Was Nathuram Godse the only killer of Mahatma Gandhi?
Makarand R Paranjape recounts how the government of the day was well aware of the conspiracy to kill the Mahatma.
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We love history in black-and-white. For, it makes a story pursue a linear pattern, without being utterly complicated and morally untenable. In the process, we get a hero who can do no wrong - and a villain no right. When I asked this question to Amish Tripathi recently, he emphasised how this wasn’t the case in our ancient past. He reminded how Yudhisthira, after losing his brothers and wife one by one on his way to heaven, found Duryodhana and his brothers enjoying spoils up there. So, in the long term, the "virtuous" Pandavas weren’t as upright as they seemed. And the "villainous" Kauravas weren’t as bad as they were projected!
Today, maybe the result of rigid Victorian values inflicted on India, we have left behind the multi-layered approach of looking at history and its protagonists. The best manifestation of this black-and-white mentality is the way we treat Mahatma Gandhi, who evokes as much admiration as he courts derision and contempt - he is either projected as a saint or a wily politician. Even an otherwise pragmatic commentator like Ramachandra Guha falls for this simplistic caricature in his book, Gandhi Before India, as he resurrects Gandhi as a Mahatma who would never have sex with anyone other than his wife; and that he should be “recognised as being among apartheid’s first opponents”. But would Gandhi be less relevant if he had indulged in sex with women other than his wife? Would he be less significant if he had agitated about discrimination being meted to his fellow Indians, but kept quiet about the plight of the South African natives whom he disdainfully called kafirs? Why is it so difficult to let Gandhi remain a Mahatma and also a product of his time with its pride and prejudice intact?
The same problem afflicts Nathuram Godse. Yes, this man killed the Mahatma, but does that take away his right to be a nationalist, albeit a strayed one? Maybe we have started believing, unlike our ancient ancestors, that good and bad, holy and unholy, sacred and profane are two exclusive domains. These thoughts emerged enveloped in thousands of shades of grey, as I was reading Makarand R Paranjape’s recent book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi. The foremost being: Was Godse the only killer of Gandhi? Or, was he merely the face of this horrendous crime, which Indian society helped germinate, mutate and aggregate? Is our denial of redemption for Godse a result to our sense of guilt for scripting the death of Gandhi and his philosophy?
Read the book and it’s evident that the then administration and society were no less complicit in Gandhi’s death. Paranjape recounts how the government of the day was 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 ten days earlier, on January 20, 1948. “Of the team of assassins, Madanlal Pahwa, the latest recruit and weakest link, actually an angry and restive refugee from the just-created Pakistan, was caught by the police. He not only led the investigators to the Marina Hotel in Connaught Circus where Godse had stayed, but warned them that he would be back, with the ominous prediction, ‘Phir ayega’ - he will come again,” writes Paranjape.
Complementing the administrative incompetence was the rising anti-Gandhi sentiment among the masses. Several refugees from Pakistan, who had lost home and hearth, whose loved ones had been raped, kidnapped and murdered, were enraged by Gandhi's stand on Pakistan and partition. Those were the days when one would regularly witness anti-Gandhi slogans outside his prayer meetings. With a section of the public so angry and with credible intelligence about threats to the Mahatma’s life, it’s unfathomable why the police failed to beef up Gandhi’s security. British historian Robert Payne reported in his book, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, how only one assistant sub-inspector, two head constables, and 16 foot constables were deployed to ensure the safety of Gandhi.
Even more baffling was the Congress’ attitude, or even indifference, towards Gandhi. The party which owed its all-India presence to this old man did pretty little to protect him against growing anger amid certain quarters. Left to fend for himself, the Mahatma was a sitting duck, needing one angry man to get him assassinated. And that’s what happened on December 30, 1948.
The Congress had reasons to be annoyed with the Mahatma. In his last will, written the night before his assassination, Gandhi called for the dissolution of the Congress as a political organisation. Moreover, his stand on partition and Pakistan had turned him a liability for the party. So much so that the Congress, as Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, would say much latter, found a martyred Mahatma would be easier to live with.
So, who is the killer - Godse? Yes, of course he pulled the trigger, but what about the role of the Congress, the administration and the society as a whole? And is it this guilt on the part of the Congress of not standing up for Gandhi which ensures the killer is vilified again and again? Whatever be the reality, the fact remains that truth is never in black-and-white. And as we observed yet another death anniversary of the Mahatma, we must re-evaluate what the great man stood for and who failed him the most.