Gandhi vs Godse: We have to go beyond the binaries of good and evil

RSS has an ambivalent attitude to Gandhi, and a sneaking admiration for Godse. But it is worth noting that Gandhi is not a hero to several others too.

R Jagannathan December 20, 2014 12:53:41 IST
Gandhi vs Godse: We have to go beyond the binaries of good and evil

Like the word frenemy, a combination of friend and enemy, we need a new word for someone who could be both a hero and villain to someone or the other. Maybe a Villero?

Coining a new, elegant word to mean a mix of hero and villain is, however, less important than understanding that almost nobody is a pure hero or villain to all people. Sometimes you can be both hero and villain to the same person. Sometimes you can be hero to one group, and villain to another. My purpose in beginning with this generality is to discuss the Gandhi versus Godse issue, which has elicited much holy discussion in parliament and outside it.

Contrary to what one may believe, Gandhi was not a villain only for the Sangh Parivar or his assassin - Nathuram Godse and his supporters in crime. Gandhi, for example, is a villain for many Dalit organisations, and Babasaheb Ambedkar himself had harsh words for Gandhi in his time. Even today there is an Indian activist in London campaigning against erecting a Gandhi statue there because she thinks Gandhi was a “racist” and a “sexual weirdo”. Among his listed crimes are exploitation of hapless women followers, who were morally coerced to sleep with him in the nude just so that he could prove to himself that he could think celibacy even in this situation.

Gandhi vs Godse We have to go beyond the binaries of good and evil

Contrary to what one may believe, Gandhi was not a villain only for the Sangh Parivar or his assassin - Nathuram Godse and his supporters in crime. GettyImages

So to posit Gandhi as anything other than a hero and Godse as nothing more than a villain, just because the latter was the man who killed Gandhi, is to try and create black-and-white, cardboard characters, Bollywood-style.

Gandhi was grey, as was Godse. Each had his own moral compass and political ideology, some parts sublime, some venal. (Read Nathuram Godse's brother, Gopal Godse's interviews to Time and here and here).

So when politicians use Gandhi to berate those who believe Godse may have someone worth praising or want to erect his statues all over the place, we have to ask ourselves: where is our tolerance of dissent and freedom of thought and speech? If someone has a right to eulogise Gandhi, surely others have a right to criticise him or praise his nemesis? If we can today write books giving imaginary versions of Ravana’s side of the story (and not Ram’s), surely we can live with the ideas of those who think Godse was not pure evil?

The only thing absolutely wrong about what Godse did was putting bullets through the Mahatma instead of debating him and converting the Indian public to his cause. But, at that time, the public was besotted with Gandhi and unwilling to listen to others. Godse’s ideas were checkmated by Gandhi's popularity, and this frustration drove him to murder, for which he was rightfully convicted and hanged. If he had waited awhile, Godse would have probably seen Gandhi lose some of his popularity - as the near complete abandonment of Gandhi's ideals in modern India attests. In fact, all those who now use Gandhi as a stick to beat the Sangh parivar with have actually murdered him in spirit by their own venal corruption, hypocrisy and general abandonment of the idea of non-violence.

Before we discuss more of Gandhi and Godse, it is worth recalling that post-assassination, even the Sangh has had to acknowledge Gandhi's Hindu identity and his steadfast adherence to it. For Nehru, Hinduism was a retrograde idea, but not for Gandhi. The Sanghis now quote Gandhi when it suits them, and Gandhi's views against religious conversion are often quoted with great relish – most recently by BJP Cabinet minister Venkaiah Naidu the other day parliament.

So let us be clear. Neither those who posit Gandhi against Godse, nor those who do the opposite, today see Gandhi in black and white terms. They both embrace and discard his ideas at the same time. He is both hero and villain, depending on a person’s political purpose of the moment.

Gandhi wanted to see his version of Hinduism as a generous ideal where there is no place for ill-will towards other communities, especially Islam. He interpreted the Bhagawad Gita in his own way, and saw it as an allegory for every person's constant fight against the evil inside him, among other things. His non-violence meant a willingness to sacrifice one's life in the cause of truth, even if it meant losing to something that is pure evil. This is why he told the British to not fight Hitler and instead appeal to his higher impulses and sacrifice their lives. Luckily, no one listened. Of Hitler would have won World War II.

