How Godse gave Gandhi and Nehru what they wanted — and hurt Hindu interest forever

Had the Mahatma been alive for a few more years, Nehru would have faced Gandhian music sooner than later

Utpal Kumar January 31, 2023 06:08:54 IST
How Godse gave Gandhi and Nehru what they wanted — and hurt Hindu interest forever

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi believed he would die a violent death. He expressed this sentiment in several of his writings. Even his old comrade, Henry Polak — as biographer Ramachandra Guha records in Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World 1914-1948 — thought the same about the Mahatma, albeit in private. In 1934, when Polak heard about Gandhi planning a fresh fast, he wrote to a friend: “He (Gandhi) has a chronic tendency to offer himself as a public sacrifice, and I can never feel any sense of certainty that he will in the normal course of events pass away in any but the most dramatic circumstances.”

Gandhi did die in the most tragic circumstances on 30 January 1948, when Nathuram Godse shot point-blank, pumping three bullets into his chest with an M1934 Beretta semi-automatic pistol at Delhi’s Birla House. But as Professor Makarand Paranjape raises a pertinent question in his book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, “Did Godse really succeed? Or, did the Mahatma, even in his own death, turn the tables on his assassin?”

Whosoever be the winner, the fact is Hindus turned out to be the biggest loser in the assassination saga. Godse, through this single act of terrorism, harmed immensely the so-called cause he was fighting for. While his primary objective of keeping India united and stopping the institutionalisation of Pakistan/Muslim pandering didn’t materialise, the assassination did give Hindus and Hinduism a universal bad name. Not only the Hindu political movement, which was gaining ground at that time in reaction to India’s untidy, violent Partition, received a major setback, so much so that the Hindu Mahasabha could never recover from it, but also Godse’s abhorrent act shocked an entire generation of Hindus who internalised the guilt of the assassination of the greatest apostle of peace.

As we observed Martyrs’ Day yesterday, it’s time to relook at what happened on 30 January 1948. How was Gandhi so easily assassinated just 10 days after a failed bomb attack on the same venue — and that too by the same set of people? Had Gandhi become an inconvenience for a lot more people than just Godse and his gang? On 18 December 1947, just a month and a half before he was assassinated, Gandhi himself had confessed: “I know that today I irritate everyone… What irks me is that people deceive me. They should tell me frankly that I have become old, that I am no longer of any use and that I should not be in their way.”

Paranjape pushes the envelope of enquiry further when he writes, “Nathuram Godse murdered him but the Mahatma martyred himself.” Gandhi saw his “martyrdom” as “an offering, as he himself put it, a last and desperate yajna — sacrifice, oblation, sacred rite — to save India”. Gandhi, who worked all his life for Hindu-Muslim unity, could see his life-long project vanish in thin air with India’s Partition. To one reporter, just before his death, Gandhi said: “I have lost hope because of the terrible happenings in the world. I don’t want to live in darkness.” In December 1947, about a month before his assassination, Pyarelal Nayyar, the Mahatma’s secretary, could sense that Gandhi “was literally praying that God should gather him into his bosom and deliver him from the agony which life had become”.

Death was on his mind when Godse appeared with a gun at Birla House. On the day he was killed, Gandhi uttered at least a couple of times: “If I’m alive”. He seemed to be preparing for death, a more dramatic, violent one. On 29 January 1948, just a day before his assassination, Gandhi told Manuben, his grand-niece: “If I were to die of a lingering disease, or even from a pimple, then you must shout from the housetops to the whole world that I was a false Mahatma… And if an explosion took place, as it did last week, or someone shot at me and I received his bullet on my bare chest, without a sigh and with Rama’s name on my lips, only then should you say that I was a true Mahatma.” Godse gave exactly what Gandhi was desperately seeking for: Martyrdom!

There’s, however, another angle to this sordid saga: While Godse and his gang wanted Gandhi dead, and the Mahatma himself wished martyrdom for his own and the country’s redemption, the then administration was no less complicit in the entire assassination saga. The powers-that-be were well aware of the conspiracy to kill the Mahatma. In fact, the killers had botched up a bomb attempt on Gandhi’s life at the same venue, Birla House, just 10 days earlier, on 20 January 1948. Still nothing was done. If there was a fatalistic excitement for death on the part of Gandhi, the administration of the day can be accused of fatalistic indifference!

The administration should have gauged the level of anger among a section of the Hindu community against Gandhi. The Hindu rage was most palpable among those coming from Pakistan, those who had lost home and hearth, and whose loved ones had been raped, kidnapped and murdered. With a section of the public so angry and with credible intelligence about threats to the Mahatma’s life, it’s inconceivable why the police failed to beef up Gandhi’s security. If British historian Robert Payne (The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi) is to be believed, on the day Gandhi was killed, there were only one assistant sub-inspector, two head constables, and 16 foot constables.

Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, in his 2007 book Let’s Kill Gandhi, accused the Congress of finding it easier to live with a martyred Mahatma than the alive one. “The Congress government and at least some of the members of the cabinet were fed up with the interventions of the meddlesome old man… The way the investigation was carried out, and the lackadaisical approach of the police in trying to protect Gandhi’s life, leads one to believe that the investigation was meant to hide more than it was meant to reveal. The measures taken by the police between 20th and 30th January 1948 were more to ensure the smooth progress of the murderers, than to try to prevent his murder.”

In this context, Dr BR Ambedkar made a pertinent observation. Writing to Shradha Kabir, his future wife, he said: “Great men are of great service to their country, but they are also at certain times a great hindrance to the progress of their country… Mr Gandhi had become a positive danger to his country…”

Had Gandhi become a “great hindrance” and a “positive danger” to the country and its progress? At least a section of the ruling party definitely thought so. Was it the reason why he was not provided enough security? Maybe. Maybe not. One can still give the then administration the benefit of doubt given the saintly stature Gandhi had. Even if the danger was out in the open, it was still very difficult to think of someone committing such a ghastly crime, especially against the Mahatma. What’s, however, undeniable is that the government of the day could have saved Gandhi, but a sense of fatigue had already set in for ‘Gandhian tantrums’.

Last but not the least, there’s a tendency among a section in the Right wing to justify and even glorify Godse. There can be no justification for the killing of the Mahatma. As for the glorification, it must be understood that Godse, through his act of insanity, whatsoever might have been his objective, hurt Hindus and Hindu interests more than anybody in recent times. He also gave what Gandhi was earnestly looking for: Martyrdom. And to the Nehruvian establishment: Freedom from Gandhian ‘tantrums’, protests, and of course fasts! Had the Mahatma been alive for a few more years, Nehru would have faced Gandhian music sooner than later.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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