Nathu(ram) Killing a Rambhakt: A Symbol of Attack on the Benign Form of Nationalism by its Malign Form

gandhi godse

In her recent fortnightly column for The WIRE, the senior journalist Pamela Philipose, questions ‘[w]hat accounts for the scale of such violence that accretes around a festival meant to celebrate Lord Ram, regarded …as Maryada Purushottam, as the embodiment of the perfect man? What accounts for this willful destruction of maryada (dignity, peace), year after year, during a festival meant to extol him?” A response in the form of a prelude can be attempted to these disquieting questions.

The “scale of such violence” stems from the toxic hatred and bigotry whose seeds were planted immediately after independence by the appalling act of one person, ironically, bearing the name of Ram, who killed a Rambhakt, Mahatma Gandhi. Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated the Mahatma, was intolerant towards Rahim that caused him to pull the trigger of his gun aimed at the Rambhakt. The maryada was wrecked intentionally and shamelessly seventy five years back.

But the detritus of such bigotry that was left behind by Godse, whom the Hindutvavadis shamelessly extol, with pride, has assumed dangerously alarming proportions in its capacity to spread the toxic hatred into the present social fabric. It is this that manifests as violence, year after year, during Ram Navami divesting the Hindutvavadis of their maryada.

A partial account of this “willful destruction of maryada”, that Philipose refers to, can perhaps be traced to the malign form of nationalism that had its beginning with Godse killing the Mahatma. One needs to understand that.

After seventy five years of Mahatama Gandhi’s assassination there have been persistent efforts by the right-wing militant Hindutva Rashtravadis to portray Nathuram Godse, the assassin, as a patriot. As this commentary notes, the “discourse of Godse” is pushed with ease. This has been the trend, particularly, in the last nine years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime. This is done in multiple ways and forms as the following examples reveal.

A Chennai BJP councillor, Uma Anandan, had openly spoken in praise of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. She defended Godse’s action saying “[h]e had his own justification”. She further said that she had no regrets in supporting Godse.

In February 2022, in South Gujarat’s Valsad district, an elocution competition for school students was held for which clearance was given for one of the topics “Maro Adarsh Nathuram Godse (My idol Nathuram Godse)” by a government official.

Earlier, in a two day event of the Raipur Dharma Sansad in December 2021, Hindu religious leaders urged the “Sanatani Hindus” to prepare and realize the idea of Hindu Rashtra. Such a preparation, it was said, includes taking up arms. In that event one of the leaders vilified Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘traitor’ and a destroyer of the nation and praised his assassin Nathuram Godse.

Soon, after a week, in the Haridwar Dharma Sansad Sadhvi Annapurna aka Pooja Shakun Devi had said she would pick up arms, even if maligned like Godse, to defend Hindutva.

The right-wing accounts tweeting ‘Nathuram Godse Zindabad’ and describing him as a ‘patriot’ have trended on twitter on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. When it comes to patriotism the depraved mindset of the Hindutva Rashtravadis waits for an occasion to pit Nathuram Godse against Mahatma Gandhi.

In the Haridwar Sansad, Sadhvi Annapurna also mentioned, in reply to a question, that ““Modi and others like Modi”…in the past had explained what Godse and Gandhi were all about.”

As this report notes “[e]ver since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Godse has been hailed by supporters and leaders of BJP, RSS and their affiliate organizations without facing any substantive legal action.” This deplorable trend of militant Hindutva Rashtravadis to portray Godse as a patriot and eulogise him seems to be an ingrained feature of their mindset. This usually happens, especially on days that are linked with the Mahatama, as this report rightly mentions.

How was the Gandhi-Godse difference in nationalism explained by the votaries of the Hindutva? For instance, a few years back, one of the participants in a TV debate said that “Godse was a patriot, and so was Gandhi” supporting the BJP’s then elected candidate, Pragya Thakur’s statement on Godse that he was a patriot. He also said that the things need to be looked at in a context.

What, perhaps, underlies his attribution of contextual patriotism to both Gandhi and Godse is his unwitting subscription to the multiple forms of patriotism that have been presented in the contemporary discourse on patriotism from a philosophical and political perspective.

This calls for nuanced analytical understanding of patriotism, and the closely associated idea of nationalism, of Gandhi and Godse with respect to such a discourse.

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian author and a well-known broadcaster, begins his essay Benign Nationalism? The Possibilities of the Civic Ideal, by raising a rhetorical question: whether there is a benign sort of nationalism that can be distinguished from the malign one? He was writing this in the course of making a contrast between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism.

Ignatieff’s initial proposition was whether the benign form could be seen as one that manifests itself as love of country, national solidarity, willingness to sacrifice oneself for the nation whereas the malign form is the one that rests on “intolerance, violence and conquest”. Continuing on this distinction he poses the question whether patriotism can be called benign nationalism as, generally, most people hold “that there are morally respectable forms of patriotism”.

