A historical account of Nathuram Godse and the men who killed Gandhi tells us something unusual about his childhood. Three of his elder brothers died soon after birth, but his elder sister survived. His parents thought that there was a curse on the boys in the family, and it led them to take a religious pledge to bring up the next son as though he was a girl.
Accordingly, the next son, Ramachandra, was made to wear a nath (nose-ring) and was brought up just like a girl till the next brother survived infancy. That is how Ramachandra became Nathuram, the Ram who wore a nose-ring. The historical account suggests, “Psychologists may find some explanation of his warped mental processes in the fact that Nathuram was brought up as a girl”. We do know that Nathuram went on to become a “strapping” young man, but did not marry and “shied away from the company of women”.
Is this story relevant to the current controversy about Godse? Not quite, if our question is whether he should be called a ‘terrorist’. To my mind, the more interesting question is whether and in which sense should he be called a ‘Hindu’. The story of Nathuram’s childhood gives us an insight into the impulse that lay behind his brand of Hinduism and, by implication, into a bigger question of our times.
Let us first dispose of the first question that excites news channels: Was Kamal Haasan justified in saying that Nathuram Godse was the first terrorist of independent India? The outrage against Haasan is ridiculous on various counts.
First, this was not the first time Kamal Haasan was making this statement. I was present and with him when he made the same statement on 16 April this year before Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the Marina Beach in Chennai. Somehow, the media did not pick it up. This time, when the locality was predominantly Muslim, this became a headline.
Second, it is clear that he described Godse as an “extremist” (theeviravadham) and not a “terrorist” (bayangarvadham). Now, even Godse would have been disappointed if he were not called an extremist!
Third, Kamal Haasan did not describe Godse as a “Hindu extremist” but as “an extremist who was a Hindu”. If you read this in the context of the full speech that he gave, there is little to be debated. The speech is about communal harmony and abjuring all forms of extremism.
In any case, the debate on “Hindu terror” was started not by Kamal Haasan, but by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his now infamous speech at Wardha, Maharashtra, the PM asked the audience: “Over the last thousand years, can you name one Hindu ever involved in an act of terror?”
You can forgive him for this mix of arrogance and ignorance. Or, turn a blind eye, as the Election Commission did. Or, you could give him an answer: yes sir, have you heard of Nathuram Godse?
Kamal Haasan’s statement can be read as the much-needed response to the PM. If the PM’s question, and all the rabble-rousing that went with it, did not violate any law or model code of conduct, how come Haasan’s sober and factual response becomes a problem?
Even if Godse was described as “terrorist”, is that wrong? Over the last two days we have heard a lot of warped logic: this was a simple murder, not an act of terror (as if Godse had a property dispute with the Mahatma); Godse was an assassin, not a terrorist (as if an assassin cannot be a terrorist); he surrendered on his own (as if no terrorist ever surrenders, once the job is done); he was tried and punished (as if the punishment cleansed the terror tag).
Godse’s act fits all the key attributes of what we today call terrorism: Gandhi’s assassination was unlawful, violent, pre-meditated, ideologically inspired, targeted a non-combatant, meant to send a wider political message and intended to stop a category of people from pursuing a given course of action. What else is terrorism?
Let us turn to the more interesting question: was Godse a Hindu? In the most obvious sense, he was. Born into an orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin family, he was and remained a Hindu. Godse was Hindu in a secondary, political sense as well. Like his political guru V.D. Savarkar, he thought he represented the Hindus. In his eyes, what he did was to avenge the humiliation of the Hindus.
If militants in Punjab were called “sikh militants” or terrorists who wreak violence in the name of Islam are “Islamic jihadis”, then Godse was, and many of his ilk are, “Hindu extremists”. If we do not use Hindu as pre-fix, as we should not, then we should drop religious pre-fixes for everyone.
But did Godse represent Hinduism in any deeper sense of the term? If he did, why was he so vehemently opposed to the man who insisted that he was a sanatani Hindu? We must turn to Ashis Nandy, one of our iconoclastic intellectuals, to decode Godse’s anger against Gandhi. In a seminal essay written four decades ago, Nandy described Gandhi’s assassination as the “Final Encounter”, as the inevitable culmination of a tension that lies at the heart of modern India: “Godse’s hand was forced by the real killers of Gandhi: the anxiety-ridden, insecure, traditional elite concentrated in the urbanized, educated, partly westernized, tertiary sector whose meaning of life Gandhian politics was taking away.”
That brings us back to the story about Godse’s childhood. For Godse, Hindus were feminine, being constantly violated by outsiders. He saw Gandhi as the effeminate Father of the Nation who was unable to protect Mother India. He wanted Hinduism to attain the masculinity that the colonial rule represented. Gandhi represented the affirmation of the feminine self, long enshrined in the Hindu ideal of the ardhnarishwar (a composite, androgynous divine form, half-male, half-female). This reflected in the deeper divide. Like Savarkar, Godse looked up to the European ideal of centralised, uniform nation-state. Gandhi wanted decentred power and accommodation of differences, even beyond the boundaries of the recently constituted Indian nation. Brahmanic Hinduism was Godse’s ideal. According to Nandy, Gandhi’s Hinduism was deBrahmanic.
Godse’s political Hinduism represented the Western, European and Victorian sensibilities, while Gandhi represented indigenous Hinduism. This divide gets replayed today. What is called “Hindutva” today represents Godse’s legacy, playing out his deep anxieties. Gandhiji was assassinated. Godse was hanged. But Gandhi vs Godse is a live battle. It is a battle for the soul of India. The battle has just begun. And, who better than Kamal Haasan, the writer-producer of Hey Ram! to sound the bugle.
The author is National President of Swaraj India. The views are personal.