NEW DELHI -- The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has shot itself in the foot by going to court over Rahul Gandhi's remark linking the Hindu nationalist group to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Ashis Nandy, India's pre-eminent sociologist and political psychologist, told HuffPost India. "Frankly, it would have been more responsible of the RSS if they had just not responded to it," he said during an extended conversation over tea.
In his office filled with papers and books, some yellowing and others fraying at the edges, Nandy explained why Rahul's criminal defamation trial was not a legal exercise, but rather a political manoeuvre by the Congress Party which will likely go all out to associate the RSS with the "movement of hate" that led to Gandhi's assassination. He said that in its response, the RSS would only end up regurgitating old arguments.
"He (Rahul) wants the trial. It is a clever political move and the RSS will recognise it soon," Nandy said. "They (the Congress) must have been briefed by lawyers like Kapil Sibal that they are confident of stretching it out for seven to eight years, worse comes to worst."
"It would have been more responsible of the RSS if they had just not responded to it."
Going by the laws, the worst outcome for the Congress would be a maximum prison sentence of two years for Rahul, but this is an unlikely scenario, given that appeals could keep the case going for a long time. A similar criminal defamation case against former Human Resources Minister Arjun Singh ended only with his death in 2011. Nandy said that the risk would be well worth it for the Congress Party if its lawyers actually managed to turn Gandhi's assassination into an albatross around the RSS' neck, ahead of the 2019 national election.
The RSS has always claimed that Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirators were not members of the RSS when Gandhi was assassinated, and has cited the letter which India's first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel sent to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948."The RSS was not involved at all," Patel's letter states. "It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that hatched the conspiracy."
According to Nandy, the RSS can keep reiterating its position but it will, obviously, not disown the Hindutva ideology. "The RSS will say that legally we are innocent, but politics is not about legality," he elaborated. "The RSS never disowned the Hindu Mahasabha, never disowned Savarkar's Hindutva, never saw him anything but a national hero, and hence for them to now say that they reject Savarkar's philosophy which produced this violence is too late in the day."
The remark that has irked the RSS was made by Rahul in Mumbai during the 2014 national election campaign. "RSS ke logon ne Gandhiji ko goli maari" (the people of RSS killed Gandhiji), he had said, prompting RSS leader Rajesh Kunte to sue him for criminal defamation in a local court in Bhiwandi, Maharashtra.
After one major flip-flop, last month, Rahul, who is the Congress Party's vice president, settled for blaming the RSS for Gandhi's assassination instead of just a "few persons associated with the RSS." He will now appear in a magisterial court in Bhiwandi on 16 November for the trial.
"The RSS will say that legally we are innocent, but politics is not about legality."
Out of the nine accused men in Mahatma Gandhi's murder case, Godse and Narayan Apte were executed; Shankar Kistaiya, Vishnu Karkare and Madanlal Pahwa received life sentences; Gopal Godse was sentenced to 18 years in prison; Digamber Badge had turned approver; and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, who coined the term Hindutva, was acquitted.
Historian A.G. Noorani has argued that the only reason Savarkar was acquitted was the lack of an independent witnesses to corroborate Badge's testimony during the trial. According to Noorani, Savarkar's bodyguard and secretary spoke of his involvement before an inquiry commission, a year or two after the Hindutva icon's death.
Gopal Godse, Nathuram's brother, said in 1998 that he never regretted being part of the assassination plot because Gandhi had failed to prevent the Partition, and his appeasement of Muslims was too much to bear. "In fact, many of Nathuram's friends told me after my release, 'Nathuram ni gadhav pana kela, tyani majha chance ghalavla' (Nathuram did you an injustice by making you miss your chance to kill Gandhi)," he said.
While these men might not have been members of the RSS as of 30 January, 1948, Nandy believes that Gandhi's assassination was a result of the "movement of hate" propagated by Hindu nationalists. This is evident in the fact that there had been at least four assassination attempts on him since 1934.
He pointed out that the Indian government banned the RSS after Gandhi's assassination and that, at the time, independent India's first Cabinet had non-Congress Party members such as Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar and Hindu nationalist Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the BJP's predecessor. "There was a consensus that RSS had something to do (with), or at the very least created an environment in which the assassination of Gandhi could take place," he said.
In his letter to then RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar in September 1948, Patel wrote, "All their speeches were full of communal poison... As a final result of that poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of Gandhiji... RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji's death."
To cause maximum embarrassment during Rahul's trial, Nandy said that he wouldn't be surprised if Congress Party lawyers highlight material showing how the RSS grovelled before the government to get the ban on it lifted, promising to end all political activity. Nandy added that the lawyers could also highlight how Savarkar had earlier begged the British for mercy, describing himself as the "prodigal son" longing to return to the "parental doors of government".
Describing Savarkar as a freedom fighter who became a "pathetic broken man," Nandy said, "Once he had gone to jail in Andaman, he was absolutely panicky and feared the idea of (being in) jail even at 65 and 75 (years of age)."
NOT ABOUT IDEOLOGY
Nandy said that "time will tell" if Rahul's trial could have any bearing on the outcome of the general elections in 2019, but it certainly wouldn't help the BJP at a time when fissures were showing within the party. He referred to Anandiben Patel's resignation as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Nandy also felt that the trial would be of no help politically to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The honeymoon period for Indian prime ministers lasts for about two-and-a-half years be it Modi or Indira Gandhi, he pointed out. "It is about to finish for him, so it is a wrong time for this to come," he said.
But Modi being cut to human size from the demigod status that he enjoyed now will be a good thing, Nandy believes. "It is healthy for Indian society that no one is put on a pedestal," he said. "Unheroic heroes are always better than heroic heroes. So P.V. Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee are always better than Indira Gandhi and Modi."
Nandy doesn't view the trial as a clash of ideologies. He holds that "ideological divisions are thin" in India, and no substitute for faith or religion. According to him, the Congress Party today wasn't any more Gandhian than any other party. "The principle function is politics in India," he said. "It is all a matter of large money, media and propaganda. This trial is a tremendous media opportunity and the Congress must be feeling that."
"RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji's death."
Nor was he certain if Rahul's trial would revive memories of, or generate any discussions around, the Mahatma's assassination among the general public. He feels that a lot would depend on how the media covers the trial.
Nandy recalled the results of a survey conducted four years ago about who the most popular figure in India's public life was. Mahatma Gandhi came out much ahead of all other candidates, followed by Mother Teresa as a distant second.
"Even now he is a quasi-sanctified figure," Nandy said. "It does somehow seep in that they killed him. That people know but they will have to confront that fact again. Gandhi maybe the greatest Indian we have had in recent centuries, but we only killed him."
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