The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is an ultra-right (I would say fascist) organization founded in India in 1925. Its primary goal is to establish a Brahmin Hindu nation in India. Although it was marginally involved in the struggle against British colonialism before India’s 1947 independence and partition, its emphasis on Hindu supremacy meant it had little to do with the more secular independence struggle led by Gandhi and the Muslim League’s Jinnah. Furthermore, it can be easily argued that its pathological hatred of Islam not only prevented any potential participation in that movement, but encouraged the RSS and the Hindu organizations it was in league with to cooperate with the British Empire against the movement for independence. Indeed, this argument is substantiated by author Dhirendra K. Jha in his book Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India.
In making this argument, Jha contends that the assassin Godse was not working alone. His involvement in the founding of the RSS and his early idolization of the far-right Hindu thinker and writer Vinayak Damodar Sarvakar preclude any possibility of Godse being what is known today as a lone wolf. Although the text can be read as the journey of one disaffected young man’s journey into the world of right-wing politics and terrorism—a narrative all too familiar in today’s world—it is considerably more than that. The author Jha has composed a political history of colonial India during the two decades leading up to independence that explores the nascent fascism of the Hindu nationalists and its realization in the murder of Gandhi. Lurking in this narrative is India’s current political reality, a reality that situates the far-right nationalists of the RSS and Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Just like they did during the rise of European fascism in the 1930s, today’s Hindu nationalists look to and interact with various far-right authoritarian movements in the global north.
Gandhi’s Assassin begins with a brief description of Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948. From there, the author takes us through the life story of the assassin Godse, beginning with his early childhood, his departure for high school, and his return to his family’s quarters after skipping out on his exams. This was in the late 1920s. In 1929, Gandhi returned to India, and an independence movement was gathering momentum under his leadership. At first, Godse was attracted to the movement, but before long, he turned toward the thoughts of the Hindu nationalist Savarkar and his appeal to the displaced Brahmin caste. Likewise, his prejudice against Indian Muslims struck a chord in the young man, much like it did among others of his caste. This hatred and those who projected it onto the independence movement forever changed the potential of that movement and the future of what is known as the Indian subcontinent.
When I was a youngster, I lived in Peshawar, Pakistan. My father was part of a US intelligence operation conducted by the US Air Force under the direction of the National Security Agency(NSA). Although its primary function was to eavesdrop on the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, it also kept tabs on the local populations. I mention this only because while we lived on a small military base there, a war broke out between India and Pakistan over the territory of Jammu/Kashmir. It was then that I learned about the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. A couple of years later, I discovered the 1956 novel of the partition by Khushwant Singh titled Train to Pakistan. Like many of the other works of fiction written about this historical episode, it is an emotionally wrenching work of fiction that describes the flight of whole villages from their homes in the wake of the partition. Mobs on all sides whipped up by religious leaders seeking their own power attacked trains and burnt whole trains filled with fleeing families and individuals. The novel captures the insanity of religious zealotry and the callousness of those leaders who manipulate others’ beliefs. The fact that this type of human activity is once again on the rise proves such leaders continue to thrive despite all humanity has seen in this regard.
Jha’s text spans a little more than four decades. In his examination of Nathuram Godse’s life and its eventual climax in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, he provides the reader with a particular history of India’s last years as a British colony. The reader is presented with discussions of the political identities, affiliations and differences inside the movement for independence. Events are described through the viewfinder of history and the perceptions of Godse and the right-wing organizations he was involved with. At the same time, the author Jha provides a political and cultural context for the events that dig considerably deeper than that usually found in histories more familiar to readers in the global north. Although the biography of Godse is a biography of an assassin whose psychological profile might indicate his tendency towards extreme actions like political murder, it is also a story of a nation whose identity was forever mutated by the fact of British colonialism and the multiple atrocities that colonialism involved. It does not relieve the assassin of his guilt and choices, but neither does it pretend that his nation’s existence under the yoke of colonialism did not inform his politics or his turn towards right-wing politics. In stating this, one wonders what rationales history provides to Godse’s political descendants now running the government in Delhi.