godse was a patriot who did the right thing in killing Gandhi. It presented Godse as sticking up for their rights while Gandhi traitorously handed over the country to Muslims during India’s partition. It was a calculated effort to present Godse’s case in the best possible light in his defense trial. (India has the death penalty and Godse was executed in 1949.)
Likewise, within a year of Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014, the BJP-ruled state of Rajasthan considered naming a bridge after Godse. In 2019, Pragya Singh Thakur, a BJP member of Parliament and a militant Hindu accused of terrorism, who recently counseled her fellow Hindus to keep sharp knives at hand to “cut off the enemy’s head,” called Godse “a patriot.” She is too much even for Modi. He removed her from an official committee and the BJP promised a disciplinary committee hearing, which never took place. Vishnu Pandya, a Gujarati writer who heads the state-funded literary academy in Gujarat, also referred to Godse as “a patriot.”
BJP: Searching for Heroes
The BJP’s campaign to rehabilitate Godse serves not only to deodorize Hindu militancy but also add to its own thinly populated pantheon of heroes. The BJP has no concrete historical achievement to speak of from India’s freedom struggle that it can use to build its nationalistic bona fides. That is a big problem for a self-appointed nationalist party that questions the nationalism of its political opponents like the Congress Party whose predecessor, the Indian National Congress—led by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister—spearheaded the movement to eject the British. The BJP did not exist at the time, but the performance of its predecessor organizations and pro-Hindu figures can be kindly characterized as spotty.
Consider Vinayak Savarkar, the ideological godfather of Hindutva— the brand of Hinduism that the Modi government, the ruling party and its more extreme supporters subscribe to. If Gandhi’s Hinduism is pacifist and spiritual, Savarkar’s is militant and aggressive. Martha Nussbaum warned against its militancy in her book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future in 2007. Savarkar was a curious mix. He was a Hindu reformist who disliked its hierarchies, opposed caste discrimination, wanted to abolish untouchability, supported women’s rights and had no objection to eating beef. But he also believed in martial training for Hindus, advocated a virile nationalism, and was an admirer of German and Italian fascism. He popularized the view that Hindu passivity had allowed other religions to invade and rule Hindus too long and Hindus needed to become braver and more aggressive.
But how did this advocate of bravery conduct himself during the struggle against British colonial rulers? He did initially join the movement and, along with some other fellow nationalists, was sent to the notorious jail in the Andaman Islands for several years. The British subjected those consigned there to unspeakable torture and cruelty. Many freedom fighters stoically endured that treatment. But Savarkar was among the handful who regularly pleaded for mercy. He was eventually released.
Gandhi was arrested after he launched the Quit India movement against the British in 1942. But Savarkar’s organization, the ultra-extremist Hindu Mahasabha, urged its members not to join Gandhi’s movement and instead to cooperate with the British because, as one historian put it, Savarkar’s “commitment to the creation of a Hindu Rashtra [nation] superseded the goal of political independence of India.” The vast majority of Hindus at the time followed Gandhi, not Savarkar.
Savarkar was later charged as Godse’s co-conspirator in Gandhi’s assassination but was acquitted for lack of evidence. However, Savarkar and Godse knew each other well, and Godse was inspired by Savarkar’s broader Hindutva project.
Hindu nationalists have long tried to whitewash Savarkar’s record during the colonial struggle, soft-pedal his role in Gandhi’s killing, and, as with Godse, turned him into a national hero. In this they have had remarkable success. Modi of course loses no opportunity in showering fulsome praise on Savarkar. But even before Modi arrived on the national scene, the Hindu nationalist movement had turned Savarkar into a revered figure in his home state of Maharashtra to such an extent that no less than the Congress Party felt obliged to allow a prominent road in Mumbai to be named after him.
But Hindu nationalists now want to turn Savarkar into a hero not just in his own state but in the rest of the country as well. That is why they were so enraged when, during his marathon Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) a few months ago, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (no relation of Mahatma Gandhi), while passing through Maharashtra, broke his party’s long-standing silence and criticized Savarkar and reminded Indians of Savarkar’s mercy petitions.
In the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a flyover near a university that Gandhi founded now carries a large image of Savarkar. A voluminous two-part biography of Savarkar by Vikram Sampath is selling briskly in India, although some historians have alleged plagiarism and challenged its accuracy. A biopic is due to be released later this year.
Appropriating the Other Side’s Heroes
But refurbishing the credentials of problematic militants isn’t sufficient to yield an impressive lineup of Hindutva national heroes. Hence the movement is now busy rewriting history to appropriate several Congress leaders as its own—even though they were hostile to Hindutva’s aims.
Chief among them is Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister, also from Gujarat. Patel, in fact banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the militant, right-wing, ultra-nationalist Hindu organization of which Modi was an active member, for its alleged role in assassinating Gandhi. Yet Modi has anointed himself a Patel champion, erecting the world’s tallest free-standing statue in his honor. He claims that the country has not sufficiently honored him—never mind that India’s national police academy, many roads, bridges and schools have long sported Patel’s name, and statues honoring him dot many Indian cities.
Another leader the BJP has sought to appropriate is Subhas Chandra Bose. A Bengali freedom fighter against the British, Bose was in fact the president of the Congress Party in 1938. His claim to fame is that he led the Indian National Army, which the Japanese had helped put together from Indian prisoners of war in Asia, against the British during World War II. Bose was at one point imprisoned by the British but he escaped to Germany and sought to enlist Nazi support in India’s fight for independence. By seeking a revolutionary way, Bose embraced tactics that were the opposite of Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle, and therefore there was tension between the two. Therefore, the BJP has embraced him as one of their own and declared him a neglected hero, which too is rather rich, considering that Bose was highly critical of Hindu nationalism, and in post-independence there are many places named after him across India, including an international airport, many roads, and a stadium, along with more than four dozen institutions, statues and roads.
The BJP’s Insidious End Game
The BJP’s ultimate goal is to replace India’s long-standing liberal democratic heroes—Gandhi and Nehru—with Hindu nationalist figures. But it knows that it cannot do so in one fell swoop—it has to edge them out gradually and create space for its alternative ones. Modi especially is going about this task with his characteristic shrewdness. (The wife of the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra has declared Modi one of the two founders of the country besides Gandhi!) Modi knows that Gandhi is India’s calling card in the rest of the world. So on the world stage he goes to extraordinary lengths to mask his iconoclastic designs and pays homage to Gandhi. On Gandhi’s 150th anniversary in 2019, he even wrote an op-ed in The New York Times (a matter of embarrassment for the Times, but let’s let that pass!) calling him a Great Soul and praising Gandhian philosophy. You won’t hear him praising Savarkar or Godse abroad.
But the manipulation of public opinion to advance the Hindutva project at home is in full swing: Muslims are finding it harder to pray in public, rent homes, buy or sell meat, wear their attire and seek asylum in India. Laws banning religious conversions targeted primarily at Christian missionaries are proliferating in BJP-ruled states across the country. Meanwhile, freedom of the press is deeply imperiled in India. A few weeks ago, the Modi government blocked from India a BBC docuseries examining Modi’s role in the 2002 pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat.
This is the India that Godse’s Hindutva—not Gandhi—wanted. It is hardly a co-incidence that Godse Gandhi: Ek Yudh is hitting theaters this Republic Day. But this manufactured, celluloid war between the two figures represents a very real war for India’s soul.