Nathuram Godse vs. Gandhi:
Did both influence post-Partition politics?

“Gandhi used to claim the Partition would be over his dead body. So after Partition when he didn’t die, we killed him.” 

- Gopal Godse 

Any discussion on Mahatma Gandhi has to be sanitised, it would seem. I have made no bones about the fact that a nuanced reading of his politics reveal divisive traits. 

Once again, Nathuram Godse, Gandhi's assassin, has come into focus in the ‘viral’ world. Trying to understand his motives makes one in public perception an RSS sympathiser, which many are. But, no one can accuse me of that.

These are my views from 15 years ago; at least, that is when they were first published. I do hope that those reading it do not transform into Gandhians overnight, as is the trend when we feel compelled to take sides without knowing the various angles to an issue.

Can we think about Godse as a hero? Here:

Whatever be the nature of the struggle for Indian independence and the stalwarts that strode the firmament, it was one bullet fired five months later that embedded itself in public memory. It is that bullet which can make claims to have created the first hero of post-Independence India.

I am not referring to Mahatma Gandhi, the victim, but Nathuram Godse, the assassin. We must understand that heroism is a loaded term. A deed is heroic if it has a clear-cut purpose and a complete fearlessness about the consequences. It does not seek legitimacy. In fact, its very authenticity lies in being able to stick its neck out in the face of opposition. There is no conflict between good and evil; it is merely a matter of degrees of justice.

In this light, Nathuram Godse is extremely important to modern-day Indian politics simply because he exposes the underworld face of it. He was poised between two aspects – the lowly hit man and the ideologue ‘dada’. His initiation into the major league depended entirely on how big his target was. If his anger was against the Mahatma’s appeasement of a community, then he would have just gone and killed a few Muslims.

This is borne out by his statement: “Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence.” He did not go on a rampage against a group (an earlier attempt of his to kill Gandhi was unsuccessful because he was afraid that the bystanders would get hurt) for that would have not made him a loyal soldier, a man who would do or die.

He did and he died. And his offence as well as defence had a clinical precision, quite unlike prevalent political skulduggery. His brother, Gopal, said in an interview: “Gandhi used to claim the Partition would be over his dead body. So after Partition when he didn’t die, we killed him.” It was as simple as that.

A little less than two years after he had killed the Father of the Nation, Nathuram was sentenced to death by hanging. Before the noose went round his neck, he spent five hours justifying his act. It was not to get clemency, but to declare that he was not a lowly gun-happy cad. His was not a revolution of the moment. In fact, it had the same fervor as the Gandhian ethos. By killing one man, his legacy proves that his 90-page testimony was revealing the spirit and the undercurrents running through the public mind that could not be articulated.

Look around you. What is the attitude towards the minorities and the lower castes today? The fact that these segments still have little power after 58 years of Independence shows that, ironically, it was the Mahatma who legitimized the Hindutva agenda. A modern state cannot be built upon the premise of a theological doctrine – whether it be for it or to oppose it. Gandhi patronized religion and casteism. He wanted the India of the villages, which is why the rural population still lives in the cave ages. He talked of Ram Rajya, which is what is sought to be ushered in by his opponents. He called non-violence a “weapon”; the truth is the freedom struggle was most certainly not bloodless.

Neither was the aftermath. If Gandhi has been deified, then so has his assassin. Overtly, it has been only a handful of people who commemorate his ‘martyrdom’ on November 15, they read out his Will at memorial services, and there is a full-fledged fan club that was orchestrated by his brother.

This gives it the legitimacy of an underground operation, somewhat like what happened during the freedom struggle. It can be safely assumed that Godse was possessed of a desire to further a cause; wreaking vengeance or merely ensuring his 15 minutes of fame would be looked on contemptuously by him.

The cause has had a cumulative effect. Just watch how the RSS and its acolytes operate and see how they are like underworld/terrorist outfits. There are the compulsory disciplinary drills, the initiation ceremony where you have to prove your loyalty and capability, the strict hierarchy, blind belief in an ideology based necessarily on the theory that you are being wronged by the Establishment, and the submergence of the individual self.

This is why I feel Godse was a mere pawn. He did not constitute a think tank; he used gut sense. He was paranoid; he had to ensure that his lowly status would not impede his path to self-righteous glory. He was irreligious, but communal. He rode on the back of cultural regression, impersonating a renaissance to posthumously become a figure in national politics.

Assassins and icons become heroes because they simulate the System even as they fight it. The anathema and anachronism acquire their own authority. Godse visited a brothel before he killed the Mahatma. Was it to prove his manhood, lest he be deemed a coward who could not face the consequences of an effeminate and impotent democracy? Or was he mimicking Gandhi, who once confessed that he was making love to his wife while his father lay dying in the other room?

Interestingly, although he was an active member of the Hindu Mahasabha and the editor of the newspaper Hindu Rashtra, he did not call out to the Lord as he prepared for his death. It was the secular Gandhi whose last words “Hey Ram” have become the Hindutva coinage.

Godse’s last wish was for his ashes to be submerged in the Indus River of an undivided India. That urn still stands.

By conventional standards, he is no hero. Yet, he was regurgitating the thoughts of many. In his own way, he was an idealist. It is only idealists who are truly afraid of failure, not because of inadequate capabilities but due to their inherent ability of not being able to follow rules. We just do not expect them to have any side other than the one we are comfortable dealing with.

Nathuram Godse may make us uncomfortable, but it was the bullet he fired soon after Independence that set in motion a legion of experiments with different kinds of truth. In modern terms, he would be the godfather. A hero by default.

© Farzana Versey

A major portion of the piece was first published in 1998 in The Sunday Observer, print edition. This later version appeared on a website and is archived here