Godse on Trial
Fifty years after the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, by Hindu revivalist Nathuram Godse, the Godse phenomenon emerges from the recesses of the past to haunt a nation that is still unsure how to cope with its history.
By Swapan Dasgupta and Smruti Koppikar
In the early hours of a cold November morning in 1948, two prisoners were escorted from the death row in Ambala prison. Clutching a map of undivided India in one hand and the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag) in another, 38-year-old Nathuram Godse and 37-year-old Narayan Apte walked to the gallows chanting in unison a Sanskrit invocation to the motherland. Godse died instantly, but Apte's end was more painful -- he had to be hanged a second time. A few hours later, their bodies were cremated outside the prison walls. Immediately afterwards, the whole area was ploughed and planted with grass so that no one could identify the spot and build a shrine.
Fifty years later, there is no public shrine in Ambala honouring the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi. In history textbooks, Godse is perfunctorily dismissed as Gandhi's killer and Apte's reputation as the brain behind the murder has been forgotten. For generations of post-Independence Indians, they mean nothing and signify even less. Yet, the ghost of Godse refuses to go away. Every now and then it emerges from the recesses of the past to haunt a nation that is still unsure of how to cope with its history. On at least three occasions in the past three decades, the austere Chitpavan Brahmin from Pune has been put in the dock posthumously and made to answer for the three bullets that felled the greatest apostle of non-violence this century.
It happened again this month. Pradeep Dalvi's play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (I am Nathuram Godse speaking) was calculated to take the Marathi stage by storm. Written in 1984, Dalvi struggled for 14 years to get the script approved by the Stage Performances Scrutiny Board -- a curious culture police that exists in all states. It took the election of a Shiv Sena-BJP government in the state, the appointment of a new board and some minor changes for the play to receive a certificate. Based on Godse's testimony to the Appeals Court in 1948, it sought to skilfully dramatise the flip side of Gandhi's murder. "I wanted to reveal the assassin's character, his convictions, thinking and why he went out of his way to kill Gandhi," says Dalvi. "It's important to understand his compulsions."
When it opened to a packed Shivaji Mandir auditorium on July 10, the response was staggering, but in an entirely unexpected way. Godse's spirited denunciation of Gandhi for nurturing a fledgling Pakistan and being insensitive to the plight of Hindu refugees, and his passionate appeal for akhand (undivided) Hindustan were not merely dramatically compelling, but emotionally captivating. So powerful was the projection of Godse that the play almost seemed like a justification for a cold-blooded murder. By the time the play was six shows old, tickets were fetching a handsome premium in the black market. Long exposed to the deification of the Father of the Nation, the audience revelled in a heady dose of revisionist history.
That's when the present intruded into the past. Well aware of the BJP's diffidence on the subject -- Godse was initially nurtured by the Sangh Parivar and the RSS was banned after Gandhi's assassination -- the Congress chose to make an issue of the play in Parliament. On July 16, it was joined by the rest of the Opposition in demanding a ban on Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy. In the next two days, the issue snowballed. In Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front even tried to link the matter with a local controversy over the Sivagiri Mutt. Always anxious to keep his liberal credentials intact, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was particularly agitated on receiving an agonised letter of protest from veteran Gandhian Usha Mehta. He instructed Home Minister L.K. Advani to take action.
For Advani, it was an awkward predicament. Personally opposed to bans and censorship -- as an opposition leader he attacked the ban on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses -- the home minister was nevertheless aware that the issue could get out of hand. Apart from resurrecting the hoary controversy over the RSS' alleged involvement in the Gandhi murder, there was the danger that the Opposition would use the issue to disrupt both Parliament and the Maharashtra Assembly. He first advised the Manohar Joshi Government to ensure that the issue didn't become a law and order problem. But before the state Government could act, he bowed to Vajpayee's pressure and "advised the state Government to prohibit its performance". The Government, Advani told Parliament, "strongly disapproves of anything that denigrates the hallowed memory of Mahatma Gandhi and belittles the unique role he played in leading the nation to freedom". The lofty statement barely concealed the fact that the Government had bowed to pressure and succumbed to expediency.
The Centre's "advice" left the Maharashtra Government with no option but to prohibit the play. Says state Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar, the man behind the crusade against lurid advertisements and shows in pubs: "We were not very pleased to ban it. But we couldn't let it become a law and order issue either." Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who has never concealed his admiration for Godse, wasn't pleased either. "I interpret it as prohibition, not as ban," he said dourly.
Next, it was the turn of the Left to join the "ban" wagon so as to please the Congress. The Kerala police raided the offices of Tapathi Pusthaka Prasadhaka Sanghom (operating from the RSS office) in Kannur, seized 25 copies of the Malayalam translation of Godse's court deposition, May It Please Your Honour, and arrested the printer. The Government used its powers under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code that permits action to prevent the spread of communal hatred. It conveniently ignored a 1983 court ruling that Section 153 cannot be misused to thwart historical research.
This month's events mark the fourth time that Godse has been at the centre of a storm since his execution. First, the Government prohibited the distribution of Godse's testimony in court, despite it being a part of the court records. Second, the Delhi Administration banned the original Marathi version of Gopal Godse's Gandhiji's Murder and After when it was published in 1967. Gopal, the younger brother of Nathuram, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Gandhi murder plot and released from prison in 1965. He challenged the ban in the Bombay High Court. In a landmark 217-page judgement delivered in 1968, the court said, "We think that the claim of the publisher that 'Gandhi's assassination is now a matter of history' ... is fairly justified." Considering the government's claim that the book would contribute to communal disharmony, the high court said it was least concerned with the author's motives. The central theme of the book -- Partition and Gandhi's murder -- was deemed a legitimate subject for study by any citizen of India.
