Lies, damned lies and Vinay Sitapati on Godse


NB: Here is more archival evidence from 1947, on the RSS’ intentions. Historians of those events need to pay close attention to this material. DS

In the 74 years since the assassination of MK Gandhi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has tried hard to obfuscate its links with the assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse. In an attempt to distance the RSS from the murder, it claims that Godse had left the organisation by the time of the killing. A number of middle-of-the-road academics have been willing to go along with this characterisation, which has nothing but the Sangh’s words to support it. However, the evidence, as I listed in a cover story for The Caravan, proves Godse never left the RSS.

These facts need reiteration because the Hindu Right, politically ascendant, is using every means—legal, academic or journalistic—to whitewash the truth about its bloody antecedents. For this reason, I feel it necessary to flag a recent podcast conversation which repeats the same error in the most egregious fashion—an episode of “The Seen and the Unseen,” a podcast hosted by Amit Varma, in which he interviews Vinay Sitapati, an associate professor at Ashoka University. In it, Varma recalls that Sitapati had stated in an earlier conversation that Godse had for years railed against the RSS in his newspaper Agrani. This, he claims, proved Godse was no longer a member of the RSS at the time of the assassination.

Before I begin examining the weakness of this argument, and the abysmal quality of evidence supposedly meant to back it, let me begin with how the argument was set up in the episode. This is revelatory of the lazy way in which serious issues are brought up and used to spread half-truths that serve the agenda of the ruling regime.

The podcast was meant to discuss Sitapati’s book Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India, on the former prime minister. Varma began by referring to my book Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India and said: “There was a prominent blurb by Christophe Jaffrelot saying that oh, to the effect of—I don’t remember the exact words—but to the effect of this [the book] proves that the RSS was involved in Gandhi’s murder.”

The blurb actually reads: “This book goes beyond the plot that resulted in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, which the author meticulously analyses. It is indeed highly revealing of the omnipresence of the RSS on the Indian political scene in the 1940s … Nathuram Godse [was] a man who, as Dhirendra K Jha shows, never left the RSS.”

It is not a question of Varma getting the “exact words” wrong—the paraphrase is a distortion of what Jafferlot meant. He goes on to assert that the book’s central thesis—of  Godse never having left the RSS—was based on “circumstantial evidence.” It is no surprise that someone who cannot even bother to get the import of two lines of a blurb right should be so wildly off the mark about the main argument of a whole book.

The records on which Gandhi’s Assassin is based include, among others, Godse’s interrogation statement as well as documents seized from the Nagpur headquarters of the RSS after Gandhi’s assassination. These are public records kept in government archives, and are categorical in their assertion that Godse lied to a court when he said he had left the RSS upon joining the Hindu Mahasabha. These records, therefore, constitute not circumstantial evidence but direct evidence.

It is incumbent on those who claim that Godse left the RSS to provide any solid evidence for it, and in Gandhi’s Assassin, I show the scanty fabrications used to make this claim—they all rely on the words of RSS member or sympathizers, they all date from after the assassination and none of them provide any actual evidence in their support. 

Sitapati and Varma’s breezy disagreement with the fact that Godse remained a RSS member is rooted in hollow claims. They argue that Godse had railed against the RSS in Agrani. Even if this were true (as it turns out it might not be), it could hardly be taken as proof that Godse left the RSS.

Sitapati has relied only on the words of two RSS men to make this claim. Having heard the podcast, when I went back to Sitapati’s book, Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, I found he had repeated his argument: “The Agrani was critical of Gandhi’s concessions to the Muslim League. It also had another, more unexpected, target.” He does not name this “target” in the book but makes it obvious that he is referring to the RSS, for in the very next paragraph he quotes the BJP leader LK Advani to show how Agrani had become critical of the Sangh.

What is astonishing is that Sitapati does not cite even one article published in Agrani to back his claim about Godse’s writings. This is completely at odds with my own reading of the assassin’s articles in Agrani, multiple issues of which are kept at government and personal archives in Delhi and Maharashtra. In these issues, I could not find a single article critical of the RSS.

When I sent a WhatsApp query to Sitapati, his reply was terse. “There are two citations clearly mentioned and both the persons cited have also been named. So I’m surprised at your text,” he wrote back.

One of the persons Sitapati cites is MG Vaidya, a leading ideologue of the RSS. Sitapati quotes him as saying Godse used to abuse the RSS because he considered it “too slow and gradual.” Vaidya, however, makes no mention of Agrani in this quote. The other citation refers to a sentence from Advani’s autobiography, My Country, My Life: “His articles in the Marathi magazine Agrani (which means ‘Pioneer’) from 1933 onwards show how bitter he was toward the RSS.” Interestingly, Advani himself does not refer to a single article of Agrani for substantiation.

Sitapati and Advani also provide different years for when Agrani was started. Sitapati writes in the book that it was started in 1943, even as Advani states in his book it was being published in 1933. Not only do the two fail to agree on a date, they both get it wrong.

Agrani was an old Marathi newspaper which had stopped its publication for some time before Godse and his accomplice, ND Apte, took it over from its previous owner and restarted it in 1944. Godse was its editor and Apte its general manager. The first issue of Agrani was published on 25 March 1944. The same year two more Marathi newspapers came into existence with overt backing by the RSS. One of them, Vikram, was started by Maharashtra’s RSS chief and one of Godse’s mentors, Kashinath Bhaskar Limaye. The other, Tarun Bharat, was launched by a body close to the RSS. All three papers shared the same communal tone. They were bitterly critical of Congress and detested Gandhi for his philosophy of non-violence and his idea of Hindu–Muslim unity.

In 1946, Agrani ran into serious trouble because of its communal contents and had to pay a heavy penalty. But it did not mend its ways, and in August 1947, when the Mumbai government demanded another security for his paper, Godse ducked it by dissolving Agrani. He started the newspaper under another name, Hindu Rashtra, in which he and Apte occupied their respective positions. The new paper was a replica of Agrani both in its tone and content.

Asked why he relied on the opinions of the two Hindutva leaders—Advani and Vaidya—rather than checking the Agrani archives directly, Sitapati replied: “I’m quite straight forward in who my sources are and let readers decide and weigh their words.” But the issue cannot be left to readers to uncover themselves, nor can serious questions which involve deep scholarship and research be settled by popular media.

Clearly, Sitapati did not try to examine the copies of Agrani. He failed to fact-check the claims of Advani and Vaidya, who are not even secondary, but tertiary, sources. This speaks poorly of the research standards of an associate professor in political science in one of India’s leading private universities. Should the people of India believe the RSS papers seized from Nagpur after Gandhi’s assassination and available in the public archives, or tertiary sources of the RSS who build their claims on hearsay? 

A May 2021 article in The Caravanheadlined “Vinay Sitapati’s attempt to rehabilitate Hindu-nationalist leaders distorts history,” had stated that “Sitapati’s analysis of Hindu nationalism is marred by an attempt to rehabilitate Advani and Vajpayee from its militant turns.” Now, he seems to have gone further, taking at face value the words of some of the Sangh’s most prominent leaders on an issue where they have much at stake. Not only does he allow a free pass to the Sangh’s false claims about Godse, in conjunction with Varma he has also now tried to tarnish solid evidence that contradicts these claims.

The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi: Inquiry Commission Report (1969)

AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA – ICHR Blocks Manuscript on Freedom Struggle Because It Makes the Sangh Look Bad, Alleges Historian

MANINI CHATTERJEE – Manufacturing an icon: The Deendayal Upadhyaya blitzkrieg

Delhi Police Archive on RSS activity in October-December 1947

CPI’s Dhanwantri report: Bleeding Punjab Warns