NEW DELHI — The day after she had enacted the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, called Mahatma by his followers, Pooja Shakun Pandey, Ph.D. in Mathematics, General Secretary of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, and self-professed full-time sanyasi, sounded shaken and ill at ease.
A video of Pandey firing an air-gun at a Gandhi effigy had gone viral on social media, prompting the now familiar cycle of outrage, Twitter users professing to be hurt and upset, followed by demands for arrest, and eventual police action.
In Pandey’s case, the Uttar Pradesh police had registered a case under sections 153-A and section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code that penalise the outraging religious feelings and promoting enmity between groups, and carry a sentence of three years of imprisonment. The Hindu hardliner was arrested today in Aligarh.
“It is my right. It is my constitutional right. It is my right to freedom of speech and expression,” Pandey shouted over the phone in an interview with HuffPost India, a few days before her arrest. “Is Gandhi above the Constitution of India? Is Gandhi above the Prime Minister of the day? Is Gandhi above free speech?”
All valid questions, except that Pandey, her right-wing Hindu ilk, and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) governments in the Centre and several states, have spent the past five years systematically clamping down on any form of expression and dissent that questions their writ. Pandey’s arrest suggests that the wheel of state repression has come full-circle where some forms of extreme right-wing Hindu self-expression has been perceived as a threat to the public peace.
No free speech for Kanhaiya Kumar
Every year, on 30 January, when India mourns Gandhi’s assassination, the Hindu Mahasabha celebrates his assassin, Nathuram Godse. They garland Godse’s bust and distribute sweets. This year, however, they went further and filmed a crude reenactment of Godse shooting Gandhi.
In a video that went viral, a saffron-swaddled Pandey is seen shooting at an effigy depicting Gandhi. Blood, presumably red paint or colored water, spills on the ground.
Pandey, who taught college-level math for ten years in Meerut before joining one of India’s oldest right wing organizations, referred to Gandhi as a “terrorist,” who was responsible for India’s partition and the death of millions of Indians, both Hindus and Muslims.
Police action against her, she said, was an abrogation of her constitutional right to free speech.
Yet when asked if the same civil liberties applied to Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya — three university students accused of sedition (a far more serious offence) for shouting “anti-India” slogans on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Pandey demurred.
“Please stop comparing us,” she said. “You have to see the intentions here. We are patriots and they are liars and traitors.”
Prashant Bhushan, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, said that Kumar did not incite people to violence whereas Pandey appeared to be doing so. Still, Bhushan said neither Kumar nor Pandey should be charged for sedition.
When it came to the double standard, Bhushan said, “This government intimidates and harrasses any person who challenges it. It is an attack on dissent.”
For the record, the students have denied raising anti-India slogans.
Over the course of BJP’s five years in power, right-wing individuals and groups, once considered fringe, have sought to shift the centre of public conversation righward by making ever more extreme demands.
Take for instance, Amit Jani, a businessman and head of an organization called the UP Narnirvan Sena, who announced that he would field Hindus accused of lynching Muslims in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The ascension of Yogi Adityanath, himself accused of hate speech and inciting crowds to riot, has only accelerated this trend.
Yet, one question that keeps surfacing is the complicity of the media in providing air-time and column-space to these voices, thereby according them importance they may not have. For instance, the Narnirvan Sena’s rally for Hariom Sisodia, the man accused of lynching Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015, turned out to be a damp squib.
Speaking to HuffPost India, Chander Prakash Kaushik, President of the Hindu Mahasabha, admitted that organizations like his were pushed to take extreme steps in order to stay relevant. “Don’t make me say it, but we need the publicity,” he said.
The Hindu Mahasabha, of which Godse was once a member, was founded in 1907, and went national in 1915, according to its website. It was banned by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel following Gandhi’s assassination.
In its present avatar, the organization appears to be a caricature of its former self, a sort of offline version of a Twitter troll army. In addition to celebrating Godse, the organization has started “Hindu courts” in order to demand the abolition of Shariah courts.
Pandey, however, takes herself and her work very seriously. “Do you think I’m facing arrest just to get attention?” she asked.
Pandey, who grew up in Delhi, said that her family was always close to the RSS. She went to school at the RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandir, and she had always believed India to be a Hindu country.
It was, however, many years later that she felt the need to devote herself to the cause of Hindutva. Even before she discovered her love for Godse, Pandey entered the fray by railing against reservation for students in public universities and institutions.
It has been at least five years since Pandey left her teaching job and joined the Hindu Mahasabha. The 38-year-old woman, who calls herself herself a “sanyasi,” said that she has left her two children with relatives in order to devote herself to the organization.
For the better part of the year, Pandey said, that she and her husband travel to different parts of the country, campaigning for a “Hindu country.”
An annual feature
Steering the conversation back to her freedom of speech and expression, Pandey said that she had shot the effigy in a private place — the Hindu Mahasabha office in Aligarh — and did not invite members of the public to attend.
The math professor went on to say that the event was intended to “educate” the public about the “true nature” of Gandhi and the “greatness” of Godse. “The coming generation should know who the real hero is,” she said. “There is no bigger patriot than Godse.”
On why she decided to carry out a mock assassination, instead of the routine garlanding and distributing sweets, Pandey said that she intended to make this spectacle an annual feature.
“We want to do it, every year,” she said.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Pandey said that she “adored” Godse, who was her true hero. “I am a daughter of India. If I am hanged for praising Godse then I will feel proud. I bow my head in front of Godse,” she said.
One day, Pandey said, school textbooks would carry the “truth about Godse.”
For now, she feigned ignorance over the fracas that her little skit had caused.
“I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal,” she said. “I used an air gun.”