Disowning Father of the Nation : The Tribune India

Disowning Father of the Nation

Collective memory of the assassination has travelled a great distance. Today, the dominant narrative has been turned upside down. Gandhi and Godse stand as equal contenders in the same court of appeal

Disowning Father of the Nation

Salil Misra

There was a time when observing January 30, the day of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom, had a certain sombreness about it, with the bugle sounding at 11 am, and people standing in silent stillness, mourning the killing of Gandhi, a name almost a synonym to peace and non-violence. The silence was often punctuated with public singing of two of Gandhi’s favourite Vaishnav hymns, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ and ‘Vaishanav Jan’, the latter an ode to empathy and compassion. Today, the martyr’s day unleashes a cacophony of arguments of comparisons between Gandhi and his killer, Nathuram Godse, with often many young voices not only supporting but extolling Godse’s actions as a necessary act of revenge against a person they see as representing weakness. Collective memory of Gandhi’s martyrdom has travelled a great distance.

In the new eco-system, there’s been an ideational shift from pluralism to unitarianism. Not only does the social landscape not need Gandhi, it views him and all that he stood for as a needless moral baggage, which comes in the way of pursuing rational goals

Salil misra


Gandhi was the greatest of nationalists, social reformers and a humanist. He suffused his political life with supreme ethical considerations and refused to compromise on this. His ethics were derived from religion, which for him was an article of faith. Gandhi was also the most popular leader of his times. He was extremely powerful within the Congress and outside. He shaped the contours of Congress politics for as long as he lived, and continued to be relevant for the newly formed Indian nation-state and society even after his death.

It was a rare combination of ethics, power and popularity. It is not very usual that these traits are combined within a single individual. But they were, in Gandhi. One reason why he was able to successfully combine the three traits within himself was because he practised a politics that was consensual, or as close to being consensual as possible. He also endeavoured very hard to keep contentious elements out of it.

Gandhi was uncompromisingly opposed to British imperialism. He was equally uncompromisingly opposed to Muslim League’s demand for the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation-state for Muslims. He was deeply committed to the tenets of Hinduism and called himself a pure Sanatani Hindu. Yet, he was not killed by an Englishman, nor by a Muslim. He was killed by a Hindu. His killer, Nathuram Godse, was a member of the Hindu Rashtra Dal with links to the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS and on many occasions upheld his Hindu identity. Why did a committed Hindu commit the murder of the ‘greatest Hindu’ that there ever was? And equally importantly, how has Gandhi’s assassination been preserved in popular memory over the last seven decades?

Gandhi’s uncompromising opposition to Partition was accompanied by his equally uncompromising opposition to the two-nation theory. He refused to accept that the Hindus and Muslims were two different nations that could not co-exist. Even after conceding to Partition in 1947, he continued to work for Hindu-Muslim unity. It was this aspect of his politics which antagonised the communalists, both of the Hindu and Muslim variety, who were working to transform the religious communities of Hindus and Muslims into political constituencies, antagonistic to each other. What intimidated them was that Gandhi was remarkably successful in his campaign to bring about peace in places that had experienced extreme communal violence. In Noakhali, Calcutta and Delhi, his untiring efforts put a stop to communal violence and provided a healing touch to the victims of the violence: Hindus in Noakhali and Muslims in Delhi. Quite clearly, Gandhi was the greatest obstacle in the communal project of creating and legitimising different nations of Hindus and Muslims.

The Hindu communalists accused Gandhi of placating Muslims and of being an enemy of Hindus. Godse, after killing Gandhi, argued in his defence that Gandhi had been treacherous to the nation and had proved to be the “father of Pakistan” instead. Godse was determined that Gandhi’s life “had to be brought to an end immediately” so that the Indian nation could be saved. For Godse, the only way the Indian nation could be saved was by making it a Hindu India, as a mirror image of a Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi was clearly the greatest obstacle in this.

This was not all. The sheer making of Hindu India could not possibly resolve the question of the basic identity of India. What kind of Hinduism was to form the bedrock of India? Both Gandhi and Godse had contrasting images of Hinduism they wanted to build. For Godse, it was a militant, aggressive, violent and intolerant Hinduism, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, driven towards a physical conquest over adversaries. The Hinduism Gandhi practised was just the opposite — inclusive, compassionate, harmonious, and at peace with itself and with others. Godse understood, quite correctly, that Gandhi was the real obstacle to his brand of Hinduism. And so, in order to save “his” Hinduism, he decided to kill the “greatest Hindu”. As Gandhi himself said while addressing those who wanted to save Hinduism by killing him: “If Hinduism is to be saved, it will be saved through such work as I am doing. I have been imbibing Hindu Dharma from my childhood... Do you want to annihilate Hindu Dharma by killing a devout Hindu like me?”

