Indian police paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi in 2008. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, his vision of equal rights for all religions has been eroded. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
Once condemned as traitor, Nathuram Godse is being venerated as a misunderstood patriot
Last Sunday, in a nondescript building in the Indian city of Gwalior, 320km south of Delhi, a large crowd of men gathered. Most wore bright saffron hats and scarves, a colour evoking Hindu nationalism, and many held strands of flowers as devotional offerings.
They were there to attend the inauguration of the Godse Gyan Shala, a memorial library and “knowledge centre” dedicated to Nathuram Godse, the man who shot Mahatma Gandhi. The devotional yellow and pink flowers were laid around a black and white photograph of Godse, the centrepiece of the room.
On January 30th, 1948, Godse stepped out in front of Gandhi and shot him three times at point-blank range. A fervent believer in Hindu nationalism, Godse thought Gandhi had betrayed India’s Hindus by agreeing to partition, leading to the creation of Pakistan, and by championing the rights of Muslims. In 1949 Godse was hanged for Gandhi’s murder.
In the following decades, Godse was widely decried as a terrorist and traitor, the murderer of the “father of India”. Yet in recent years, as Hindu nationalism has moved from an extremist fringe to mainstream Indian politics – the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has a Hindu nationalist agenda at their core – Godse’s public reputation has steadily shifted from being condemned as traitor to being venerated as a misunderstood Indian patriot.
Meanwhile, Gandhi’s vision of a secular India with equal rights for all religions has been eroded and subjugated since the BJP came to power in 2014.
“Godse did the right thing by killing Gandhi,” said Devendra Pandey (53), national secretary of Hindu Mahasabha, the Hindu nationalist organisation behind the memorial library. He was vocal in his belief that India should be declared “a country rightfully for Hindus” and that its 200 million Muslims should move to Pakistan.
“Godse considered Gandhi as his father, so to kill him must have caused him great pain but he had a very real reason,” he said. “Godse took action because Gandhi betrayed India – this library will teach the next generation how Godse was a true nationalist martyr.”
The library is just one of many recent efforts to memorialise and revere Godse. Hindu Mahasabha, which Godse belonged to and which now has about 750,000 members across India, has erected several Godse statues and attempted to set up temples in his name.
Mug shot of the Indian political activist Nathuram Vinayak Godse who shot Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty Images
The organisation celebrates Godse’s birthday in May as a holy day. In the Maharashtra city of Pune, a silver vessel that supposedly contains Godse’s ashes, following his dying wish for them not to be scattered until India and Pakistan were reunited, has become a popular place of pilgrimage. Videos of sermons by extremist Hindus glorifying Godse have spread across social media.
Pandey said the Hindu Mahasabha plans to open several similar education and memorial centres dedicated to Godse across India. However, there is still much resistance to the glorification of Gandhi’s killer. Two days after the Godse memorial library was opened this week, it had to close on the orders of the local magistrate. And members of Hindu Mahasabha have been arrested for attempts to erect Godse memorials and hold ceremonies in his honour.
“This reverence of Godse and the glorification of violence is all tied to the ascendancy of the BJP,” said Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It began emerging in the last decade and has been accelerating to the point where a greater percentage of people in India are now willing to accept this; and it is shaping, and reshaping, people’s views of Mahatma Gandhi in decidedly unhelpful ways.”
Ramachandra Guha, a historian who wrote a biography of Gandhi, said it was unsurprising that, as the BJP pushed forward its Hindu nationalist agenda, including a citizenship law seen to directly discriminate against Muslims, Godse’s legacy was being revived in India.
Godse had been a member of the RSS, the extremist Hindu nationalist cultural organisation that is seen as a BJP umbrella organisation. Most senior figures in the ruling BJP government, including the prime minister, Narendra Modi, have held positions in the RSS.
“Privately, the BJP has aways disliked and mistrusted Gandhi and there has always been some admiration for Godse among members,” said Guha. “The BJP dislike Gandhi for being effeminate, they believe his non-violence movement made India weak, they distrust him for agreeing to partition and, above all, hate that he believed in equal rights for Muslims. The dislike runs deep, so it’s not surprising that now the BJP are so powerful, both politically and socially, that it has risen to the surface.”
Guha said the debate around Godse “takes you to the heart of what’s happening in India today”. He added: “This worship of Godse is symptomatic of a really dangerous transformation in our political life, in our public life, in our institutional life and in our cultural life. It raises the question of India’s future: are we now the Hindu majoritarian nation that Godse always wanted?”