The Gandhis & India’s fatal tryst with Italy

October 2nd 2018 is the first day of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Whole libraries have been written about this remarkable man who appeared upon the scene in India after having cut his teeth in the political arena at the height of colonial ruthlessness and exploitation by the apartheid regime in South Africa. India, under the imperial heel of Britain, was fertile ground for transplanting his revolutionary ideas that he had seeded as a lawyer and political activist in Pretoria.

However, the purpose of this article is not to add one more page to the volumes in the library dedicated to Gandhi’s life. It is a reverie that was triggered some years ago when I first read Manohar Malgonkar’s book ‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’. The work was first published in 1978, but somehow, had not come to my attention. I have read Malgonkar’s fiction, ‘The Combat of Shadows’ being the first. It is a passionate novel, set in the tea plantations of the Northeast, with revenge as its theme. Malgonkar writes with great ease and felicity. His understanding of the Indian mind is second-to-none, and his characters come alive in the narratives. Later I also read ‘Distant Drums’, a novel set around the 1857 Sepoy Revolt, whose protagonists are the leaders of that revolt. ‘A Bend in the River’ is also set in the times before Indian independence and the Partition that let loose a river of blood across the subcontinent. All Mangonkar’s fiction is full of passionate drama, with many melodramatic scenes of cinematic intensity. I have always wondered why no filmmaker has attempted to bring ‘The Combat of Shadows’ and ‘A Bend in the River’ to life on the silver screen! These two novels are admirably suited to the medium of cinema and would make for excellent viewing in the hands of a good craftsman.

‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’ is a painstaking journey that began in 1960 as an assignment from Life International, and it came out as a story in its February 1968 issue. But, by then, Malgonkar had realized that his story and the research behind it warranted a book, much more than just a magazine article. So, he sat down to enlarge the story with inputs from several sources, of which the Kapur Commission’s report proved to be most invaluable. The edition that was finally published in 1978 was until then, perhaps the most factual account of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi.

Reprinted in 2008 by Roli Books, the new edition has been richly enhanced by some, until then unpublished, documents and photographs of the many people and items involved in the actual conspiracy, and the subsequent trials. There are photocopies of the statements made by the indicted people as well as by the investigating agents. One can see a facsimile of the actual Air India tickets bought by Godse and Apte when they embarked on their deadly mission from Bombay to Delhi. There are copies of the entries made in the Visitors’ Index book maintained by Hotel Marina, New Delhi, where Godse had stayed in Room No. 40 when the first attempt on Gandhi’s life was made on 20th January 1948. Pictures of the two firearms procured by the conspirators to perpetrate their foul deed, with a complete account of how these came into their possession, can be found within the pages of this edition.

But, as Malgonkar writes in the preface to the 2008 edition: “The book first came out when the country was in the grip of the ‘Emergency’, and books were subjected to a censorship of the utmost ruthlessness. This made it incumbent upon me to omit certain vital facts such as, for instance, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s secret assurance to Mr. L. B. Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr. V. D. Savarkar had been implicated as a murder-suspect on the flimsiest grounds. Then again, certain other pertinent details such as the ‘doctoring’ of a confession by a magistrate whose duty it was only to record what was said only came out in later years.” This edition, according to the author, “is the complete single account of the plot to murder Mahatma Gandhi.” The edition brought out by Roli Books has been a great success that can be ascertained from the fact that between 2008 and 2011, it has undergone five impressions.

After having read and pondered over this wonderfully produced volume, I moved on, quite by chance, to read an almost innocuous novel titled ‘The Last Castrato’ by John Spencer Hill. Published in 1995, the mystery novel is set in Florence, Italy, a city that is said to overawe visitors by its sheer volume of culture. Situated on the banks of the silvery river Arno, the city has a domineering influence on people when they first espy Brunelleschi’s Dome, or Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. The quaint, fairy-tale-like Ponte Vecchio straddles the river like a magical bridge promising some wonderland on the other side. Florence can be both intimidating, and yet captivating.

The novel recounts a saga in which the victim of a crime committed almost three decades ago, exacts his revenge on the wrong-doers, by slitting their throats and severing their vocal chords. The victim, it appears, was criminally castrated by a group of aspiring musicians who called themselves the Camerati Dell’Arte, the Companions of Art. In their attempt to restore Renaissance opera to its original roots, they decided that they needed the voice of a castrato. They abducted a young peasant boy, plied him with laudanum, and then proceeded to emasculate him. However, they were unable to market their music because the recording companies guessed that the boy had been criminally assaulted and did not want to have anything to do with the group. The boy, however, never forgave the Camerati and, as a grown up, exacted his revenge upon them in the most macabre manner that he could devise.

