Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India

Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India, Dhirendra K Jha, Vintage Books, 2022.  ISBN-13 :978-0670096473. Pages 344

Gandhis Assassin The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India jpgIn the last few years, there have been a few scholarly books published about Gandhi and Nathuram Godse. These books attempt to re-create the context of Gandhi’s assassination. One such scholarly and well-written book is journalist Dhirendra Jha’s present work. It remarkably exhibits the finer points that led to Gandhi’s assassination. In the book Gandhi’s Assassin, Dhirendra Jha makes complete use of his access to archival material, many of which were oblivious to the public’s eye. The author’s greatest task was to chisel, bit by bit, the very identity of Godse. The public’s understanding of the assassinator has been quite muddled by time, jumbled by history textbooks (especially at the school level), and mixed-up by the last few generations of Indians. Hence, it would not be a surprise to see the younger generations literally unfazed by an event that shook the land beneath India seven decades ago. Carving out details of Godse’s childhood (incidentally, he was brought up as a girl by his parents), his younger days’ gloominess, and his middle-aged sense of misplaced purpose, Jha has rightly pointed out how small events snowballed.  Interesting documentations of Godse find mention in this book, like he was a tailor by profession, that he did not find his opposite gender enticing, or that he was not proficient in the English language. The last fact, regarding his grasp over English, becomes very important, because of the flawless statements read out by Godse in the court, after the assassination. He was, obviously, assisted, in framing the statements, both in content, emotion and syntax.

When Godse was questioned as to what his age was, in the aftermath of the shooting, he said it was 25 years, when he was actually 38 years old. At first, this lying about one’s age does not ring a bell in the reader’s mind. After all, one is wont to think that a murderer can only be a liar! Decoding the younger days of Godse, Jha unearths the happenings in Godse household – how, because of the sentimental belief, his nose was pierced like it used to be done to girls, and how he was made to wear a nath (nose ring, and hence he was called Nathu / Nathuram), how he had the power to summon an oracle (he was from a very religious family), and how he did not think it necessary to pass the matriculation exam.  Of course, it would soon dawn to the reader that Godse did not have a masculine childhood, and he often had doubts about his virility. Maybe this was a starting point for him to become a hero, by bravely shooting the Mahatma point blank. Maybe this was also the reason for lying about his age after the shooting.

Nathuram, whose official name was Ramachandra Vinayak Godse, was from a very poor family. His father, a petty government employee, was the sole breadwinner. Therefore, he placed his faith on Nathu to help with household requirements, once he completed his education. But, Nathu was not academically inclined. As he grew older, he could support his family only sporadically, for many reasons. One, he was not skillful as a businessman (running his tailor shop). Two, he was more drawn to Hindutva ideals, that he forsake many opportunities to earn. And lastly, he was always indecisive about his future that he did not think it important to introspect. For a young Godse, who was quite clueless about his future, very few things interested him. One among those was the idea of Hindu-ness (Hindutva), and the personalities who propounded these ideas, like Savarkar, Golwalkar and Limaye. Being from an orthodox Hindu family in Maharashtra, he spent almost his entire life in the Poona region of the state, except for brief sojourns in places like Itarsi. Interestingly, Poona region was the citadel of believers of a Hindu Rastra (a nation of Hindus). So, without doubt, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha, two apolitical organisations dedicated to creating a Hindu nation, were famously renowned in that region and in that state.

Savarkar, who had a cluttered past, and whose ideals changed after his incarceration in the Andamans, became the chief influencer of Godse. Nathuram became a loyal lieutenant of sorts, and began to assimilate the ideas propounded by Savarkar. The Hindu Mahasabha was active then, and Savarkar was associated with it. Another person who had an ample influence on Godse was one of the heads of RSS, Limaye. It was the attitude of Limaye that made Godse trust this man. Limaye was always around to support Godse, and advised him on many issues. For a youngster without any aim, and with lots of self-doubts, not to mention his puzzling childhood, Limaye and Savarkar proved to be personalities Godse could look up to, for guidance, encouragement and inspiration. Noticeably, Godse became associated with both these organisations, though towards the end of his life, one of the organisations would disown him.

Dhirendra Jha’s narration of Godse’s run up to the situation, where he was convinced that nothing will save Hindus and the nation of Hindus, except the killing of Gandhi, is intense and strong. Though there were many dramatis personae in the story that culminated in the single-man shoot-out at the last prayer meeting of Bapu (as Gandhi was called) at Birla House, the character of Savarkar comes out intact. Savarkar becomes an integral part of Godse’s idea of India.  There is one other character that plays a very important role in Godse’s mission. His name was Narayan Apte, who was later hanged to death along with Godse on November 15, 1949. Savarkar, given his demeanour of being clandestine, convinced the court that he was not a part of conspirators, and was eventually acquitted. More than that, Savarkar and the RSS carefully washed off their hands in the trial leading to Godse’s journey to the gallows. With Savarkar acting quite practically in his own judgment, Jha’s book is on one side a careful study of the psyche of Nathuram, and on the other side, a cautious tale of Savarkar’s thoughts, beliefs and actions.  Towards the end of his life, Godse felt let down by Savarkar and the RSS, as he was exceedingly devoted to both the organization and the person. Jha writes, “For Godse, the shift in the attitude of the RSS and Savarkar might have been the gravest blow. Since the time he met Savarkar and joined the RSS, he had been nothing but loyal. The shift showed, if at all it was needed, how deceptive and distorted was the image of his mentors that Godse had kept in his heart. Abandonment by those he had prided himself on being associated with was to worsen his memories in the days to come”.