How has Gandhi’s assassination lived in popular memory? The immediate reaction it produced was of anger and moral revulsion. The anger was against Godse and the ideological universe he belonged to. Gandhi represented the very best, a pinnacle of human virtues. Those who killed him were not simply communal but stood for the denial of the very idea of India. Gandhi’s assassination brought back the focus on secularism, inclusiveness and pluralism. These ideas gained a new lease of life and became the pillars on which the apparatus of Independent India was to be built. It appeared that Gandhi had defeated his adversaries even from his funeral pyre. He triumphed in spite of being physically eliminated. His adversaries stood defeated and vanquished, even though they may have succeeded in killing him.

However, all that now seems like very old news. The consensual nature of Gandhi’s ideas has largely disappeared. The Gandhi-Godse binary essentially represented the highest and the lowest points in the hierarchy of social and political values available to human life. But not any longer. A very strange parity characterises the Gandhi-Godse binary now. We are told that it was a contest between two ethical principles — Gandhi’s and Godse’s. Godse has made an amazing comeback. His works are being printed and read. Very justificatory plays on his life (‘Me Nathuram Godse Boltoye’ — ‘I am Nathuram Godse Speaking’, a Marathi play) have been staged, drawing large crowds. There have been demands for erecting his statue and also building his temple. It is no longer very unusual to find some political leader speaking in defence of Godse and against his denigration. A recently released feature film, ‘Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh’, attempts a ‘fair’ comparison between the ideas of Gandhi and those of Godse, so that the viewers can decide for themselves which of the two worldviews is socially and morally more appropriate. Gandhi has been heard; Godse needs to be heard. There has been a complete flattening out of any moral distancing which characterised the debate. Gandhi’s and Godse’s universes are now simply two points on a single spectrum. The dominant narrative has not simply shifted, it has been turned upside down. Gandhi and Godse both stand as equal contenders in the same court of appeal. The two positions have now been placed at par. Could it have been foreseen in the 1950s and ’60s that Indian politics could stoop to such depths? Did such depths exist in the first place? Is there an explanation for such enormous turnaround in public sensibilities in such a short span?

The period immediately after Independence, particularly the years 1947-52, was easily the most transformative phase in Indian politics. A great consensus developed around the idea of an inclusive, secular nationalism and a commitment to pluralism. This consensus was a product of the many decades of freedom struggle, our Constitution and also the moral outrage produced by Gandhi’s assassination. This consensus served Indian polity well till it began to break down from the 1980s onwards. There was a clear right-wing turn in politics with a special slant towards majority communalism. At the same time, there were new fears, uncertainties and anxieties gripping large chunks of the population. This was no doubt the consequence of the rapid globalisation of the Indian economy. A new field was created in which a touchy sensitivity around one’s identity went along with a fierce competition and a fear of losing out. In this eco-system, the principal vocation was not to approve or disapprove of the new spirit, but to try to be on the winning side in the battle for survival. It was also during this phase, and as a result of it, that there was an ideational shift from pluralism to unitarianism.

This then is the new eco-system, the social landscape in which we live now. Not only does it not need Gandhi, it views Gandhi, and all that he stood for, as a needless moral baggage, which comes in the way of people pursuing their rational goals. There has been a remarkable acceptance of violence as a necessary accompaniment of a competitive masculine spirit. Gandhi is clearly an embarrassment, an avoidable legacy. He is now the illegitimate father of the new nation. An identity-ridden, unitarian, masculine, insecure, xenophobic, ruthless and fiercely competitive social world does not need Gandhi. He has nothing to offer to this new mindset. He must be pushed aside and relegated to the margins. Needless to say, Godse has some relevance and resonance for this new India. In January 1948, immediately after Gandhi’s assassination, the newspapers had commented in a spirit of lament that the nation had become fatherless. This was in a curious way untrue because the nation continued to be guided by Gandhi’s spirit and legacy. All that has gone now. The new Indian nation has now disowned the father as illegitimate. Gandhi must now languish at the margins and hope that things might change yet again. Who knows. But why give up the hope that there will be a better world, an embryo lying somewhere in the womb of future, that may not want to place Gandhi at the high pedestal, but may still embrace Gandhi and his legacy? That is a future well worth waiting for.

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