Teesta Setalvad


On November 28, 2015, two days ago, the general secretary of the CPI-M, Sitaram Yechury, made an impassioned speech while speaking on the occasion of the Constitution Day debate, in the Rajya Sabha. Challenging this government governed by the ideology that aspires to a theocratic nation, he said that the motive behind this government’s observance of Constitution Day was that it wished to ‘re-write history” and “worm its way” into the history of the national movement and the struggle for India’s freedom. Communalism Combat brings to you a thoroughly researched investigation by Teesta Setalvad into the role of the Hindu right in India’s battle for freedom against British rule. This is part of the introduction to Beyond Doubt – A Dossier on Gandhi’s assassination published by Tulika Books in January this year.


It was in May 2002, two months of the genocidal carnage in Gujarat, that the first NDA dispensation named the Andamans airport after Hindutva icon VD Savarkar.  Unlike other patriots like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Ashfaqullah, who refused to ask the British Raj for mercy even at the cost of their lives, Savarkar, the father of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, had actually sought clemency while lodged in Andamans’ Cellular Jail.


In Savarkar’s letter asking for forgiveness dated November 14, 1913, Savarkar described himself as a ”prodigal son” longing to return to the ”parental doors of the government”.[1] While referring to his earlier letter of clemency in 1911, Savarkar wrote, ”…if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress. As long as we are in jails, there cannot be real happiness and joy in hundreds and thousands of homes of His Majesty’s subjects in India, for blood is thicker than water; but if we are released, the people will raise a shout of joy and gratitude to the government, who knows how to forgive and correct, more than how to chastise and avenge.”


Savarkar went on to add, ”Moreover, my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. By keeping me in jail, nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and, therefore, where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the government.”


The RSS and its role in India’s struggle for freedom is as ignominious.  The RSS, as the Khakhi Shorts and Saffron Flags, (Orient Longman) tells us kept totally aloof from the many anti-British movements of the 1940s, the individual civil disobediences of 1940-41, the Quit India struggle of 1942, the Azad Hind Fauj, the 1945-46 upsurge around the INA trials and the revolt in the Bombay Navy. As all communal organizations including and especially Jinnah’s Muslim league, RSS grew after the communal holocaust of 1946-47 ushered in after Jinnah’s call for direct action. The Calcutta Killings of August 1946, that drove Gandhi to despair and his fast, at the age of 78, was described as its ‘finest hour’ by the RSS.


RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed the Quit India Movement


Shyama Prasad Mookherjee (the founder of BJP) was the finance minister in the Bengal government headed by a member of the Muslim League, Fazal Haque. When Mahatma Gandhi raised the slogan of “Quit India”, Mookherjee did not think fit to resign on August 9, 1942. [2]On the contrary, he opposed the Quit India Movement in Bengal and made the following proposal:


“The question is how to combat this movement (Quit India) in Bengal? The administration of the province should be carried on in such a manner that inspite of the best efforts of the Congress, this movement will fail to take root in the province. It should be possible for us, especially responsible ministers, to be able to tell the public that the freedom for which the Congress has started the movement, already belongs to the representatives of the people. In some spheres, it might be limited during the emergency. Indians have to trust the British, not for the sake of Britain, not for any advantage that the British might gain, but for the maintenance of the defence and freedom of the province itself. You, as governor, will function as the constitutional head of the province and will be guided entirely on the advice of your ministers.”


It is also a matter of history that the Hindu Mahasabha was in a coalition government with the Muslim League in Sind and the Sind Assembly passed a resolution endorsing the demand for the creation of Pakistan. Mookherjee and other Mahasabha leaders did not think fit to resign from the government. Mahasabha president Savarkar, mentor of LK Advani, issued a directive that they should stick to the government position and continue to perform their regular duties and not resign and, in fact, they went ahead and passed a resolution on August 31, 1942 asking all Mahasabhaites to remain at their jobs and oppose the Quit India Movement.[3]


RSS and the Murder


It is not insignificant that it is around the time the first RSS driven government captured power in New Delhi (NDA I) that the RSS mouthpiece Organiser proudly advertises     the books published by Surya Bharati Prakashan, Gandhi Ji’s Murder and After  by co-accused and brother of the assassin, Gopal Godse as also May It Please Your Honour,  by Nathuram Godse. The RSS and HMS have made money on glamourising the killer of Gandhi and claimed proud privilege for the reasons for the killing. In the January 28, 1994 issue of the Frontline, Gopal Godse who served a long term as co-conspirator in the political assassination, told Arvind Rajagopal, how he and his brother Nathuram grew up in the RSS, how the RSS was like family to them. When countered by the interviewer about then deputy prime minister and home minister LK Advani’s statement that Nathuram had nothing to do with the RSS, Gopal Godse calls Advani’s disassociation an act of ‘cowardice.” He further clarifies that it was wrong for Advani and the RSS to disown Nathiram when even the Hindu Mahasabha did not disown him. He adds that it was in 1944, while serving as baudh karyavah with the RSS that Nathuram also began doing Hindu Mahasabha work. The most shocking of all was Gopal Godse’s comment on the fact that Gandhi died saying Hey Ram which Gopal Godse construed as a concoction of the Congress for political ends. The October 1998 interview of then RSS chief, Rajendra Singh published in the Outlook magazine titled ‘Godse’s intention was good but he used the wrong methods’ makes the position clear. Never has there been an unequivocal condemnation by the RSS for the killing in cold blood of Gandhi.


RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha


A typical way that Hindutvawaadi organizations have, honed am insidious technique of escaping legal and moral culpability for crimes committed, whether it is on the question of deliberating stoking rumours that spill into communal violence where innocent lives are lost, as also on the murder of Gandhi is by washing off any responsibility for the act by claiming that the criminal in question does not belong to the RSS or the HMS at any given point of time. This duplicity carries on in parallel to a plethora of literary and cultural writings and expressions glorifying the hate crimes. So it is with the assassination of the Mahatma. First, there is an attempt to deny, now destroy the actions of the government in banning the RSS that it felt was directly responsible. Simultaneously there are efforts to deny the seminal links between the RSS and the HMS. These have been carefully documented by D.R. Goyal in his important work on the RSS. As he points out, Hedgewar the founder of the RSS was one of the secretaries of the Mahasabha and Mahasabha leaders were invited for special lectures on current political situation so that the response of the RSS was generally identical with their views. During 1931, the RSS had a new spurt of growth and expansion.


Babarao Savarkar, who had been ever since his release from prison in 1922 organising Hindu youth under the banner of Tarun Hindu Sabha, decided to merge his organization into the RSS. As a result there was a spurt of Sangh shakhas in the Central Province. Babarao was also instrumental in securing support for the RSS at Banaras. The Shakha started by Dani and others was strengthened when he persuaded Bhaurao Damle, a renowned scholar, to become thesanghchalak of Banaras. It was the Hindu Mahasabha connection that opened, for the RSS, new avenues to carry their activities into north and western India. At its Delhi session it passed a resolution commending the activities of the RSS and emphasing the need to spread its network all over the country. Bhai Parmanand had called an all-India Hindu youth conference (Hindu Yuvak Parishad) in Karachi. He wrote to Babarao Savarkar to bring Hedgewar to Karachi. The Mahasabha leaders in those days had started looking upon the RSS as an extension of its politics in the sphere of youth and found Hedgewar an appropriate man for the purpose. The Karachi conference passed a resolution that ‘Sangh work should be expanded all over the country.’ [4]


Ironically, as Goyal records, just as the RSS and Hindu Mahasbha were coming closer, the differences between the Congress and the Mahasbha were growing and by 1932 when the government of the Central Provinces declared the activities of the Sangh communal and objectionable and prohibited the participation of government employees in its activities. The year that there was a first attempt on the life of Gandhi, i.e. in June 1934 itself the Congress passed a resolution forbidding members of Congress from joining the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League. Despite some efforts made by the RSS to get Gandhi to visit the RSS camp at Wardha in December of that year, Gandhi clearly remained unimpressed and sceptical even after a meeting with Hegdewar. Gandhi did not advise the Congress to permit. Congressmen to join the RSS. Savarkar’s patronage clearly helped the organization to expand and the rising communal tensions allowed it to thrive. Goyal’s detailed documentation of this relationship is valuable reference point.


RSS and Hindu Mahasbha Indoctrination


To understand what the indoctrination of and by the RSS means, we have consciously included in this volume an extract, Tamas (Darkness) by Hindi writer, Bhisham Sahni, which was translated from the Hindi by Jai Ratan. The indoctrination, set in a clear-cut proto-fascist mould is geared towards a constant and ever-present enemy which, as this extract shows is primarily the Muslim. The Muslim is the outsider, the barbarian, the invader as also “unclean” and “polluted.” This indoctrination echoes the enemies of ‘Hindu society’ as expanded by V.D.Savarkar in Hindutva [5] is a political rendition of the original portrayed in the treatise Manu Smruti.[6]


Twisted narratives snatched out of history and collapsed in time, are filled into the imagination of the young men who join the shakha, and who are also rigidly disciplined into a militarised and authoritarian mould. While the constructs of a history of yore are deeply flawed and a-historic in that they mis-represent the early medieval period narratives of Shivaji and Rana Pratap, they consistently and constantly point to an irrational and unquestioning worldview that sees the Vedas as the repository of all that is good or great. The chilling relevance of the extract from Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas is borne out by the statements of the prime minister echoed in the recently held Indian Science Congress. Sahni’s prescience and relevance remains and it was imperative that we draw attention to this seminal work written in 1974. Sahni won the Sahitya Academy award for it in 1975. We had reproduced the extract in Communalism Combat’s anniversary issue of August 2004.


The year that there was a first attempt on the life of Gandhi, i.e. in June 1934 itself the Congress passed a resolution forbidding members of Congress from joining the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League.


