Friday, February 06, 2009

the man who killed gandhi

The mysteries, complexities and surprising ideas behind of one of India's darkest moments.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 5, 2009

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.”

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.

gandhi the whipping boy

One of India's most revered figures is losing some of his posthumous influence.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
January 29, 2009

NEW DELHI — Jan. 30 is the 61st anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi. As that date approaches, the reputation of the Mahatma, or “great soul”, has seen better days.

Sure, when a British magazine publishes a cartoon of the emaciated and bespectacled figure getting pummeled by a muscle man India erupts in outrage. And when a Bollywood hero embraces nonviolent resistance in a slapstick masala movie the youth are suddenly fired with enthusiasm for candlelit marches. But in the sphere of politics, the man known as the father of the nation has in recent years become its whipping boy.

Though Gandhi worked to eliminate the practice of untouchability, the leaders of caste-based parties castigate him for his stalwart defense of Hinduism and for blocking India's oppressed castes demand for special voting rights. And despite Gandhi's efforts to prevent a rift between Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League in the leadup to India's independence in 1947, ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum today blame Gandhi for the bloody partitioning of India that killed as many as a million people and laid the foundations for 60 years of bitter strife between India and Pakistan.

“Because Indian politics today is about competing sectarian identities — on language, on region, on religion, on caste — you have people attacking Gandhi and blaming him for all kinds of errors, real and imagined,” says historian Ram Guha, author of India After Gandhi. “In the first ten years of independence, he may have been a holy cow. But now there's open season.”

Consider the condemnation offered by a former chief of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS). "While Gandhi succeeded in creating and leading a people's movement, he committed two mistakes: supporting the Khilafat movement and making Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the prime minister. The end result was that two enemies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were created forever."

Apologists from the Hindu right have long sought to justify the assassination of Gandhi — who was killed by a Hindu nationalist and former RSS member named Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948 — by arguing that the Mahatma had betrayed his country by supporting the proposal for an independent Pakistan and encouraging a policy of Muslim “appeasement.” Every year on the anniversary of Godse's execution his relatives still gather to celebrate his grim achievement. But this year the stakes grew much higher, as an organization run by the assassin's niece — allegedly the country's first Hindu nationalist terrorist cell — was linked to a series of bombings of Muslim sites.

The partition of India itself remains at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan. More than the territorial dispute over Kashmir, partition instilled deep fear and distrust — even hatred. Some 18 million people were forced to migrate to areas where they would be in the religious majority. As many as a million, from both sides, were butchered en route. And the arbitrary dividing line, which granted India 90 percent of the subcontinent's industrial capacity and its three most important cities, encouraged an inferiority complex in Pakistan that has had disastrous consequences.

However, Gandhi's actual role in the division of India is ambiguous. On the one hand, despite his propagation of an early form of multiculturalism, Gandhi's religious idealism bordered on the obsessive, and probably encouraged doubts among the Muslim League about their role in an independent but united India. But on the other, according to Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, “the real actors were Jinnah, [Viceroy Louis] Mountbatten, [Congress leader Vallabhbhai] Patel and Nehru.” And no one was more upset than Gandhi by the religious divide that eventually tore India in two. Says Ganguly: “Remember that he wrote, 'On this day of independence and partition, my heart is divided; let others rejoice, leave me alone to shed my tears.'”

“Of all the major leaders of the time, he's certainly the least culpable,” says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. And the question of how to share power among Hindus and Muslims was an impossible quandary. “One historian once said Partition was a non-solution to an insoluble problem,” says Bhanu Mehta. But that hasn't shielded Gandhi from blame, partly because the partition had such tragic and long-lasting consequences, and partly because Gandhi is the only one of his contemporaries who still holds enough relevance to justify an attack.

The simmering conflict in Kashmir, the disturbing emergence of a Hindu nationalist terrorist cell, and the devastating attacks in Mumbai on November 26 drive home the need for Gandhi's idealism. “Worldwide you see a rise of competitive religious fundamentalisms,” says Guha. “What Gandhi does is he provides a way out of this.”