The Plot to Kill Gandhi Was a Manifestation of a Battle for the Soul of India

It is relevant to recall this again, in the 75th year of the assassination, as ever since BJP formed a government in 2014, the original fault line has resurfaced.

Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi, came to notoriety out of nowhere. The Indian state and the people at large knew remarkably little about him when the murder shook the world on January 30, 1948. Within the network of Hindu communal politics to which he belonged, he hardly occupied a place of great significance. Yet by wielding the gun on Gandhi he, previously a small-time hothead, became a historical figure representing the antithesis of the Mahatma.

After the murder, it became a commonplace to trace the sources of Godse’s motivation to the communal politics that swept through much of the country during the 1940s and peaked after Partition in August 1947 in the year of independence. The period began with immense anxieties about the impending division and culminated in the communal frenzy and massacre that accompanied the creation of two independent states – Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

This period, of course, was a crucial influence on Godse. But the plot to kill Gandhi was a manifestation of something else as well. More deeply rooted and enduring than anything arising from the specific circumstances of the times, it was a manifestation of – and a desperate attempt to resolve – what might be described as a battle for the soul of India, an anxious and long-standing struggle to define the emerging nationstate.

For almost a quarter of a century, one side saw the other as a bitter enemy. Hindu supremacists treasured the subcontinent as a site of a unique religious ethos. They therefore sought to impose Hindu principles over a nation that, under the stewardship of nationalists pursuing the agenda of self-rule and Indian independence, was being steered towards secular democracy. These conflicting ideas of national identity, along with Godse’s own desire to represent fully the forces to which he belonged, constitute an extraordinary story of his life through the last quarter of British rule in India.

The story is compelling even where it does not touch upon Godse at all. Discourses generated and emotions provoked outside his limited area of operation – often by exponents of the ideology of Hindu Rashtra (or state) – had profound consequences not only for Godse but for the entire political spectrum.

Godse’s worldview owed much to his upbringing in a traditional elite-caste Hindu family, and it was rooted, too, in the desire of a section of Maharashtrian Brahmins to revive their political dominion. The generation to which he belonged grew up just when this revivalist leadership was getting inspired by European dictatorships. The inputs from Italy and Germany stoked in Godse, as in many other Maharashtrian Brahmin youths, a transforming vision of Hindu communal ambition and a religious faith in its eventual victory.

In fact, at the time Godse became a young adult, he found himself caught by two contrasting and conflicting ideas—liberalism-influenced ideas about modern, secular national identity and Brahminism-influenced ideas about faith-based political identity. For a while he oscillated and then settled for the latter, influenced at every critical juncture by men belonging to his own caste. These men, in fact, were so important in his life that there was hardly any room for women in it. Godse’s world was one of a man obsessed with his desires to constantly prove his masculinity and virility in his overall quest to uphold Hindu majoritarianism in the struggle to define India’s national identity.

Nathuram Godse. Credit: Wikipedia

Godse’s point of operation was, therefore, the point of convergence for varied anxieties and resentments caused by an agonizing identity crisis among those who held rigid aspirations, vivid yearnings and who, in a traditional agrarian economy shaped over centuries by British colonial demands, came of age to limited opportunity. The Godse saga also provides a particularly consequential insight into the geography of Hindu revivalism. It emerged in the Marathi linguistic region of central India, where it is still headquartered, and as the pace of India’s independence accelerated during the 1940s, the belt grew to include the uncertain states ruled by Hindu rajas. These leaders stood to lose customary privileges in the event of the British withdrawal and saw their association with the Hindu Right as some kind of security for the future.

From there the march of communal instability progressed through the west to the north and the east, and through diasporic communities overseas.


The course of Gandhi’s life reveals that by the time he was killed he had comprehensively countered the project of Hindu Rashtra and the virulent idea fuelling it, forcing its proponent organizations—Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Mahasabha—to the margins of Indian politics. It was largely due to Gandhi’s own immense moral power and his all-out efforts as the supreme leader of the anti-British struggle that in a short span after Independence, the validity of the vision of a secular and democratic nation seemed beyond question. It rose above the turmoil of the time and became the unifying principle of the post-Independence India.

The assassination of Gandhi was an act that sought to derail the secular project of Independent India. The putative resolution posited by Godse can now be seen as benighted and even self-defeating in light of the popular outrage and enduring disgust at Gandhi’s murder. But the disputants that engendered the assassination remained at large. Furthermore, the dispute continued to exist and, if anything, became even more acute over the coming decades.

