*Gandhi and His Assassins–Then and Now

On the evening of 30 January 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, known the world over as the “Mahatma” and in India as “Bapu”, was assassinated as he walked towards the prayer ground at Birla House.  Nathuram Godse, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Pune, fired three bullets from a revolver and Gandhi died instantly.  Godse was wrestled to the ground by a couple of onlookers; but he had no intention of escaping, and was indeed keen that he should be apprehended alive and have his say in court.  This was one of the many things that Godse learned from Gandhi, for whom he had a curious admixture of reverence and hatred:  the courtroom can be commanded to great advantage by the accused, and the audience might even be swayed into believing that the accused had just cause.

JohnKeaneExperimentsWithTruth

John Keane, “Experiments with Truth” (1996), oil and collage on canvas.  Source:  http://www.johnkeaneart.com/index.php/welcome/cat/31/2/2

Nathuram Godse was no doubt assisted in his plans by a motley group of men who had various reasons for harboring a real grudge against Gandhi.  The Government of India insisted that there had been a conspiracy to murder the “Father of the Nation” and Vinayak Savarkar was thought to have been the brains behind the conspiracy.  But Godse remained unequivocally clear to the end of his life that he alone bore responsibility for Gandhi’s death.  Godse did nothing to exculpate himself and sought to shift the blame from others who also stood accused of having conspired to murder Gandhi.  Some of the supposed conspirators were released for lack of evidence, among them Savarkar; a few others, including Nathuram’s younger brother Gopal, were handed stiff prison terms; and Nathuram and Narayan Apte were sent to the gallows.

The indubitable fact, of course, is that Nathuram Godse alone pulled the trigger.  He was the sole assassin.  If that is the case, the alert reader might wonder why the title of the piece adverts to Gandhi’s “assassins”.  In speaking of his assassins, I do not intend to revisit the debate, which persisted for a very long time, about the supposed conspiracy that felled Gandhi.   There can be little doubt that Savarkar, who had a long and unsavory history of instrumentalizing other men in the pursuit of his own political objectives, was something of an ideological bulwark for Nathuram and others of his ilk.  Justice Jivanlal Kapur, who headed a one-man commission in 1966 to inquire into Gandhi’s assassination following some disclosures that various government officials may have been negligent in safeguarding Gandhi’s life, conducted an extensive probe and issued a lengthy report in 1969 where he stated that the facts that had come to his attention “taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

I would like to suggest both that Nathuram Godse was fundamentally right in accepting sole culpability for Gandhi’s death and that Justice Kapur underestimated the degree to which Gandhi’s death was, in the words of his biographer Robert Payne, a “permissive assassination”.  The word ‘conspiracy’ is not particularly conducive to a discussion which would allow us to understand the circumstances which, as it were, conspired to lead to Gandhi’s death and which apparently make it necessary to murder Gandhi all over again.  The Government of India was drawing upon the colonial apparatus of law and a juridical conception of “conspiracy” when it drew up charges against Savarkar, the Godse brothers, and others, and the limitations of this exercise are all too apparent when we consider that India, as a nation, is far from being done with Gandhi.  We must thus begin with this inexorable fact:  men such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly. A cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), appears to have understood this well:  a seated Gandhi looks up to the slain civil rights leader and remarks, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

King&GandhiAssassinationsChicagoSun-Times

Let us begin, however, with the idea of a “permissive assassination”.  India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union.  Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, and his critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power.  Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Nathuram pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died a moment not too soon.  When the Government cast the murder as a “conspiracy” in the narrow legal sense, they did not of course mean to implicate the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who, viewing Gandhi as expendable, had secretly conspired to let him die.

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A 32-inch bust of Nathuram Godse installed in the Daulatgang office of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, central India.  Source:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/hindu-mahasabha-sets-up-nathuram-godse-mahatma-gandhis-assassin-temple-kicks-up-row-4939797/

If the Bengal Renaissance is, as someone I knew once quipped, the longest continuing renaissance in the world, Gandhi’s assassination seems to have unfolded over seven decades and remains one long unremitting exercise in exorcising him.  In a piece I published a decade ago, I pointed out that every constituency in India—Marxists, Hindu nationalists, rationalists, feminists, Dalits, modernizers, militarists, and the myriad worshippers at the altar of science, development, progress, and the nation-state—“loves to hate” Gandhi.  Notwithstanding all the utterly predictable homilies that issue forth from the mouths of politicians, it is amply clear that very few in the Indian government or the wider middle class have any use for him.  To be sure, his name still constitutes a form of cultural capital, and propriety and national respect alike dictate that his name should be held up with reverence in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  Most of Gandhi’s fellow Gujaratis, in and out of India, have largely effaced him from their worldview.  The guardians of his own Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from where Gandhi set out on the Salt March, shut close the doors of the ashram in the face of the Muslim refugees seeking protection from the hoodlums baying for their blood in the killings of 2002.

