“It is far too early to dismiss the possibility of a future Hindu State in India. However, the possibility does not appear a strong one. The secular state has far more than an even chance of survival in India” (India as Secular State, 1963, Donald Eugene Smith).

It was the early sixties when American political scientist Donald Eugene Smith commented about the “possibility of a Hindu state in India”. Today, even to a layperson, the secular state in India seems to be standing on very weak foundations, and the possibility of a Hindu State is far stronger than it was half a century ago, in 1963.

Perhaps, a pertinent expression of this transformation of India is the metamorphosis we witness in the image of Nathuram Godse – the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, as part of a conspiracy which was hatched by many bigwigs of the Hindutva Supremacist movement. The makeover in the image is for everyone to see: from a murderer, a conspirator, terrorist to a ‘martyr’ who supposedly ‘deserves’ a temple in his name everywhere. We also learn that after the ‘successful’ run of a drama in Marathi called Me Nathuram Boltoy (I Nathuram Speak) for the last few years, plans are afoot to have a movie made on him, supposedly to communicate his ‘viewpoint’. With the changed political situation, where even the censor board of the country is populated by rightwing people, one can guess that it won’t have any difficulty in release. And with an ambience which is more prone to illiberal ideas, one can as well prophesy that it will have a good run.

Few people have noted it, but attempts have always been on to rationalize the killing of Gandhi, to justify it in convoluted terms. To blame it, for instance, on the issue of ‘Rs 55 crore’ which Gandhi had insisted to be given to Pakistan after partition, thus making the killing appear as a spontaneous reaction of a ‘patriot’. This effort tried to obfuscate the fact that there had been five attempts on Gandhi’s life since the mid thirties, which involved the Hindutva Supremacists (and even a sixth one, according to Chunnibhai Vaidya, a Gandhian from Gujarat – you can read more on this here). It has always involved obliterating the fact that the conspiracy to assasinate the Mahatma was hatched by what Justice Kapoor had concluded in 1969: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group” (source). The selective amnesia, which one witnesses vis-a-vis Godse, also misses the fact that he was associated with the RSS at the time of the assassination, even though he tactically avoided mentioning his allegiance to it at the time of his trial. Gopal Godse, his younger brother and part of the terror module which had hatched the conspiracy, in a detailed interview to Frontline a few years before his death, had shared all these aspects.

Gandhi’s body, soon after the assassination


One can see that the continued ‘glorification of Godse’ and the government’s turning a blind eye towards these attempts, supposedly by the ‘lunatic fringe’ of the Hindutva brigade, serves a double purpose. First, it creates a legitimacy for the ‘ideals’ of a Hindu Rashtra, which Godse espoused and worked for. Secondly, it communicates a message to the core constituency willing to carve out this Hindu Rashtra from a Secular-Democratic India: that they should not get confused by the ‘democratic pretensions’ of the new regime and all the talks of ‘the Constitution as the most sacred book’ or the calls for a ‘moratorium on any anti-minority violence’ from the ramparts of the Red Fort made by the elected Premier of the country – a man who still carries the baggage of the 2002 genocide in his homestate Gujarat.

The ambiguity of the Hindutva Right vis-a-vis Gandhi’s assassination – its poor attempts to co-opt him and its continued silence over the conspiracy to kill him – also facilitates the ‘sanitization’ of the great leader. It would not be surprising if tomorrow we witness selective, out of context or at times even dressed up quotes from his volume of writings, misrepresenting Gandhi having no qualms about the Hindutva project or legitimizing the exclucivist agenda of the Parivar.

The evolution of Godse’s image invites us to look back, and go in for a deep introspection about the way we imagined secularism, why its reduction to the discourse of the ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav’ (‘All Religions Being Equal’) is insufficient, and why it is high time that we understand and practice it as separation of religion from state. There is no denying the fact that we clearly lack a social foundation for secularism.

The question arises why more than sixty years after we embarked on a secular path, it has remained so weak. But one should remark that the emphasis has always been on maintaining the secularity of the state, while forgetting or neglecting the important aspect of the secularisation of society. Perhaps, this has to do with the emphasis of the progressive/transformative movements on political-economic struggles and their neglect of intervention in the social-cultural arena.

State institutions have also missed occasions to ensure secularism. India has witnessed hundreds of communal riots since independence, which saw thousands of people dead. Judicial commissions appointed after such bloodletting have pointed fingers at heads, leaders of communal organisations and the laxity of the police but none of them – barring a few footsoldiers – have ever been punished. Post the 2002 riots, we have also become aware of how the state has slowly abdicated the role of providing relief and rehabilitation to riot affected people and victims of communal violence, and the vacuum has been filled by different community organisations. One could witness this not only in Gujarat, but even in a state like Assam – ruled by the Congress consecutively for three terms – when there was violence in the BTAD areas. According to a journalist, most of the relief camps set up for the internally displaced people were run either by Jamaat-e-Islami or Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, making the victims and other affected people more amenable to their agendas.

Those risks exist across India, and also beyond our borders. It is really a strange coincidence that while we are debating the ascendance of the Hindutva Right here, the rest of South Asia looks very similar, where majoritarian forces owing allegiance to a particular religion or ethnicity seem to be on the upswing. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan: you name a country and find democratic forces being pushed to the margins while majoritarian voices gain a new voice and strength.

What is noticeable in this picture is that the perpetrator community changes as you cross the national borders. In Burma, the Buddhists seem to be the perpetrators, and the Muslims seem to be at the receiving end. In Bangladesh, there is reversal of these roles. It is disturbing to note, in such a volatile situation, how one type of fanaticism feeds on the other.

The Buddhist extremists in Myanmar strengthen Islamists in Bangladesh, who in turn further add strength to the Hindutva supremacists in India. The first half of the 20th century, this area had been witness to anti-colonial struggles, which had strengthened one another’s emancipatory aspirations. In the first quarter of the 21st century, we have all been witnesses to the explosion of majoritarian movements trying to put all the achievements of democracy and secularism on the back-burner.
A mosque burns, in Meikhtila, Burma

If we move out of the theatre of South Asia, the situation looks equally grim. One definitely perceives a global context which is much more favourable to the ascendance, everywhere, of rightwing, chauvinist movements. The left movement had acted as a bulwark against Fascist reaction in the 1920-30s, but its general decline (barring a few countries) is only further complicating the picture. The situation as it exists today around us and elsewhere does not seem hopeful. All of us yearning and struggling for peace, justice, progress seem be on the receiving end of an unholy alliance between fanaticism, religious extremism of various kinds and the capitalist behemoths. But that should not deter us from moving ahead, forging new solidarities, envisioning a better future for humanity.

Perhaps, in these dark times, it would be worthwhile to remember how Rabindranath Tagore asked people in one of his memorable poems to “go your own way alone, if no one responds to your call” – “Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re”. A song much liked by Mahatma Gandhi, who fell to the assasins’ bullets.

This story first appeared here.