The assassination of Gandhi was followed by a massive government crackdown on the RSS. It was banned for a year and a half, and thousands of its leaders and cadres were arrested. For long after the ban was lifted in July 1949, the movement remained cautious while working under severe constraints. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister who had been the most trusted lieutenant of Gandhi, now assumed his mentor’s unofficial mantle as the guardian of secularism. During the remaining one and a half decades of his life, Nehru, with his resolve to confront Hindu communalists now stiffened by the assassination, repeatedly invoked the ideal of a nation dedicated not to Hindu majoritarianism but to culture and the spirit of modern democracy and representation-based secularism.

Also read: After Gandhi’s Assassination, Nehru Saw the Hindu Right as a Threat to the Indian State

‘Remarkable changes in our political structure have taken place in the six months that have gone,’ Nehru wrote to heads of provincial governments on 20 February 1948, three weeks after the assassination. ‘The Hindu Mahasabha, as a political organisation, has liquidated itself. The RSS has been banned and the reaction to this throughout the country has been good. These events have, of course, been precipitated by the assassination of Gandhiji, but they indicate wholly healthy development in our political life. They are necessary steps to the creation of what we have been ceaselessly trying to achieve viz. a democratic secular State in India.’

One and a half years later, when the ban on the RSS was lifted, Nehru inveighed against the Hindu Right in another such letter to the heads of state governments. ‘As you know the ban on the RSS has been removed,’ he wrote on 20 July 1949. ‘This does not mean that we are convinced about the bona fides of the RSS movement, although they have promised to behave in future. All it means is that we feel that we must gradually relax the abnormal measures we have taken in restricting the normal liberties of the individual and the group whatever that might be. We do not propose to relax in the slightest our vigilance and we shall take instant action whenever necessary.’

For many years, the RSS’s aspirations remained tempered due to the presence of Nehru. His insurmountable legitimacy across the communities, including Hindus, seemed to make the RSS deeply unsettled about its cherished goal. After Nehru’s death in 1964, a series of prime ministers who succeeded him, despite their individual follies and shortfalls, continued to regard secularismas the dominant norm of the Indian political system.

Yet, the dreams of a Hindu majoritarian alternative persisted. Behind the scenes, the RSS retained its affection for its vision of Hindu Rashtra and hostility to India’s secular democracy. For long on the surface, it seemed to remain as a ragtag unit of volunteers that might be of little importance. But in reality, it never lost sight of its dream of redefining India. Quietly—sometimes even secretly—the RSS kept growing along with its hydra-like structure of affiliates.

Photograph of the pistol used by the Hindutva activist Nathuram Godse to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry report, 1969.

The situation started changing around the mid-1980s when, after having gathered enough self-confidence, the RSS launched the most pivotal of its Hindu majoritarian campaigns for capturing the political centre stage—the movement to construct a new temple on the site of a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. The issue had been a subject of a localized legal battle since 1949, when a band of Hindu supremacists, claiming that the site was the Hindu deity Rama’s birthplace, surreptitiously planted an idol in the mosque and practically converted it into a temple. Once picked up by the RSS, the issue was brought to national attention and quickly turned into the focal point of religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

Keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its electoral outfit, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), its affiliate responsible for mobilizing sadhus, in the front, the RSS set out to win the support of Hindus and Hindu religious groups through a series of mass ritual actions, use of religious imageries, and conclaves of Hindu religious leaders backingthe campaign. The BJP president at the time, L. K. Advani, then rode a rath—a Toyota truck modified into a chariot—around the country to rally Hindus to the cause. His journey—yatra—began on 25 September 1990 at Somnath in Gujarat, where a temple had been destroyed by a Central Asian Muslim invader, Mahmud Ghazni, in the eleventh century. The yatra was planned to go through hundreds of villages and cities in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh before reaching Ayodhya. Though Advani was arrested before he could enter Uttar Pradesh, his yatra, by bringing militant Hindu sentiments to the fore and provoking communal riots along its route, transformed the BJP into a major political force in the country.