In other words, Gandhi was the ultimate pacifist for whom violence in any cause was more or less evil. It is doubtful if anyone in any country today will adopt this idea. At best, complete non-violence can be an individual ideal, not something for societies as a whole to emulate. This, in fact, was Godse’s point (read his final speech on why he killed Gandhi here).

Godse attacked Gandhi's ultra-pacifism as wrong. Few would disagree with him today.

The other thing about Gandhi that Godse disliked was his tendency to barter away things that were not his to barter. Gandhi saw himself as a leader of both Hindus and Muslims, but around the mid-forties, it was Jinnah who had conquered Muslim hearts and minds. Around the time of partition, while Jinnah could confidently claim to represent most Indian Muslims, Gandhi and the Congress did not want to acknowledge the ground reality that they may not represent anything more than Hindu aspirations. Gandhi negotiated with Muslim leaders on the assumption that he could ‘give’ concessions on behalf of Hindus – when not all Hindus were on board on his actions. Godse was one of them.

The truth is a lot of Hindus agreed with him at that time. So when Godse made his final statement before the judge who heard his assassination case, the entire audience was with him emotionally.

Or, at least, that is what GD Khosla, former Chief Justice of Punjab, who heard Godse’s appeal and sent him to the gallows, believed.

In his book, The Murder of the Mahatma (read the PDF version here), Khosla notes that after Godse’s last statement to the court, “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. The silence was accentuated and made deeper by the sound of an occasional subdued sniff or a muffled cough. It seemed to me that I was taking part in some kind of melodrama or in a scene out of a Hollywood feature film. Once or twice I had interrupted Godse and pointed out the irrelevance of what he was saying, but my colleagues seemed inclined to hear him and the audience most certainly thought that Godse's performance was the only worthwhile part of the lengthy proceedings.”

In Khosla’s view, if the verdict had been left to the audience, Godse would have gone scot-free for his murder of Gandhi. “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,” Khosla wrote.

The point is this: those were tumultuous times. A nation was born at a time when huge religious passions were unleashed by politicians of every kind, and more specifically Mohammed Ali Jinnah. In that context, it is not surprising that a Godse was born.

Today, we can re-evaluate Gandhi himself and note that despite his Mahatma status, he had serious flaws. SS Gill wrote a book on Gandhi, which, while sympathetic to some of his ideals, called him “A Sublime Failure.” This is not different from what Nathuram Godse himself said about Gandhi: “Gandhiji's inner voice, his spiritual power and his doctrine of non-violence, of which so much is made of, all crumbled before Mr Jinnah's iron will and proved to be powerless.” Godse also criticised Gandhi’s attachment to the charkha as pointless and retrograde, for the future had already shifted to textile mill cloth. (Read Godse's statement in court reproduced here in this website; it also forms part of Khosla's book.)

This brings me to my own personal convictions. Was Gandhi the victor or Godse?

Few of Gandhi’s ideals survive today in India, and thus we cannot but declare him a failure. While everybody likes the idea of non-violence, few believe it can be an effective policy in statecraft today. Just as few Christians today believe in Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek, few Indians believe Gandhi’s ideas have practical value. But he tried, he believed, and he lived by what he preached (by and large). This makes him a success, for, as the Gita says, you should do your duty without seeking a reward.

Was Godse a failure? He indirectly admits that he had to kill Gandhi as he saw no escape from his ideas – which he abhorred – due to Gandhi’s extreme popularity with the masses. This means Godse himself acknowledged he could not win against Gandhi. But there is a peculiar kind of heroism even in Godse. He knew he would be reviled and abused for what he did. To do something when you know you are only going to be hated for it also requires a weird kind of courage. It is easier to do the something for which you will be applauded.

In the end, the greater man is the one who dies for his conviction without killing someone else. Gandhi is the greater man despite his failures.

But I would add a caveat. It is time we got out of binary thinking: good and evil are not necessarily opposites, for a lot depends on how you define good or evil. Gandhi saw it one way, and Godse differently.

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