What Was Vajpayee’s Immediate Response to the News of Gandhi’s Murder?

After the RSS was banned, Vajpayee was exactly the kind of ‘active worker’ the government wanted to thrash. Shrewdness or luck – a bit of both perhaps – he was one of the few popular workers of the Sangh in UP who remained at large.

The ban [on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS] had two components: the old complaint that the RSS functioned as a private army. The more urgent one was not so much the Sangh’s direct involvement in Gandhi’s murder as it was their inspiring an environment of hatred in which any aggrieved Hindu could have stabbed the Mahatma, or blown him away with a country-made bomb.

But the Home Ministry’s approach to enforcing the ban was mystifying. It should have begun with a crackdown on the RSS’s central and provincial working committees and then, in top-down order, nabbed all other important workers. Instead, the circular sent to provinces with the guideline that ‘all leaders and active workers of the RSS should be arrested and detained under appropriate provisions’ was interpreted literally. Over the next few weeks, 3,500 arrests were made in UP alone. But this included only 250 ideologically driven hard nuts; the rest were casual shakha-goers, many of them minors from villages and small towns who were about to sit their school board exams in a few weeks. This gave the crackdown the nature of a spectacle.

What was Atal’s immediate response to the news of Gandhi’s murder? Given his temperament, he might not have personally approved of pumping bullets into the seventy-seven-year-old Mahatma’s chest. He did not distribute sweets, as RSS–Mahasabha members had across the country, or condoned those who ‘drank liquor in celebration’. But Atal most certainly did not consider Gandhi’s death a serious loss to mankind. The dozens of articles he had written and edited holding the Mahatma responsible for India’s partition and condemning him for pandering to Muslims had most certainly contributed to poisoning the air that ultimately led to his assassination. He was exactly the kind of ‘active worker’ the government wanted to thrash.

Abhishek Choudhary
The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977
Pan Macmillan India ( May 2023)

Atal faced a tough time in Lucknow. The RSS’s machismo had melted away: Golwalkar, who heard the news of Gandhi’s murder on a tour to Madras, sent a telegram to Nehru and Patel expressing shock at the ‘cruel and fatal attack on a great personality’ – a calculated U-turn. He instructed the organization to observe a thirteen-day mourning at the ‘sad death of revered Mahatmaji’. Nehru howled in agony: ‘These people have the blood of Mahatma Gandhi on their hands, and pious disclaimers and dissociation now have no meaning.’

On 4 February, the provincial governments were asked to raid and seal ‘all places which are used for purposes of the Sangh’. Everyone at Bharat Press knew it was the beginning of something terrible. And yet, they were keen to present their side of the story. Knowing they were running against time, they nervously rushed though the publication of the fourth issue: ‘A request to the readers of Panchjanya: To explain this most catastrophic of events, we have advanced the publication of the issue, which is only eight pages. Our readers will hopefully forgive the inconvenience.’

Apart from dissociating itself from the Mahasabha and Godse, Panchjanya wanted to inform the government that ‘in our hearts we revere the Mahatma as much as a Congress worker does. If differences are cited to be the reason [for the Sangh’s alleged involvement in his murder], don’t Congressmen disagree among themselves too?’ It lamented that the ‘Sanghchalak of United Provinces, Narendrajeet Singh, and about 500 volunteers have been arrested and sent to the Kanpur Jail’, and that ‘warrant has been issued against many Sangh workers of Lucknow too.’ On 5 February, the district magistrate of Lucknow ordered the police to raid every place associated with the RSS. All movable property was to be seized, the buildings sealed. The seized items included the press and cyclostyling machines, chequebooks, RSS uniforms (leather belts, black caps), photographs of Sangh leaders, a jeep, bicycles. They tried to hide. But one by one, everyone in Atal’s immediate circle got captured – Bhaurao Deoras in Kanpur, Deendayal Upadhyaya in Delhi, Rajiv Lochan Agnihotri in Lucknow – and locked up in jails.