The extract from Sahni’s Tamas is a chilling rendition of how this indoctrination by the RSS, initially mental, at the final stages of initiation, involves the test of killing. As the son of the president of the local committee of the organisation, Ranvir follows Master Devbrat, the instructor of the gymnasium-cum-wrestling unit, Master Devbrat, to undertake his final test, he is excited as young men will be of joining the inner sanctum. As they approach the dark room where dead white hens lie in a corner, a sense of apprehension grows in the mind of the young Ranvir. Devbrat and the invisibilised Gorkha in the room proceed to ensure that young Ranvir successfully first kills with a knife and then squeezes all life out of the poor hen. During the chilling initiation, Ranvir is slapped when he falters and vomits in natural revulsion at the acts being required of him and told, ‘If you cannot kill the hen how will you deal with the enemy?!’


Published in 1974, Tamas generated a huge controversy when director Govind Nihalani converted it into a serial for Doordarshan in 1988. Demands for a ban were selective but noisy before it was finally telecast, one episode a week at 10 p.m. on the national network. Later, it was again telecast as a one-off four hour long film and finally shown again by History TV 18, in 2013.


Predictably the most aggressive protests came from hardliner communalists like Pramod Navalkar of the Shiv Sena and LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Advani’s comments were the most irresponsible. He has been quoted as saying that Tamas was a distortion of history because it depicted RSS and Arya Samaj as “beastly fanatics” while Muslim League members were dismissed as “mere ruffians” and Congresss men as “anaemic nincompoops.” Advani then the blood iron ban of the BJP, now overtaken by a more virile and younger avatar, had in the early 1970s also made similarly irresponsible statements against MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa when efforts were made to block the censorship certificate. If Tamas was deemed dangerous it is and was because, at its core, it portrayed (and expose) the use of hatred and violence behind communal mobilisation and organisations that justified human killings for the larger good. This is and has been central to the RSS ideological training. It is what allows cadres of hundreds and thousands to spill onto the streets, given the situation and at one call, be it in Delhi in 1984, Bhagalpur in 1989, Bombay in 1992-1993 and Gujarat in 2002.


Clearly, any cinematic portrayal of hardcore communal politics and their mobilisation is anathema to the project of the Sangh and its affiliates. Garm Hawa, Advani said at the time (according to an interview given to the writer by director MS Sathyu)  was “funded by Pakistan!” That classic was deplored by the same sections of the Hindu right because it creatively portrayed the plight, dilemnas and traumas of those hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims, who – against the sectarian  call of Muslim nationhood of Jinnah and the Muslim league – opted for Gandhi ‘s vision of a composite Indian nationhood.


The sharp, often violent opposition to righting of the historic narrative is at the heart of the opposition to truth telling and history. Such an exercise positions square responsibility on the politics of communalism that – whether it be of the RSS or the Muslim League colour or kind – and turns the searchlight on their blighted, limited and sectarian visions of nationhood.


Gandhi, ever the visionary politician, above all stood for a composite Indian nationhood and hence will remain as the eternal betrayer and enemy of this vision.


(Excerpted from the Introduction to the publication edited by the Author, Teesta Setalvad – Beyond Doubt-A Dossier on the Gandhi assassination published by Tulika Books)



[1] The Letter is reprinted in a book, Penal Settlement In Andamans, published by the Gazetteers Unit of Union ministry of education

[2] The Genesis of the RSS, Govind Sahai

[3] Ibid

[4] Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, First published in 1979, Revised edition in 2000, Radhakrishna Prakashan Pvt Ltd, New Delhi


[6] Dhananjay Keer, Veer Savarkar, Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1966, p. 539: Savarkar said that Pakistan’s inhuman and barbarous acts such as kidnapping and raping Indian women would not be stopped unless Pakistan was given tit for tat. Two years earlier Savarkar had expressed his opinion that the liberal policy adopted by Shivaji in case of Muslim women was wrong as this cultured and human treatment could not evoke in those fanatics the same feelings about Hindu women. They should have been given tit for tat, he observed frankly, so that they might have realised the horrors of those brutalities; p. 167: Savarkar: Besides the silly superstitions of the Hindus about caste-system, the various bans of exchange of food and drink, redemption of the outcastes and others of which we have already written fully, and which had done tremendously more harm than the two-pronged religio-political Muslim offensive had done, another suicidal morbidity had completely possessed the Hindu mind for a long time. This morbidity paralysed their own offensive and counter-offensive might. Far greater than the Muslims could ever attempt were the defeats inflicted on themselves by these morbid, virtuous Hindus! If a comparatively mild term is to be used for this infatuation, this mental imbalance of the Hindus, which caused disastrous losses for themselves, we have to call it a perverted sense of Hindu virtue; p.169:  Savarkar: Having only learnt by rote the maxim to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty is a virtue, the Hindus went on giving milk to the vile poisonous cobras and vipers. Even while the Muslim demons were demolishing Hindu temples and breaking to pieces their holiest of idols like Somnath, they never wreaked their vengeance upon those wicked Muslims, even when they had golden opportunities to do so, nor did they ever take out a single brick from the walls of Mosques, because their religious teachers and priests preached the virtue of not inflicting pain on the offenders.

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