Watch: 75 Years After His Assassination, We Are Killing Gandhi and His Principles Every Day

A series of events thereafter, carried out by the RSS and its affiliates, culminated in the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. The demolition shook the soul of the nation. It revealed how India could still be pushed into a collective identity crisis, still be forced in the quest for self-definition and therefore still be made most vulnerable. The offering of a ready-made and prefabricated Hindu majoritarian identity for the nation, the one that India had wrestled against in the past and which Gandhi had fought relentlessly until his death, set the ground for the BJP’s growth at the centre.


When the BJP formed a government in 2014, the original fault line resurfaced. The world’s largest democracy is once again in the throes of a collective identity crisis, once again confronting a political project that seeks to promote Hindu authoritarianism along the lines of Nazi anti-Semitism. The project is premised on the same old idea that India is a Hindu state and minorities must subscribe to Hindu primacy. This is a position that threatens the very foundation of its democracy in which all citizens of every faith and all Hindus of every caste have equal standing.

As in the past, Hindu supremacists today belong to the RSS and its large family of affiliates as well as to organizations that have mushroomed in the last couple of years under the rightist ideological umbrella. They are jingoistic and full of contempt for minority communities. They look to Narendra Modi, a long-time member of the RSS who now heads the government, as the deliverer of Hindu Rashtra.

In their vision of the ideal state, Godse acts as a forerunner, one who removed the main obstacle in their way. Godse’s influence stems from their understanding that his killing Gandhi was not a crime but a step in the right direction. They, therefore, donot call this assassination a hatya or murder, but a vadh, a term used to describe the slaying of the forces of evil.

The recent period has witnessed massive efforts to steer the national discourse to treat Muslims as the ‘other’ by way of speeches from the mouths of cabinet ministers and media. Social media is used to portray Muslims as anti-nationals and, on the streets, violent attacks are perpetrated on them in the name of cow protection or against beef-eating, and there is talk of the ‘love jihad’. This is described by Hindu Right as a ploy contrived by Muslim men to lure young Hindu women into marriage and conversion into Islam, this being projected as an internationalist conspiracy against the Indian nationstate. All the while, this is in conjunction with the BJP government’s efforts to push forward its Hindu majoritarian agenda, including a 2019 citizenship law seen to directly discriminate against Muslims by fast-tracking citizenship for immigrants of six faiths other than Islam. Combined, these actions have started to erode and subjugate Gandhi’s vision of amity in a secular India with equal rights for all religions.

As the hatred came out of the margins and occupied the mainstream, Godse started to emerge as a new icon. In the past, Gandhi’s assassin was rarely talked of in public by RSS men (and they can only be men in the RSS), in spite of their being intoxicated by his heroism. But with the BJP’s electoral victory in 2014, followed by its even bigger landslide in the 2019 general elections, the shyness vanished. In fact, hardly ever in the past was Godse so openly extolled by those seeking to give him a place in the national memory as has been the case since 2014.

The trial of persons accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi's assassination opened in the Special Court in Red Fort Delhi on May 27, 1948. Left to right front row: Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Narayan Dattatraya Apte and Vishnu Ramkrishna Karkar. Seated behind are (from left to right) Diganber Ram Chandra Badge, Shankar s/o Kistayya, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Gopal Vinayak Godse and Dattatrays Sadashiv Parachure. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The trial of persons accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination opened in the Special Court in Red Fort Delhi on May 27, 1948. Left to right front row: Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Narayan Dattatraya Apte and Vishnu Ramkrishna Karkar. Seated behind are (from left to right) Diganber Ram Chandra Badge, Shankar s/o Kistayya, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Gopal Vinayak Godse and Dattatrays Sadashiv Parachure. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The most jarring aspect of this shift has been the aggressive applause for Godse from a group of high-profile MPs of the ruling party, trying to blur the national memory. The sentiment was expressed most explicitly by the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur, an MP currently facing criminal proceedings for alleged involvement in a lethal anti-Muslim terror plot.

The growing cult of Gandhi’s assassin seems rooted in the same resentment against Muslims and nostalgia for a Hindu Rashtra that inspired Godse to shoot the Father of the Nation. Whether in the attempts to build shrines to Godse in Meerut and Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, or in MP Pragya Singh Thakur pronouncing him a ‘patriot’, byglorifying Godse the ruling dispensation is sending out a clear message that Gandhi’s ideas are anathema to them.

The process has, unsurprisingly, coincided with open resentment towards Gandhi, who had refused to grant Hindus primacy over followers of other faiths. In Meerut, a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha captured media headlines on 30 January 2019 when she re-enacted the murder of Gandhi by shooting his effigy with an air pistol after garlanding the picture of Godse.

