I wrote an entire book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, on how the spectre of the “Father of the Nation” haunted the body politic of India. What I didn’t factor in, perhaps, was that the ghost of his assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, would also refuse to be laid to rest.
There are fundamental reasons for this. First the obvious one: whether we like it or not, Godse is a hero to a small section of Hindu right, including members of the Hindu Mahasabha, the party he belonged to. This section, unfortunately, also has some intellectual hard-hitters, who think of Gandhi as the betrayer of the Hindu cause, a collaborator of British colonialism, besides being the patron saint of the Congress party.
What is not all that commonly acknowledged, however, is that Gandhi is also hated and baited by a whole host of other ideologues and crusaders — the Communists, feminists, Islamists, Dalits, or otherwise. And it’s not just the fringe fanatics. Conservatives, liberals, and advocates of almost every political shade and stripe — Left, Right, or in-between — have hated, and continue to hate, the Mahatma. Clearly, Gandhi remains someone we love to hate and hate to love.
But the more sinister reason why Nathuram Godse’s ghost refuses to be laid to rest is that a very strong lobby is deeply invested in keeping his legacy and memory alive. For this group of political witch doctors and voodoo artists, Godse is a convenient ploy to attack the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On national television, some of these Godse-contra cheerleaders even challenge BJP spokespersons and supporters to say “Godse Murdabad” to prove their patriotism. How ridiculous — even more absurd, one might think, than forcing people to say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” to demonstrate loyalty to the nation.
There is no need to say “Godse Murdabad” (death to Godse) because he was hanged by the state, along with his accomplice Narayan Apte, on 15 November 1949 at the Ambala Central Jail. His ashes after cremation were dispersed at an unknown spot in the Ghaggar river precisely because no memorial could be built to him. Godse is not a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but this much can be said about him: he was an assassin, not a terrorist. In fact, he saw himself, however mistakenly, as a righteous justiciar rather than an assassin.
Godse wished to kill one man, whom he considered responsible for India’s Partition along with a host of other wrongs done to Hindu society. He did not want to create terror or panic among people. In fact, he stood quietly in the melee that ensued the killing of the Mahatma, making no attempt to flee the crime scene. It took a while for Gandhi’s non-violent and shell-shocked followers to realise that their great leader had been felled. Godse actually waited to be overpowered, apprehended and handed himself over to the police.
Godse, in other words, was no ordinary killer or criminal. He was, in fact, not only a determined assassin, but also an ideologue, who used his trial to pen and articulate an elaborate justification of his act. The exact text of his defence, which runs into close to 100 pages, has not been made public. What we have is the account offered by his brother and fellow conspirator, Gopal Godse. From this narrative, it is evident that Nathuram Godse considered himself the self-appointed executioner of Gandhi on behalf of a nation which the latter, as its putative “Father,” had wronged and betrayed.
There is no need to repudiate the fact that Nathuram Godse was a Hindu, a Chitpavan Brahmin in fact, or that he also saw himself as representing the interests of the Hindus. Nor should we deny that he belonged to the Hindu Mahasabha and was also a former member of the RSS. It is also difficult to overlook how Godse, as well as his co-conspirators, were convinced that by killing Gandhi, they were protecting Hindu interests. But blaming Godse alone, or even his co-conspirators, is not enough. It is equally clear that the state failed to protect Gandhi. Was this complicity or negligence?
The same group of assassins, including Godse and Apte, had tried to kill Gandhi on 20 January 1948. They, however, proved inept, their bomb went off at the wrong place, quite far from the Mahatma. One of the plotters, Madanlal Pahwa, was caught. Upon interrogation, he spilled the beans, naming Godse and others. He even warned, rather ominously, “phir ayega (they will hit again)”. Despite such clear signals, the Mumbai police was still not informed in time by their Delhi counterparts, whose inspector, armed with the vital information, did not fly to Mumbai, nor take a direct train, but went, inexplicably, via Allahabad.
Even more shocking is the fact that the Premier (chief minister) of Bombay State (present-day Gujarat and Maharashtra), B. G. Kher, and his deputy, home minister Morarji Desai, had been amply warned of the plot to kill Gandhi. Jimmy Nagarwala, the dashing Bombay police officer who was finally tipped off about the plot by the Delhi inspector, failed to act on the intelligence received. He was later promoted and brought to Delhi.
On 30 January 1948, just ten days after the botched attempt on the Mahatma, Nathuram Godse and his fellow assassin, Narayan Apte, returned to Delhi to complete their half-finished task. They flew to the capital undetected, checking into Hotel Marina at Connaught Circus. How do we know all this? The sequence of events leading to Gandhi’s killing and its aftermath is so well known not only because of the numerous books that have been written on it, but also because it was extensively documented by the Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry, which published its report in 1969.
This is the first of a two-part series on Nathuram Godse. The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.