Opinion | Why Godse is condemned and Savarkar hailed a hero4 min read . Updated: 01 Dec 2019, 11:09 PM IST
The BJP sees in Savarkar what is central to all nationalistic organizations across the world: relevance
A few days ago the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament Pragya Singh Thakur hailed Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin as a “patriot". She said it in Parliament, whose elected member she is. Most people present in the House seemed upset, and her own party condemned her mildly. This is not the first time she has publicly praised Nathuram Godse. When she did so a few months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would never “fully forgive her".
Yet, many in the BJP claim to adore Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a man who was accused in court as the mastermind of a plot to kill Gandhi that was carried out by Godse.
Godse was hanged; Savarkar was arrested but eventually acquitted for lack of evidence, a reason why so many nationalists say it is not wrong to officially rehabilitate and honour him. What they seem to be saying is: a) We adore Gandhi, b) His murder was a great crime, c) His assassin Godse’s alleged mentor Savarkar was innocent.
However, considering the circumstantial evidence against Savarkar and how modern Indian courts have reacted to this type of evidence, it is unlikely he would have been freed if he were tried today.
India hanged Afzal Guru in 2013 on the basis of less than what the prosecution apparently had on Savarkar in 1948. Vallabhbhai Patel, a hero for nationalists, now memorialized as the world’s tallest statue, grumbled that the technicalities of the judicial process may have acquitted Savarkar, but “morally" he was a murderer.
It is absurd that any party should condemn Godse and venerate Savarkar. Yet, there are reasons why it happens.
But first let us look at the case against Savarkar. Nine people were accused in the assassination. Two were hanged, five were given life imprisonment, one turned approver, who portrayed one of the accused as the plot’s mastermind. The only one who was acquitted was this alleged “mastermind"—Savarkar.
Godse and Narayan Apte, who were hanged for the murder, were disciples of Savarkar, the formulator of modern Hindutva, a man who argued that India belonged to Hindus, and that Gandhi’s empowerment and appeasement of Muslims was despicable.
The accused who had turned approver, Digambar Badge, said that he, along with Godse and Apte, went to Savarkar’s residence in Mumbai on 14 January 1948, 16 days before the assassination. Godse and Apte then asked Badge to wait outside, and they went in with a bag that contained some weapons. They emerged after about 10 minutes with the bag. Three days later, they met at the residence again, according to Badge. This time he was asked to wait on the ground floor inside the house, while Godse and Apte went in to meet Savarkar. “When Godse and Apte were on their way downstairs along with Savarkar, [Badge] heard Savarkar telling them…[in Marathi]… ‘come back with success’," writes Vaibhav Purandare in his biography of Savarkar that was released this year.
Savarkar denied all this. But there is a very interesting eyewitness that Purandare mentions. On the 14th, Godse and Apte were travelling from Pune to Mumbai by the Deccan Express. A woman was walking up and down the compartment looking for a window seat. Apte offered his, and struck a conversation with her. She turned out to be an actor known as Bimba. Her brother was picking her up at the train station, and she offered to drop the men off in her brother’s car to their final destination—Savakar’s home in Dadar, her neighbourhood. She deposed in court that she had indeed dropped the men there.
This incident is fascinating for reasons that has nothing to do with politics: A woman travelling alone in a train, chatting with two men she had just met, contradicting notions that modern Indians have of their past; and two men who will commit one of the most famous assassinations in history just a fortnight from then letting a public figure drop them off at the residence of a possible accomplice or mentor or even a “‘mastermind".
Pragya Thakur’s appreciation of Godse may not be a fringe opinion; it is a familiar view among many who form her party’s political base. For many Indians, though we can never know how many, Godse is an impressive figure, even though they do not despise Gandhi.
The long reign of Nehruvians and their intellectual franchises who controlled history, journalism and an industry called acclaim, has ensured that the Hindu movement does not have many proper heroes. And it is not easy even for the BJP to magnify men of the past.
It was perhaps this scarcity that made the party turn to a Congress hero, Patel. So the BJP cannot squander Savarkar’s judicial acquittal and let go of him as a figure.
The party sees in him what is central to all nationalistic organizations across the world —relevance. I do not accept the view that Gandhi is losing his relevance to India. The story he told, of love and peace, is at the very heart of arts and religion itself, and it can never be irrelevant. But many modern Indians see Savarkar as relevant, too. That may be why the BJP hails Savarkar as a hero.
In any case, let us not forget that Savarkar received that strange, but immensely useful abstract object only Indians understand— the clean chit.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’