He adds wryly, drawing upon Samuel Johnson, “it remains the last refuge of a scoundrel … but only when it is offered as an excuse for the behaviour of scoundrels”.

Johnson, according to his biographer James Boswell, made this statement in 1775 without giving the context of his making the statement. Further, there is the view that Johnson never meant that all who express patriotic sympathies are scoundrels but only that all scoundrels may resort to patriotism.

Igor Primoratz, the moral and political theorist, observes that Johnson, in this aphorism, was talking about fake patriotism, “about those who fake it in order to promote their own private or factional interests – that is, about political scoundrels” and not about patriotism as such.

To be sure, in the light of this discussion, Gandhi’s patriotism is more a benign form of nationalism. Godse’s intolerant and violent nationalism can be read as “fake patriotism” that reflects a certain malign form of nationalism intended to promote “factional interest”. That interest gets clearly revealed when he speaks out on his trial proclaiming:

“All this reading and thinking led me to believe it was my first duty to serve Hindudom and Hindus both as a patriot and as a world citizen. To secure the freedom and to safeguard the just interests of some thirty crores (300 million) of Hindus would automatically constitute the freedom and the well-being of all India, one fifth of human race. This conviction led me naturally to devote myself to the Hindu Sanghtanist ideology and programme, which alone, I came to believe, could win and preserve the national independence of Hindustan, my Motherland, and enable her to render true service to humanity as well.”

There is another distinction made, in the discussions on patriotism, between the extreme and a moderate one.  The extreme patriotism demands loyalty to one’s country even at the cost of sacrificing universal principles of justice and moral rules. Thus the form expression of such patriotism is unconstrained, unrestricted and unrestrained and inevitably of a form that is exclusive, illiberal and often aggressive and violent.

Moderate patriotism, on the contrary, does not trump universal moral rules and principles of justice and is not exclusive. Godse displays an unrestrained kind patriotism in his act of murder and Gandhi’s was a moderate patriotism which holds certain universal moral values upholding the principles of individual liberty and a rational society. The act of killing Gandhi, motivated by such unrestrained patriotism, was an attack on morality.

It is this unrestrained patriotism which makes Hindu nationalists look upon Muslims and Christians as outsiders. Their efforts are directed towards making of a Hindu national consciousness that prompts them to adopt the patriotism of the extreme kind which assumes a malign form. In their bid to pursue such an extreme form of patriotism they espouse the idea of a nation that is “typically seen as a non-voluntary community.”

It is non-voluntary in the sense that one is a member of a community by birth and her initial nurturing and socialization take place in a specific culture of a community as she grows up. She has no choice in choosing her identity. In this process of growing up through socialization she discovers her identity, a view that has come to be known as the communitarian theory of how identities are discovered.

Godse, very clearly, makes a statement in his trial clearly reflecting such a view. He says he is born a Hindu and grows up with a feeling of community.

What the Hindutva Rashtravadis and their sympathizers are trying to emphasize involves a notion of nationalism thrusting down the idea of a common heritage in the form religion and culture. Such an idea cannot include the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsis, and the writings of V D Savarkar and M S Golwalkar are quite vocal about it, as these religious communities do not come within this fold of common shared origin.

It thus begets a kind exclusive nationalism. However, as a concession, their inclusion can only be considered if they are loyal to this shared origin. Any resistance to this idea is met with violence and intolerance. This is exactly what Gandhi had to face.

The Rashtravadis draw upon Savarkar’s claim that the Hindu community is a Rashtra derived from his idea of Hindutva.  Membership to such a nation is determined non-voluntarily based on common heritage, religion, race and language. A Hindu, according to Savarkar is “a person who regards the land of BHARATVARSHA from Indus to the Seas as his Father-land or Holy-land that is the cradle land of his religion”.

A narrow exclusivist idea of nation, built upon such a premise, was linked up with the discourse on national movement giving rise to the rhetoric of patriotism of the extreme kind. Savarkar and later Golwalkar did their best to infuse such a kind of patriotism which, during the course of time, has assumed the spirit of malign nationalism as witnessed in the two recent Dharam Sansads.

Godse was the product of such a kind of patriotism and was deeply influenced by Savarkar in the killing of Gandhi. The Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry report brings out clearly the Godse-Savarkar connection in the Gandhi assassination. Godse, in his statement of his trial states that “Millions of Hindu sanghatanists looked upto him [V D Savarkar] as the chosen hero, as the ablest and most faithful advocate of the Hindu cause.”

Gandhi’s assassination in the hands of Godse, perhaps, best symbolizes an attack on the benign form of patriotism by the advocates of the malign form. This attack has enabled the Godse gang nationalism of ethno-cultural variety to dominate the right-wing discourse in India. The call to pick up arms for Hindu Rashtra that was given in the Dharam Sansads is the Godseian form of malign nationalism It is this malign form of nationalism that provokes the Ram Navami violence, year after year.

S K Arun Murthi is Ex Faculty of Philosophy in IISER, Mohali (retired), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

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