On January the thirtieth, the year nineteen forty-eight, one Nathuram Godse fired bullets at Gandhi ushering his demise. In the twilight of that day, when the tragedy unfolded, and whereupon was engulfed the day as well as the man in darkness, the man was on his way for evening prayers in the company of his followers. The assassin surrendered then and there, hurting nobody else.
As the news spread like a forest-fire, the bereaved nation plunged into mourning. A mood of melancholy gripped the country. People tried to come to their better senses, as often happens after a tragedy. A patchwork of peace was negotiated among the top ranks down to those between masses. The Nehru-Patel duo, on the brink of a split while Gandhi was alive, arrived at a reconciliation in his death. People tried to douse the communal passions raging within them, as also without.
They paid teary homage to the man who had been their bulwark for more than three decades. He was the one to whom they had tethered themselves long years ago. And when that pillar got uprooted, and as people groped around for balance, they felt viscerally the loss that was meted to them. A part of them lost with Gandhi, forever, the void of which was not to be filled again.
After a brief hiatus, the nation moved on anyhow. And with it, the trials against the accused too.
Some half a dozen more men, along with Godse, were implicated in the assassination plot. Among these was Gopal Godse, the younger brother of Nathuram, as also the very Veer Savarkar. The prosecution charged them with the specific roles they had allegedly played in the run-up to that fateful day.
The elder Godse never denied his complicity as the man behind the gun. He also did not seek any mercy from the authorities. He had murdered Gandhi with a firm conviction, believing it to be a just act, and submitting to the consequences of it, he thought, was the only way of taking responsibility for what he did; only way of standing true to his conviction.
Moreover, not only did he feel himself to be in the right, he also laid down why he felt so for others to see into. The statement which he made in the court as his own defense counsel, which ran to about a hundred pages, was to defend what he had done and not himself. This pamphlet is basically the transcript of that statement.
It was easy to condemn Godse before I had read it. And our successive governments, as too the numerous ‘historians’ who flourished under their tutelage, pretty much ensured that we don’t get to read him. And thereby not get embroiled in complex feelings.
As the reporters came out of that court session in which Godse had made his copious statement, the police pounced on them. Their documents were seized and destroyed. The government banned its publication.
Not only that, the state apparatus cultivated and extended patronage to the pro-congress (or is it anti-Hindu?) historians, even while the critical voices petered out in lack of care. These chosen luminaries stood up to their promise. They kept the narrative simple and easy. Godse was flushed out, and history was sanitized.
Throughout our school days, we weren’t taught a single sentence more about Godse than that he was a Hindu fanatic associated with Hindu organizations, who killed Mahatma Gandhi, and who, for this crime against humanity, was hanged.
I imagined him, and the moments which were spent imagining him were rare obviously – in my imagination, he was a foolish fanatic, not much different from the Islamic terrorists nowadays.
With that upbringing, now that I have read Godse, the edifice of the prior narrative stands distorted. Things are not as black and white now as they were before.
While reading it, at times I marveled at the arguments Godse put forward. And I hated myself for that. It felt sinful to me. And yet when every nook and cranny is awash with men professing holy virtues, to have derived unholy mirth is the matter of confession after all.
Godse differed with Gandhi in ideals. Unlike Gandhi, he did not think of non-violence as the be-all and end-all of the freedom struggle. That sometimes violence becomes inevitable, becomes righteous even, was a lesson of history for him. Ram had to kill Ravan; Arjun had to massacre his own cousins; Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and Guru Govind Singh could not have saved their kinsmen without violence. And so on.
Moreover, Gandhi’s non-violence failed miserably. In assessing Gandhi’s strategy, the fashion has been to take into account only his successes and not where he failed. Which is indefensible obviously. For if he was the prime leader of the nation since 1920s, he must share in not only where his strategy worked, but also where it failed squarely. And if we go by this criteria, the post-partition horrors itself is sufficient to conclude that Gandhi presided over one of the most violent freedom struggles ever witnessed in history.
It can’t be argued that all this happened against his wishes. For if this argument can salvage him, he must also not be given credit for where he succeeded. It would be like saying that he was the actor where he won, and that the agency was in the hands of masses where he lost. Either it was him or the masses all the way.
Godse’s disagreements with Gandhi did not stop at the level of ideals. He went on to accuse Gandhi with much more serious charges.
He charged Gandhi with partiality in his attitude towards Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi appeased Muslims at the cost of Hindus, at the cost even of the very integrity of the nation, is what Godse felt. He substantiates this charge with a litany of such episodes from Gandhi’s life. These indeed show Gandhi in that light. One has only to read it to conclude that Gandhi not only bungled in his Hindu-Muslim approach – though unintentionally, it proved disastrous for the nation too.
I do not doubt Gandhi’s intentions. I feel he had good intentions at heart all along. He sought to broker harmony between Hindus and Muslims. And he did what he did in the hope that it would bring about that desirable state.
He felt so strongly for this cause that he was willing to make Jinnah the Prime Minister of the free undivided India to dissuade the Muslim leadership from insisting on a separate homeland for Muslims. But sadly his actions drove both the communities only more apart.
The Muslims felt alienated to see that the leader of the nation operated under an overarching Hindu idiom. They felt uncomfortable at his vision of a Ram Rajya where masses would follow Karma Yoga and probably would sing Vaishnav Jan to tene kahiye je/ Pir parayi jaane re.
Mr Jinnah, of whose credentials as a spirited nationalist in pre-Gandhian phase many have vouched for, not least K M Munshi who recalled that “I have not come across a better nationalist than what he was in those days” – the same Jinnah got disillusioned with the leadership of Gandhi, subsequently fell out with the nationalist ranks, and was later on to become the invincible face of Muslim separatism.
