NEW DELHI — On Jan. 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, a young, clean-cut Indian newspaper editor, left the waiting room at the Delhi railway station to attend the daily prayer meeting held by Mohandas K. Gandhi. As the meeting began, the young man bowed reverently before the emaciated leader known universally as the Mahatma, or great soul, and known in India as the father of the nation. Then Godse rose, produced a Beretta semi-automatic pistol, and shot Gandhi three times in the chest.
Today, as then, the ruthless assassination of a leader so firmly committed to nonviolence is so abhorrent, so repulsive, that it is tempting to dismiss its perpetrator as a deranged lunatic. But the truth, as Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, is far more complicated. And over the past six months, a series of unsettling revelations have suggested that while Gandhi's ideology of nonviolence and tolerance may be fading, the ideology of violent Hindu nationalism that motivated Godse — though it goes by many names — remains as powerful as ever.
“You can disagree with Godse very deeply and find what he did reprehensible,” says Bhanu Mehta. “But I think as even some of the Gandhians have argued — like Ashis Nandy — there was a kind of internal integrity to what he was doing. If you read his speech at his trial, it's hard not to be in some senses fascinated by the internal integrity of the argument.”
(Click here for a closer look at Gandhi's legacy in India)
Godse remains a better foil for the Mahatma than his perennial adversaries like the low-caste leader B.R. Ambedkar or Pakistan-founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Far from being an insane fanatic, Godse perceived that Gandhi's fast unto death — the ultimate expression of passive resistance — was not nonviolence, but violence turned inward against the self. Ambedkar and Jinnah had recognized this, too.
But Godse stands apart because he was able to respond in kind. “Many people thought that [Gandhi's] politics were irrational,” Godse said before his execution. “But they had either to withdraw from the Congress or place their intelligence at his feet to do with as he liked.”
No politician could afford to let Gandhi kill himself, but Godse understood that by murdering him he would martyr himself as well — achieving his own ends as ruthlessly and inexorably as the Mahatma. “I thought to myself and foresaw I shall be totally ruined, and the only thing I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred ... if I were to kill Gandhiji,” he observed. “But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be proved practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces.” It is not a flattering mirror.
Godse's assassination of Gandhi, which was traced back to Hindu nationalist groups including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — though the ties of evidence were not strong enough for criminal charges — sequestered these groups on the fringe of Indian politics for almost 30 years.
Eventually, though, the nationalist ideology that motivated Gandhi's killer managed to work its way back into the mainstream. In 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party even ventured to put a portrait of Veer Savarkar — who had been accused with Godse but never convicted of conspiracy — on display directly opposite Gandhi's in the hall of parliament, implying that the two are equal in status.
“In [Gandhi's] lifetime, the Hindus had moved away from Savarkar toward Gandhi,” explains historian Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi." “But posthumously many Hindus, such as those in the BJP and RSS, see merit in Savarkar's more aggressive Hindutva.”
Then perhaps India should not have been surprised when — shortly before the terrorist attacks on Mumbai — a bizarre Hindu terrorist cell emerged that was fascinated by Godse's repugnant logic. Following leads developed over two years, the elite police unit swept down on a previously unknown group of Hindu nationalist fanatics for allegedly planning and executing a series of terrorist strikes in Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country — which had previously been attributed to internecine rivalries among the faithful. Among the accused were a retired army colonel, a Hindu nun and several self-styled gurus who'd hardly ventured outside the bastions of the lunatic nationalist fringe.
But the head of the organization that united them — a woman named Hemani Savarkar who was not charged in the police case — had a very well-known name indeed. She was the daughter of Godse's brother and was married to the nephew of Veer Savarkar — the Hindu nationalist who developed the fascism-inspired ideology of Hindutva, or Hinduness.
Even though Indian journalists have long been aware that Godse's descendants gather each year in Pune on the anniversary of the assassin's execution to commemorate his “achievement,” it was always believed that they were too absurd to matter. Now the evidence suggests — though the court case is still pending — that they were very serious indeed. According to the ATS (Maharastra Anti-Terrorism Squad), they planted at least one bomb in Malegaon that killed six and injured 70 people in 2006. They may also have been involved in other terrorist attacks, the ATS says, such as the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta Express “friendship train” linking India and Pakistan, which killed 68 people.
“They're all offshoots of the thing that Gandhi predicted, that deification of the nation state would have the consequence of communalism,” says Bhanu Mehta.
Like any group of cloistered fanatics, the isolation of Godse's descendants has given them the freakishness of the hopelessly inbred. Consider the wisdom that Hemani Savarkar offered India's Outlook magazine: “Why can’t we have a blast for a blast? (The alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists) are patriots who love their country. But the government is now trying to declare them guilty to weaken the Hindus,” she said. “We must declare ourselves a Hindu (nation) where everyone is a Hindu. Anyone who isn’t should be declared a second-class citizen and denied voting rights. Those who have problems with this should leave and settle in other countries.”
Those are exactly the sentiments that Gandhi was killed for opposing. But from the moment that his murderer was executed — despite Gandhi's deep abhorrence for the death penalty — it was clear that his dream of nonviolence and religious tolerance would not come true.
Other recent stories by Jason Overdorf:
Beware the "killer Blueline"
Welcome to the ghost fair