Magazine article The Spectator

An Assassin Ascendant

Magazine article The Spectator

An Assassin Ascendant

Article excerpt

AS INDIA celebrates the completion of its 50th year of independence, it is sobering to consider that the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi is currently a more celebrated figure than his victim. Nathuram Godse is a household name in India. He has been ever since he greeted Gandhi at a prayer meeting on 30 January 1948 with a respectful `Namaste Gandhiji', bowed deeply and then shot him three times in the chest with a Beretta pistol. But few people, until recently, knew much about the man or his motives.

For most of the past 50 years, India has been ruled by Gandhi's allies, the Congress party, who have ensured that Godse is portrayed as a villain, the Mahatma as a saint. Godse's testimony in court, reportedly a brilliant piece of oratory defending his `moral but illegal' act, was suppressed and has never been made widely available. But Congress are no longer in power. Since March 1998, the Bharatiya Janata party, or BJP, has led the country, and they owe less allegiance to Gandhi. A new political climate is allowing Godse's place in India's history to be revised - at the expense of Gandhi himself.

In July, for example, a play called Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy ('I Am Nathuram Godse Speaking'), opened at a theatre in Bombay. The show was an instant sell-out and became a talking-point in the national media for several weeks. Based on his defence, the play dealt with Godse's attack on Gandhi for being insensitive to the plight of Hindu refugees, and for his insistence that India gave Muslim Pakistan 550 million rupees (then 50 million) shortly after Partition in 1947. Pradeep Dalvi completed the first draft of the play in 1984, but the state censor denied him a licence. When the BJP came to power and replaced the censor, Dalvi was given his licence. Ironically, the BJP was soon forced to ban the play on grounds of law and order, following violent protests outside the theatre by Congress activists, but the point had been made. Godse was no longer just a historical footnote.

The West has a problem with the BJP. Its leaders are regularly portrayed as Hindu nationalists, right-wing fanatics and, after they tested five nuclear devices in May, the gravest threat to world peace since the Cuban missile crisis. Some of these charges are true. The BJP is to the right of Indian politics, and they lean toward the doctrine of Hindutva - a chauvinist belief that India is defined by its 'Hinduness' - rather than to Gandhi's vision of a secular India. But the present government cannot be described as antiGandhi. In their leader, the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, they have a liberal, level-headed statesman, and the party is dependent on other, more moderate allies in order to stay in power. So why is Godse coming in from the cold? Why now?

The answer lies not with the BJP per se, but with a collection of right-wing organisations known as the Sangh Parivar ('family'), whose members are inextricably linked with the BJP. In the past, these groups stood in the wings of Indian politics, or were banned altogether, but since the BJP's election victory they have taken centre stage, emboldened by their new legitimacy. Chief among them is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS -the father of the 'family'. It is an extreme Hindu nationalist pressure group with a history of being fervently anti-Muslim. None other than Nathuram Godse joined its spartan, disciplined regime in the early 1940s. …

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