To quote Munshi again, “[Jinnah] simply hated the kind of mass movement which Gandhiji was stirring up, because he thought that it would be very dangerous to the successful evolution of a democratic government.” But more problematic to Jinnah still was the way Gandhi made his foray into Muslim masses.
In the aftermath of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire had been defeated, the British dismembered it. The kingdom was an Islamic caliphate (or khilafat), recognised and paid allegiance to by Muslims all across the world. Naturally, Muslim protests erupted against British action. Indian Muslims were not an anomaly.
It was the time when Gandhi had become pre-eminent on the national scene. He sensed that khilafat agitation provided an opportunity to rally the Muslims against the British, and thereby to integrate them into the national movement. Gandhi was chosen to lead the khilafat agitation which he happily agreed to. But as soon as he chose Ali brothers, who showed extreme religiosity, as his colleagues, “Jinnah realised that this would end only in trouble between the two communities.”
History has corroborated Jinnah. The relations between the communities went only downhill after the khilafat movement.
Many Hindus on the other hand felt that the Mahatma paid only lip-service to Hinduism. That in reality, he was an anathema to the interests of Hindus. A section of them – the Dalits mostly – were also enraged with his views on caste.
With time, as the faultline between Hindus and Muslims deepened and widened despite his efforts to the contrary, more and more he cut into Hindu sentiments to assuage (the real or imagined) Muslim grievances.
Be it the matter of separate electorate to Muslims: Gandhi had asked Ramsay McDonald to grant this to the Muslims, which, when the British granted, the congress tactically accepted by “neither rejecting nor accepting it”; or his religious gatherings: he read Quran in temples but surely couldn’t read a Hindu text in mosques; or on the language issue where he advocated adopting Hindustani, a mix of Hindi and Urdu, having no grammar or vocabulary, which is basically a dialect – spoken and not written – he wanted it adopted as a national language because Muslims were not amenable to Hindi being given that honor. And so many more issues.
But those who opposed him, surely could not defeat him. Instead they had to toe his line at last, failing which they were shown the door.
Which Indian could stand his brahmastra of hunger strike? No one wanted to be the cause of his death (until one did). And he milked this position for all it was worth. That’s why Godse calls him a ‘violent pacifist.’ He was the ‘drama queen’ who persisted with his drama even after the country’s liberation. Thus hijacking the state and bringing it to his heels.
It was one such fast only, which unfortunately proved to be his last, which for Godse was the last straw.
Close on the heels of freedom and accompanying bloodshed, grief and dislocation, came the Pakistani aggression into Kashmir. Sardar Patel was the home minister. He decided to postpone paying to Pakistan the fifty five crore rupees due to it, till the Kashmir issue was resolved. Gandhi found the decision unsavory. He started a fast ‘to express his opposition to [this] injustice.’
The result was obvious. In just a few days, the government issued a press note, deciding, “in view of the appeal made by Gandhiji to the nation…, to implement immediately the financial agreement with Pakistan in regard to cash balances.”
Godse felt that Gandhi would not let the government of the day run its normal course. That he would continue to supplant nation’s will with his own. He must be eliminated, Godse resolved.
We know what happened next.
I had, before reading this, thought of Godse as not particularly educated, as I have already submitted. But he surprised me.
On what would befall him as the assassin of Gandhi, he said:
“I thought to myself and foresaw that I shall be totally ruined and the only thing that I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred and that I shall have lost all my honour even more valuable than my life, if I were to kill Gandhiji. But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces. No doubt my own future would be totally ruined but the nation would be saved from the inroads of Pakistan. People may even call me and dub me as devoid of any sense or foolish, but the nation would be free to follow the course founded on reason which I consider to be necessary for sound nation building.”
The reasons for which he killed Gandhi might not seem to warrant such an action, but in his mind, his act was principled. To him, the reasons became more important than the person on whose body those reasons were to conclude. Thus it became impersonal, perhaps.
Otherwise, he could not have said that he was prepared to concede that Gandhiji did undergo sufferings for the sake of the nation. He did bring about an awakening in the minds of the people. He also did nothing for personal gain; but it pains me to say that he was not honest enough to acknowledge the defeat and failure of the principle of non-violence on all sides.
But whatever that may be, I shall bow in respect of the service done by Gandhiji to the country, and to Gandhiji himself for the said service; and before I fired the shots I actually wished him and bowed to him in reverence. But I do maintain that even this servant of the country had no right to vivisect the country – the image of our worship – by deceiving the people. But he did it all the same. There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and it was therefore that I resorted to the firing of shots at Gandhiji as that was the only thing to do.
That’s not to say that what Godse did was pardonable. No. It was condemnable, and must be condemned. But reading Godse indeed makes him less of a fanatic. His action was misguided but it was not borne of deep hatred for the man Gandhi, what usually is made out to be.
Though it doesn’t lessen how much Gandhi means to this nation. I feel the very being of Gandhi was disarming. Because however much I read his criticism, even the legitimate ones, I am unable to hate him, or even harbor any negativity about him. He is like someone from the family who, after everything having been said or left unsaid, is one of our own at last. And those who felt that Godse’s account was so indicting that it would malign Gandhi, and feeling thus who tried to suppress it, are the ones who need more of Gandhi.
Anyway, at last, the trials came to a conclusion after more than a year. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were hanged; three others including Gopal Godse were imprisoned for life; one turned approver, was shown leniency and released; and Savarkar was exonerated of all the charges.