Nathuram Godse: The mystery surrounding Mahatma Gandhi’s killer

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent Published1 day ago

Mug shot of the Indian political activist Nathuram Vinayak Godse, the killer of Gandhi sentenced to hanging. India, 12th May
Image caption,Nathuram Godse was a high-school drop out and worked as a tailor

On the evening of 30 January 1948, Nathuram Vinayak Godse shot Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi dead at point-blank range as India’s most venerated leader emerged from a prayer meeting in the capital, Delhi.

The 38-year-old zealot was a member of Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing party. It had accused Gandhi of having betrayed Hindus by being too pro-Muslim and soft on Pakistan. They even blamed him for the bloodshed that marked Partition, which saw India and Pakistan created after independence from Britain in 1947.

A trial court sentenced Godse to death a year after the assassination. He was executed in November 1949, after the high court upheld the verdict. (An accomplice, Narayan Apte, was also given the death sentence, and six others were sentenced to life in prison.)

Before joining the Hindu Mahasabha, Godse was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) or RSS, the ideological fountainhead of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is a long-time member of the 95-year-old mothership of Hindu nationalism. The RSS plays a deeply influential part in his government and outside.

For decades, the RSS has shunned Godse who murdered the “Father of the Nation”, as Indians love to call their greatest icon. Yet, a group of Hindu right-wingers in recent years have lionised Godse and openly celebrated Gandhi’s assassination. Last year a firebrand BJP MP described Godse as a “patriot”. All this has incensed most Indians, but the RSS has stuck to its position: Godse had quit the organisation long before he killed Gandhi.

A new book now claims that this is not quite true.

Godse, a shy high-school dropout, worked as tailor and sold fruit before joining the Mahasabha, where he edited its newspaper. During the trial, he took more than five hours to read out a 150-paragraph statement in court.

The funeral procession of Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi shows a naval guard escorting the coffin
Image caption,A naval guard escorting the coffin at Gandhi’s funeral procession

He said there was “no conspiracy” to kill Gandhi, thus trying to absolve his accomplices of any wrongdoing. He rejected the charge that he had acted under the guidance of his leader, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who birthed the idea of Hindutva or Hindu-ness. (Although Savarkar was exonerated of all charges, critics believe that the radical right-winger who loathed Gandhi was connected to the assassination.)

Godse also told the court that he had broken with the RSS long before he killed Gandhi.

Dhirendra Jha, author of Gandhi’s Assassin, writes that Godse – the son of a postal worker father and a homemaker mother – was a “prominent worker” of the RSS. There was no “evidence” of him being expelled from the organisation. A statement by Godse recorded before the trial “never mentions his departure from the RSS after he became a member of the Hindu Mahasabha”. However, his court statement said he “joined the Hindu Mahasabha after leaving RSS but remains silent on when exactly he did so”.

“This was a claim that has remained one of the most debated aspects of Godse’s life,” Mr Jha says. He believes “pro-RSS writers” have used this to “quietly push the notion that Godse had already broken with the RSS and joined the Hindu Mahasabha almost a decade before he killed Gandhi”.

American researcher JA Curran Jr claimed that Godse joined the RSS in 1930 and quit four years later, but provided no evidence for his assertion. Mr Jha writes that in a statement made to the police before the beginning of his trial, Godse admitted that he was working for both organisations simultaneously.

Family members have also joined the debate in the past. Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother, who died in 2005, had said his brother “did not leave the RSS”. Separately, a grand nephew of Godse told a journalist in 2015 that Godse joined the RSS in 1932, and was “neither expelled nor did he ever leave the organisation”.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi (3rd L) and former chief minister Keshubhai Patel (2nd R, front) gesture as they attend a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gathering at the Tria Mandir in Adalaj, some 20 kms from Ahmedabad on September 6, 2009.
Image caption,Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a long-time member of RSS

Mr Jha, who trawled the archives, also dwells on the links between the two Hindu organisations. He writes that the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had an “overlapping and fluid relationship” and an identical ideology. The two groups, he points out, “always had close connections and sometimes even overlapping membership” until Gandhi was assassinated. (The RSS was banned for more than a year after Gandhi’s murder.)

The RSS has always echoed what Godse said in court – that he left the organisation in the mid-1930s, and the judgement proved that it had nothing to do with the murder. “To say that he was a RSS member is to only project a lie for political intensions,” Ram Madhav, a senior RSS leader, has said.

MS Golwalkar, one of the most influential leaders of the RSS, described Gandhi’s assassination as a “tragedy of unparalleled magnitude – the more so, because the evil genius is a countryman and a Hindu”. More recently, RSS leaders like MG Vaidya have called Godse a “murderer” who “insulted” Hindutva by killing such a respected figure of India”.

Authors like Vikram Sampath believe the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha had a stormy relationship. Mr Sampath, who has written an exhaustive two-volume biography of Savarkar, writes that the Hindu Mahasabha’s decision to set up a group of volunteers akin to a “revolutionary secret society” to “safeguard the interests of the Hindus” had “embittered” its relations with the RSS.

Also, according to Mr Sampath, the RSS “desisted from idolising individuals unlike the Mahasabha leader Savarkar who believed in “hero worship and exaggerated adulation”. In another book, RSS: A View to the Inside, Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle, talk about how the RSS was “tarred with the involvement of a former member (Nathuram Godse)” in the killing of Gandhi, and “maligned with official backing as fascist, authoritarian and obscurantist”.

Yet doubts that Godse was inextricably a part of and never left the RSS have never faded.

Before Godse went to the gallows on 15 November 1949, he recited the first four sentences of the RSS prayer. “Again this reveals the fact that he was an active member of the organisation,” Mr Jha says. “Disassociating the RSS from Gandhi’s assassin is a fabrication of history.”


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