- Interview by
- Chris Dite
Mahatma Gandhi led the movement that forced the British to relinquish sovereignty over India in 1947. Less than five months later, he was assassinated. His killer, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist captivated by a vision of Hindu supremacy. On trial and at the gallows Godse denied being a member of the prominent paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the assassination’s immediate aftermath, the RSS distanced itself from his actions and claimed Godse had quit years earlier.
Journalist Dhirendra Jha helped expose these claims as outright lies in 2020. His new book charts the political awakening of the young Brahmin supremacist Godse and the early rise of the RSS and its ideologues. The organization’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won power in India in 2014 and has been in government at a federal level ever since. Since then, Godse’s reputation has undergone a frenzied rebranding, and he is now hailed in many quarters as a martyr and hero.
Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India is a frightening dive into the violent subculture of the RSS. To mark the book’s publication, Jacobin spoke with Jha about the origins and changing fortunes of Gandhi’s assassin and the paramilitary movement he helped build.
Your book puts the politics of India into a historical context in a way that’s quite thrilling. Is that why you chose the biography format, rather than a pure political analysis of the RSS?
I started doing a profile of Godse for Caravan magazine in India. In the process I was doing archival research and stumbled upon certain documents and records — for example papers seized from the headquarters of the RSS — which exposed some of the myths the organization has created over the years around Godse and the assassination of Gandhi.
These myths are based primarily on the statement Godse made during his trial. But he told several lies — all the claims that this man made were summarily rejected by the court. Yet still, Godse’s statement was treated as a reliable source of history, even by non-RSS researchers and writers. That allowed RSS writers and propaganda machinery to successfully push forward myths that have no historical basis.
I wrote the piece after finding all these documents. But I felt it was not enough, so I decided to write this book, and to include things related to his broader biography which I could not have done if I focused solely on the assassination.
You write that the RSS presented itself as “against caste-based discrimination while working for Brahminical hegemony. Rather than identifying the real oppressors, the Brahmins, the RSS identified Muslims as the enemy.” Could you explain this idea for readers who might not know much about the caste system?
Hinduism is based on a type of social segregation called castes. These are hierarchical categories where people exist in complete isolation from each other. Brahmins are the most privileged caste. They used to have all kinds of privileges.
Hindutva — Hindu nationalism — emerged among these traditionally privileged Brahmins because they were nostalgic for past glories not fully available to them in colonial India.
In order to reestablish their privileged position, they created this fake contradiction between Hindus and Muslims. Around the time and place where Hindutva was born, Dalits — the lowest caste — had started to build an anti-Brahmin movement. So, Hindutva was at that time an attempt by Brahmins to divert the anger of depressed castes in a different direction, away from themselves and toward a new enemy. That’s why the RSS was based primarily among orthodox, traditional Brahmins. Only much later, when the caste base of the RSS expanded, was it able to become a real force in the country.
In the lead-up to Indian independence the RSS not only adopted a conciliatory attitude toward their British colonial masters, but actively tried to sabotage the independence movement. This is certainly not the image the current government tries to project about Hindutva politics. Why did they adopt this stance?
It is important to understand the context in which Hindutva emerges. In the early 1920s Mahatma Gandhi launched the first all-India anti-British movement: the noncooperation movement. This emerged alongside the pan-Islamist Khalifat movement, which had been growing worldwide after the Turkish caliphate was abolished following World War I. Many Muslims were sentimentally attached to the caliphate. Gandhi supported the Khalifat movement to create a bond between Hindus and Muslims, and in order to encourage them to join together and fight against British imperialism. This unity of Hindus and Muslims was the cornerstone of the first all-India movement.
In response, the British government started taking steps to create divisions between the two communities. It was at this time that Hindutva founder Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was shifted from an island to a mainland prison, beginning the process of his release. Before coming out of jail in 1923 he wrote a monograph called Who Is a Hindu?. From then on, the Hindutva movement drew inspiration from this text, centering Muslims as the key enemy rather than the British. Within two years of his book being written, Savarkar was released from jail and the RSS was formed. But it stayed away from the freedom movement.
The same thing was happening on the other side; [Muslim separatist leader] Muhammad Ali Jinnah was being urged to take a position against Hindus rather than join hands with them to fight against the British. It was in this context that both sectarian movements emerged.
Inspired by Mussolini’s Italy, RSS leaders modeled the organization along fascist lines, and presented Hitler’s treatment of Jews as a model to be applied to Indian Muslims and Christians. Is this still the politics of the organization today?
Yes. Their fascination with European dictatorships was quite visible in the 1930s. B. S. Moonje — the mentor of RSS founder K. B. Hedgewar — went to meet Mussolini in 1931. In 1939 M. S. Golwalkar — second chief of the RSS — wrote a book called We, or Our Nationhood Defined. It praised Hitler and made an explicit parallel with Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nationalism).
