History India South Asia · Politics · Religion

Forgive Us Gandhi For We Have Killed

The odd thing about assassins is that they think they have killed you.

Mohandas Gandhi was never fond of the Mahatma (the Great Soul) title that India’s people gave him. When the late Richard Attenborough met Jawaharlal Nehru around 1963 to discuss a potential movie on Gandhi, a point that Nehru particularly stressed was to treat him as a human instead of a saint. “Don’t deify him,” he told Attenborough. “He had all the frailties, all the shortcomings. Give us that.” Two decades later at a press conference in Delhi around the release of Gandhi the movie, a reporter asserted that a cinematic representation of ‘the Mahatma’ is sacrilege. Attenborough asked her how she would have him portray Gandhi.Not at all,” she contended. “But if you must (portray him) as a moving light.” The weird demand made the usually balanced film-maker lose his cool.

When Nathuram Godse, apparently losing his cool too for different reasons, shot three bullets at Gandhi’s body on January 30 1948, he had unintentionally switched off that ‘moving light’ which Gandhi’s more ardent disciples loved to gush about. He gave India’s beloved ‘saint’ the death of a human being. Had Gandhi died, for example, in his sleep one fine night, his more aggressive followers would well have gone public with ‘visions of his great spirit floating out of his body and flying into space, or into some sacred rock around’. Fortunately, Gandhi escaped that fate. Besides, thinking retrospectively, it would perhaps have been extraordinarily disheartening if the great man had been brought down by something like the TB bacterium or a malarious mosquito (infectious diseases being the most common causes of death in India then). Instead, what finally pulled the plug on his glorious existence was a highly virulent form of the common brain parasite called Hatred.

Maharashtra’s extremist Hindus* have always had a particularly intolerant and violent temperament, and Gandhi’s assassination by one of them is just the most international instance of that attitude. As far back as the 1840s (when Gandhi wasn’t even born), they showered a young woman named Savitribai Phule with abuses and dung and stones because she openly challenged the kind of life they believed a Hindu female should ‘ideally’ lead. In 2004 (with Gandhi long dead) they fearlessly vandalized the venerable Bhandarkar Institute in Pune apparently because it provided material to the author of a book they disliked; it didn’t matter to them that their act caused the damage and destruction of rare, priceless books and manuscripts about ancient India and Maharashtra, whose ‘honor’ they were ostensibly defending. In 2013 they allegedly shot dead a venerable activist, Narendra Dabholkar, who was spearheading efforts to cleanse Hinduism of some of its cruel, exploitative aspects. It is clear that like extremists elsewhere nationally and internationally, they have consistently displayed the cowardly attitude of running away from sane solutions and resolving disagreements simply through violence and mayhem.

There have, expectedly, been attempts to glorify and even romanticize Godse’s ‘rationale’ behind killing Gandhi, including a Marathi play named Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy which burst to the brim with painfully jingoistic anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric (a transcript is available here). (Interestingly Hindu extremists, who passionately defended the staging of the play under ‘freedom of expression’, have consistently been stingy in allowing the same freedom to the rest of India.) On hearing his line of reasoning, one realizes Godse was a man too blinded by hatred, directly towards Gandhi and indirectly towards Muslims, to think of anything non-murderous. One is reminded of how the gifted and privileged Duryodhan needlessly ruined himself by making hatred (of the Pandavas) the sole purpose of his life. The play (which by the way is so narcissistic it ends up being a caricature of Godse and his supposed ‘reasons’) also employs a favorite weapon of political miscreants: distortion of history.
Gandhi’s detractors (including Godse) assert that it was Gandhi who ‘caused’ British India’s partition, ignoring the fact that by 1946-47, with power in sight, most of India’s principal political leaders had become impatient and started looking away from Gandhi’s suggestions and advices. Partitioning India was too complex a decision to be taken by a single person, with the main actors being at least four other individuals: Jinnah, Nehru, Mountbatten and Patel. In any case it must be remembered that anti-Pakistan sentiment was only the immediate trigger for Gandhi’s murder by Hindu extremists: he had already been in their line of fire since years because of his attempts to reform Hinduism and empower Dalits (who were and are particularly detested by high-caste fanatic Hindus). One of the first attempts on his life was in fact made in Pune in 1934. As for all the hero-worship Godse receives for his supposed ‘man with a noble mission’ temperament, few are aware that the initial plan of his and his accomplices was to bomb the prayer meeting of Gandhi on January 20 1948, with the ensuing deaths of other innocent citizens perfectly acceptable to them as ‘part of the greater good’.

But then, perhaps the greatest tribute to the ‘prophet of non-violence’ would have been not to kill his assassins (Godse was hanged by the Indian govt). Murder is the most extreme form of violence one can imagine, so meting out capital punishment, or state-sponsored murder, to the slayers of a man who passionately believed that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, is in my opinion deeply insulting to his memory. As is well-known, Gandhi was not one to hit back even when physically assaulted. One of his most celebrated legacies is the way he led a colonized nation to freedom without engaging in any form of violent conflict with the colonists. Ever the humanist, he made sure the British left India in a cordial atmosphere and with dignity.
perhaps an even greater legacy would have been his nation also displaying similar exceptional humanism and letting his murderers (Godse and Narayan Apte), despite their dastardly act, die in a more dignified way instead of by an abrupt tug of a prison noose. That would have given the world the most shining example of Gandhi’s phenomenal doctrine of nonviolence.


* : These are ably contrasted by individuals like P.L. Deshpande who wrote a wonderful Marathi biography of Gandhi, and Dilip Chitre who translated into English the groundbreaking Marathi writings of Muslim social reformer Hamid Dalwai.


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