After the stupefying silence that followed for a few minutes after the shooting of Gandhi by Godse at the prayer meeting venue in Delhi, a few people stirred up from the shock, and apprehended the shooter. One of them was the gardener at the Birla House. Soon after, Godse was formally arrested and taken to different police stations for interrogation. Despite records stating that Godse appeared quite relaxed after the assassination, one item that would keep distressing him in the next few months was the securing of a notebook that was found on his person by the police. In this notebook, contained the details of the ‘conspirators’, felt the police and the intelligence department. The entries in that notebook became prominent evidence, strengthening the theory that killing Gandhi was a plan that many people had hatched together. It was a scheme and nothing more. Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother, who was also taken into police custody and tried at the court for aiding in the killing of Gandhi, recorded this: “In the notebook were the entries of the names of the persons and places, of the appointments to be kept, the travelling expenditure and the sundry jottings of the transaction of money”. Knowing well the notebook would be an endangerment, Godse’s accomplices felt that it was a very serious blunder on his part. Nathuram felt deeply bad about this. He did not want to endanger others’ lives because of his inattentiveness to not carry the notebook. He also felt a big swathe of remorse, and felt hapless. In the words of Jha, “As Godse’s sense of guilt increased, his ability to endure it may have weakened. Apte and Savarkar were men who mattered the most in his life. It is through these relationships that Godse has developed his exalted self-image. To that extent, his sentiments towards them was intensely personal”. Hence, Godse justified to himself that he had to right the wrong – in the sense, he was duty-bound to rectify the mistake (of carrying the notebook with names), by issuing a statement that absolved the others of the mission to kill Gandhi. His statement would be clear enough to tell the court that “…that the idea to kill Gandhi was solely his own and he never shared it with any of the co-accused”.  By doing this, he would feel less guilty, and also save his friends, thought Godse. But alas, it was not to be so.

On 8th November, 1948, Godse set out to read aloud his new, different and ‘rectified’ statement to the court. It was more than a 5-hour read, wherein he readily and steadfastly attempted to eliminate all suggestions of blame imposed on other persons who were accused along with him. The statement said, “I say that there was no conspiracy of any kind whatsoever amongst the accused to commit any of the offences mentioned in the charge-sheet”.  Notable in this lengthy statement is his obvious intent to dissociate himself from the RSS (read Savarkar and Golwalkar), with the main aim of protecting the organization and his mentors. Did Godse disown his association with the RSS because of a sense of obligation to the people whom he looked up to, or because of a compulsion from an external force? Not clear, it seems. Now, we need to come back to Godse’s ability to express himself, without any commiseration, in the lengthy English statement that he read out in the court. There are records to prove that Godse was not very well-versed in the English language, and hence he could not have written the new mended statement. Noticeably, he was ‘assisted’ by lawyers who were loyal to one of his mentors. In the bargain, he played his part charmingly, with the sole resolve to portray himself as the savior of Hindus – a hero, a protector who could do the unthinkable, and a liberator par excellence.  While there was the regret of being let down by people he admired, Godse also seemed to engage his thoughts with the super-brave deed he had accomplished – the killing of Gandhi, who, in his mental realm, was causing sacrilege by allowing Hindus and Muslims to live a harmonious life. This irrelevance of Gandhi to the idea of an India that would allow both religions to be practiced and placed on an equal footing, was to Godse and his mentors, unacceptable, intolerable and inexcusable. Gandhi had to die, it was felt.

At the time of trying Godse for his act of assassination of the ‘Father of the Nation’, many opinions about his punishment floated. There were people who felt that awarding capital punishment to the killer would amount to disrespecting the concept of non-violence, the idea propagated and followed by Gandhi.  Some others thought it would require a lot of political will on the part of the new government, to play soft on the killer. Many others felt unsure, and waited to see what would happen.  Jha quotes a piece from Leader dated 26th June 1949 (an English daily, quite well-known then): “Nathuram Godse represents a definite school of thought—a thought based on an evil philosophy. At present the followers of this philosophy are demoralized. But it would be a great mistake to assume that Godse’s philosophy is dead. It may be dormant but not dead. One of the things on which a cause, however evil, prospers is martyrdom. Our earnest request to the Government of India is do not make a martyr of Godse. Let him live and earn the contempt of humanity for the rest of his life”. However, Godse was hanged till death along with Apte. The debate between violence and non-violence seems to have been put to rest. Dhirendra Jha’s ability to whip up a very carefully structured narration of Godse’s trials and tribulations is noteworthy. Moreover, Jha has brought to light the misunderstandings that transpired because of Godse’s pre-trial and during trial statements. More than misunderstanding, the public has been covertly accosted into believing that Godse had nothing to do with the RSS and everything to do with the Hindu Mahasabha, thereby rewriting history. Jha, very skillfully, discovers how Godse’s association with both the organisations was documented in the archives. His protest is that why are Godse’s statements taken for granted, when there are indications that specify something is amiss in our understanding of the whole event of Gandhi’s assassination. Why is Godse’s language proficiency in English unchallenged? Why do pro-RSS personalities create false stories about Godse’s disassociation with them, and why do such stories travel around as facts? Jha’s book will raise a host of other pertinent questions regarding Godse and his life. This is a book that not only documents and narrates the events / personalities, but also allows the reader the space to conjecture what would have happened. In this way, this is a very commanding work.

G Narasimha Raghavan, Associate Professor – Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Been teaching for the last 14 years.

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