But the resentment is not always symbolic. On the150thanniversary of his birth on 2 October 2019, the Gandhimemorial centre at Rewain Madhya Pradesh was found vandalized and the word ‘traitor’ scrawled on apicture of the Mahatma. Similarly, in February 2022, a life-sized statue of Gandhi was found broken and thrown a few metres from its locationin a park in the East Champaran district of Bihar.


Hindu authoritarianism is also being pushed out into the West, where it has gathered support from diaspora communities. One of the most grotesque examples of this was witnessed on 27 January 2021, when a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was found vandalized, broken and ripped from itsbase in a park in California. ‘The 6-ft tall, 650-pound (294 kg) bronze statue of Gandhiji, in the Central Park of the City of Davis in Northern California, appeared to have been sawed off at the ankles and half its face was severed and missing,’ said a report published in a local daily.

Later that year, American universities and academics witnessed a swift and shocking backlash when a group of US-based researchers announced an online conference to discuss the rise of the Hindu Right in India. ‘Nearly a million emails were sent out in protest to universities, the event website went offline for two days after a false complaint, and an email account associated with the event was attacked with thousands of spam messages,’ the Washington Post reported on 3 October 2021. ‘By the time the event unfolded Sept. 10, its organizers and speakers had received death and rape threats, prompting some to withdraw,’ it added. The mass emails to universities, as per the news report, were organized by advocacy groups such as theHindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America.

Also read: The Unread Judgments on Gandhi’s Assassination

For years, the RSS has cultivated a relationship with diaspora communities in the US, Britain and many other countries. It has used these communities to raise funds and shutdown any criticism of India’s Hindu Right. A large number of Hindus who reside in countries like the US and UK travelled to India to campaign for Modi when he ran for re-election in 2019. The RSS-linked advocacy groups—such as the Hindu American Foundation—have also been routinely lobbying US Congress for causes aligned with the Modi government, including its contentious decision of August 2019 to strip India’s only Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, split it into two centrally governed territories and lock it down for weeks.

Even a group of European parliamentarians were mobilized to back the Modi government’s Kashmir decision and become part of what was described in India as a PR stunt. In October 2019, while the local politicians were not allowed to enter Kashmir, these largely right-wing European parliamentarians were given a tightly controlled tour of Srinagar, the state’s capital city, that included a boat ride on the picturesque Dal Lake. ‘The delegation initially comprised twenty-seven members from countries including the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Poland—although four decided not to visit what has been India’s only Muslim majority state and returned to their home countries,’ said a report published on the BBC website on 30 October 2019.

In the UK, the RSS has been drawing extensively upon Hindu groups such asOverseas Friends of BJP(OFBJP) and the Hindu Forum of Britain for moral and material support for its project of establishing India as a Hindu Rashtra. The OFBJP, in particular, has become a key tool in Modi’s diaspora diplomacy. After Modi became prime minister, it helped organize his visit to London in 2015 when around 60,000 British Indians attended a rally at Wembley Stadium in his honour. During the 2019 elections in UK, it also sought to forge strong links with the Conservative Party, claiming that many of its politicians had a track record of championing ‘Hindu’ concerns. ‘Last week, a UK support group for the BJP, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, said it was campaigning for the Tories in 48 marginal seats. It also emerged that WhatsApp messages were circulating among British Hindus urging them to vote against Labour, accusing it of being “anti-India”, raising fears that tensions are being stoked ahead of the election,’ The Guardian reported on 11 November 2019.

Not only in the West but also in India, the Hindu Right has been extensively using social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter to steer the discourse in its favour. Globally, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth is celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence, but in India, after Modi became prime minister, it routinely becomes the day when hashtags #GodseAmarRahe (May Godse be immortal) and #NathuramGodseZindabad (Long live Nathuram Godse) go viral on twitter. Given the massive presence of organized Hindu supremacists on Twitter, one can assume that it is not a spontaneous trend but is pushed through carefully orchestrated campaigns.

Shocking as they are, these incidents seem to raise only one question: has India as a nation crossed a boundary, beyond which Godse is a national hero and Gandhi a traitor?

Dhirendra K. Jha is a journalist and author. The international edition of his most recent book, Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India, has been published in the UK in January.

This essay is a slightly modified version of the new Preface in this book.