At the crack of dawn on November 15, 1948, two prisoners were escorted from the death row in Ambala prison. They were clutching a map of undivided India each in one hand and the bhagwadhwaj (saffron flag) in the other. Nathuram Godse, 38, and his comrade in crime Narayan Apte, 35, walked up to the gallows, chanting in unison a Sanskrit invocation to the motherland. They were condemned for the crime of assassinating Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation on January 30, 1948.
Little did they know at that time that seventy odd years down the road, their action would be redeemed, Nathuram Godse would be hailed as Mahatma and India would be saffronised to the hilt. Today, it may not be surprising if Godse is canonized and added to the pantheon of India’s founding fathers, along with his hero, Savarkar. The possibility has provided me an excuse to lay down some of my analytical assertions about Nathuram Godse.
A BJP activist has recently proposed that Godse’ pistol, with which he shot Gandhi, should be put on auction, if it fetches big enough money then it would be a proof of Godse being recognised as a patriot. Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, the BJP politician came to the media spotlight for her unequivocal admiration for Godse. Even the Indian prime minister eulogised his role but, in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
In 2017, the Hindu Mahasabha unveiled a temple dedicated to him in Gwalior. The reverence extended to him is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1997, a Marathi play was staged in Bombay, when BJP-Shiv Sena were ruling the Maharashtra state, through which Godse’ side of the story (of Gandhi’s assassination) was told. It wouldn’t surprise many if Sanjay Leela Bansali produces a feature film with the character of Nathuram Godse as its principal protagonist.
Before going any further in our exploration of Godse’ re-invention as an iconic figure among India’s political leaders, it would be pertinent to shed some light on his early life and career as a member of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.
Nathuram Vinayak Godse (b. May 19, 1910) was a son of a village postmaster, Vinayak Godse in an orthodox family of Chitwan Brahmins. He belonged to (Baramati) Pune in the state of Maharashtra. They were a family of six, four brothers and two sisters. Nathuram, was the fifth child and the fourth son, but the three brothers before him had died in infancy. The only surviving child was Nathuram’s elder sister. This led his parents to believe that their male children were cursed. Therefore, they concluded that the only recourse for them to get rid of the curse was to raise their son, as a girl. Thus, he was raised as a girl with his nose pierced so that he could wear a nose ring. The name given to him at the time of his birth was Ramchandra, which was abbreviated to ‘Ram’. Later his parents started calling him Nathuram, which means ‘Ram who wears a nose ring’.
As a student Nathuram was not industrious. He left school before matriculating. Seven out of eight conspirators involved in Gandhi’s assassination were school dropouts and abject failures in practical life. Apart from Dattatraya Parchure, who was from Gwalior, all the rest of the ‘conspirators had some connection with Maharashtra.
One may frame a question as to why Maharashtra had been a locus to such discontentment? The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha got far more traction in the state. Was there a particular sense of deprivation among the youth in that region (and the middle class in general), which led to the rise of such reactionary politics, because the socio-political mainstream represented by Indian National Congress did not allow them to play a significant role?
After leaving school, Nathuram started a business in cloth but incurred losses. Later, he took up tailoring as a profession. In 1932 when he was merely 22, Nathuram joined the Rashtrya Swayam Sewak Sangh – an organisation with the avowed aim to protect Hindu culture and solidarity. It is important to state here that in the vanguard of revolutionary nationalism, the light-eyed Chitpavan Brahmins (from Maharashtra) were among the first to embrace Hindutva, an ideology they perceived as the logical extension of the legacy of Shivaji, the Peshwas and Lokmanya Tilak. Out of place in both the social reform movement of Phule and the mass politics of Gandhi, large numbers of them looked to Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha and finally, the RSS for inspiration. The Godse cult stems from this mindset. Time has proved only a partial healer.
A few years later Godse shifted to Pune and started living with an aunt. There his political impulse found articulation and he became secretary of the local branch of the Hindu Mahasabha. He took part in the civil disobedience movement in Hyderabad, where Hindus were complaining of being deprived of their rights by the Muslim Nizam. Nathuram was arrested and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
He had, by now, become deeply involved in Hindu politics and claimed to have read widely in history and sociology. Besides, he was a firebrand orator. He demonstrated his oratory skills, in his last statement in the court and moved the people sitting there with the magic of his words. He decided to remain free from the bonds and impediments which matrimony brings with it, and to devote all his energies to the aim he had set before him.
At Pune he met Apte, who became his life-long friend and close confidant. Apte was a schoolteacher but both collaborated to start a Marathi language newspaper for Hindu Mahasabha, Agrani. The name was later changed to Hindu Rashtra. Importantly, the current BJP leaders want to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra. Their intention to do so has become clear through some of the policies that the government is pursuing. Has the BJP borrowed the idea from Godse’ newspaper?
Godse was strongly opposed to what he called Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of appeasing Muslims, and castigated trenchantly, any move to concede to Jinnah’s demands. He was resentful of Gandhi’s meetings with Jinnah and of his friendship with Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardi. The government warned Godse when his writings became inflammatory and a threat to public peace. This did not suffice; his security deposit under the Press Security Act was forfeited. He was asked to make a fresh deposit, and the money was hurriedly collected from the sympathisers of the Hindu Mahasabha cause. When the bomb went off in Delhi on January 20, 1948, the news was reported in Hindu Rashtra with more than a touch of gloating satisfaction in the headline: REPRESENTATIVE ACTION SHOWN BY ENRAGED HINDU REFUGEES AGAINST THE APPEASEMENT POLICY OF GANDHIJI.
(To be continued)