Patriot and Martyr: Death of Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi around 1935. Retrieved from NPR and Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shaochen Shi
January 14, 2020

Mohandas Gandhi, the liberator of India, was shot three times in the chest during a peaceful evening gathering.

After WW2, the British government granted autonomy to India, which had been a British colony for the past hundred years. After numerous failed uprisings and political divisions, it was Gandhi’s Quit India Movement, a campaign of mass civil disobedience with a clear agenda and non-violent practices that brought the victory. He was then referred to as Mahatma Gandhi, “the saint”, by his beloved people. Yet the celebration didn’t last long. The nation soon fell into division as the two major political powers – the Indian National Congress supporting Hinduism and the All-India Muslim league organized by Muslim politicians – fought over India’s future. The final result was obvious: a plan for the partition of India which created modern Pakistan. After this, some of the most brutal religious massacres between Hindus and Muslims broke out.

Seeing this, Gandhi began his famous hunger-strike in an attempt to spread reconciliation across India. To Nathuram Godse, it was treason. Godse was a member of Hindu Mahasabha, one of the emerging ultra-radical right-wing political organization for the growing Indian nationalism. Before India had won her independence, the group sought to drive out British colonialism by force. Just like Gandhi, Godse wanted a united India after independence, but the difference between the men’s visions was that Godse’s version of India was to be governed by Hinduism and traditions, not a skinny old man that allowed religious tolerance. He famously said, “I stoutly maintain that Gandhi has failed in his duty. He has proved to be the Father of Pakistan.”

Gandhi's Killer Evokes Admiration as Never Before - The New York Times
Nathuram Godse’s “shrine”

Now, you might’ve already guessed what happened next. Some believed it was a political assassination staged by Pakistani intelligence; some claimed it was manipulated by the British, but the rumours soon vanished as people reported that Godse reverently saluted the man, then raised his pistol.

Gandhi’s shawl turned red. He murmured, “He Ram! (Oh, God!)”, gave his final blessing to the assassin, then fell to the ground.

It was a death worthy of Gandhi’s saint-like figure – the death of a martyr for his satyagraha code of non-violence and forgiveness. And it proves to be true: it was not a Muslim or a Pakistani that killed the father of India, but a fellow Indian Hindu. Yet, the most interesting and perhaps thought-provoking part of this story hasn’t been revealed: it is that Godse spoke highly of his victim even after the latter’s death. He adored Gandhi in his youth for his civil disobedience, read his books, and now claimed that he revered Gandhi’s personality; the assassination was solely for India’s future.

Godse was sentenced to death, a conviction that many would disagree with at that time: some were moved by his self-sacrifice to Hinduism as they saw him as their Gandhi, while some viewed this decision as an insult to the Mahatma.

Today, Godse is deemed a martyr by many. While the assassin is still a taboo figure in the eyes of the masses, especially those who support the INC, his perception in Indian politics seems to be moving from that of a “villain” to “controversial.” Pragya Thakur, a name frequently mentioned in Indian politics, publicly appraised Godse as “deshbhakt,” a patriot. He had his own documentary, followers, and perhaps a statue in the future.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education  Institute
MLK, with Gandhi’s Photo

As you might’ve noticed, the story of the death of Gandhi did not end. In fact, the ideas in Godse’s Magnum Opus – Why I Killed Gandhi – stayed relevant in the form of Hindutva, an interesting ideology that dominated the Bharatiya Janata Party, and was made mainstream at the global stage by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It promotes not only nationalism but supremacy, the “well-deserved place” of Hinduism – the very religion the dominant population believes in. We can find its very same elements compared and contrasted to those held by not only Gandhi and other founding fathers of India, but also those of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or those of Elijah Muhammad and hundreds of politicians today. Like the everlasting argument in the Indian Parliament, the opposition of Godse and Gandhi is now being repeated in other parts of the world. This time, one question remains: who will leave his mark on history?

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