There is obviously no connection between these two books, one a factual account of a conspiracy launched by five fiercely patriotic individuals who, although they held Gandhi in high esteem, felt that he had betrayed the cause of the majority, and therefore, had to be violently removed from the scene. In the end, their fanaticism got the better of their patriotism, and they succeeded in killing the Mahatma, who, if he had lived, may have ‘changed the shape of India’s polity and society’. ‘The world,’ according to Pramod Kapoor, the editor of the volume, ‘may not have been as violent as it is today.’ The second is a totally fictional work, in which a wronged individual seeks revenge for personal satisfaction.

However, it is rather ironical that Italy played a small role in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. Of the two guns that Godse procured for the deed, it was the 9mm Beretta, an automatic pistol, made in Italy, which fired the fatal shots. The pistol had found its way to India from Ethiopia after the Second World War. Fate had decreed that an Italian weapon would be used to remove Gandhi from this earth.

Ironically, it was again the connection with an Italian; this time an individual, that brought down another Gandhi. The unhealthy influence of Ottavio Quatrocchi was chiefly responsible for turning Rajiv Gandhi from a promising Prime Minister into a common broker, a commission agent, thereby destroying his credibility with the people and bringing his government down from the heights of unprecedented majority to an ignominious minority, within the period of just one term. Quatrocchi was able to peddle his toxic influence only because he was an Italian, the nationality of Rajiv Gandhi’s wife.

The destructive Italian connection continues for over a quarter-century (and counting) after the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi and his untimely and tragic assassination by a Sri Lankan suicide-bomber. Sonia Gandhi, his widow, after a brief interregnum of staying away from the corridors of political power, took control of the Congress Party, consolidating her hold on it as its longest-serving President; and till 2014, ruled the country as an uncrowned Empress. Even now she commands an almost Caesarian, unconstitutional authority in Lutyen’s Delhi. The constricting embrace in which she held the Party has transformed it into a lifeless, spineless organism, almost a brain-dead creature. The government she headed (as the Chairperson of the UPA) was prostrate at her feet and its Prime Minister, like the peasant boy of the novel, seemed to have become the first castrato in the Opera Macabre that she was conducting, with the Indian media playing its diabolical orchestra from the wings. It is perhaps pertinent to recall here what Nathuram Godse, in his final statement, had to say about the Indian press: “The Press had displayed such weakness and submission to the High Command of the Congress that it allowed the mistakes of leaders pass away freely and unnoticed and made vivisection easy by their policy.” We can see that as far as the media is concerned, nothing has changed since the trial of the conspirators.

Sonia Gandhi has since handed over the baton to her son, now that she no longer commands the legislature, having led her party in the 2014 elections to its worst ever performance in history. Rahul Gandhi, like a modern day Don Quixote, suffering from a fevered imagination, is out to destroy whatever credibility the party is left with. Like a loose cannon he makes bombastic and conflicting statements about the economy with regularity. In his hatred for PM Modi he appears to be willing to join hands with the enemies of India if it can bring his party back to power, never mind the consequent rivers of blood that communal riots are known to generate. The endorsements he receives from Pakistan testify to this fact. His almost daily utterances of vile lies against Narendra Modi, his inane tweets, and the abuses he hurls at the office of the Prime Minister confirm that he and his family are unable to come to terms with their current state of political irrelevance. His personal identity is in a constant state of flux, altering his religious beliefs according to the town he is visiting and the audience he is addressing.

The Congress Party has run its race and is now completely out of wind. Its leadership is moribund and has survived the various court cases so far because of a dysfunctional judicial system it created over 60 years of governance. In any other Democracy its entire top leadership would have been in jail within months of losing power. In China they would probably have been executed. The Gandhi’s have long outlived their usefulness to the Congress party and to India. The hangers-on who are still holding on to the pallu of Sonia Gandhi’s sari have no existence outside the fold. They are the last castratos of the Cameratismo di Ladri (the comradeship of thieves) that the party’s Italian connections have transformed it into. The shrill cacophony of the servile media and the continuous assault by the judiciary on India’s traditional culture and civilization can, at best be described as the last ditch attempts by a derelict surgery to give voice to these castratos even though their vocal chords were excised long ago by the Italian descendants.

If India survives this fatal Italian connection in 2019, it can be assured of the “tryst with destiny” that its first Prime Minister had promised at the dawn of independence, though he did not do much to make that tryst come about.

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