Ashok Sharma has devoted his life to defending the actions of an Indian ‘patriot’: not the revered independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, but the man who shot him dead.
Sharma is the custodian of a temple dedicated to Nathuram Godse, who on January 30, 1948 shot a figure celebrated around the world as an apostle of nonviolent struggle.
For generations, the young religious zealot – who was hanged the following year – was downright despised as the nemesis of India’s long struggle to free itself from British colonial rule.
But since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi nearly a decade ago, an alternate history forged in Hindu nationalist ideology has made Sharma no longer a “lone warrior” in worshiping the assassin.
“I was ostracized by everyone, including my family and friends… but today I command respect because I am Godse’s disciple,” he told AFP news agency at his shrine in the bustling city of Meerut, a few hours’ drive from New Delhi.
“A new wind is blowing in the country and people have understood that Godse was the true patriot and Gandhi was a traitor.”
Sharma established his low-profile temple complex in 2015, a year after Modi took office, after several failed attempts under previous governments that saw him briefly imprisoned and his property confiscated.
The inauguration was met with outcry and hand-wringing in the press, and was restarted in 2019 when it marked the anniversary of Gandhi’s death with a staged reenactment of the assassination featuring an effigy spurting fake blood.
Now the modest shrine, with small ceramic busts of Godse and his main accomplice, Narayan Apte, is visited by throngs of people – some out of curiosity, but most to pay their respects.
Sharma and his followers hold daily prayers before the Godse idol and sing religious sermons accusing Gandhi of betraying the nation, despite his role in mobilizing the massive protests that brought India’s independence.
According to them, Gandhi failed to prevent the British colony from being divided into the separate nations of India and Pakistan, making it a state ruled by ancient Hindu scriptures.
“It is because of Gandhi and his ideology that India was divided and Hindus had to bow to Muslims and outsiders,” said Abhishek Agarwal, like Sharma, a member of the age-old radical Hindu Mahasabha group.
Agarwal said Godse was belittled by post-independence secular politicians in a conspiracy to suppress Hindu beliefs and impose democracy, a concept he says is foreign to local historical tradition.
But now Gandhi is being exposed and Godse’s word is spreading far and wide. The secular leaders cannot stop this storm and there will come a time when Gandhi’s name will be wiped from the pious land,” he told AFP.
Patriot or traitor?
Godse was born in a small Indian village in 1910, the son of a postman, and at a very young age joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a still prominent Hindu far-right group whose members hold paramilitary exercises and prayer meetings. .
He was 37 years old when he shot Gandhi at close range as he emerged from a multi-faith prayer meeting in New Delhi.
At the time, authorities briefly banned the RSS – despite its leaders claiming that Godse had left the organization before the crime – but reversed course not long before the killer was executed along with an accomplice.
Today, the RSS is still relevant as the ideological source of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which it founded to defend Hindu causes in the political field.
Decades before he became India’s leader, Prime Minister Modi’s first role in public life was that of an RSS cadres.
‘Hate will devour us’
Modi has regularly paid respects to Gandhi as one of the most revered figures of the 20th century, visiting his spiritual retreat and speaking touchingly about his ideals and legacy.
He has refrained from considering efforts by nationalist activists to rehabilitate the legacy of Gandhi’s assassin – much to the disappointment of Sharma and his acolytes.
But he also never explicitly denounced Godse or his ideology, and his government has championed the work of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a major Hindu ideologue who served as Godse’s mentor and was tried alongside him but acquitted as a co-conspirator at the murder.
Modi has proved adept at channeling India’s growing wave of Hindu nationalism after coming to power in 2014, citing the glorious past of India’s majority religion and promising to end the “persecution”.
His departure from the secular values of his predecessors was watched with dismay by Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar, an author living in Mumbai.
Tushar told AFP that Godse’s worship was the direct result of an ideology espoused by the Modi government that risked sowing the “seeds of our destruction”.
“For too long we have been too diplomatic and a little generous to equate it with nationalism. It’s not nationalism, it’s fanaticism,” he said.
“Our hatred will devour us. If we are to survive, the poison of hatred has to be erased somewhere.”