The Bombay High Court judgement came too late to reverse the Government's ban on American academic Stanley Wolpert's Nine Hours To Rama published in 1962. Actually, the novel on Gandhi's assassination was a casualty of its celluloid version, directed by Mark Robson (of Peyton Place fame) and starring German actor Horst Buccholz as Godse. For reasons unknown, the Union Cabinet disapproved of the film after a private showing in November 1962 -- at the height of the Sino-Indian war. In 1988, when Penguin India sought the Home Ministry's permission for a paperback edition of the novel, it was informed that "we have reviewed the file and have no reason to change our decision to ban the book". The ban persists to this date, though extracts of the book are freely accessible on the Internet.
What explains this strange reluctance on the part of successive governments to permit any public deliberation on the Gandhi murder? Gandhi was one of the most outstanding personalities of this century. His leadership of the national movement was unquestioned and his role in history is assured. His assassination was a dastardly act and Godse stood condemned by public opinion much before the judicial verdict against him was pronounced. In death, Gandhi and Godse may have got intertwined, but in life they were simply not on par. So why is Godse's critique of Gandhi being singled out for official action?
From a liberal point of view, the heavy-handedness of the Government is inexplicable. "Controversial ideas need to be debated in public," says Wolpert, who was at the centre of another controversy in 1996 over his biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, pointing to the fact that even Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is available in countries that were invaded and brutalised by the Nazis. "If we keep banning art and books, where will we end up?" asks National School of Drama Director Ram Gopal Bajaj. Adds playwright Girish Karnad: "Whatever its critique of Mahatma Gandhi, we all have a right to see the play and decide for ourselves. What worries me is the proliferation of an old RSS-Shiv Sena technique: collect 200 to 300 people, create a law and order problem, divert attention from the actual creative work and cause a situation where a ban seems the easy way out."
In the case of Godse, however, libertarian arguments are met with reservations. If former Congress president Sitaram Kesri is gung-ho that "the ban is totally justified because glorification of Gandhi's assassin means that as a nation we are endorsing what he did", others are a little more cautious. Says CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee: "Ordinarily one wouldn't support an attempt to interfere with the freedom of expression but in a situation in which a play is being used to portray a murderer as a martyr, one cannot but reluctantly support such a measure."
That freedom is not absolute licence is conceded by all, but does it have to be tempered with political expediency? "Killing Gandhi didn't put an end to Gandhism," says Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde. "Stopping the play doesn't mean that Godse's ideology will be banned." Munde is right, but will find it daunting to apply the same logic to his government's offensive against painter M.F. Husain and sundry pop stars. Conviction cannot become a matter of political convenience. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena and a section of the BJP are understandably sore at having been forced to stop Dalvi's play. Will this experience now prompt them to abandon state- sponsored exercises in ideological and cultural purification? Or will it prompt a wave of savage ideological retaliation centred on counter-intolerance? A section of the saffron camp certainly feels that the Vajpayee Government is pulling its punches and not doing enough to promote the party's distinctiveness. This, however, is a fringe view. The leadership sees in the Godse controversy an opportunity to extricate the party from the taint of being "Gandhi's killers". Now in positions of authority, the BJP is in search of respectability and wouldn't mind jettisoning the last strands of the Godse connection. Having placed Gandhi in the Sangh Parivar pantheon, the BJP is unlikely to regress.
In any case, pre-determined ideology is inadequate to comprehend the complexities of Godse. The assassin of Gandhi wasn't a crank along the lines of the murderers of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Godse failed to matriculate, but he was nevertheless an accomplished Marathi polemicist with definite and clear views of what constituted right and wrong. "It was not a supari killing," says former Hindu Mahasabha president Vikram Savarkar who knew both Godse and Apte. "Godse was a learned man. He had ideological reasons for doing what he did."
Those ideological reasons were spelt out by Godse in his lengthy deposition to the court. In it, with copious references to philosophy and contemporary politics, he spelt out his belief that Gandhi "had no right to vivisect the country, the image of our worship. But he did it all the same". From all accounts, it was a masterly performance. Even the judges were impressed. Justice G.D. Khosla, who sat on a three-bench court of appeal, later wrote that women could be seen sobbing after Godse's final deposition. "I have ... no doubt that had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury ... they would have brought in a verdict of not guilty by an overwhelming majority." Gopal Godse, in fact, traces the Government's determination to suppress the debate about his brother to the power of his arguments. "They did not want the truth to emerge."
Such a suggestion seems unduly conspiratorial. The Government's real fear stemmed from the high emotive content of Godse's justification of his "moral" but "illegal" act. In the context of the 1950s, when Indian democracy was still in its infancy, it was a legitimate fear. Partition and its accompanying horrors were still fresh in the popular imagination and Godse's message was calculated to have an inflammatory effect. But that was 50 years ago. Today, much of what angered Godse and his co-conspirators is of academic interest. The refugees from Pakistan have resettled and even prospered and Indian nationhood hasn't been bartered away, as Godse feared. Even Hindutva is alive and kicking. A ban born out of anxiety has little relevance. Godse has been tried, found guilty and punished. He now belongs to history.
Actually, it was the Mahatma who had the proverbial last word. When Godse's associate Madanlal Pahwa, a refugee from Punjab, threw a bomb at his prayer meeting a few days before the murder, Gandhi implored forgiveness and understanding. Indicating that Pahwa may have been guided by the Bhagwad Gita, he nevertheless cautioned: "The youth should realise that those who differed from him were not necessarily evil."
It's a message that should be compulsory reading for those politicians who insist on playing football with the past.
© Living Media India Ltd