The man who killed Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi is one of the best-known political figures of the last century. The man who killed him and shaped the course of Indian history is mostly unknown to us.
Perhaps that’s why 1,160 people gathered at the National Theater in London last week on the opening night of The Father and the Assassin to learn more about Nathuram Godse, his politics and the motive for his murderous action.
Judging by the standing ovation the actors received for their two-hour performance, the audience went home very happy with the, at times, amusing history lesson.
Gandhi was a touchstone for all colonized people because he dared to believe that the Indian people could rid themselves of the scourge of the British Empire. He showed how people could tap into their unrecognized power to create unfathomable change. He was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. He donned his famous capra to appeal to the masses whose sheer numbers were a force the British could not bear, even with their exploitative economy and politics, the use of extreme violence in reprisal and the repeated imprisonment of Gandhi.
The raj was the crown jewel of the Empire and was not to be handed over to the unwashed great, but the sun was beginning to set on the Empire and Gandhi did his part to hasten its demise with his teachings and protests massive.
The historical drama presented in a very modern way does not portray Gandhi’s life, since its main focus is his killer, nor does it present Gandhi as a perfect hero.
It should be noted that Gandhi was a lawyer who received his legal training in the UK. He was born in India in 1869, and after leaving the Inner Temple he lived for nearly two decades in South Africa, where he became interested in Indian rights and began to formulate his policy of protesting no violent.
Returning to India, he began to work for Hindu-Muslim autonomy, and in 1924 he became President of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi and his fellow lawyer-politicians in the Congress party, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, argued for an independent India, with Hindus and Muslims living in a unified state.
Jinnah, who left the Congress party and, together with the Muslim League, began in the 1940s to call for a separate state for Muslims. Jinnah eventually became Pakistan’s first Governor-General.
The 1920s-40s were a time of great turmoil in India and although Gandhi’s non-violence movement inspired many, Muslim politicians were not his only opponents. In 1948, at the age of 78, Gandhi died violently, shot dead in the street at close range by a young Hindu nationalist.
Many iconic figures murdered in public appear to be the victims of deranged men acting alone. Gandhi’s Assassin fits this mold somewhat, although the play’s creator is anyone’s guess.
Outside the dramatic license, it is clear that Godse, born in 1910, had a strange childhood. His orthodox Brahmin parents superstitiously raised him as a girl until the age of 12 in order to protect him from an untimely death, which had befallen his older brothers. A modern identity crisis?
Possibly, but young Godse was also reputed to have a special connection with Goddess Gurka, as an oracle, and this won the family food and offerings, which were lost once he abandoned her feminine disguise, at least in the room. His powers left him and his specialness went with them. He had to make a living (as a tailor) and be an ordinary person.
At first, he followed Gandhi’s movement. but at the age of 19 he was radicalized by London-trained lawyer Vinayak Savarkar, who advocated violence to make India a Hindu-only home, in stark contrast to the non-violent and inclusive secularism of Gandhi. Godse joined two nationalist parties, agitating and distributing nationalist propaganda, and began to regard Gandhi as the person responsible not only for his own modest status, but also for the religious conflicts and other pressing issues of the time.
His opposing view of India’s future deepened and he later formed the Hindu Rashtra Dal, a shadowy militant group that reinforced his extreme nationalist beliefs. He was hanged for the murder of Gandhi, perhaps finding in this act a misplaced honor and smugness.
The British colonial policy of divide and rule was successful, whether in Guyana, Trinidad or India. Gandhi’s dream of an India in which Muslims and Hindus enjoyed equal rights and were one great free nation was always going to be difficult to achieve.
Its failure to prevent the creation of two separate states at independence is well documented. People today also live with the effects of his failure to prevent the hatred that fueled Hindu nationalism. Partition displaced 15 million people, thousands died and wars between India and Pakistan have continued for the past 74 years.
The play’s author, Anupama Chandrasekhar, suggests that 20th-century Indian politics and the brutal moral deviance of the British Empire have their parallels with today: Lord Mounbatten pursued a “hard Brexit” during the separation of India and Pakistan from British rule and each other in 1947, Godse remarks.
I imagine, alas, that no member of the current deviant British government was in the audience to feel embarrassed, at best, by the dangerous mess Brexit has made of Northern Ireland.