N M Ghatate’s life mirrored the 20th century journey of Hindu nationalism

N M Ghatate, known as “Appa” to friends and family, passed away on Sunday. He was 83. His obituaries refer to him as once “vice-chairman of the Law Commission” — a non-job if there ever was one. It obscures what made him significant.

Ghatate was born into RSS blue-blood in the early decades of the organisation. The top brass then was from a closely-knit circle of lower middle-class Nagpur families. Not only were they Maharashtrian Brahmin, they came from two sub-castes, Deshashte and Karhade. Ghatate’s father, Babasaheb, was from one such family and was an early leader in the Hindu Mahasabha as well as the RSS.

This itself was an act of reconciliation. During those initial years — the 1930s and 1940s — the Mahasabha was a party pursuing votes under British-controlled elections. The RSS, on the other hand, stayed away from politics. Theirs was a distance made longer by the unease between Mahasabha head V D Savarkar and the RSS’s Guru Golwalkar. But it was men like Babasaheb Ghatate who ensured no rupture. He stood by Golwalkar after his contentious elevation in 1940 after the first RSS head died in Ghatate’s bare-brick-and-stone bungalow. But he managed to manage Savarkar too. When Savarkar would visit Nagpur, it was in that very bungalow that he would stay.

It was from such a Sangh Parivar family that Appa Ghatate emerged. As a young man in his twenties in 1957, he was sent to study law in Delhi. His journey mirrored Hindu nationalism’s own. For the RSS had since established a new political party, the Jana Sangh, during a meeting between Golwalkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951 — yet again, this took place in Ghatate’s house. And so, it was but natural that Appa Ghatate initially stayed with the 34-year-old first-time Jana Sangh MP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He also got to know Lal Krishna Advani, deputed at that very time to be Vajpayee’s secretary.

From then on, Ghatate remained close to both. He eventually edited a multi-volume book of Vajpayee’s speeches in Parliament. “He was Atalji’s Hanuman,” someone close to Vajpayee reminisces. He was also a friend to Advani; his wife Sheela assisted Advani in his parliamentary work from 1979 to 1989. The Ghatates would make it a point to attend every celebration at the Vajpayee and Advani residences. And even when relations between Vajpayee and Advani frayed from 1998 to 2004, Ghatate was one of the few who wordlessly worked to suture the wounds.

Appa Ghatate’s defining moment came during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977. With Jana Sangh and RSS leaders in jail, it fell on Ghatate to be their lawyer. And represent he did, running to courts challenging unjust laws, while running to jails to provide counsel. Letters written to him by those incarcerated are revealing. One such, by Advani, ends: “Regards for Sheela and love for the kids”. In another, Advani writes: “Sorry for this shoddy scrap. We are required to write on these pro-formas. Always yours, Lal”.

It says something of Ghatate that he never converted this warmth to political power. And much after Vajpayee and Advani left office, Ghatate stayed loyal. He refused to sideline Advani, unlike many others in Narendra Modi’s BJP. And as Vajpayee spent his final decade an invalid, Ghatate was one of the few who would habitually call on his old friend.

What added to Ghatate’s mystique was his association with V K Krishna Menon, Jawaharlal Nehru’s close friend. Sacked as defence minister after the failed 1962 China war, Krishna Menon began a career in the Supreme Court. Appa had by then studied law as well as gained a PhD in the US. He joined Krishna Menon as his legal junior, all the while remaining in Hindu nationalism. Like his father before him, Ghatate junior was at ease in smoothening creases.

Appa Ghatate was something of a scholar, writing his own books as well as aiding others to write theirs. I came to know him while researching my book on the BJP. He had just finished assisting the Congress’s Jairam Ramesh on his Krishna Menon biography. Ghatate was now in the twilight of his life. But he did not exude the pomposity of those who once had power, or the rancour of those who never had it. He was content promoting friends rather than thrusting light onto himself. With his passing, the curtains draw ever closer on the 100 years of pre-Modi Hindutva.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 27, 2021 under the title ‘Bridge to an earlier Hindutva’. Vinay Sitapati teaches at Ashoka University. He is the author, most recently of Jugalbandi: BJP Before Modi

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