January 30 this year will mark the 74th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It was in the evening of that day in 1948 that Gandhi – better known as the Mahatma - was felled by the bullets of an assassin, as the unrivalled global icon of non-violence walked towards a prayer meeting.
Though stunned by the violent act that shocked the world, justice followed swiftly. The assassin – Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a 38-year-old member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party – was tried, together with several of his accomplices.
Godse and another accused, Narayan Apte, were hanged while six others were sentenced to life in prison the following year.
Despite the quick punishments, speculation never really ended over whether the far right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – considered to be the spiritual fountainhead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – had any role in the killing.
Sustained interest in the subject has continued due to the many similarities between the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS.
Both right-wing and pro-Hindutva, the two are driven by the prime objective of establishing the primacy of Hindus in India, where non-Hindus constitute around 20 percent of the population.
Godse, who killed Gandhi for reportedly being pro-Muslim and soft on the then newly-created Pakistan, was in fact a member of the RSS before he took up a membership with the Hindu Mahasabha.
The close ties stoked popular suspicion about the involvement of the RSS, and the organisation was banned in the wake of Gandhi’s death.
However, no direct links between the group and the murder were ever established and the ban was lifted after a year.
But the debate over the RSS’ role in the killing has nevertheless continued.
It has only become louder and more divisive since Modi – a life-time member of the RSS – became the prime minister.
Opponents of the prime minister often bring up Gandhi’s murder to embarrass the ruling party. A couple of years ago, opposition party Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, kicked up a storm by publicly accusing the RSS of being behind Gandhi’s killing.
Now, the debate has grown even more intense with the publication of two new books.
Interestingly, the books – one titled “Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India,” and the other “The Murderer, The Monarch and The Fakir” – have taken diametrically opposing views, stoking further speculation rather than settling the dispute.
Contrary to what Godse himself had said during his trial, Dhirendra K Jha, the author of “Gandhi’s Assassin,” contends that Godse had never really quit the RSS even after he had joined the Hindu Mahasabha.
Having trawled through archives, Jha argues that the two organisations had “close connections and sometimes even overlapping membership” – an arrangement that was only discontinued after Gandhi’s killing.
According to Jha, Godse was a member of the RSS while he was with the Hindu Mahasabha. “Disassociating [the] RSS from Gandhi’s assassination is a fabrication of history,” he argued in his book.
The book’s claim is certainly an embarrassment for both the BJP and the RSS, as for a long time their leaders have tried their best to deny any links with Godse or the murder.
Though the emboldened pro-Hindutva leaders do not mind sounding anti-Muslim in their utterances – one actually hailed Godse as a patriot – they hate the very thought of having to carry the baggage of Gandhi’s murder.
They fear that being linked to the killing of someone considered the “Father of the Nation” would be politically inconvenient and morally indefensible.
As proof of their innocence, however, they could cite the second book, “The Murderer, The Monarch and The Fakir.”
Its co-authors – Appu Esthose Suresh and Priyanka Kotamraju – have argued the opposite of that of “Gandhi’s Assassin”.
According to them, the RSS was never a suspect in Gandhi’s killing, contrary to popular perception.
Among everything else, the book states: “Out of the seven raids conducted by the Delhi Police in search of Gandhi’s assassin, only one of them was on an RSS leader….Hari Chand. Hauz Qazi Station House Officer Ram Dutt recovered eighteen documents from Hari Chand’s residence, none of them [incriminating] the RSS.”
But while absolving the RSS, the two authors of the book offer a very significant twist by accusing Hindutva’s most publicised poster boy as a key conspirator.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is respected and reviled in equal measure.
Celebrated as a freedom fighter, his framed photographs adorn the offices and homes of current top BJP functionaries. However, critics say that he spread communal hatred and was also a coward, having repeatedly begged the British to free him from jail.
In the months following Gandhi’s assassination, Savarkar was arrested and tried alongside Godse and others. He was freed for want of conclusive evidence.
However, in their book, Suresh and Kotamraju claim to have unearthed new evidence. According to them, Godse did not act alone and there were co-conspirators that included Savarkar.
The authors have cited the date and the passenger manifest to show that Godse and Savarkar travelled together by air from Mumbai to Delhi months before the murder was carried out.
Once in the capital city, they met with others known to have been involved – such as Narayan Apte. It was supposedly the “meeting of minds” where the plan to kill Gandhi was hatched.
A probe – the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry – that was ordered by the Indian government in later years had also pointed to Savarkar’s role in the assassination.
But by the time the inquiry findings were made public in 1969, Savarkar had been dead for three years and no action was taken.
It is unlikely that the revelations in the two books – however contradictory – will prompt the Indian government to order fresh inquiries.
But what they do prove is that the speculation over who conspired to kill Gandhi has survived, just as the Mahatma’s rich legacy has.
Both are seemingly immortal.
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