This year on January 30 will be exactly 75 years to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of those against his message of non-violence and fierce defence of a syncretic India. In a series of articles and videos, The Wire takes stock of Gandhi’s murder, and delves deeper into the forces and ideas behind independent India’s first act of terror. Recent years have seen another attempt to kill Gandhi, his ideas, spirit and message. We hope to help unpack where India stands today and its future, through the lens of how the Father of the Nation’s legacy is being treated.
Over the years we have debated Gandhi’s relevance, but shied away from understanding the meaning or intent of the act of his assassination.
There is something in that assassination that prevents us from pausing to reflect on it. We have shied away from considering the possibility that Gandhi’s assassination could be the culmination of a long process in which different people and different organisations sharing a common world outlook were involved.
“A mad Hindu has killed Bapu!”
These words have become a kind of shield between us and the reality of the murder. Not surprisingly, in the speeches condoling his death in the Constituent Assembly meeting on February 2, 1948, after Gandhi’s assassination his greatness were praised but it was not considered necessary to take time to understand the reason for this murder.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement given in this meeting was also not read or discussed further. Nor was the statement of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel remembered. What they were saying was inconvenient. Even when Gandhi’s friends, colleagues and disciples met at Sevagram in March 1948, not much time was spent on the episode of the assassination.
Nehru and Patel were still Indians. We will discuss their views later. What the writer Pearl S. Buck said is significant. She said, “He was right, he knew he was right, we all knew he was right. The man who killed him knew he was right. No matter how long the follies of violence continues, it only proves that Gandhi was right.”
After Gandhi’s assassination, many people expressed surprise that a person like Gandhi who believed in non-violence could die due to violence. But this should not be not so surprising.
Gandhi’s nonviolence was, after all, a resistance. It was resistance against violence. His struggle was with violence. Pearl Buck wrote, “‘Resist to the last,’ he said, ‘but without violence’.”
Gandhi’s whole life was a continuous resistance against all forms of violence. Violence breeds counter violence, this is common sense. Gandhi refused to accept this principle.
Those who commit violence are weak, at one level even cowards. Lies are often used to justify violence and violence more often than not is a result of conspiracies. If violence was justified, and there was nothing to hide about it, the Nazis would not have tried to destroy all evidence of their violence against the Jews.
Not surprisingly, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to violence was met with violence. And it is no wonder that those who planned the violence, propagated it, initiated the violence, prepared the murderer who killed Gandhi, hid behind the curtains when those responsible for it were brought to justice.
After Nathuram Godse’s failed attempt to hide his identity after his attempt to escape and capture, he was left with no option but to accept his role. He later realised that it was impossible for him to escape the law. He decided to wear the cloak of martyrdom. Or we do not know whether it was imposed on him or not.
Now we know that the name of the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi ji is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Savarkar’s escape from the clutches of the law and punishment was possible only because circumstantial evidence was not considered strong enough to convict him. But the Jevanlal Kaur report left no doubt about his critical role in the conspiracy.
After the publication of Dhirendra Jha’s book, it is no longer possible for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to claim that it had no relation with Godse and Savarkar. Jha proves with the help of Godse’s Marathi affidavit that till the time of Gandhi’s assassination, the relationship between the Sangh and Godse remained intact. Even before the assassination of Gandhi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was carrying out violent propaganda against him.
In Delhi itself, its leader had said that Gandhi could also be silenced if necessary. Gandhi was indeed silenced only a few weeks after that. Was there no relation between these two? Was it a mere coincidence?
Nehru said in the Constituent Assembly, “This happening, this tragedy, is not merely the isolated act of a madman. It comes out of a certain atmosphere of violence and hatred that has prevailed in this country for many months and years, and more especially in the past few months. That atmosphere envelops us and surrounds us, and if we are to serve the cause he put before us we have to face this atmosphere, to combat it, struggle against it, and root out the evil of hatred and violence. “
Sardar Patel said the same thing in other words, “The madman who killed him was wrong if he thought that by doing so he would be able to destroy his noble mission. Perhaps God wanted to fulfil his mission only through Gandhi’s death.”
What was that mission? Why were Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar against that mission and why did they want to destroy it?
Gandhi’s mission was to establish an independent republic that would be secular in nature. In it the individual was to be the paramount and most fundamental unit and there could be no compromise with the sovereignty of the group of individuals i.e. the people. In this republic no individual or group was to be given preference over another, neither in the name of caste nor in the name of religion. Not even on the basis of education or literacy. Equality of every kind was to be the basis of this republic. It also meant that it had to be built on by fighting against all forms of inequality because ours was a society based on many inequalities and the idea of equality was quite new to it.
Resistance against Inequality as well as all forms of untouchability was necessary for the creation of a new independent nationhood. Untouchability or separating oneself from others in any way is discrimination, and it establishes unbreachable hierarchies. There are many forms of untouchability, there are many levels of it. The propaganda of hatred or violence against Gandhi was due to his active resistance to all of them.
For the same reason, he was attacked at least five times before his assassination on January 30, 1948. Godse had also attacked Gandhi earlier in 1944 and 1946. At that time there was no question of giving Rs 55 crore to Pakistan. The hatred against Gandhi was essentially due to his republican and secular politics.
Should India be a secular republican state or a new version of Peshwai? The real question was this. Gandhi was protesting against the transformation of India into a majoritarian, Hindu Rashtra i.e. a New Peshwai. Because of this he was murdered. Without talking about it, it is impossible to understand the centrality of January 30 for India.
We did not resist the politics of the assassination of Gandhi. We did not hear Pearl Buck who exhorted Indians, “O India, dare to prove yourself worthy of your Gandhi.”
Can we recover this courage?
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.
This article was first published on The Wire.