Mohan Bhagwat’s condemnation has been ambivalent due to compulsions of realpolitik.
The defamation case against Congress president Rahul Gandhi for his Bhiwandi speech back in 2014 is paradoxical because the RSS functionary who filed the case displayed immense loyalty towards Mahamta Gandhi, although in their lifetime most contemporaries in the Sangh and other Hindu nationalist organisations were critical and dismissive of the Mahatma and his pursuit of the freedom struggle. In Bunch of Thoughts, a collection of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar’s speeches, talks, discussions and informal conversations, the second sarsanghchalak, also called Guruji denoting his revered status, stated his primary divergence with Gandhi: The “philosophy and history” that the RSS “embodied… belong to the more positive, concrete inspiration that was so lacking in the more dominant Gandhian movement that captured the headlines on account of its immediate political interest and the urgency of national liberation”.
Evidently, the RSS was not plagued by “urgency” or the urge to liberate the nation from the foreign yoke, and Gandhi, because he persisted with the idea of inclusive nationalism, earned the ire of the organisation and its followers. In the entirety of the period since its formation in 1925 till Independence in 1947, the RSS institutionally stayed aloof from the national movement, remaining obsessed on its objective of strengthening Hindu society. It must be noted that RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar and Golwalkar, who took over the reins from him, failed to prevent their cadre from displaying keenness to participate in the two major mass movements, the civil disobedience movement in the 1930s and the Quit India Movement in 1942. Consequently, they permitted swayamsevaks to join these protest movements, but in their personal capacities.
V.D. Savarkar, whose treatise “Hindutva! Who is a Hindu” inspired the formation of the RSS, was more critical of the freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi. Although he did not join the RSS after being finally allowed to freely move around the country and engage in political activity, Savarkar and the RSS shared a primary worldview. Their disagreements were nuanced or on tactical matters — while Savarkar wanted to be part of electoral politics, the RSS leadership prioritised long-term objectives. Savarkar assumed the Hindu Mahasabha’s leadership on release in 1937 and often immediately it was difficult to make out how many of his cadre were former or current swayamsevaks. Nathuram Godse, one of these young men, went through all the stables; as a teenager determining goals his was a regular presence at Savarkar’s Ratnagiri residence listening to theories of Hindutva and how Muslims and Christians were converting Hindus, how they were humiliated in their own land for more than a millennium. Later, he spent six years as secretary of the RSS unit in Sangli and later, after Savarkar’s discharge, he joined the Mahasabha and remained with it for some years before plotting his individual course.
This oft-repeated association needs retelling because at the time of Gandhi’s assassination, although Godse was not associated with either the RSS or the Mahasabha, he remained symbiotically connected with ideas of the two. The views which motivated him into taking the extreme decision were shaped in the two ideological nurseries. There also exists sufficient grounds to believe that his association with Savarkar, and consequent knowledge about the plot, was deeper than could be legally established. Savarkar’s iconisation by the BJP in the Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi period underscores the intertwined nature of their political viewpoint. More important, Godse’s self-defence in court provided the framework for Hindu nationalists’ disagreement with Gandhi. A statement by Vishnu Karkare, a co-conspirator who was sentenced to a life term, provides a key to Godse’s decision to personally take on the task of assassinating Gandhi and not to depute anyone else: “He was an orator and writer and would be in a position to impress upon the government and the court as to why he killed Gandhi.” Without doubt, the assassination was a political act, committed with the aim of broadcasting the view that Gandhian tactics in the freedom struggle had caused grievous damage to Hindu pride.
Godse remains an “awkward” icon for the saffron fold — unambiguous condemnation would alienate supporters who retain sneaking admiration for Godse. On the other hand, formal adoption or embrace of Godse’s memory will be “politically incorrect” both nationally and globally. The RSS, despite the BJP’s current pre-eminence, remains in search for greater legitimacy and a formal association with Godse and his legacy hampers this quest. Actions like inviting former President Pranab Mukherjee to organisational functions are aimed at mainstreaming the RSS. The former President publicly advocated a view of nationalism that is contrary to the RSS’ worldview, but his mere presence underscored that despite its past, the Sangh Parivar cannot be ignored. In recent years, the RSS under Mohan Bhagwat has been relatively more subtle while critiquing constitutional and institutional structures. However, it has been unable to surmount the challenge posed by the fringe forces which undermine its search for greater acceptance.
Whether they wanted to immediately begin constructing temples for Godse after Narendra Modi’s election or attempted enforcing dietary restrictions on Muslims, Mr Bhagwat’s condemnation has been ambivalent due to compulsions of realpolitik. In 1998, when the first NDA government was formed, the BJP’s three core issues — building of the Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370 and introduction of a Uniform Civil Code — were missing from the National Agenda for Governance. It was explained that this was possible only after BJP secured a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. The RSS has a fundamental divergence with the Indian Constitution, which defines the territory as the nation, whereas the organisation considers people as the nation. Amending the defining principle of who “we the people” are will just be the start of a larger reworking of our tenets, and to reach that point the RSS will have to stride the middle path. The seriousness with which the case against Rahul Gandhi is backed by the leadership is evidence of this tactical ploy. The reasons Godse provided in his defence statement for assassinating Gandhi were not just his own.