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.

The Lynching of JNU

Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is known in Delhi and beyond, has once again been in the news for the last three weeks.  Its students have been protesting not only against large hikes in hostel fees, but against other features of the draft hostel manual which imposes a dress code and sets a curfew for students.  The university and nearby residential colonies have been swarming with police, but the students have been successful in taking their demonstrations to many parts of central Delhi and the area around Parliament.  There are reliable reports, and video footage, of students, including some who are disabled, who have been beaten by the police.  Students have been lathi charged, and many have been detained.  The Delhi Police has, predictably, denied all charges of police brutality, and rests its case upon the fact that the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws public assemblies of more than five people, means that the protestors are in violation of the law.

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*Lovers of the Motherland:  Pragya Thakur and the Glorification of Gandhi’s Assassin

I write this small piece as an addendum to my essay, from less than a week ago, on Pragya Thakur, a mean-spirited, callous, and I should say wretched woman disguised as a holy person.  I don’t know that Mohandas Gandhi ever described anyone, not even his most ardent opponents, as “callous” and certainly not as “wretched”, but the ideals by which Mohandas Gandhi lived are exacting and not easily observed by ordinary mortals.  However, the standards set by Gandhi at the very least stop me from using more stringent language to describe a woman who is as bigoted and insensitive as she is a vainglorious lout who carries within her the malodorous air that everywhere accompanies the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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Nathuram Godse (left, front row), Narayan Apte (right, front row), Vinayak Savarkar (right, back row), and others at their trial on charges of murder and conspiracy for the assassination of Gandhi. Dour-looking as always, Savarkar tried to keep the attention away from himself.

In her most recent foray into the public sphere a couple of days ago, Pragya Thakur, who was put up as the BJP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha seat in Bhopal, described the assassin of Gandhi as a patriot, and more.  “Nathuram Godse”, she said, “desh bhakt the, hain, or rahenge”: this murderer “was, remains, and will continue to be a lover of the motherland”.  Over the last several years, I have been writing about how Nathuram Godse is truly venerated by the BJP and other Hindu nationalists, and their efforts to distance themselves from the assassin should be treated not merely with suspicion but with the assurance that such efforts are wholly fraudulent.  The same BJP, it must be recalled, some years ago installed a portrait of Vinayak Savarkar in Parliament, and Narendra Modi has been caught on tape performing obeisance before this image.  It must not be forgotten that Savarkar—and it is doubtful that anyone has been less deserving of the appellation “Veer” [Brave] that was erroneously conferred on him—was among those tried as part of a conspiracy to murder Gandhi.  Though evidence against him was found wanting, no serious student of the history of those times has ever had reason to doubt Savarkar’s contempt and hatred for Gandhi and, equally, his nefarious role in instigating the murderers of Gandhi.  If at all Savarkar had the gift for anything, it was for charming or seducing others to do the most dastardly deeds for which he never had the daring:  the smoking gun, he made sure, was never to be found in his hands.

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PM Modi paying his obeisance to Savarkar. “The Economist”, which I cite since the educated middle class in India adores this magazine, carried this photograph in an article entitled “Savarkar, Modi’s Mentor: The Man Who Thought Gandhi a Sissy” (17 December 2014). Photo: Getty Images. Source: https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2014/12/17/the-man-who-thought-gandhi-a-sissy

As can be expected, Pragya Thakur has now issued an apology.  The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are, not surprisingly, bereft of imagination:  not only do they lie, but their lies are pathetic.  This supposed apology by Thakur was accompanied by the usual claim that her earlier words had been “twisted” by the media and taken out of context.  She now says of Gandhi that “his work for the country cannot be forgotten.”  Nathuram Godse, unlike Pragya Thakur, cannot be viewed as unintelligent; but how someone like her, who reeks of mediocrity in every respect, could have risen so far in the estimation of the BJP is a sign of the absolute rot which has befallen the party.  The Election Commission, which has seen much better days, had banned her earlier this month from campaigning for 72 hours after her offensive remarks on Hemant Karkare.  It is possible that they will now pass some strictures against her, though if the Commission wants to remain some semblance of integrity, they have no recourse but to cancel Pragya Thakur’s candidature.

SavarkarAtGandhiTrial

The Gandhi Murder Trial at the Red Fort, 22 June 1948. Sarvarkar is in the back row: he does not look cheerful, unlike many of his other compatriots.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi has played the part for which the script was written beforehand.  “I will never be able to forgive Sadhvi Pragya”, Modi has told the TV Channel News24, “for insulting Bapu.”  But notice the sleight of hand:  he refers, in his interview remarks in Hindi, to Pragya’s attempt at atonement:  “She sought to apologize, but let’s leave that aside; in my mind, I can never forgive her.”  The supposition is that the nation might forgive her, and that is for the nation to decide; but he, Modi, with his unimpeachably high moral standards, cannot forgive her.  So Pragya Thakur has fallen in his eyes—as if someone, whose actions throughout her life point to her utter disdain for the lives of others, had left any room to fall at all.  Modi would like everyone to forget that he and Amit Shah, the party’s managerial guru, hand-picked Pragya Thakur for the Bhopal seat.  But Pragya Thakur has revealed, howsoever inadvertently, that notwithstanding the BJP’s attempt to distance itself from her remarks by characterizing them as personal opinions, the party itself stands condemned for its unstinting admiration for Nathuram Godse.  As Pragya Thakur said when asked to explain her remarks, “The party line is my line” (“party ki line meri line hain”).  The terrorist has spoken and her words should not be censored.