Historical writing and political purposes are usually inseparable, but a measure of institutional plurality can allow some genuine space for alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, post-independence Indian historical writing came to be dominated by a monolithic political project of progressivism that eventually lost sight of verifiable basic truths. This genre of Indian history and the social sciences more generally reached a nadir when even its own Leftist protagonists ceased to believe in their own apparent goal of promoting social and economic justice. It descended into crass, self-serving political activism and a determination to censor dissenting views challenging their own institutional privileges and intellectual exclusivity. One of the ideological certainties embraced by this coterie of historians has been the imputation of mythical status to an alleged threat of Hindu extremism and its unforgivable complicity in assassinating Mahatma Gandhi.
Historian Dr. Koenraad Elst has entered this crucial debate on the murder of the Mahatma with a skilful commentary on the speech of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, to the court that sentenced him to death, the verdict he preferred to imprisonment. Dr. Elst takes seriously Nathuram Godse's extensive critique of India's independence struggle, particularly Mahatma Gandhi's role in it and its aftermath, but he points out factual errors and exaggerations. He begins with a felicitous excursion into the antecedent context of the Chitpavan community to which Nathuram Godse belonged and its important role in the history of Maharashtra a well as modern India. The elucidation of Godse's political testament becomes the methodology adopted by Dr. Elst to engage in a wide ranging and thoughtful discussion of the politics and ideology of India in the immediate decades before independence and the period after its attainment in 1947.
Godse's lengthy speech to the court highlights the profoundly political nature of his murder of Gandhi Nathuram Godse surveys the history of India' independence struggle and the role of Mahatma Gandhi an judges it an unmitigated disaster in order to justify Gandhi' assassination. But he murdered him not merely for what h regarded as his prior betrayal of India's Hindus, but hi likely interference in favour of the Nizam of Hyderabad whose followers were already violently repressing the Hindu majority he ruled over. In the context of discuss in Godse's political testament, many issues studiously ignore or wilfully misrepresented by the dominant genre of Leftist Indian history writing are subject to withering scrutiny. The impressive achievement of Dr. Elst's elegant monograph is to highlight the actual ideological and political cleavage that prompted Mahatma Gandhi's tragic murder by Godse A refusal to understand its political rationale lend unsustainable credence to the idea that his assassin was motivated by religious fanaticism and little else beside: On the contrary, Nathuram Godse was a secular nationalist sharing many of the convictions and prejudices of the dominant independence movement, led by the Congress party. He was steadfastly opposed to religious obscurantism and caste privilege and sought social and political equality for all Indians in the mould advocated by his mentor, Veer Savarkar.
Nathuram Godse's condemnation for the murder c Mahatma Gandhi cannot detract from the extraordinary cogency of his critique of Gandhi's political strategy throughout the independence struggle and a fundamentally misconceived policy of appeasing Muslims regardless c long-term consequences. His latter policy merely incited their truculence and far from eliciting cooperation on a common agenda and national purpose intensified their separatist tendencies. His perverse support for the Khilafat movement, opposed by Jinnah himself, was compounded by willful errors at the Round Table conference of 1930-32. He took upon himself the task of representing the Congress alone during the Second Session without adequate preparation and eagerly espoused the Communal Award of separate electorates. And by conceding the creation of the province of Sindh in 1931 by severing it from the Bombay Presidency, as a result of Jinnah's threats, guaranteed an eventual separatist outcome. Godse also denounced the Congress strategy of first participating in the provincial governments of 1937 without the Muslim League and then withdrawing hastily from them, thereby losing influence over political developments at a critical juncture. He also censures the bad faith of Gandhi's unjust critique of the reformist Arya Samaj and Swami Shraddananda's social activism and Gandhi's shocking failure to condemn his murder by a Muslim.
