"Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." What Albert Einstein said about MK Gandhi is often mistaken to be the hyperbole that admirers spout when people die. But it was not an obituary for the grand old man. This is what Einstein had to say about Gandhi on his 70th birthday in 1939. It was about his life.
However, more than a century and a half after his birth, as the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination arrives on 30 January, it is important to take stock of not so much his life, but of his murder.
Gandhi Smriti (then called Birla House) where he was gunned down at prayer time by Nathuram Godse, Hindutva fanatic and independent India’s first terrorist, makes no mention of Godse’s name. It limits discussion of the event as being done at the hands of a ‘madman.’ Perhaps it was deemed wise then to just evade recounting the hate-filled ideology that killed Gandhi. But this attempt at Reconciliation, minus the Truth, has been a bad move.
In recent times, via hate-filled cries echoing in Dharam Sansads abusing Gandhi, calls to whitewash murderer Godse’s views made by ruling party MPs like Pragya Thakur, and attempts to rehabilitate VD Savarkar, find full support from those occupying the highest positions in the land.
Seventy-five years after India’s independence, it is time to confront the ugliness of what killed Gandhi. Three recent books aim to do that.
Recent Books That Delve Into Godse’s Ideas
‘Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India,’ a biography of Godse by Dhirendra Jha’s is a detailed examination of the man consumed by a desire to ensure that Gandhi “does not live for 125 years.” His ideas are explored fully with the help of records, interviews and archives.
The author’s findings that there is no evidence that Godse, who was a Maharashtrian Brahmin like Savarakar, ever left the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the sharpest aspect of the book.
The RSS has been keen on maintaining that he had left the organisation and the myth seems to have prevailed in popular tellings. Jha establishes that far from leaving the RSS in 1930, he had joined it only in 1934. When Godse’s father moved to Sangli, he came under the influence of RSS’ KB Limaye, who soon became the chief of its Maharashtra unit in 1934. Limaye personally groomed Godse to handle the publicity for the RSS. After Godse was advised by Limaye to move to Pune, he established a tailoring business in partnership with a fellow RSS activist. The tailoring unit made most of its money for stitching uniforms of RSS activists.
The Murderer, The Monarch and The Fakir is written by Appu Esthose Suresh and Priyanka Kotamraju, as a gripping account, capturing details of the assassination and the case files. It nails the lie that there was a spontaneity to the murder of the Mahatma. The meeting on 8 August 1947, enabled by a journey in a DN-438, carried the Hindu Mahasabha’s Savarkar, the father of Hindutva and his “two trusted lieutenants” Narayan Apte and Nathuram Godse from Bombay to Delhi to hatch the conspiracy, is explained threadbare. The authors maintain that it is the first conspiracy meeting where all conspirators and the assassin were present. This meeting is what they term the ‘smoking gun’ that ties Savarkar to the assassination.
Privileged castes and maharajas, most princely states who were terrified at losing the opportunity to turn the clock back to preserve their own primacy in a Hindu Rashtra in 1947 itself were motivated to kill the man who stood in the way of giving them their Hindu Rashtra and sealing their dominance.
This book must be read for highlighting the dangerous role of princely states in the conspiracy as they watched their privileges crumble under calls for a modern democracy where everyone was equal.
The third book, Ashok Kumar Pandey’s ‘Why They Killed Gandhi, Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy’ is as per the author’s confession, an “intellectual Satyagrah” to push for the truth in the days of WhatsApp University. Pandey has brought out details here that nail the “55 crore”-to-Pakistan lie, often cited as the reason why the Mahatma was disposed of. India needed to transfer arrears due to Pakistan under the terms of division of assets and liabilities. Of the Rs 75 crore to be paid, the first instalment of Rs 20 crore was already released. Invasion of Kashmir by Pakistani Army supported covert raiders happened before the second instalment was paid out. Government of India decided to withhold the payment. Lord Mountbatten was of the opinion that it was “unstatesmanlike and unwise” and he brought it to the notice of Gandhi on 12 January. Gandhi, keen that India stick to what was agreed, concurred with that view. But nowhere in the course of the last fast he undertook did he invoke this.
The hate-filled conspiracy to murder Gandhi had nothing to do with the “55 crore.” The portrayal of Godse reacting to this, is a plain untruth. Godse and his ideological handlers were deep into the conspiracy well before the “55 crore” matter came to light.
What Drives the Haters?
The frail, unarmed man was felled by three bullet shots as he was going to say his prayers. But what really frustrated those who plotted to kill Gandhi, was his ability to have spoken of Hinduism in the terms that he did. As Jha writes, “the social changes he (Gandhi) suggested and the political activism he demanded from the people were highly subversive of orthodox Hinduism.”
The assassins and conspirators were keen that the most unreformed and orthodox version of Hinduism should dominate India in 1947.
But “by taking the fight against British rule to India’s villages and framing the low-status, non-Brahminic and peasant cultures as genuine Hinduism, Gandhi was threatening those Hindu elites who dreamed of reviving their past supremacy after the British left. Even his bid to fight colonialism by fighting patriarchy and trying to bring women on an equal footing with men, was being watched with deep anxiety by such Hindus.”
Critically, Gandhi “insisted” on defining himself as a sanatani and not a reformer. This belief, along with his mass appeal and popularity, gave him huge power to subvert Brahminical hegemony, as it interpreted the essence of Hinduism in a radical manner. The orthodoxy, basing its dominance on subjugation, difference, and hierarchy, just could just not stomach this. Mahabharata is a rich enough epic to yield a million lessons. Gandhi chose to focus on the realisation of the futility of war, what lurks in the shadow of all brutal wars – Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah.
His ability to focus on Ahimsa, and bring this capacious and broad reading of Hinduism directly into the battleground of modern politics drove the haters crazy. When he stressed on the epic’s Shanti Parva, it was to remind of the duties of the ruler towards the citizens.
Gandhi, even in his death, was able to ensure that a composite India emerged. In routine course, there should not have been a need to spool back to examine the hate on his death anniversary. But in 2022, when the very forces and ideas that killed Gandhi seek to turn the clock back and resurrect assassin Godse and Savarkar, despite his direct link with the assassination, it becomes every patriot’s duty to very closely reacquaint themselves with the ideas and the ideology that killed Gandhi.