NEW DELHI — With just days remaining in India’s mammoth national elections, the political debate has veered into an unlikely and inflammatory topic: the assassination of beloved independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi, who led a nonviolent struggle to free India from British colonial rule, was fatally shot in 1947. His assassin was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who believed Gandhi had betrayed Hindus in the negotiations over Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan.
On Thursday, Pragya Singh Thakur, a parliamentary candidate from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, said in response to a question from a reporter that Godse “was, is and will remain a patriot.”
Thakur’s statement sparked a chorus of condemnation, but it accurately reflects the views of right-wing Hindu extremists. One fringe group celebrated the anniversary of Gandhi’s death earlier this year.
Thakur is perhaps the most controversial candidate contesting the elections. She is out on bail as she faces trial on terrorism charges related to a blast in 2008 that killed six people and injured more than 100. She has denied the charges.
Despite the charges, the BJP chose Thakur to run for a seat in Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Senior party leaders have attended her campaign events and endorsed her run for office, which appears to be the first time a major party in India has fielded a candidate accused of involvement in a terrorist conspiracy.
On Thursday, a spokesman for the party distanced the BJP from Thakur’s lionization of Gandhi’s assassin. “We strongly condemn this particular statement,” G.V.L Narasimha Rao told reporters. Thakur, he said, should offer a “public apology.”
Randeep Surjewala, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, said in a statement that Thakur’s comment “crossed all limits” and called for her withdrawal from the race. “India’s soul is again under attack,” he said.
Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, was once a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a strident Hindu nationalist organization that is the parent of the BJP. After Gandhi was killed, the group was briefly outlawed. In recent decades, it has moved from the fringes of public debate in India to the mainstream. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent most of his career as an RSS organizer.
During the campaign, Modi has criticized members of the opposition for using the term “Hindu terror” to describe alleged acts of violence by Hindu extremists, saying there was not a single such incident in thousands of years of history. On Sunday, Kamal Haasan, an opposition politician in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, retorted that independent India’s “first extremist was a Hindu: Nathuram Godse.”
Godse was sentenced to death and executed in 1949.