Is Sadhvi Pragya’s Godse comment just a faux pas?
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur has done it again. Known for courting controversy this election season, Thakur put her party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a sticky spot on May 16th. She called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a patriot. With that statement, she has again raised the spectre of “Hindutva terror”, a concept she is intertwined with, and something that her party has been working hard to discredit.
The comment came when Thakur was campaigning for the BJP candidate in Madhya Pradesh’s Agar Malwa district. Responding to a question about a statement by actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan on Godse, she said, “Nathuram Godse ek deshbhakt the, hain aur rahenge (Nathuram Godse was a patriot and will always be one).” She added, “Those calling him a terrorist should see inside their own self and a befitting reply would be given to such people in the elections.”
Haasan had called Godse “free India’s first terrorist” during an election campaign at Aravakurichi in Tamil Nadu on May 12th. Aravakurichi is one of the four Assembly constituencies where the bypolls are scheduled on May 19th. Haasan's party, the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), has fielded a candidate from that seat. Addressing a rally, he said in Tamil, "Earlier, I had only said that terrorism exists on both sides. But, people from one segment pounced on me. I am not saying this because this is a Muslim-dominated area, but I am saying this before a statue of Gandhi. Independent India's first extremist (theevravaadi) was a Hindu, his name is Nathuram Godse. There it starts.”
Following Thakur’s statement, the BJP seems to have immediately gone into damage control. Senior BJP leader and the person looking after the publicity of Thakur’s campaign, Hitesh Vajpayee, told the media that Gandhi was well-respected in the country and the BJP would not entertain any disrespect to his image. In the same statement, he also tried to do away with the narrative of Hindu terror, saying terrorism has no caste, creed or colour. BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao said his party condemned the statement and did not agree with it. “The party will ask her for clarification, she should apologise publicly for this statement,” he told the media. Later, BJP leader and in-charge of Madhya Pradesh, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, told the media that Thakur had withdrawn the statement and apologised for it.
But, do what they may, this has put the BJP in a spot they don’t want to be in and has brought out the internal contradictions of the saffron party. The party has always maintained that Hindutva terror is just a bogey term, a political conspiracy of the previous United Progressive Alliance government to “defame Hindus”. How can Hindus be violent, is the common refrain, deliberately not making the distinction between Hinduism, the religion, and Hindutva, the ideology. It has made this a poll issue in the past, a stick to beat the “secular” Opposition with.
Indeed, that seemed to be the plan this time as well. It was the reason that the party decided to field Thakur as their candidate from Bhopal, a controversial choice. A prime accused for the Malegaon blast, in which six people were killed and several more injured, she was considered ideal. The reason was that senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, contesting from there, was considered to be the spearhead of the Hindu terror bogey propaganda. Thakur. a target of this, was the party’s counterfoil to Singh.
The 49-year old has run a highly polarised campaign in Bhopal, making controversial remarks like "cursing" Hemant Karkare, a policeman who died fighting terrorists during the 26/11 attacks, and bragging about participating in the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. These statements caused much embarrassment to her party, which asked her to dial down her statements. It also caused her to run afoul of the Election Commission (EC) and the Model Code of Conduct. She was first issued notices by the EC over her statements and then banned temporarily from campaigning.
However, in the process, Thakur has exposed the baser tendencies and opinions of her party, something the BJP has carefully kept in the closet. The BJP as a political party is the ideological successor of the Jan Sangh, which was the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Hindutva has been their core philosophy, which they made palatable by adopting philosophies of competing political formations. One such is Gandhian, named after the man killed by Godse. In fact, the Prime Minister’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme is heavily inspired by it.
The saffron party has always maintained this distinction, keeping a veneer of civility over the Hindutva core. More strident elements have long been dismissed as the fringe. Speaking to Asiaville, historian Aditya Mukherjee said the BJP and RSS have been following a dual strategy. One is a face of moderation which is on the surface and the one which is projected, which hides the second, of hard Hindutva, which is actually the driving force. “It (the fringe) was never the fringe. They (sangh) have kept up the notion that the BJP has some lunatics who should be ignored. That is wrong. That is the core. They hide it with various things. It is a misnomer to call them the fringe. They represent the core of their ideology,” he said.
By fielding Thakur as a candidate, however, this closely maintained duality is in danger of falling apart. Godse is, for many on the Hindu Right, an icon, though it has not been admitted so in public. However, with the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, all these tendencies have started coming out into the open. In fact, there were reports of a Godse temple in Meerut. Those elements were dismissed as fringe. But Thakur is a national election candidate. How will this be dismissed?