Nathuram Godse even espoused the very conclusions of the progressive strand of historical writing in independent India that blamed the British for accentuating communalism (i.e. religious division) to perpetuate imperial rule. What he did oppose was the kind of communal privileges he felt Mahatma Gandhi accorded to Muslims, though in the end he accepted them as unavoidable for the pragmatic reason of eliciting Muslim support for a united independent India. Of course Gandhi's populism transformed both Congress and Muslim politics into a more volatile mass movement. In the case of Muslim politics, over which the constitutionalist Mohammed Ali Jinnah had presided until 1916 before retiring for a time to his legal practice, Gandhi's appeasement helped nurture unequivocal separatism. What Nathuram Godse implacably opposed was India's partition, which underlined the failure of Mahatma Gandhi's attempt to appease Muslims. Most of all, Godse was outraged by Gandhi's continued solicitude towards them after partition and despite the horrors being experienced by Hindus inside newly-independent Pakistan. In particular, he was appalled by Gandhi's insistence on releasing Pakistan's share of accumulated foreign exchange reserves, which Jawaharlal Nehru also counselled Mahatma Gandhi against, while India was at war with it in Kashmir, because the funds would immediately aid their war effort. Revealingly, Godse appears to have grasped the imperative to negotiate wisely with the British in order to achieve the intact legacy of a united India. He was critical of the posturing of the Congress that ended in the disastrously misconceived Quit Indian movement of 1942 that was quickly succeeded by Gandhi's total capitulation. The latter could have meant the abandonment of all democratic pretensions and handing over the governance of independent India to the Muslim League to prevent partition. Quite clearly, Gandhi's assassin was not the raving Hindu lunatic popularly depicted in India, but a thoughtful and intelligent man who was prepared to commit murder. In some respects Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was an even fiercer critic of Gandhian appeasement of Muslims, sentiments echoed by no less political giants of India and the Congress like Shri Aurobindo Ghose and Annie Besant.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as the Mahatma, was shot dead by the Hindu nationalist journalist Nathuram Godse on 30 January 1948, half a year after the independence and partition of India. During his trial, which ended in a death sentence, Godse was permitted to explain his motives in a speech. The present book is largely a critical comment on that courtroom speech. 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 first version of the present book was De moord op de Mahatma (Dutch: "The murder of the Mahatma"), published by the Davidsfonds in Leuven, Belgium, in January 1998, in time for the assassination's fiftieth anniversary. News of the publication led to my being invited by leading Dutch radio anchor Marjolein Uitzinger of A VRO broadcasting foundation and by the Dutch Hindu broadcaster OHM- vani for lengthy interviews. By contrast, after initial calls for interviews on the news programs of Flemish (i.e. Dutch-speaking Belgian) state radio and TV, I was disinvited, apparently because the book did not contain the expected hagiographical indignation over Godse's radical incomprehension of Gandhi's presumed greatness. Its message was not deemed fit for a commemoration of a holy man's martyrdom. Of the two leading Flemish dailies, De Morgen gave it a review mixing praise with indignation, while De Standaard burned it down completely.
At the publisher's request, I had included in the Dutch edition a long introduction of Indian history, the caste system and the Hindu-Muslim conflict. I left these out in the English editions, judging that separate publications on those topics are sufficiently available. The first English edition, Gandhi and Godse. A Review and a Critique, was published in 2001 by Voice of India, a Delhi-based Hindu publishing- house founded and managed by the late great historian Sita Ram Goel. I had my doubts about having the book published through an ideologically marked publisher, but it seemed there was little alternative. I expected mainstream publihers to be wary of publishing it as it cited most of Godse's speech verbatim, and India's ban on the publication of his speech had never formally been lifted. Like many laws in India, that ban had become dead letter and Godse' s own political party, the Hindu Mahasabha, had effectively brought out the speech as a booklet; but a serious publisher with a reputation to uphold might choose to be more prudent. However, when Mr. Goel heard of my Dutch book detailing Godse's motives for murdering Gandhi, he himself offered to publish an English translation. He had been a Gandhian activist in his youth and an eyewitness to some of the events discussed in the speech. He always retained a soft corner for the Mahatma, even' after narrowly escaping with his life, his wife and his first child during the Muslim League's "Direct Action Day" in Kolkata, the prelude to the great Partition massacres for which many Hindus and Sikhs hold Gandhi co-responsible. His skepticism vis-a-vis the Hindu nationalists' tendency to blame Gandhi for the Partition is discussed here in chapter 6.7-8.
A French translation of the Indian edition, Pourquoi j'ai tue Gandhi: Examen et Critique de la Defense de Nathuram Godse ("Why I killed Gandhi: Investigation and Critique of Nathuram Godse's Defense"), was prepared at the request of the Paris-based publisher Michel Desgranges in 2007. His prestigious publishing-house Les Belles Lettres, otherwise specialized in the Greco-Roman classics, had started a series of books on India directed by Francois Gautier, India correspondent for several French dailies. It was a step forward to be published alongside top-ranking Indology scholars like Prof. Michel Angot.
Meanwhile, the English-Indian edition was getting some recognition. It was, after all, a rare entrance into the real thoughts of a Hindu nationalist, as opposed to one of those "expert" analyses by a biased academic Indologist. Even those Westerners who are in the pocket of the Indian secularists can recognize a reliable source when they are presented with one. That is why Prof. Martha Nussbaum used my book as a source in her own book The Clash Within (Harvard 2007, p.165ff., p.362ff.). Not that she wrote anything that Nehruvians in India would disapprove of, but at least she got the Godse part right.
A much updated Dutch edition was published by Aspekt Publishers in Soesterberg, the Netherlands, in 2009. It was included in its series of biographies under the simple title Mahatma Gandhi. This amounted to a first-class burial, obscuring the specificity of the book and making it look like just another biography. But at least I am happy it became available in print again for the Dutch-medium public.
Now the book, updated once more, may well have found its definitive shape in this English edition. I thank Professor Gautam Sen for writing an insightful foreword.
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