The RSS and Gandhi: A Necessary Backstory

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.

In his 2001 book, The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour, A.G. Noorani devotes a chapter to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s attitude towards Mahatma Gandhi. In light of the defamation case filed by an RSS activist over  allegations by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi that “RSS people” had been involved in the assassination of Gandhiji, we are reproducing the chapter which provides details of the Sangh’s evolving stand

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Were Mahatma Gandhi alive to hear the paeans which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) so lustily sing in his praise today, he might have exclaimed in this couplet written by his erstwhile colleague, Maulana Mohammed Ali:

Jeete jee to ketch na dikhlaya magar
Mar ke Jauhar aap ke jauhar khile.

(You never revealed anything of yourself while you were alive,
The gem that was you, Jauhar, shone after your death.)

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 RSS supremo Rajendra Singh’s speech on Vijayadashmi day 1997 to be struck by this (Organiser October 26).

It begins with homage to Ram (one paragraph), followed by remembrance of the founder 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 Jan Sangh, the BJP’s ancestor, which was propagated (TT 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’ 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’. By now, the derision which these antics had aroused was beginning to tell on the parivar’s nerves. The BJP’s general secretary, Sushma Swaraj, angrily declared on October 17, 1997 that ‘Mahatma Gandhi is 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.

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, the assassin’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.

Nathuram Godse. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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. Soon thereafter, in an interview to Frontline on 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.’ Two decades after the assassination, the RSS mouthpiece (Organiser), then edited by K.R. Malkani, could remember Gandhi, on January 11, 1970, only in these terms in its editorial: ‘It was in support of Nehru’s pro-Pakistan stand that Gandhiji 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 Gandhiji, 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 editorially noted 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.

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 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 views 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 Ramjanmabhoomi’ in the wake of ‘the riot of 1934’ (Organiser September 23, 1990). It was said to support the parivar’s stand.


A.G. Noorani
The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour
LeftWord Books, 2000

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  dated 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.’

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 of a reader of Young India Gandhi was said to have said 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 February 5, 1925 and in Sewak of June [sic] 23, 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,  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 Hindus 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 dated 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 Navajivan 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 publication 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 Shriramjanma-bhoomi Virodhiyonke Kala Karnamey (Black Deeds of the Ramjanmabhoomi 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.

Jivanji Desai opined that both Mahadev Desai’s letter and the quotation from Navajivan 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 either. 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 and 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 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.

¨This culture of Delhi belongs to both the Hindus and Muslims and not exclusively to either,¨ Gandhi said on September 11, 1947. In December 1969 the Jan 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. 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 ten on ‘Territorial Nationalism’ as distinct from ‘Cultural Nationalism’ (by which the RSS and the BJP swear even now).

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’.

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 PCC in 1942.


A group photo of six initial swayamsevaks taken on the occasion of a RSS meeting held in 1939. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

RSS men obstructed his prayer meeting on April 3, 1947. Gandhi called it ‘a big organisation.’ A letter came from the RSS disowning them. 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 and Delhi. The Guruji had assured him that though he would not vouch for the correct behaviour 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.

Earlier on September 12, Gandhi told his prayer meeting that he lad 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 views public”‘. 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’.

The next day, November 16, 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’. He had received complaints about their behaviour in Rajkot also. `Is it true that they have harassed the Muslims? If not, who has?’

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. Still, Gandhi was none too assured. It would be a breach of faith if they break 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’.

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 27, 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.

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’ (p. 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 exclaimed, “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 organization 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.’

Excerpted from The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour, by A.G. Noorani.
Republished here with permission from LeftWord Books and A.G. Noorani