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Gandhi, Godse, and “Freedom at midnight”

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Lapierre and Collins’ apologetic and biased take only reiterates what we have been taught to forget

There are two ways to reading a book like Freedom at Midnight (Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins). One: you could go overboard, accept all the prejudice and lack of understanding of the region and the people, and take every word of the authors for what they are. Two: you can carefully read the content keeping in mind the genesis of the sentiments that more often than not peep through the written words albeit unintentionally. Many hated this book for its portrayal of Nathuram Godse, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and Narayan Apte who are heroes to many in this country. Many of the readers were disgusted by the authors for their apologetic means of presenting the British, their hero worship of Louis Mountbatten, and totally shying away from the atrocious British policy of divide and rule. This policy was at the core of the mounting hatred between Hindus and the Muslims and was the basis of the social, economic, and cultural upheaval at the time of independence. Interestingly, the book mentions the words “Divide and Rule” only twice.

The authors cleverly try to shift the blame of the riots on the divide of the Indian society from the Mughal era and to the class bifurcations in the traditional Hindu society of ancient times. As per the authors, the Hindu elite class (Brahmans, Kshatriyas) horribly mistreated the lower classes who found a later found a better existence in accepting Islam (after the arrival of the Mughals) that made them all equal under a common Allah. These converted Muslims, who bore a seething rage against their Hindu oppressors, unleashed terror on them when they sensed an opportunity amidst the chaos of the vivisection of India into two countries.

While there might have been some truth to this notion, they were most definitely a small number. The British, through their cunning and conniving planning, drove a much bigger wedge between the Hindus and Muslims who were living in harmony even though there were visible fault lines between them caused by centuries of torture and destruction of the Hindu culture and heritage by most of the Muslim Invaders. The British catalyzed many of the issues that were either forgotten or were lying dormant and ensured that the Hindus and the Muslims were always on crossroads with each other.

The British used WWII as an important turning point to further their vicious designs for the two communities. They used the Muslim League’s control over the Muslims to make them join the WWII on England’s behalf when Gandhi and the Congress decided that no Indians should fight in the WWII unless complete independence was granted. The Muslims who served in the war did so with a hope to get special benefits out of the British and they did receive them eventually in the form of a nation, Pakistan, that was never to be.

Even before Atlee and his labor party contemplated giving India it’s hard-earned freedom, the foxy Winston Churchill and the conniving Jinnah had secretly discussed and decided on dividing the nation into two for the simple promise of aiding Britain in the cold war that was imminent after Germany was subdued and Russia emerged as a force to reckon with. This fact never made its way out into the public domain but it was always discussed behind closed doors. The authors of Freedom at Midnight completely forget this key piece of history.    

Someone like Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins cannot be expected to understand the mental and emotional state of the Indian Hindus and Sikhs in 1947. The fact that this book was written in 1975 and most of it was a result of interviews and reading of other books of the period at their disposal further takes them away from the core of the reason that made Nathuram Godse shoot a frail and dying old man.

Picture this! You and your family have lived in abundance in the city of Lahore. You have seen your father do social service and help the downtrodden in times of need irrespective of their religion, cast or creed. You have grown up playing with kids of other religion and have feasted in their celebrations as they have feasted in yours. Suddenly one day, you are brutally forced out of your comfortable existence and forced to walk with your family for over a hundred miles with no belongings and under the searing heat of the Indian summer sun. You witness the murder of your parents and rape of your sisters by a marauding mob and only because you are a Hindu or a Sikh. The mob leaves you tottering for your life assuming that you are dead. You are rescued, somehow arrive in Delhi and are housed in a mosque that the Hindus have seized to house their refugee and wounded to ensure that they may survive.

A frail old man sitting in the comforts of the Birla House starts a fast unto death and blackmails a whole nation to surrender to his whims. The violence stops! Good. But you are also kicked out of a relatively safe and comfortable place and forced onto the streets. The mosque, known as Quwaat-ul-Islam (strength of Islam) and built after destroying a temple complex housing Hindu and Jain temples, is handed back for prayers when it was better servicing as a hospital and refugee camp. The old man also doesn’t care to arrange an alternative place for you to live and recuperate from your wounds. He just wants the Mosque handed over immediately even if it costs your life.

What Nathuram Godse did was not as much for Hinduism (as Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins reiterate) as it was for all the people he considered his own and watched them suffer helplessly because of the whims of an old man. He would have done the same if it was about Mumbaikars or Gujratis or Assamese. The fact that he did it for the Hindus was just because that was the community that was in the center of the tragedy. Hence to brand his act as religious fanaticism and to call him a zealot and anti-national is ill-informed, baseless, and demeaning.   

I often ask myself, what did Nathuram Godse gain by killing Gandhi? He was branded an anti-national (as he had rightly predicted in his final speech), was eventually hanged and then historians over the years have tried to demean and destroy his legacy with a ferocious intensity. My understanding of the limited documentation and history that survives about him tells me that he was moved by the sufferings of his brothers and sisters. He couldn’t take the injustice anymore and he was certain that if Gandhi was to live any longer, he would jeopardize the future of the Hindus in the country.

A family walks to their destination during the 1947 exodus

His belief was partly rooted in Gandhi’s unrelenting efforts to ensure that Pakistan was given the 55 crores out of the 75 crores agreed during the partition. Nehru had held off the amount because of Pakistan’s attack on Kashmir and their efforts to take over Kashmir through force. It was only after Gandhi’s death that the Nizam of Hyderabad was put in his place and Hyderabad finally became a part of India. With Gandhi around, Hyderabad was in no mood to join the union of India and the Nizam’s private army and Razakars were responsible for committing heinous crimes on the Hindu minority of the state of Hyderabad.

Nathuram Godse didn’t just take the sufferings of the people to heart but was resourceful enough to do what he believed was right. In his views, he avenged thousands of sufferers and saved their future to some extent. While murder can never be justified or accepted, the time and situation that he was in must have had a much heavier bearing on him than someone like me growing up under the blessed shade of the freedom and security can possibly comprehend.

Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’s work intends to show Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, and Veer Savarkar in the poorest light possible. Strangely enough, their words and understanding of the various situations resonated with me in exactly the opposite way as they had intended it to. The hate and sub-human conjectures that they fired on the men only made me see through their biases and revealed the sheer audacity and selflessness of what Nathuram Godse did. He was justifiably hanged for the crime of murder but never received his due for the act of selflessness that must have resonated with thousands of oppressed in those days. 

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