Much more may be written about the rehabilitation of both Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse over the last decade or two, particularly in the last few years since the BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics.  A portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP was in power, and it is scarcely surprising that Narendra Modi should have paid his homage to Savarkar on many occasions, not only after assuming the office of the Prime Minister.

ModiSalutingSavarkar

Tribute being paid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Indian Parliament.  Source:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140529/jsp/nation/story_18393712.jsp

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Narendra Modi paying homage to Savarkar on 26 February 2013.  Source:  https://www.narendramodi.in/cm-pays-tributes-to-veer-savarkar-on-his-punya-tithi-5126

In 2015, the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which both Savarkar and Nathuram swore their allegiance, announced plans to install busts and statues of Nathuram in Hindu temples across north and western India. Though their plans to build temples in honor of Godse have thus far not materialized, in the central Indian city of Gwalior the Mahasabha has installed a bust of Godse at their office and described it as the foundation stone of a temple which has been named ‘Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir’ [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Whatever opprobrium may still be attached in some measure to celebrating Nathuram Godse as a martyr, it is unquestionably the case that the circumstances which made possible a “permissive assassination” have now produced widespread agreement with the views embraced by Nathuram.

HutatmaNathuramGodseMandir

Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan, Gwalior:  Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/gwalior-now-has-a-temple-of-mahatma-gandhi-s-killer-nathuram-godse-why-on-earth-was-it-needed-333801.html

Yet, however much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi also continues to surface in the most unexpected ways.  He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of many of India’s most significant ecological movements, from Chipko to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.  Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the ‘real’ Gandhi hidden from history.  The hagiographic representation of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name in late 1982 produced in reaction one such wave of supposed exposés of the Gandhi that, in the phrase of one of his most staunch detractors, Richard Grenier, “no one knows”.  We were then led into believing that Gandhi was a fiend who was patriarchal, a sexual puritan, and a crazy luddite; many others have over the decades added to that picture, describing Gandhi as a racist and particularly contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of reason, a foe of his fellow Hindus (to some) and a Hindu wolf in sheep’s clothing (to others), even a ‘friend of Hitler’.  (Gandhi authored two short very short letters to Hitler, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient, urging him to renounce violence.)

Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear:  we heard some years ago of the Gandhian moment in Iran’s Green Revolution and recently dissidents in Turkey have described themselves as inspired largely by him.  There is the Gandhi that appears on the Separation Wall and I daresay that there is the ‘little Gandhi’ that has been thrown up by every revolution over the last few decades.  The Gandhi of the shining bald head, the pair of round spectacles, the timepiece, the walking stick, the sandals, the pet goat, and the Mickey Mouse ears has become an ineradicable part of the national imaginary in India.  Gandhi is everywhere, in every act of nonviolence and, more significantly, every act of violence—a spectral presence to remind us of the supreme importance of the ethical life.

23 thoughts on “*Gandhi and His Assassins–Then and Now

  1. Wonderful post. Being in several respects an avowed Marxist, I’ve always been troubled by the smug and careless critiques and caricatures of Gandhi by more than a few on the Left. The expressions of hostility and hate suggest the need for a (post-)Freudian explanation (to complement or supplement the overt ideological ones)! By the way, your readers may be interested in my bibliography on Gandhi: https://www.academia.edu/7479469/The_Life_Work_and_Legacy_of_Mohandas_K._Gandhi_A_Basic_Bibliography

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  2. An excellent,scholarly, thought provoking post as only a historian could write. Evidently a lot of painstaking and thorough research has gone into producing it. I beseech Professor Vinay Lal to enlighten us further on this topic. He may well end up in clearing up some lingering doubts on certain issues connected with Gandhi whom I met as an antagonist and stayed on to become an admirer (as so many others have done) albeit with some reservations on some of the issues touching on Gandhi.

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  3. Professor Vinay Lal,

    I first want to thank you for the well written and interesting piece that succinctly presents the continued value of Gandhi’s political legacy following his assassination.

