Mahatma Gandhi is considered one of history’s great champions of non-violent struggle.
Ashok Sharma has devoted his life to championing the deeds of an Indian “patriot”: not 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, gunned down a figure celebrated the world over as an apostle of non-violent struggle.
For generations, the young religious zealot – hanged the following year – was roundly despised as the arch-villain 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 left Sharma no longer a “lone warrior” in worshipping the assassin.
Sharma established his unremarkable temple complex in 2015, a year after Modi took office, after several unsuccessful attempts under previous governments that saw him briefly jailed and his property seized.
Its inauguration was met with outrage and hand-wringing in the press, renewed in 2019 when it marked the anniversary of Gandhi’s death with a staged re-enactment of the killing using an effigy that spurted fake blood.
Now the humble shrine, featuring small ceramic busts of Godse and his chief accomplice, Narayan Apte, is visited by droves of people – some out of curiosity, but most to pay their respects.
Sharma and his followers hold daily prayers in front of the Godse idol, chanting religious sermons that accuse Gandhi of betraying the nation despite his role in mobilising the mass protests that brought India’s independence.
In their view, Gandhi failed to stop Britain’s colony from being partitioned into the separate nations of India and Pakistan, thwarting it from becoming a state governed by ancient Hindu scriptures.
Agarwal said Godse was denigrated by post-independence secular politicians in a conspiracy to suppress Hindu beliefs and impose democracy, a concept he claims is alien to local historical tradition.
He was 37 years old when he shot Gandhi at point-blank range as the latter emerged from a multi-faith prayer meeting in New Delhi.
At the time, authorities briefly banned the RSS – despite its leaders claiming that Godse left the organisation before the crime – but reversed course not long before the killer was executed alongside an accomplice.
Today, the RSS has continued relevance as the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which it founded to champion Hindu causes in the political realm.
Decades before he became India’s leader, Prime Minister Modi’s first role in public life was as an RSS cadre.