The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.

Yet, it is the time of the year when the “Father of the Nation” has to be brought out from cold storage and the rituals of veneration have to be carried out, if only to show the world that prophets are not without honor in their own country.  The anniversary of his assassination on January 30 is upon the country.  On this day, year after year, powerful politicians lead the country in observing two minutes of silence on what is officially designated as “Martyr’s Day”.  There are shows of piety, visits to Rajghat by dignitaries, and some utterly forgettable homilies on peace (shanti) come forth from the mouths of those described as leaders.  Then the government promptly goes back to the task of silencing dissenters and jailing human rights activists.

In recent years, the assault on Gandhi and, correspondingly, the revival of the reputation of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, have become the new commonsense of India, where perhaps two millennia ago the Mahabharata announced ‘ahimsa paramo dharma’ (nonviolence is the greatest dharma or duty).  Just two weeks ago, a large crowd of Hindu nationalists gathered in the city of Gwalior, which sits around 200 miles south of Delhi in central India, to celebrate the inauguration of Godse Gyan Shala, a memorial library created with the intent of offering the citizens of this city ‘knowledge’ of a man now being lauded as a great Indian patriot.  The glorification of Godse, who was sent to the gallows in 1949, was for some decades confined to fringe elements who largely met in secret in the Maharashtrian city of Pune where he was born to celebrate his martyrdom.  In 1964, Gopal Godse (the assassin’s brother) and Vishnu Karkare, both of whom had been sentenced to terms of life imprisonment for their role in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, were released from prison. A reception attended by some 200 people was held by Hindu nationalists to honor the two men where Nathuram Godse was described as a ‘desh bhakt’ (patriot).  When this matter was brought to the attention of the Indian Parliament, it created an uproar.

The resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the late 1980s, however, emboldened some to speak up on his behalf, and the number of Godse’s devotees has grown enormously since the present Hindu nationalist government came to power nearly seven years ago. In the last general election in May 2019, Pragya Thakur, a woman confined in prison on terrorism charges for several years who however poses as a Hindu holy woman, was forthright in stating that ‘Nathuram Godse desh bhakt thhe, hain, or rahenge’ (Godse ‘was, remains, and will continue to be a lover of the motherland’).  As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for a Parliamentary seat in Bhopal, Thakur went on to win her seat handily. 

The glorification of Gandhi’s assassin evidently is a passport to political success in India.  Some may argue that Godse’s following is exaggerated:  the memorial library in Gwalior was open for but two days before public outrage compelled its closure.  But the opposite could be argued just as easily.  Pragya Thakur has a following of over 200,000 on her Twitter account, a number which would grow ten-fold overnight but for the fact that the BJP leadership must perforce, given the official view of Gandhi as the “Father of the Nation”, disavow her views on Godse as a great patriot. The indisputable fact is that the assassin’s acolytes have a large and rapidly growing social media presence.

One cannot, however, gauge how far the pendulum has swung in the direction of Gandhi’s assassin only by simple metrics or the loud noise made by his admirers.  By far the most critical consideration is that the very language of nonviolence of which Gandhi was the supreme exponent at least in modern history, has disappeared from the lexicon of everyday Indians.  Nonviolence is no longer, to use a colloquialism, part of the conversation.  The state almost everywhere is a purveyor of violence; but in India the state had come to the realization that it can outsource violence to large segments of civil society.  Thus, as many have observed, the trolls in India are especially abusive, obscene, and alarmingly violent, just as thugs who have appointed themselves vigilantes dole out violence on the streets nearly at will.  In the land of ahimsa, violence is in the air.

In his own lifetime, Gandhi had achieved such stature that his close associate and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could simply say to foreigners:  ‘India is Gandhi.’ The supposition was that, in having wrought India’s independence largely through nonviolent resistance, Gandhi had given something that Indians could proudly claim as their achievement and that the world would be well advised to emulate.  Gandhi had to struggle valiantly to liberate the notion of nonviolence from the triple yoke of weakness, womanliness, and other worldliness to which it had been tethered.  Perhaps it should not surprise that Hindu nationalism, which offers the manna of resurgent militant masculinity to its followers, has become wholly susceptible to the idea that nonviolence is merely the weapon of the weak.

Still, as recent events have shown, the assassins of Gandhi’s memory still have some work to do in a country where the spectre of the Mahatma remains.  In December 2019, predominantly Muslim women, many of them quite elderly and some without any education, forged an extraordinary movement of nonviolent resistance to signal their opposition to multiple state measures, including the passage of legislation known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, which they construe as calculated to disenfranchise and disempower them.  The Delhi neighborhood where this resistance commenced, Shaheen Bagh, would give rise to dozens of Shaheen Baghs throughout the country.  The government found in the coronavirus pandemic three months later a pretext to shut down a movement that they were barely able to control.  Now the farmers’ movement has opened yet another and utterly absorbing chapter in India’s tryst with ahimsa.  One way to circumvent the assassins of Gandhi’s memory is, in keeping with his own thinking, to reinvent and reimagine the idea of nonviolence for our own times. There can be no greater task than this at this juncture of history.

First published by ABP at abplive.in under the same title on 30 January 2021.

Also published in these Indian languages:

in Hindi as कैसे लड़ें गांधी की स्मृतियों के हत्यारों से?

in Bengali as ব্লগ: মহাত্মা গাঁধীর ঘাতকদের স্মৃতিতে

in Marathi as गांधींच्या स्मृतींची हत्या

in Punjabi as ਕੌਣ ਹੈ ਗਾਂਧੀ ਦੀਆਂ ਯਾਦਾਂ ਦਾ ਕਾਤਲ, ਕਿਵੇਂ ਕੀਤਾ ਜਾਵੇ ਨਾਕਾਮ?

