The retrial of Nathuram Godse: Gandhi assassin’s political audience

Gandhi was killed ‘for a cause’ by someone from his own community. But what was this ‘cause’?

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Updated: January 30, 2015 3:30 pm
naturam godse, godse By his own admission, Godse belonged to an ideological stream fed by Hindu nationalism and political violence against Gandhi, a school of thought that began with B.G. Tilak and was perpetuated by “Tilakites” such as V.D. Savarkar, Godse’s mentor

THE anniversary of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi has a different flavour this year. Of late, the man who killed him, Nathuram Godse, has been glorified publicly, and not only by BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, who hailed him as a “patriot”. (Maharaj has since apologised for this.) But also by Hindu Mahasabha general secretary Acharya Madan, who argued on TV that while Gandhi was responsible for the death of 10 lakh Hindus — the victims of Partition, a catastrophe he attributed to the Mahatma — Godse had killed “for a cause”. Hence, his party’s decision to celebrate January 30, the day that Gandhi was killed, as “Shaurya Divas” and to instal Godse’s bust in a new “temple” in Meerut before that day this year. On January 30, a film, Desh Bhakt Nathuram Godse, is also supposed to be released nationwide.

Civil suits and police action may prevent these “celebrations” from actually taking place, but the atmosphere has changed. Critiques of Gandhi are no longer inhibited. This change is also evident from the success of the new edition of Nathuram Godse’s Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, his plea during his trial. On re-reading this book, which was banned until 1968, I found that it reveals the “rationality” behind some terrorist action. Like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Yitzhak Rabin and so many others, Gandhi was killed “for a cause” by someone from his own community. But what was this “cause”? And why is Godse’s voice being heard more today?

Godse and his associates’ decision to kill Gandhi was certainly determined by the circumstances of Partition and the death of Hindus in the course of the communal violence of 1947. But, during his trial, Godse also made clear that there was an ideological element to the decision: “I had never made a secret of the fact that I supported the ideology of the school that was opposed to that of Gandhiji. I firmly believed that the teachings of absolute ahimsa as advocated by Gandhiji would ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu community and thus make the community incapable of resisting the aggression or inroads of other communities, especially the Muslims.”
By his own admission, Godse belonged to an ideological stream fed by Hindu nationalism and political violence against Gandhi, a school of thought that began with B.G. Tilak and was perpetuated by “Tilakites” such as V.D. Savarkar, Godse’s mentor.

For Godse, if Gandhi remained alive, his influence over the government of India was bound to benefit Pakistan. Indeed, his decision to kill the Mahatma was precipitated by the latter’s fast unto death to force the new Indian government to pay Pakistan Rs 550 million, its share of pre-Partition assets. Jawaharlal Nehru gave in to Gandhi’s demand. Like Tilak, Godse considered Gandhi to be an idealist whose good intentions could only produce disasters. He therefore said during his trial: “I declare here before man and god that in putting an end to Gandhi’s life, I have removed one who was a curse to India, a force for evil and who had, during 30 years of an egoistic pursuit of hare-brained policy, brought nothing but misery and unhappiness.”

Godse’s interpretation of the Mahabharata also has similarities with Tilak’s Gita Rahasya (1915). At the end of his trial, Godse said: “In fact, honour, duty and love of one’s own kith and kin and country might often compel us to disregard non-violence. [In the Mahabharata], Arjun had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations, including the revered Bhishma, because the latter was on the side of the aggressor. It is my firm belief that in dubbing Ram, Krishna and Arjun as guilty of violence, the Mahatma betrayed a total ignorance of the springs of human action.”

One of the Mahatma’s sons, Ramdas Gandhi, sought an encounter (which would never take place) with Godse in a letter where he cited a sloka from the Bhagavad Gita and pleaded with him to “introspect a little so that at the end of our proposed meeting you will be able to recite this couplet from the Gita along with us”. Godse was delighted with the proposal, for he knew the Gita by heart and would recite entire chapters in prison. In reply, he wrote: “I thank you for having reminded me of the verses, ‘My ignorance has disappeared, I have regained normalcy’ from the Bhagavad Gita… After Arjun had said, ‘I will do as you say’, he directly translated into practice the words of Lord Krishna, ‘Remember me and fight.’” Obviously, Ramdas Gandhi’s conception of the Gita was very different from his own.

Before his execution, Godse wrote to his parents: “You are the students of the Gita and have also learnt the Puranas. Lord Krishna had recited this Gita to enlighten Arjun and the very same Lord Krishna had, with his Sudarshan wheel, chopped off the head of an Aryan king, Shishupal, not on a battlefield but on a sacrificial ground. My mind is pure and my feelings are absolutely righteous; millions of people might speak in a million different ways, but my mind has not become uneasy or shaken with repentance even for the moment. If there is any heaven, I shall certainly have my place reserved there for me.”

Godse was sentenced to death along with one of his accomplices, Narayan Apte. They went to the scaffold proclaiming, “Long live undivided India!” and with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in hand. Godse’s parents were not the only people who were prepared to believe that Nathuram had done the right thing in killing Gandhi. Justice G.D. Khosla, who was on the bench of the East Punjab High Court, which started the final hearing of the accused’s appeal, wrote in his own book, The Murder of the Mahatma: “The highlight of the appeal before us was the discourse delivered by Nathuram Godse in his defence. He spoke for several hours discussing, in the first instance, the facts of the case and then the motive which had prompted him to take Mahatma Gandhi’s life… The audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men were coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs. This silence was accentuated and made deeper by the sound of an occasional subdued sniff or a muffled cough… I have, however, no doubt that had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse’s appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of ‘not guilty’ by an overwhelming majority.”

Today, it seems that for some people, the time to rehabilitate Godse has come — and that the inhibitions of the past have gone after the victory of one idea of India over the other in the political arena.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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