The book “Why I Killed the Mahatma: Uncovering Godse’s Defence” written by Conrad Elst, a Belgian Indologist, and published recently is a controversial and difficult book, as was to be expected. He has a doctorate in Oriental Studies with a dissertation on Hindu Nationalism. The book raises many questions even before the book itself can be read or reviewed.
The first question is whether we need to hear Nathuram Godse’s defence of his heinous act of assassinating Mahatma Gandhi at all at this time or at any other time. Those who argue for absolute freedom of expression will not find it absurd or offensive, but many others can especially as his defence is freely available. The book draws largely from Godse’s defence statement before the trial court.
The second is if the publication, or rather re-publication, of this book, would have been possible or encouraged under a non-majoritarian government with clear leanings to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the organisation that Godse drew inspiration from. The book available in stores now is significant.
The third arises from what the author states at one point: “One of our findings is that while Godse’s act was by definition extremist, his criticism of Gandhi was in fact shared by many.” The moot point about Gandhi’s assassination was not the criticism of his ideas and opinions, of which there was much during his lifetime too, but that he, an old man, had to be silenced with bullets rather than with arguments. Therefore, there was – and can never be – any justification for Godse’s “extremist” act and it does not get mitigated by the fact that there was criticism against Gandhi.
Given all this, the book becomes a thinly-disguised attempt to provide an intellectual rationale for the killing of the Mahatma, for Godse’s extremist act. In fact, the Mahatma’s assassination, it is often said, was not by bullets alone; instead, it was by a philosophy of hatred and violence intended to silence a person because it could not effectively otherwise counter Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and peaceful co-existence of all communities.
The book says, “Until now, no publication has dealt with this question, except for the naked text of Godse’s own defence speech during his trial. It didn’t save him from the hangman, but still contains substantive arguments against the facile glorification of the Mahatma.”
The first version of the present book was first published in Dutch as “De moord op de Mahatma” (The murder of the Mahatma), in Belgium in 1998, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Mahatma’s assassination.
Author quotes Godse family saying Law Minister Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar contacted Nathuram’s lawyer to convey the message that if Nathuram would like his sentenced commuted to life imprisonment, he would be able to arrange it. Nathuram’s reply according to his family member was, “Please see to it that mercy is not imposed on me. I want to show that through me, Gandhiji’s non-violence is being hanged.” “Taken aback by this reply, Ambedkar, who had never thought highly of Gandhiji’s eccentric ideas, actually praised Godse.” Gopal Godse told this to the author. There is no other evidence to prove this. Only by relying on Gopal Godse, the author has done injustice to Gandhiji as well as Ambedkar. The fact is Ambedkar, as a Law Minister, visited trial court at least thrice to see the hearing is going okay. One needs to have historical evidence, especially, when someone makes sensational claims.
Five attempts were made earlier to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. The first futile attempt was made on June 25, 1934, in Pune. The second attempt was made in Panchgani, near Pune, in June 1944. It is clear that the right wingers were after Mahatma’s life even before the passing of partition plan. Mahatma’s policies were inclusive and pro-poor.
The author writes, “Before the Mahatma was murdered, he was a discredited leader, a proven failure, hated by many millions of Hindus, including millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees.” It is not a reality. The Congress party and the people of India were with the Mahatma barring certain section of Hindu refugees who migrated from then West Pakistan. Though author writes, “From the viewpoint of Hindutva strategy, the murder was the worst possible blunder.”
The book will surely generate debate on the assassination of Mahatma, an apostle of peace. People interpret history differently.