If you look at what is happening today in India, you’ll find that this book is now being implemented. Massive efforts are underway to steer Hindu supremacist discourse, to depict Muslims as “anti-nationals.” There are violent attacks on them in the name of cow protection and against so-called love jihad. The government is busy creating a climate of impunity for the foot soldiers of Hindutva, and pushing a Hindu-authoritarian agenda. The best example is the Citizenship Amendment Act passed a few years back, which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from neighboring countries Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Discrimination based on religion is now being approved by parliament.
Gandhi stood for communal harmony, a secular democracy, a system in which people of all religions have equal rights. This is clearly an attack on that vision.
Now a Godse cult has started emerging in India. There are temples being built to him and Godse is being declared a patriot by the ruling-party MPs. Simultaneously there are attacks on symbols and statues of Gandhi across the country.
Indian capitalists strongly support Modi’s BJP government. The Financial Times wrote that men like Gautam Adani — until this week Asia’s richest man and Modi’s confidante — personify “India’s pursuit of a development model in which the state has entrusted a few ultra-rich men with running India’s infrastructure and pioneering investments abroad.” Has Hindutva politics always been linked with big business, or is this a recent development?
Oligarchy became the basis of the Indian economy once Modi became prime minister. Of course, RSS ideology has always been in favor of business, but in the past this was more focused on small businessmen, shopkeepers, and small units who were in favor of Hindu Rashtra. Before coming to power, the RSS’s main support came from two castes: Brahmins and Vaishyas (mainly merchants, traders, and businessmen). It did get some help from princely states and big business. But despite this, it never had any definite kind of economic ideology.
Now it’s become an “RSS+” kind of model, where we find people like Adani appropriating everything. Modi was a pracharak (top leader) of the RSS. He understands and uses the RSS pretty well, and it trusts him. But I suppose this kind of economics is something that Modi and men who are close to him have created more recently alongside the RSS.
The farmers movement of 2020–21 successfully mobilized many people against the Modi government’s neoliberal attacks. Ashique Ali T wrote for this publication that “the cross-class and cross-caste solidarity of farmers and agricultural laborers . . . broke up the unity of Hindutva nationalism.” Will the BJP’s neoliberalism be Hindutva’s undoing?
The farmers movement showed the way. Not just because it was militant and thousands and thousands of farmers occupied the streets of Delhi, but because it showed how different sections of society could come together to resist this kind of onslaught on their democratic rights. This process of different sections of society uniting holds the key. The RSS and the autocracy they’re creating can only be defeated through exactly this process of solidarity.
The government finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made her budget speech this week. She declared it “the first budget of Amrit Kaal,” a Vedic astrological golden age supposedly ushered in by the BJP. She promised this new era would be defined by rising living standards for all. Is such a thing possible in the current situation?
It’s completely impossible. The government is not making enough expenditure for the creation of jobs or for social security of any kind. It has not given any tangible incentive to small and medium units, which are the main creators of jobs in India. This budget can’t lead to any improvement in the standard of living.
Her speech emphasized the condition of women. This was clearly in response to the mass protests against sexual violence and discrimination throughout India. In discussing the deep misogyny of Godse and the RSS in your book, you describe how “the preservation of Hindu spiritual values by subjugating women was, and still is, considered necessary by Brahminic Hinduism in the making of a Hindu rashtra.” Is the BJP trying to hide this aspect of its ideology?
Savarkar, the father figure of Hindutva, wrote that women should be treated merely as vessels to bear sons, and that their world was limited to the kitchen and children. He promoted different education for women, and said any kind of deviation from all this should be treated as “a breach of duty.” This was the mindset that launched the RSS. That’s why there are no women in the organization; it’s Hindu men only. Theoretically it is still against women — it wants women to remain second-class people who stay in the home.
But its attitude toward women is not properly understood across India. There are factors which blur this reality and prevent those facts from reaching all the women of the country. Religion-based blindness is one of the reasons, but more importantly in many areas literacy among women remains low. These women’s ability to fight for their rights is drastically reduced. There is discrimination against women in every class. Many well-educated women are often more aware of their rights and quite outspoken. This is much more acute in Hindutva political circles.
You write that Godse’s assassination of Gandhi resulted in depressed castes rising up against Brahmins, set the Hindu communalist cause back in the short term, and actually completed Gandhi’s mission by cementing secular democracy as the unifying principle in post-independence India. But looking at the situation today, has Godse had the last laugh?
Currently, Godse’s supporters are unfortunately winning everywhere. They are clearly ruling the country. Today’s India doesn’t seem to have a Gandhian foundation: it has more of a “Godsean” foundation. For example, the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya, and the court-sanctioned construction of a Hindu temple in its place.
So as of now, yes: Godse seems to be having the last laugh. But this is not the end of history. We don’t know how the future will unfold. Gandhi’s vision is the soul of this country, and it will bounce back. Today it might seem that this vision has lost. But I am convinced that if people had to choose between Godse and Gandhi, a majority in this country would still side with Gandhi.