Except Atal. It helped that his name was not on the police’s hit list for UP. He had been associated full-time with the RSS for less than six months, and then again only as an editor. Unlike the UP officebearers of the RSS, many of them now in jail, the police or the CID did not yet have a profile or photo of him. Shrewdness or luck – a bit of both perhaps – Atal was one of the few popular workers of the Sangh in UP who remained at large.


Gandhi’s gruesome murder shocked India into sanity. The plot was seen as a major intelligence failure, and the IB went into overdrive issuing false alarms. It suggested that the RSS was preparing for nationwide assassinations: the security of ministers was beefed up everywhere; some communists feared that they were going to be ‘the first target now of the RSS, for, having removed Mahatma Gandhi from the scene, the only impediments to their dream of a Hindu Raj are the communist party of India and a few top-ranking leaders of the Congress’. This was a bizarre exaggeration of the RSS’s organizational strength as well as the level of coordination among the alt-rightists who, with help from maharajas, were said to be preparing to take over Delhi in a coup.

In reality, the RSS was hit more severely than ever before. On the ground, some Congressmen helped secure the release of the RSS detainees – partly to buy their allegiance. With varied success, communists and socialists too found in Gandhi’s murder an occasion to poach its cadres. It was in this state of sagging spirits that the Sangh launched an underground movement, steered by mid-level full-timers like Atal who had evaded arrest.

Since the ban prohibited assembly, they began to hunt for safe proxies. In every province sprung up this social club and that sports team. Activities in UP where Atal was one of the underground leaders included: Hanuman Gada Club; Virendra Bhojanalaya; Deshbandhu Industries, a limited business concern; reading clubs named after Gandhi and Nehru; swimming trips to the Ganga and Gomti; volleyball games; marriages, and other private ceremonies. There was no clear boundary between non-political activities – religious, social, educational, recreational – which were legal and political gatherings which were banned. The Punjab premier lamented to Patel that he was ‘unable to lay our hands on them because outwardly they do not commit any offence’.

Atal showed up in Allahabad to run the underground movement there. With all of its infrastructure seized and men imprisoned, the RSS had no means to communicate with its cadres or to defend itself against the government’s charges. Either he or someone in the RSS got in touch with the celebrated publisher Ram Rakh Sehgal of Allahabad and convinced him to allow them to use his press for movement work. Given the strict regulation of newsprint by the government, ‘our problem was that the Sangh did not have paper,’ recounted Devendra Swaroop, a young RSS volunteer who got acquainted with Atal around this time. They were both attached to Crisis, an English weekly of Sehgal’s: ‘Crisis used to have articles by us, but only using pseudonyms.’

A major drawback of the all-out crackdown was dispersed arrests and the unmanageable logistics of taking care of the mostly boisterous young volunteers, with the result that the police could not focus on nabbing the ringmasters. This resulted in a patchy implementation of the ban in most places. It would have taken sustained political and bureaucratic will to break the RSS – from amending the legal loopholes (to restrict RSS gatherings in the garb of clubs and picnics); to rigorously identifying and throwing out active RSS sympathizers from the government; to closing down publishers like Sehgal who were letting underground ringleaders like Atal use their press to present Sangh viewpoints. Had Nehru held the Home Ministry, some of this may have transpired. Patel lacked the will, especially after he was convinced that the RSS was not directly involved.


The RSS needed an outsider to champion the cause of its innocence, preferably someone who knew both Nehru and Patel. They found a willing party in Mauli Chandra Sharma, a tier-two Delhi Congressman. Sharma had recently been responsible for the arrangements for Gandhi’s cremation – from choosing the priest to ensuring that conches were blown and bells tolled as the crowd sat around the Mahatma’s pyre. He was later praised by Congress conservatives for making sure the event looked appropriately Hindu, rather than like some ‘Christian-style [minimalist] funeral’ that Nehru had initially suggested.