    In your article, you mention Gandhi’s philosophy as juxtaposing perceived ideas about cultural, social, political development/ modernization (i.e. the adoption of the Western Nation-State system of organization) to the point of becoming, or at least as being perceived as, a road-block for proponents of said nation-state system. I am curious as to if Gandhi ever espoused an outright critique of the “nation-state” as we know it here in the West? Would you recommend I search more on the topic in his “Hind Swaraj” or elsewhere?

    As for the continued use of Gandhi’s used as cultural capital, do you find this type of use to be constructive for the Indian nation? Political system? Or do you believe it has been perverted and employed as a justification for ulterior motives?

    Thank you,
    Duncan Brouwer

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    • Hello Duncan,
      Gandhi didn’t use the word, “nation-state”, and its usage really dates for the most part to the post-World War II period. His critique of it is more incipient rather than coming across as a frontal assault, and you will find the first expression of this in HIND SWARAJ. On your other question regarding the cultural capital derived from Gandhi’s name, there is no doubt that the Indian state has tried to capitalize on Gandhi’s reputation worldwide. But the Indian state, as I have argued in a number of my writings, and I am not alone in doing so, has no interest in Gandhi otherwise; indeed, he is despised by many of the elites, who, like the assassin 70 years ago, find Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence and his his critique of industrial modernity distasteful, not practical at all, and designed to weaken India within the nation-state system.

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  4. Hi Professor,

    In Nandy’s article, he states that shortly before Gandhi was assassinated, he was careless about his physical security and he had multiple opportunities to place himself in danger. He was also losing the will to live and “…openly yearned for a violent death.” Could we say Gandhi was participating in this “permissive assassination”? Was he an accomplice in his own death along with, as you say, the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who allowed and secretly wanted him to die?

    Amanda Lee

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  5. Hi Professor,

    Although Mahatma Gandhi brought about independence to India, he might have been seen as an enemy to progress by various groups of people. This is because he was against the idea of development. However, I think he was not just against the idea of development, but development which would be divisive.
    Godse had disagreed with Gandhi’s ideas and even short him. I think Godse agreed to be apprehended since he thought that he had to support his own ideology. I would say that those who hated Gandhi did not really understand his motive for the nation and his unending love for them.

    Jangho Kook

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    • I would have to agree with you that Gandhi had, in your words, an “unending love” for his fellow countrymen and women, even if he was perhaps sometimes exasperated by them. He must have felt let down, I suspect.

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  6. Professor Vinay Lal
    Gandhi’s assassination was a proof that people wanted India to be a strong-nation state. This would be through modernization and industrialization in the country. Gandhi was viewed as a threat to development in the country since he had criticized industrial civilization. This is despite the fact that Mahatma Gandhi fought for the independence of India from British colonial rule.
    My opinion is that the killing of Gandhi would not help to bring about good development. This is because there would be divisions which would be a threat to the unity of the world. I think Gandhi was just against the idea of capitalism since he did not want much divisions.

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  7. I think this piece exposes some part of the relationship between history and memory. To those of us who live in the present, Gandhi is not so much an objective individual who can be reduced to facts, but an interpretation of memory. The Gandhi of non-violence, the Gandhi of revolution, the Gandhi who is the father of India, all different interpretations of the same historical man.

    Even while Gandhi may have been opposed to conventional ideas of the nation state, his title, Father of India can be seen and interpreted in a nationalistic reading. I think it can give one pause to consider how shifting views of historical persons, whether heroes or assassins, can change over time.

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  8. Hello professor,

    After reading the article “Gandhi and His Assassins,” I think that people might commit crimes against those who have differing ideologies with them. People tend to develop hatred against those who have different beliefs and ideas. Apparently, Godse wanted modernization in India and thought that Gandhi could be a hindrance to development. This is because he had earlier criticized industrial civilization. I would say that Gandhi only criticized industrial civilization due to some of the negative effects it came with such as divisions among states. It is true that Gandhi was not a fan of “crowd mentality”. I think Godse was strong in his opinions since he had the courage to testify before the courts the reason as to why he had killed Gandhi.

