By permitting its Bhopal lawmaker, Pragya Thakur, to periodically extol the imagined patriotic virtues of Nathuram Godse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has cunningly disguised the unspoken admiration for Mahatma Gandhi's assassin within its rank and file. In the span of barely half a year, Thakur has been the centre of the 'is-Godse-a-Hero-or-a-Villain?' debate on four occasions. The resulting rage has been centred around her and not the fact that she articulates the views of a significant section within her political fraternity.
The BJP's political choreography on this issue has erased from public memory past instances of other leaders committed to the idea of Hindu nationalism, propounding similar views. Since Opposition leaders, Rahul Gandhi downwards, have focussed their attacks on the terror-accused-but-questionably-acquitted Thakur for her offensive observations, few can recall that there is a history of valorising Godse within the Sangh Parivar.
Newspapers headlines on the lines of 'Pragya Forced to Apologise in LS Twice Over Godse Remark' may suggest a victory of sorts for the anti-BJP parties and the closure of the matter for the moment. In the process, however, the BJP has managed to camouflage its silent endorsement of her offending remark.
But, before looking at how Godse has long held an iconic position within the Saffron fold, it is pertinent to recall the recent low points in Hindu nationalistic politics, centring around Pragya, the vanquisher of a long-time bête noire of Hindutva forces, the former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh.
In April, the party came up with its first shocker on the issue – Thakur's nomination as a candidate to mark the emergence of the new-age Hindutva warrior in the political domain. This was a definite indication that in the future, many more of her ilk were likely to be similarly drafted in.
The decision was also an indication that those once considered the fringe within the Parivar had become part of the mainstream. She was chosen to lock horns with Digvijay Singh because he was identified with the politics of 'giving Hindu activists a bad name', and appeasing religious minorities, chiefly the Muslims.
But the Thakur missile ricocheted in the BJP's direction within days. By the end of electioneering, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to personally declare that he could never forgive her for lavishing praise on Godse. Amit Shah also asked the party’s disciplinary committee to issue show-cause notices to Thakur and two others for their controversial remarks related to Godse.
Yet, simultaneously he made it clear that the party did not regret fielding her as a Lok Sabha candidate despite her background as a terror accused and the embarrassment she had caused mid-election. Which facet of his statement-in-one-breath was to be given greater weight?
Thakur meanwhile, remained unrepentant and in July she was back to her theme song: She ‘had not been elected to clean drains or toilets’ and would focus on the work ‘she had been elected to do’ she declared. The comments created the controversy they were intended to. Thakur obviously got strength from Shah's statement made earlier that ‘her candidature is our satyagraha (protest) against a fake case of Saffron terror foisted on her. The Congress compromised with national security and coined the term Saffron terror for its vote-bank politics…. Rahul Gandhi should apologise for this insult to Hindu culture.’ Gandhi has once again waded into the BJP chakravyuh or labyrinth by terming her a 'terrorist' instead of treating her as the side story of a diabolical plot.
Two views of nationalism
Since the early years of the 20th century, Indian politics has been divided into two primary political groups on the question of how the Indian nation and nationhood is defined. While secular or inclusive nationalists have considered 'territory' to be the primary unit of the nation, Hindu nationalists have held that 'people' and their 'culture' constitutes the nation.
These contrasting approaches to nationalism were at conflict with one another and was the primary reason for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) steering clear of the national movement. Instead, it remained focussed on strengthening Hindu society and directing its energies on the 'enemy within.'
Godse made no effort at fleeing the site of the greatest political desecration after gunning down Mahatma Gandhi and confessed to his role in the assassination. His intention was to use his trial and the defence stand as a bully pulpit to announce his idea of the nation that he learnt from his guru, VD Savarkar, and the RSS where he spent his formative years.
While assassination made Gandhi immortal, Godse's public acceptance of his 'guilt' and his listing of reasons for his decision to murder the apostle of peace, ensured a valorous after-life for Godse. Godse told the court that his action was the result of the "accumulating provocation of 32 years culminating in his last pro-Muslim fast [in January 1948 and which] at last goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhiji should be brought to an end immediately."
In the years that the Saffron fold was in the Opposition, its cadre, and even large sections of the leadership, privately admired Godse for his decision. While they neither publicly upheld any of the assassin's assertions, they also never went overboard in paying lip-service to Gandhi. Periodically, a handful of leaders eulogised Godse yet the BJP, and Jana Sangh previously, maintained institutional distance from such assertions. It was only after the BJP secured a majority in 2014 that their belligerence came to the fore and a public embrace of Godse's legacy became more mainstream.
The Gandhi compulsion
Yet, it became repeatedly evident since Modi became prime minister that it was a necessity for the BJP and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar to appropriate Gandhi and his legacy. As a result, the government and the party expropriated imagery linked with Gandhi in its flagship programme, Swachh Bharat, and uses the same symbol in currency notes issued post-demonetisation. Leaders, Modi downward, have sworn in Gandhi's name and have pledged to fulfil his objectives. It is evident, that despite the strides made by the Hindutva idea, the public embrace of Gandhi is a compulsion.
Yet, the party continues pandering to extreme Hindutva forces through actions like being mild on leaders like Thakur, Giriraj Singh and Sakshi Maharaj who eulogised Godse. The BJP leadership is Janus-faced, one side engages in embracing Gandhi while the other side valorises Godse. To retain hold on the power structure, BJP requires both faces to continuously communicate with conflicting constituencies.
It is not a question of just Thakur, but the fact that the sentiment she articulates periodically is tolerated within the party that underscores the BJP's duality. It shows its commitment to Hindu nationalistic ideology while being pragmatic and taking periodic steps like removing her from the defence ministry’s consultative committee in Parliament. But then the party leadership should have known better – after all, had she not declared the intent of focusing on the work that she ‘had been elected to do’?
(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.