Gandhi’s Assassin. By Dhirendra K Jha

Deeply researched and lucidly written, Gandhi’s Assassin does a good job in its portraiture of Nathuram Godse and in reporting details of the plot to kill MK Gandhi

NB: The murder of Gandhiji has been immersed in ideological sophistry ever since 1948. Thousands of Sangh Parivar allies celebrate his assassination on the one hand (especially on or about October 2, and January 30 every year); yet spokesmen for their politics insist that Godse was not an RSS member in 1948. Given their expertise in speaking in several tongues simultaneously, it is essential to remind the discerning public of a few things.

It is also necessary to point out that Savarkar’s mercy petitions to the colonial government are not the central issue at all, they are a red herring (even though they are worth reading in detail). Rahul Gandhi to the Savarkarites, are all barking up the wrong tree. The issue is Savarkar’s position as one of the chief accused in the Gandhi murder trial, and the fact that he was acquitted.

Many crimes have gone, and still go unpunished in India, as some of us have noticed.

1/ Historians are not lawyers, and the protagonists of the drama of 1948 are all dead.

2/ The RSS is not under trial, and we have no way of punishing the organization (if it was guilty), nor compensating it for the bad press they have received (if it was not). All we are left with is historical judgement. Such judgements can only serve to sharpen public awareness. People are free to debate, criticize and reject them. It all depends on available evidence and methods of reasoning. It will never be settled in court.

3/ There is no paper trail connecting Adolf Hitler to the Holocaust; not J. V. Stalin to the murder of Leon Trotsky; nor Mao Zedong to the death of Zhou Enlai or Liu Shaoqi; (although there is ample material connecting them to several mass crimes). This does not mean historians cannot evaluate their responsibility. To repeat, we historians are not lawyers, and there is no need to assume a lawyerly demeanour, as in statements such as ‘Savarkar was acquitted’; or ‘Nathuram Godse was not a member of the RSS.’

Such utterances only point to deceitful intentions. A straightforward avowal of Gandhi’s murder is more honest than the game of smoke and mirrors being indulged in nowadays.

4/ Here is an extract from a CID ‘source’ report dated 27 Dec 1947 of a secret meeting of RSS members in Delhi on December 8, 1947, addressed by M. S. Golwalkar, who is quoted as saying: “The Sangh will not rest until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish him too, whether it was Nehru government or any other government. The Sangh could not be won over. They should carry on their work. Referring to Muslims he said that no power on earth could keep them in Hindusthan. They shall have to quit this country. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress (may) profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single muslim will be left in India. If they were made to stay here, the responsibility would be Government’s, and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course also.”

Six weeks after this sinister meeting, there took place the January 20 Gandhi murder attempt. And ten days after that, Gandhi was dead. The archival evidence below is, in my opinion, the closest we will ever get to the smoking gun. Assassins are not likely to supply us with affidavits certifying their murderous intentions:

Delhi Police Archive on RSS activity in October-December 1947

But it is relevant that on November 15, 1949, Nathuram Godse recited the RSS prayer at the gallows, this was reported in the press the following day. Jha’s book refers to this on page 271.

5/ The poisoned atmosphere in which the investigations between January 20 and January 30 were conducted; the laxity of the police, the strange behavior of Morarji Desai, then Home Minister of the Bombay government trial (he allowed Savarkar’s lawyer to withdraw a question asking for additional information about his client’s involvement), and many other details have all been presented in an important work by James W. Douglass: Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth; (Yagnya Prakashan; Vadodara, 2013).

The failure of the prosecution to call Savarkar’s employees, Appa Kasar and Gajanan Damle, who were in police custody throughout the trial and could have presented damning evidence, also indicates the government’s complicity with the Savarkar defence. In his concluding remarks, presiding Judge Atma Charan, underlined ‘the slackness of the police investigation of the case between January 20, 1948, and January 30, 1948‘; during which they had access to information proper use of which could have saved Gandhi’s life.

It is also noteworthy that the same judge allowed Godse to deliver a nine-hour long speech attacking the ideas of the man he had murdered. The courtroom became a platform for the ideological projection of Savarkar’s doctrines of violence and communal hatred. The government then banned the speech, which was released three decades later, and became a popular propaganda leaflet for the Sangh Parivar. The brunt of the speech is the focus on violence and revenge.

