The man who killed Gandhi


Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most well known political figures of the last century. The man who killed him and shaped the course of India's history is mostly unknown to us.

Maybe that's why 1,160 people last week packed London's National Theatre on the opening night of the play The Father and the Assassin to learn about Nathuram Godse, his politics and the motive for his deadly action.

Judging from the standing ovation the cast received for their two-hour performance, the audience went home very happy with the, at times amusing, history lesson.

Gandhi was a touchstone for all colonised people because he dared to believe that the Indian people could rid themselves of the blight of the British Empire. He showed how people could tap into their unrecognised power to create unfathomable change. He was a revolutionary in the true sense of the word. He donned his famous capra to appeal to the masses whose very number was a force the British could not withstand, even with their exploitative economics and politics, retaliatory use of extreme violence and repeated imprisonment of Gandhi.

The raj was the crown jewel of the Empire and not to be handed over to the great unwashed just so, but the sun was beginning to set on the Empire and Gandhi did his part to hasten its demise with his teachings and mass protests.

The very modernly presented historical drama does not portray the life of Gandhi, since its main focus is his assassin, nor does it present Gandhi as a perfect hero.

It is worth noting that Gandhi was a lawyer who received his legal training in the UK. He was born in India in 1869, and after leaving the Inner Temple, he lived for nearly two decades in South Africa, where he became interested in the rights of Indian people and began to formulate his policy of non-violent protest.

Returning to India, he began working towards Hindu-Muslim home rule and in 1924 he became president of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi and fellow Congress party lawyer-politicians Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel advocated for an independent India, with Hindus and Muslims living in a unified state.

This was famously opposed by Jinnah, who left the Congress party and with the Muslim League began, in the 1940s, to call for a separate state for Muslims. Jinnah eventually became Pakistan’s first governor general.

The 1920-40s was a time of great turmoil in India and although Gandhi’s non-violence movement inspired many, Muslim politicians were not his only opponents. In 1948, aged 78, Gandhi died violently, gunned down in the street at point-blank range by a young Hindu nationalist.

Many iconic figures who are murdered in public seem to be the victims of deranged men who act alone. Gandhi's assassin fits somewhat into that mould, although the play's creator keeps us guessing.

Outside of dramatic licence, the facts are that Godse, born in 1910, had a strange childhood. His orthodox Brahmin parents superstitiously brought him up as a girl till age 12 in order to protect him from an early death, which had befallen his older brothers. A modern-day identity crisis?

Perhaps, but the young Godse also was deemed to have a special connection to the goddess Gurka, as an oracle, and it earned the family food and offerings, which was lost once he abandoned his female disguise, at least in the play. His powers deserted him and his specialness went with them. He had to earn his living (as a tailor) and be an ordinary nobody.

At first, he followed Gandhi's movement. but aged 19. he was radicalised by the London-educated lawyer Vinayak Savarkar, who advocated violence to achieve India as a home only for Hindus, in sharp contrast to Gandhi's non-violent, inclusive secularism. Godse joined two nationalist parties, agitating and distributing nationalist propaganda, and began to regard Gandhi as the person responsible not only for his own lowly status, but also for the religious conflicts and other pressing issues of the day.

His opposing vision of India's future deepened and he went on to form Hindu Rashtra Dal, a shadowy militant group that furthered his extreme nationalist beliefs. He was hanged for Gandhi’s murder, maybe finding misplaced honour and self-importance in that act.

Britain's colonial policy of divide and rule was very successful, whether in Guyana, Trinidad or India. Gandhi's dream of an India in which Muslims and Hindus would enjoy the same rights and constitute one big free nation was always going to be hard to achieve.

His failure to stop the creation of two separate states on independence is well documented. Today, people live with the effects of his inability, too, to prevent the hatred that fed Hindu nationalism. Partition displaced 15 million people, thousands died and wars between India and Pakistan have continued for the last 74 years.

The play’s author Anupama Chandrasekhar suggests that 20th-century Indian politics and the brutal moral deviance of the British Empire has its parallels with today – Lord Mounbatten pursued a “hard Brexit” when severing India and Pakistan from British rule and each other in 1947, Godse remarks.

I imagine, alas, that no members of the deviant current British government were in the audience to feel embarrassed, at best, by the dangerous mess Brexit has made of Northern Ireland.


"The man who killed Gandhi"

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