Preserving the truth behind Gandhi's murder
By HARI NARAYAN
June 25, 1934 has got a curious connection to the three shots fired at around 5:10 pm on the fateful Friday of January 30, 1948, shots that would go on to silence the life of a 79-year-old frail but resolute Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. For it was on that day, while on a visit to Pune, that Gandhiji witnessed the first of six attempts on his life, the sixth of which was to result in his death. That two of the four subsequent unsuccessful attempts were to involve his eventual assassin, Nathuram Godse, did not force law enforcement authorities to keep an eye on the misguided Hindu fanatic. The act of murder of an individual to whom poet Rabindranath Tagore gave the moniker ‘Mahatma’, one who Subhash Chandra Bose referred to as ‘Father of the Nation’, has rightly been called by Teesta Setalvad in this dossier as the first act of terror committed in independent India. For what was it if not the result of an organised conspiracy on the part of a section of people to spread terror among Indian public at large?
Setalvad, the curator of this collection of articles, documents and excerpts from books on the assassination, says the book’s aim is to collect and preserve the archival truths associated with the Mahatma’s murder, documents that she feels are under threat of cleansing under the present dispensation.
The murder, she says, was “a declaration of war and a statement of intent.” Declaration of war by a section of society which remained largely on the fringes during the independence struggle. This was a section that bore visceral dislike toward the idea of composite culture and inclusive nationhood advocated by the Mahatma. However, subsequent events, the most seminal of which was the adoption of an intellectual masterpiece in the form of the Indian Constitution on January 26, 1950, make it clear that the assassination failed on both counts.
The Fundamental Rights and Economic Principles, which first found mention in the Karachi Resolution of 1931 and to which this book refers to as the antithesis of all that the Hindu Right stood for, were incorporated and, later, institutionalised by the three pillars of our democracy. It was Magna Carta more than Manusmriti that guided the way we govern our political life. However, as indicated in different sections of this book, the majoritarian ideology that led to Gandhiji’s killing and communal violence in independent India continued to flourish under the patronage of fringe organisations.
A considerable portion of the book reproduces archival files, and documents. However, the parts in which it is at its most impressive are the places where the lucidity of literature trumps the monotony of journalism. For instance, the essay ‘The Last Hours of the Mahatma’ by Stephen Murphy, where it is indicated that the Mahatma had a foreboding on that Friday morning that he won’t live for long. Or the compassionate editorials published by Pakistani newspapers which paid poignant tributes to the Mahatma, which prove that his ideas did have their admirers in India’s conjoined twin toward the west in its initial days. One of them that appeared in Pakistan Times compared his killing to the crucifixion of Christ. Another one, by poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, calling Gandhiji “a symbol of hope and courage” to Muslims, said his death was a loss to both countries.
The most important piece here is the English translation of Jagan Phadnis’s book Mahatmyachi Akher (End of the Sage) on which the strength of Setalvad’s collection rests. Phadnis stresses that the murder was a failed attempt to silence the soul of someone who, in life and death, championed right to equality and dignity of the masses, someone whose thinking shaped the very idea of an independent India. Pankaj Mishra, in his biography of Buddha, compared the philosophy of Gautama to that propagated by Gandhi — the belief that a change in attitude can be brought about by appealing to one’s conscience. Gandhiji believed that in practising non-violence, one’s sympathies should be expressed toward the oppressor as well as the victim, to the point where the oppressor undergoes a change of heart.
His death, however, failed to bring about a change of heart in his assassins. Be it Nathuram or his brother and co-conspirator Gopal Godse, whose interview in 1994 to Arvind Rajagopal is reproduced in this book, they remained unrepentant till the end. However, had he survived on that Friday, Gandhiji — having forgiven Godse for one of the previous attempts on his life — would have chosen not to consider him an adversary.
This book holds the Hindu Right guilty of propagating the majoritarian idea of Hindu Rashtra. However, the mainstreaming of the kind of inclusive politics that the Mahatma visualised made sure that such impulses, which in due course became de rigeur in Pakistan, were kept in check.
The kind of admiration the Mahatma invokes in different sections of not just our society but also that of other nations, in contrast to the revulsion his antitheses provoke, proves that moderation triumphs over vituperation in the long run.