6/ The RSS is fond of citing Patel in contraposition to Nehru. (Everyone seems to have forgotten that Patel was a lifelong Congressman). Now whereas in his February 27, 1948 letter to Nehru (volume 6 of Selected Correspondence of Sardar Patel, edited by Durga Das, pages 56-57) Patel opined that the RSS was not implicated in the murder, he also held that “it was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that hatched the conspiracy and saw it through.”

However, in the same letter, reflecting on the problem of identifying RSS members, Patel wrote “in the case of secret organisation like the RSS which has no records of membership, no registers etc., securing of authentic information whether a person is an active member or not is a very difficult task.” All the performance artists shouting their love of Patel may kindly take account of these statements.

7/ The Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission was set up only after Savarkar’s death in 1966, and its report published by the Union Home Ministry in 1970. It notes that ‘people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating in Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar. It is significant that Karkare and Madanlal Pahwa visited Savarkar before they left for Delhi, and Apte and Godse visited him both before the bomb was thrown and also before the murder was committed..‘ Justice Kapur’s finding in the Commission of Inquiry was this: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.” (Kapur Report, Part 2, volume 6, p 318; and Part 2, volume 6, p 303).

8/ Here is the text of the AICC Resolution on Private Armies; dtd November 16, 1947: The All India Congress Committee has noted with regret that there is a growing desire on the part of some organizations to build up private armies. Any such development is dangerous for the safety of the State and for the growth of corporate life in the nation. The State alone should have its defence forces or police or home guards. The activities of the Muslim National Guards, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Akali Volunteers and such other organizations represent an endeavour to bring into being private armies, (and) must be regarded as a menace to the hard-won freedom of the country.. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi Heritage Portal, online; vol 90, p 541).

9/ And here is a historian who had the courage to sum up the horrible truth about the death of a man who fought the British Empire for 32 years, and whom Independent India did not permit to live 32 weeks. “In the eyes of too many officials, he was an old man who had outlived his usefulness: he had become expendable. By negligence, by indifference, by deliberate desire on the part of many faceless people, the assassination had been accomplished. It was a new kind of murder – the permissive assassination, and there may be many more in the future”: Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi; 647.

10/ After the assassination came the character assassination, which continues to this day. It is a crying shame if even a single scholar in Gandhi’s own country worth the name of a decent human being should lend weight to this obscene enterprise.

But Gandhiji belongs to the ages, and to humanity. In a BBC millenium poll in 2000 he was chosen the greatest man of the past 1000 years. The Sangh Parivar trolls may as well spit at the moon.

Readers may take my observations howsoever they see fit. I would like to remind them that I am not an apologist for any murderous politics whatsoever, of whichever political hue. I do not believe it the task of historians to engage in justifications of political assassination. We must pursue truth to the best of our abilities, and expose lies, to the best of our abilities. Conscience demands nothing less. That is, if you have not smothered it under the comforting blanket of an ideology. Dilip

By Samrat Choudhury

Before he was born in the home of a junior government official in Baramati, Maharashtra, in 1910, the parents of Nathuram Godse, who killed Mohandas K Gandhi, had lost their three previous sons in infancy. Only one child, a daughter named Mathura, had survived. Taking this as a sign, the parents decided to trick the evil fate that seemed to befall their male children by bringing up the baby boy as a girl. “His nose was pierced and he was made to wear a nose ring” writes Dhirendra K Jha in his book Gandhi’s Assassin. “It was thus that the child came to acquire the name “Nathu” or the one with a pierced nose, and then Nathuram, even though his official name was Ramachandra Vinayak Godse”.

The journey of Nathuram Godse from Baramati to the gallows in Ambala where he was hanged in 1949 for the murder of Gandhi is the subject of this book. It is a life journey whose direction, for the initially effeminate boy, was determined, in Jha’s telling, by the fateful transfer of Godse’s father to the small town of Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra in 1929. The boy, who was sent to Poona for his education and who returned after failing his matriculation exams, moved with them. As luck would have it, they had a famous neighbour: Vinayak D Savarkar, who had been sent to Ratnagiri by the British after his release from the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. Godse soon fell under his spell.

