Nathuram Godse, author of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, is the object of a quasi-religious cult among Hindu extremists. In the Maharashtra state, his great-nephew is spreading his message.
PUNE — This article almost didn't see the light of day. My mistake was to send a message to the great-nephew of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, without realizing that my WhatsApp profile featured a healthy and smiling image of the "Father of the Nation." Suffice it to say that Ajinkya Godse was not too pleased.
His response arrived a few days later: "If you would like to meet me and to visit Nathuram Godse's memorial, first of all, listen to his last statement before the judges." He had enclosed an audio recording along with the letter. In it, an actor recites, for almost four hours, the murderer's final words before the court in November 1948 — included as a bonus is the audio reconstruction of the infamous great-uncle's hanging a year later. Everything is there, even the sound of the rope being wrapped around his neck and the stall falling to the ground.
"I supposed that you had been brainwashed about Gandhi," Ajinkya Godse explains with a wide grin in his office in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. With a tilak mark on his forehead, Godse wears a polo shirt with an open collar which allows me to notice the sacred thread across his torso, reserved for the high Brahmin caste. The 50-year-old is a real estate developer. His company shares his name. "A well-known and respected name helps to gain the trust of clients and partners," he says.
Godse (left) with other men accused of participating in Gandhi's assassination, 1948 — Photo: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India
Five years ago, the Godse family decided it was time to take the uncle's things out of their old suitcase and display them to the public. The memorial sits here, in the Ajinkya Godse Developers offices. It is a sacred place, where shoes must be removed before entering.
A silver urn containing the assasin's ashes sits beneath a glass cover, as if it contained the hair of a saint. In front, there is a volume of the Bhagavad Gita, considered by Hindus to be a sacred text, wrapped in a silk cloth. Every morning, Ajinkya and his wife lay a fresh flower upon the ashes and recite one or two extracts from the Bhagavad Gita. The shirt worn by Nathuram Godse the day of the murder, its collar stained with blood, is also displayed, alongside several front pages from Dainik Agrani, the newspaper that the political activist was running at the time.
Nathuram Godse was a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization, RSS) – the radical wing of the Hindu nationalist movement upon which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling party, largely depends. He also joined the Hindu Mahasabha, the Hindu extremist group which, from the Autumn of 2017, began building a temple in honor of the murderer in Gwalior, in central India.
They no longer want to hide the truth.
Followers from computer engineers to peasants come from all over the country to glimpse the relics in this office. Those who are unable to make the journey send rupees so that flowers can be laid at the memorial. "We even welcome school groups," says Ajinkya Godse. "Teachers come and see us and say they no longer want to hide the truth about Nathuram Godse's patriotism."
November 15, the anniversary of his hanging, is always eagerly awaited. The family opens the urn for the followers who wish to have the blessing of the "patriot" while glimpsing his remains; extracts from his final declaration before the court are read aloud.
"We are so proud," says the great-nephew. "His spirit continues to soar above us." Nathuram Godse is biding his time: did he not request in his will that his ashes be spread in the Indus river the day a reunified India would be rid of Pakistan?
Listening to his statement, which has long been censored in India, it seems that the murder was not the thoughtless act of a madman, but rather a carefully-considered political act. On January 30, 1948, when he fired three bullets at Mahatma Gandhi, he killed the iconic 20th-century proponent of nonviolence and multiculturalism. He accused him of being complicit in the "vivisection of India", the large, sacred India of which Hindu extremists dream, stretching from Pakistan to Myanmar.
He was angry with Gandhi for having "appeased the Muslims'
A few months earlier, in 1947, the partition of the jewel of the British Empire, between a secular India and a Muslim Pakistan, was carried out amid much pain and bloodshed. Millions of Hindus and Muslims were killed, raped, or forced into exodus. Godse was furious. He was angry with Gandhi for having "appeased the Muslims," for having given into their blackmail and their demands – to the detriment of Hindus – to stay within a multi-faith India. It was heresy for the man who considered India to be a holy land, a "Hindu kingdom."
"His idea of a union between Hindus and Muslims could only lead to our surrender and force us to accept all of the Muslims' demands."
Godse mocked Gandhi's non-violence, seeing it as a sign of weakness: "Under these circumstances, I thought that the only way to protect Hindus from Muslim atrocities was to remove Gandhi from this world."
While the Bharatiya Janata Party still officially refers to the Mahatma ("Great Soul" in Sanskrit) as the "father of the nation", its ideology is closer to that of Godse. Some of its ideas and expressions resemble those used by the murderer word-for-word, such as "Muslim appeasement", the claimed "forced conversions of Hindus', or the "cow slaughter" Gandhi is supposed to have allowed.
The leaders of the BJP do not glorify Nathuram Godse, but nor do they condemn him. They declined to respond to Le Monde"s questions on the subject. But actions do not lie. In 2016 the government of Rajasthan, led by the BJP, rewrote history textbooks, minimizing the historical significance of Gandhi's assassination and removing all reference to Nathuram Godse. It is okay to remember Gandhi's death, but not his murderer. Other organizations are less ambiguous, like the Hindu Mahasabha, which announced in 2015 that it would commemorate November 15 as a "day of sacrifice." Seventy years after Gandhi's murder, his concepts of nonviolence and a secular India are also giving way.
A retired supporter of the RSS, living in an affluent area, admits: "Godse's objective was noble, but he shouldn't have killed Mahatma Gandhi, because he turned him into a hero. Because of him, for 50 years, the defense of Hindus has been a synonym for betrayal of the nation."
The Indian historian S.M. Dhave agrees: "The branch of Hindu traditionalists within the Congress who were fighting against Nehru's multiculturalism at the moment of independence found themselves in the minority following Gandhi's assassination. In other words, if he hadn't been killed, India may never have been the multi-faith country it has become." Hindu nationalists believe that Gandhi and Nehru's multicultural India is nothing but an accident of history.
A few kilometers from Godse's memorial, Gandhi's spirit still floats through the old building which houses the Maharashtra Gandhi Smarak Nidhi foundation, tasked with spreading the Mahatma's teachings. "Here, we can hear and see Gandhi," says Kumar Saptarshi, the director of the institution, dressed in a white tunic. "Seventy-one years after independence, we are seeing a counter-revolution: that of Hindu supremacy versus secularism, a society based on caste hierarchy versus democracy, and violence versus peace," says Saptarshi. "The glorification of Nathuram Godse is a manifestation of that."
While a certain number of students who belong to the organization continue to launch nonviolent protests, they need at least as much courage as the Mahatma had, if not more. Inspired by Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance), these sit-ins now attract no more than a few dozen people. "Peace no longer attracts the masses," Kumar Saptarshi says.
Your duty as a warrior is to lead a just war.
This violence is like no other form of violence. It is expressed without hatred, it hides itself behind words imbued with tolerance. "I have no hostility towards anybody," Gandhi's assassin repeated before his judges. Decades later, nothing has changed: the RSS continues to advocate kindness and harmony between castes and religions in public, while extremist militias kill Muslims in the name of protecting the sacred cow and members of the lower castes are lynched.
"How do you justify violence?" I asked Nathuram Godse's great-nephew. He stood up and recited the part of the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna is talking to Arjuna, a warrior prince beset by doubt as he faces the battle which could result in the deaths of his family members: "O Arjuna! Rise up, because those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead … Your duty as a warrior is to lead a just war. You must do this without desire for the result."
Violence committed in the name of "karma", of duty, detached from all feeling, which sweeps away both responsibility and guilt.Today, this sounds like the preachings of a Hindu fanatic and a call to religious war.