"...But I do maintain that even this servant of the country had no right to vivisect the country - the image of our worship -by deceiving the people. But he did it all the same. There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and it was therefore that I resorted to the firing of shots at Gandhiji as that was the only thing for me to do."
This was Nathuram Godse, in his final statement at his trial for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Godse was on his feet for five hours, reading his 90-page statement in which he explained why he had killed Gandhi. There was no sign of remorse, only the firm conviction that he had merely performed his "patriotic" duty. Despite the pleas of the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and two of Gandhi's sons to commute the sentence, Godse was executed.
Godse had been an active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but by his own admission he had quit and joined the Hindu Mahasabha at the time of the assassination. He also mentioned during his trial that he had acted alone. The issue of his links with the RSS, however, has been the subject of debate, with the then home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel banning the organisation soon after, though the ban was later revoked.
So, a veritable storm broke out when Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi remarked at a public rally in Thane last week that "RSS people killed Gandhiji and today their people (BJP) talk of him... They opposed Sardar Patel and Gandhiji".
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came out strongly against the remarks. L K Advani, in his blog, accused the Congress of launching a "slanderous" campaign against the RSS, and quoted from a book on Patel by Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, to defend the organisation. The book reproduced a letter Patel had written to Nehru in 1948, which said: "I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu's assassination case... All the accused have given long and detailed statements... It emerges clearly from these statements that the RSS was not involved in it at all." BJP Spokesperson and Member of Parliament Ravi Shankar Prasad issued a statement which again referred to Rajmohan Gandhi's book, adding that "many a commission of inquiry" had found such "false and mischievous" allegations to be untrue and that Rahul Gandhi did not have an understanding of history.
RSS, on its part, plans to file a defamation suit against Rahul Gandhi. "Filing a criminal defamation against Rahul Gandhi is certain. We will move the application within this week," says Ram Madhav, a member of the RSS central executive committee, and its spokesperson. "Rahul Gandhi has not read India's history, neither does he have any respect for the country's judiciary. His statement is completely false, malicious and politically motivated. All he wants to do is create ill will between communities." RSS had also approached the Election Commission (EC) but had been told that the commission could not do anything since the former was not a political party. Former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami, when contacted, said Rahul Gandhi's speech would not exactly amount to a violation of the model code of conduct for the same reason. "The model code of conduct applies only to a political party and the RSS is not one. The only option for them is a civil lawsuit."
Madhav, however, says the EC should step in. "Rahul Gandhi's statement is political, so ideally the EC should play a role. In any case, BJP will also complain to the EC, which it can't say isn't a political party."
A defamation suit has already been filed in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh against Rahul Gandhi by Sanu Shukla, lawyer and convenor of People for Legal Aid Society, contending that the RSS had been given a clean chit in the assassination by investigating agencies and the Kapur Commission. Shukla has said the comments not only hurt him, but were also far from the truth and aimed at maligning the image of the Sangh parivar.
This is not the first time Rahul Gandhi is raising these charges. At another rally early last month, this time in Gujarat, the home state of BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, he had said: "You (Modi) have been in the RSS all your life... Who killed Mahatma? It was RSS ideology that killed him. After his death Sardar Patel had proposed to ban the RSS." But the response then had been much more muted. Spokesperson Madhav had merely said, "It is the present day Congress leadership that has completely decimated the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel and are following the ideology that is just the opposite," adding for good measure that the RSS does not usually react to "kindergarten comments".
The Congress has stood firmly by Rahul Gandhi's comments. "Yes, what he has said is true, that the ideology of the Sangh is responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. And if we review the statements of Gopal Godse and Nathuram Godse, they have made it clear in their statement that they both were workers of the Sangh," Digvijaya Singh had told reporters at a press conference.
Sanjay Jha, Congress spokesperson, tells Business Standard, "These are the facts as they are - Sardar Patel made a statement that it was the RSS that poisoned communal sentiments, which eventually led to Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. RSS even told its workers to 'watch out for big news' before he was killed, and distributed sweets soon after his death." Congress, he adds, is prepared to challenge any defamation suit. "We are ready for it - the debate [surrounding Mahatma Gandhi's assassination] needs to be out in the open. If they file a suit, we will be very happy to bring out historic facts."
But what are the historical facts, and why did Rahul Gandhi's comments, about an incident that took place over six decades ago provoke such angry reactions? Says Rajmohan Gandhi, who was extensively quoted by BJP in its defence, "Nathuram Godse was an active pracharak of the RSS but by the time of the assassination, he had left the RSS. Secondly, after the assassination, Sardar Patel banned the RSS. These are the only two points worth knowing and there's no more that needs to be said." Rajmohan Gandhi, now an Aam Aadmi Party candidate from East Delhi, refuses to add anything to this.
Another of Mahatama Gandhi's grandsons, Tushar Gandhi, who has openly spoken about the RSS's complicity in the assassination, said in a TV interview last week, "There is an element of rightness because it's not the personality that killed Bapu but more the ideology that sponsored the murder of Bapu - that is rampant even today. And as long as it is rampant, it will be brought up as an issue. Even today, the RSS worships and venerates Nathuram Godse."
In the same TV interview was Gandhi's great grandson, Shrikrishna Kulkarni, who had written an open letter to Rahul Gandhi that the issue was in the past and the family had moved on, adding that he should "stop this opportunistic use of the Gandhi name". During the interview, Kulkarni said, "In 1969, when my grandfather Ramdas Gandhi was dying, Gopal Godse came and met him - these two people showed immense maturity in putting this issue behind. I don't see why it's still an issue 66 years later... Instead of solving problems, he (Rahul Gandhi) is fanning emotions."
Tushar Gandhi, however, refuted the claims that the RSS had been exonerated, pointing out that the mandate of the (Jeevan Lal) Kapur Commission, set up to investigate the conspiracy to murder Gandhi had never been to probe the RSS involvement, absolve it or indict it. "So there was no question of the commission giving it a clean chit or of condemning."
Interestingly, in an interview to Frontline in 1994, Nathuram Godse's brother, Gopal Godse, had emphatically said, "All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah [intellectual worker] in the RSS. He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because (M S) Golwalkar [second chief of the organisation] and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS."
The debate about the extent of RSS involvement in Gandhi's assassination might go on. But even Tushar Gandhi admits it cannot be a significant electoral issue. He does, however, ask, "What was it in Nathuram Godse that was so venerable that even today an actor who plays Godse is felicitated by RSS? If that is the continuance of the ideology that murdered Bapu, it will be up for criticism and questioning."