Translated into Ukranian by Anna Matesh as Убивці пам’яті Ганді

Translated into Polish by Marek Murawski and available here.

Translated into Uzbek by Sherali Niyazova and available here.

13 thoughts on “The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

  1. The recuperation of Godse on social media is truly remarkable. Perhaps this is because social media is often a self selecting pool of the most vile voices, but it seems to have been utterly normalized with even Bollywood stars like Kangana Ranaut arguing that Godse ought not be condemned outright. In the meantime, Left critics of Gandhi are becoming increasingly abrasive and their “critiques” resemble character assassination more than discourse, providing useful fodder for the Hindu Right wing. Truly indicative of the corruption and degradation of social discourse.

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  2. Pingback: The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory – IQRA – Learn to be a Light

  3. Soon enough the history books and university courses will also praise Godse. Already this year the University Grants Commission has decided to thoroughly saffronise the undergraduate history honours syllabus. We are back to Mill’s periodization, “Hindu era, “Muslim rule”, history focused mainly on royal dynasties, etc. Dalit politics and the Russian Revolution have been removed from the core papers and the reading list has been heavily redacted as well. It is still not politically viable for those in power to insert praise of the man who killed Gandhi into university syllabi but soon enough it will be. We are facing dire straits.

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    • Yes, I’m afraid that given how things are going, it will not be long before Nathuam Godse becomes for many Indians the true hero of the freedom struggle and the liberator of India. It would be as astonishing not to say repulsive outcome but it is not inconceivable.

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  4. Your words have inspired the re-viewing of Richard Attenborough’s outstanding film, starring Sir Ben Kingsley. Gandhi was required viewing in my house, growing up. It is part of the reason I was inspired to take Professor Lal’s course on the History of British India. Even without exhaustive research into Hindu nationalism and the motivations of Nathuram Godse, it is reprehensible that a memorial library would be built for an assassin, and it is a relief that it was quickly shut down. Judging by today’s highly volatile political climate, I would say that the language of nonviolence “of which Gandhi was the supreme exponent” has disappeared not only from the lexicon of everyday Indians, but of everyday Westerners as well.

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    • The Gandhi film is not without its issues but it is engaging and intellectually not as vacuous as some of the more allegedly sophisticated critics suppose. But of course there are critics who are animated by a different animus of the kind being replicated by the trolls who haunt the internet these days.

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  5. On the charge of Gandhi being an “anti-modernizer”, I was reminded of an argument I heard once somewhere (I do not now recall where) that ties in well with Gandhi’s critique of the velocity of modernity, as exemplifies by his critique of railways in Hind Swaraj and the like. This person had argued that this can be seen partially as the problem of the disappearance of the urban vista. While previously in literature or art, the scene of the majestic vista of a city, whether someone was entering Rome or going on pilgrimage to Mecca or Kashi, played an important role, this has substantially declined as railways, or more often in this country cars or airplanes, zoom you past a city at incredibly fast speeds so that you only appreciate the urban vista for a matter of minutes before it is gone. A fundamental change to how we perceive the world.

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    • Yes, it is indeed the case that “Hind Swaraj” is also propelled by Gandhi’s critique of ‘speed’ and his embrace of the slow life. This is a subject unto itself and alas not noted often enough in analyses of “Hind Swaraj”.

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  6. Hi Professor, thanks for your sharing on Gandhi. In the non-violent resistance of modern society, Gandhi’s thought still has a strong influence. His ideas not only had a great influence on the Indian people’s resistance to the British aggressors in the past, but also had a profound impact on the Asian and African people striving for national independence, the black American movement against racial discrimination and the modern international political struggle. Gandhi expounded the concept of God in many places: “God is an omniscient and omnipotent spirit that exists within us.” “My God does not dwell in heaven. He can be realized in the world. He’s here, in your heart, in my heart.” “God is omnipresent, so he lives in everyone’s interior, so everyone is the incarnation of God.”Gandhi’s theory of non-violence is a nationalist struggle theory based on Hindu theology and ethics and combined with practical needs. Its strong religious color and fighting method of “upholding truth” have strong appeal and attraction to the broad masses of the people, so it has played a huge role in promoting the people to engage in national struggle.
    Tingyu Liu

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    • Hello Tingyu,
      I agree both with your observation that national liberation movements in Asia and Africa were inspired by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, and similarly that Gandhi’s God is not just transcendent but immanent.

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  7. Hi Professor, I like your comments that Gandhi had achieved such stature that his close associate and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could simply say to foreigners: ‘India is Gandhi. Moreover, his insistence on Satyagraha can be applied not only to non-violent warfare, but also to various occasions in modern society. He said: “Non-violence does not mean giving in and compromising to the will of bad people. Non-violence means opposing the will of the despot with all the heart of man. As long as the struggle is guided by this human law, even one person can resist all the powers of the unjust empire.” This means that he insists that non-violence represents strength and that violence is essentially weakness. The real strength is not violence, but non-violence. In modern society, because of the pressure of life, people often start to fight with each other from quarrels to fights because of some minor frictions, resulting in social chaos. And the infiltration of this kind of thought can just reduce some unnecessary fights and create a harmonious society. People don’t have only one idea that violence can represent their own strength and that others will respect him.
    Best,
    Tingyu Liu

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