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  9. Dear Professor,

    I think a sentence that stuck out from this article was “Men Such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly”. This quote paired with the fact that Gandhi’s killers have been praised/worshiped in India and that new groups such as the Hindu Nationalists and Rationalists hate Gandhi, demonstrates consistent attempts to “repeatedly kill” Gandhi. With the portrait of Savarkar being praised by Prime Minister Modi, it eerily shows the support that continues on today for his “Permissive Assassination”. However with Gandhi still inspiring revolutions today, the efforts to completely kill him has obviously failed, but one might wonder that such repetitions might cause success in the future.

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  10. Thank you for this extremely insightful blog post, Professor.

    The cartoon of Gandhi and MLK is particularly striking, as Gandhi remarks that “The odd thing about assassins, Mr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you”. While Gandhi’s influence shaped global movements and created an everlasting historic impact, one can’t help to question this caricature of Gandhi. Gandhi was turned into cultural capital as opportunists capitalized on his image. Nehru’s daughter changed her last name to Gandhi in order to pay homage, yet it can be argued that the dilution of his name and the state capitalization of his image is what turned him from an insightful and shrewd political leader into a animated image. He was seen as nothing more than his stereotypical persona of adorning a dhoti and hand-spinning yarn, hence linking him to regressive ideas and a backward society. This made it easier for Gandhi to turn into a figure everyone “loved to hate”, as the Indian elite linked his ideas of non violence and critique of the modern industrial society with a weak nation state. In this case, while the assassins did not ever ‘kill’ Gandhi, perhaps they successful in the killing of a respected shrewd political leader?

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  11. I found this article very insightful, growing up on the west coast in San Diego in high school we were kinda taught this blank statement about Gandhi in history class. However, there has been a dynamic complicated political tug of war it seems over the life and legacy of Gandhi. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the decades to come, if his legacy will continue to not disappear. I found this interesting quick video of Ashis Nandy on you tube talking about Gandhi and his assassination.

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    • in your other article “The Homeless Gandhi” article where this video was linked, it discusses how everyone has their own Gandhi, that seems to be a common theme throughout history with disruptive figures. Also, the article discusses how its time for the homeless to claim him as their own, I’m curious what that would look like cause? Ive heard for homeless people at least in Southern California they often remark, how constantly feeling dispossesed of what little they do have and accumulate is often the hardest part about being homeless and getting out of that cycle.

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      • Hi Skyler, I don’t mean “homeless” in speaking of Gandhi in the literal sense. I meant “homeless” in various other ways, such as the fact that though Gandhi was an architect of Indian independence he was not an an ethnusiastic advocate of the nation-state. He was cast adrift from the Congress party, which he was instrumental in transforming into a mass organization. He was estranged from at least one son–one could go in this vein.

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  12. Very interesting article professor,
    What has I always found fascinating is the fact that in Indian politics Gandhi is venerated as the father of the nation yet his assassin Gorse is also venerated as savior of the nation and even the group that Gorse belong to the RSS has not only managed to survive for decades but has gained tremendous political power within India’s political system.

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  13. It seems that Hinduism, a religion which has a gift of proliferation of deities, and people who celebrate both Rama and Ravana, is also the only religion that would have room in its ranks of deities for not only Gandhi but also his assassin. However, it also seems that though Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist, the rest of the Hindu nationalists still pay their obeisance to the Mahatma.

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  14. Great read. Especially interesting is the thought that so many divided, if not even distorted interpretations and views unfold after an assassination. In this case, the main protagonists (Ghandi and Godse) are being revoked any means to weigh in on this matter through their deaths, which is why so many opinions emerge. Alongside the negative comments emerging about Ghandi, his death also fueled his glorification globally as protesters from around the world still look up to Ghandi’s method to this day – somehow counterproductive to Godse’s goal. This read displays different aspects that stretches throughout different points of time about his “permissive assassination” and stimulates the reader to see this topic from more than one vantage point.
    -Sundo Oh-

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  15. It’s so interesting seeing both the veneration and hatred that Gandhi and Godse garnished in their lifetime and as their legacy. While their spheres of support and hatred were different, I couldn’t help but think about Ashis Nandy’s writings on Gandhi’s assassination and how him and Godse shared some similarities in what they wanted for India. The fact that Godse respected Gandhi adds a whole different layer to this as well. Even if governmental leadership wishes to wipe Gandhi off the face of India, it’s ironic seeing not only that Gandhi has transcended the the bounds of India, but that the leadership must be forced to show him gratitude just to save public face.

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    • Yes, Gandhi and Godse also shared some traits, among them asceticism, a reverence for the Gita, and so on. An assassin of Gandhi today would have been a different beast, if I may put it this way.

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