On 30 January 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, India’s political landscape changed dramatically. In the preceding year, the Hindu Nationalist movement had received a strong boost due to Congress’s confused stand on Partition. But then, Nathuram Godse’s bullets squandered its newly-gained political capital in one go. It would need decades to recover.
Until the end of 1945, Partition had seemed to be a mirage existing only in the minds of some Muslim League diehards. With the British, the Congress and even, as per the 1937 elections, most Muslim voters lined up against the Muslim League’s plan, India’s unity seemed assured. But the League understood the essence of politics: “making the inevitable possible”. By fully using the possibilities created by the British need for friends during World War 2, it changed the power equation. The elections of that winter threw up an unexpectedly large majority in favour of the creation of Pakistan among the Muslim electorate. Now, Partition became the central question of Indian politics.
The British began to waver in their resolve to keep India united. Contrary to the Congress propaganda that most Indians swallow till today, the British had not imposed the Partition on India, on the contrary: they wanted to keep their empire in one piece even if they had to abandon it. But like Congress, they were sensitive to changing circumstances. The dawning Cold War made them see the advantages of a divided Subcontinent, with one part joining the Western camp. And after the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946, they understood that opposing the Muslim League would come at a cost for which they did not have the stomach anymore. When Louis Mountbatten became Viceroy in March 1947, it was with the single purpose of transferring power to a bifurcated India.
Fortunately for the Hindus in West Panjab, Sindh and East Bengal, there was at least the Indian National Congress you could count on; or so they thought. But one after another, top Congress leaders were crossing the floor to a hesitating acceptance of Partition. Yet even then, Mahatma Gandhi stood firm. Had he not promised that India would only be vivisected over his dead body? And with his record of fasts unto death, was this not a solid assurance?
However, by June 1947, the Mahatma too gave up. He justified this broken promise with a weasel explanation: if one of the shareholders withdraws from the joint account that is India, no Mahatma could coerce him to do otherwise. Pray, what had all his other fasts been but successful attempts to coerce the other party into doing what it would otherwise have refused to do? Now that numerous lives were at stake, he refused to stake his own because his tender conscience suddenly had discovered how evil it is to pressurize people.
With that, Gandhi conceded defeat to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It was a karmic come-uppance: in 1920, he had humiliated Jinnah on the dais of a Congress meeting where the still-moderate Muslim leader had opposed the plan to involve Congress in the Khilafat movement. Jinnah had pleaded against mass politics and especially against mixing religion with politics, warning that this would bring disaster. Gandhi’s cheering crowds had sent him packing, and when he returned to politics years later, he had learned his lesson.
Mind you, the Partition plan could have been reasonable, as in the version thought up by Dr. BR Ambedkar immediately after the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution of 1940. He had worked out a peaceful exchange of population, with all Muslims resettling in Pakistan and all non-Muslims in India. That lucid scheme would have avoided the massacres of 1947 and also those of 1971 and of all the smaller-scale communal riots. But some decision-makers seem to prefer bloodbaths clothed in high principles to this modest and pragmatic accommodation of the inevitable.
There had been lots of criticism of Gandhi during his lifetime, now obscured and tabooed by his halo of martyrdom. For a single example, it was clear to all that he himself became the killer of Gandhism as a political vision when he dictatorially foisted Jawaharlal Nehru on the Congress, and therefore as national leader, as if he didn’t know what this “last Viceroy” stood for. The democratic alternative would have been to nominate Sardar Patel, Congress’s own preference. Later developments confirmed that Gandhi’s choice had been a Himalayan blunder, giving India the Kashmir problem and the proverbial poverty resulting from Nehru’s option for socialism.
When you read Godse’s speech delivered during his trial, you will notice that many of his criticisms were widely shared. In many respects he had been a Gandhian himself, such as activism against untouchability. In others, he simply agreed with many observers, e.g. in frowning on Gandhi’s irrationality. He was an extremist not because of his views, but because he tied the consequence of murder to his views.
That act was indeed unforgivable. Perhaps Godse could not have been dissuaded by its inherent moral evil. But at least he could have retreated before its formidable strategic foolishness. It spectacularly smashed the windows of his own movement for decades to come. But it also achieved something else he would not have wanted: it turned a fallible politician into an immortal saint elevated above normal human judgment.
Dr. Koenraad Elst is a Belgian scholar of India’s ancient as well as contemporary history, presently working at the Indus University in Ahmedabad. Rupa has freshly published a new edition of his detailed review of Nathuram Godse’s stated motives.