It speaks volumes of the porous boundary between the Congress and RSS–Mahasabha – and between secularism and communalism – that the man who made the arrangements for Gandhi’s cremation was the son of a prominent Mahasabha leader. Assisted by Sangh volunteers, Sharma floated the ‘Council of Civil Liberties’ – Janadhikar Samiti – and began to meet every major politician to argue the RSS’s innocence. They managed to impress Patel, who was now unsure of what to do with the RSS. Kashmir and Hyderabad remained tense, and the RSS was desperate to offer its services. Patel conveyed to Sharma that the government would deal with Hyderabad on its own, without help from the RSS. But just in case the government needed them in an emergency, Patel added in English, ‘Keep your boys ready in necessity.’ Here was the classic Patel dilemma on the question of communalism: he had recently written to S. P. Mookerji warning him of the long-term ‘dangers inherent in an organisation run in secret on military or semi-military lines’ and that he had ‘received rather disquieting reports of the revival’ of the RSS evidently defying the ban. Yet, if the occasion demanded, he wouldn’t shy away from strategically using them.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Photo: Wikimedia

With the ban loosening in July, Atal came back to Lucknow. His co-editor Agnihotri had been released. The Bharat Press owners had filed petitions in the court. In the case of Rashtradharma, the Lucknow district sessions court gave, unbelievably, a favourable judgement saying there was ‘no evidence to prove this journal’s association with the RSS’. Similarly, all seized material was returned because the volunteers argued successfully that these belonged to ‘me and my friends personally’. The court declared itself unable to find that any of the items were used for the propagation of Sangh activities. Panchjanya resumed publication.

Atal remained low-key: he spent time publishing in Panchjanya old poems he had written in college. He read out his poems at events such as the one marked to celebrate Tulsidas’s birth anniversary, presumably also an occasion to brainstorm on strategies to revoke the ban. Though Babuji was worried about the future of his brightest son, Atal did not return home. Gandhi’s assassination plot was traced to Gwalior: the investigations revealed that Godse had procured his pistol there. Most of the Bateshwar boys ‘never went back to the Sangh’ shakha. The Vajpayees were lucky that the implementation of the ban by the durbar was poor. Babuji and Prem Behari did not get arrested.

Not long ago Viceroy Wavell had deemed Jivajirao Scindia ‘a nice lad’ who ‘means well, but cares more for his horses and racing than anything else’. The trauma of losing power had made His Highness a self-conscious strategist. Privately, he continued to court the RSS–Mahasabha leadership. But advised to cultivate a favourable image in Sardar Patel’s watchful eyes, he decided to butter up the government by offering a generous donation of ₹10 lakhs for Gandhiji’s Memorial Fund. Patel replied to thank but, aware of the Gwalior durbar’s duality, bluntly added: ‘By now you must have heard how deeply involved some of the Hindu Mahasabha circles in Gwalior [were in the Mahatma’s murder]. Tongues are already wagging about the alleged part which Your Highness and the State have taken in promoting Mahasabha activities in the State … It is fortunate that you withdrew yourself in time from this embarrassing situation. Otherwise, I am afraid you would have found yourself in deep waters.’ In his reply, the maharaja profusely thanked Patel for his ‘fatherly interest in my welfare’.

Patel had now mastered the art of kissing his sacrificial lambs before chopping their heads off. In less than six months after the accessions were signed in mid-1947, he had decided that autonomous states were not feasible from the economic or security point of view. In states like Gwalior, he used the tragedy of the Mahatma’s murder as a catalyst for full integration with India. By mid-1948, Gwalior and adjoining kingdoms were merged into a new state called Madhya Bharat. As with maharajas elsewhere, His Highness Jivajirao Scindia was gifted the dummy post of governor, rajpramukh, in Gwalior.

Excerpted with permission of Pan Macmillan India from Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977 by Abhishek Choudhary