The first half of the book, titled Ploy, chronicles his growing involvement with Hindu right-wing politics as a member of both, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. There were fraternal relations between these two organisations. VD Savarkar’s brother Ganesh Savarkar was among the founders of the RSS. Its chief in Sangli was a man named Kashinath Limaye, who mentored Godse’s entry into the RSS fold. Jha, through interviews and archival work, documents that this man, who later became Maharashtra RSS chief, also doubled as state president of a militia called the Hindu Raksha Dal. Godse and Narayan Apte, his chief co-conspirator in the assassination of Gandhi, were the official founders of that militia. How Godse and Apte met and became collaborators is not known, but Jha points to Savarkar as the common link.

The second half of the book, titled Plot, is on the assassination of Gandhi. It is a story whose principal characters are Godse and Apte, but Savarkar is a presence right through. There are also cameos by women, including Apte’s lover Manorama and the actress Shanta Modak, who the two met by chance on a train journey on their way to meet Savarkar on January 14. Modak dropped them off outside Savarkar’s house in her car. They left for Delhi shortly after meeting Savarkar and, upon reaching there, began preparing to kill Gandhi. Their first attempt, on January 20th, was unsuccessful, but they went back on January 30th and finished the job.

The RSS has long denied that Godse was a member of the organisation when he murdered Gandhi, but Jha argues, convincingly, on the basis of archival material such as Godse’s pre-trial statement recorded in Marathi, that he never left the RSS. He was simultaneously a member of both the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, says Jha. He also asks whether Godse’s final court statement during his trial, made eight months later, which distanced him from both Savarkar and the RSS, can be relied upon. It was a statement that served the useful legal and political purpose of protecting Savarkar, who was facing trial along with him, and the RSS, whose members had faced attacks and ostracism after the assassination of Gandhi. Jha points out that it was a statement in excellent English – a language that the matric-fail Godse could barely speak. The implication is that it was drafted by a barrister.

In its portraiture of Gandhi’s assassin, and in reporting details of the plot, the book does a good job. It is deeply researched, with references that stretch from previous published texts on the subject to interviews by the author and archival work. It is lucidly written and the story itself makes for a page turner. The text, however, meanders repeatedly into amateur psychoanalysis and perhaps overstates the point in trying to relate Godse’s childhood experience of being initially raised as a girl to his final act of killing Gandhi. It is also a bit thin on the larger politics of the times, and the event that finally triggered Gandhi’s assassination – the Partition of India.

Jha points out that Savarkar had espoused the two-nation theory as far back as 1923 and quotes a speech by him 14 years later in which he says, “There are two antagonistic nations living in India… the Hindus and the Muslims”. The Muslim League, he says, picked up the thread later and demanded the Partition of India. While it is certainly true that the League did not officially seek Partition before 1940, the idea of Hindus and Muslims being two antagonistic nations living side by side in India had been around long before Savarkar.

British historian and civil servant Penderel Moon, in his book Divide and Quit, pointed out that “As far back as 1888, Sir Syed Ahmad, the great Muslim leader of the nineteenth century, had laid down the premises which lead naturally, perhaps even necessarily, to the idea of Pakistan”. Ahmad, Moon pointed out, described India as a country inhabited by two nations, the Mohammedan and the Hindu, and predicted that if the English were to leave India, it would be impossible for the two to “sit on the same throne and remain equal in power”.

The idea of Partition was one that had advocates among both Hindus and Muslims long before 1937, when Savarkar became president of the Hindu Mahasabha, or 1940, when the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan resolution.

Ayush Chaturvedi: Main Gandhi ke saath hun / Samar Halarnkar: A search for Hindus who will stand with Gandhi

1948: Supreme Court, RSS and Gandhi

The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi: Inquiry Commission Report (1969)

Kannan Srinivasan on V. D. Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha

हरिशंकर परसाई: महात्मा गाँधी को चिट्ठी पहुँचे (1977)

Martin Luther King on Mahatma Gandhi: “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, September 1958

A matter of time

The search for new time: Ahimsa in an age of permanent war

Gandhi visits the poor people of England in 1931

History Archive: Communist Party of India’s resolution on Pakistan and National Unity, September 1942

Communist Party of India’s Homage to Gandhiji October 2, 1947 / CPI’s Appeal to the People of Pakistan August 15, 1947

Soutik Biswas: Rare photos of the last ten years of Gandhi’s life

Anil Nauriya: Gandhi on secular law and state (2003)

Defying capitalism and socialism, Kumarappa and Gandhi had imagined a decentralised Indian economy

The law of killing: A brief history of Indian fascism / Arthur Rosenberg: Fascism as a Mass Movement / Kannan Srinivasan: A Subaltern Fascism?