By making him a martyr, Godse immortalised Gandhi when the chances are that, if he had lived another decade, his idiosyncrasies would have damaged his credibility before his own people.
The fact that today we call Gandhi a Mahatma, but follow none of his principles, tells us a lot about why he was an outlier, an extremist.
Let us be clear on one point: Political wannabe and actor Kamal Haasan did not call Nathuram Godse a “Hindu terrorist”. In a speech obviously meant for minority ears, Haasan used the Tamil word “theevravadi”, which loosely translates as “extremist”, not “terrorist”. Words that convey a similar meaning in Hindi would be “ugravadi” or “kattarpanthi”. The actor said that the first “extremist” independent India produced was Godse.
This is an odd statement to make in the context of the volatile communal situation post 15 August 1947, and even a bit before that, when there were Muslim, Sikh and Hindu “extremists” caught up in violent acts around the time of Partition. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s call for Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946, which unleashed the Great Calcutta Killings that left hundreds dead, was a spur to terrorism. His call terrorised an entire city for days on end.
So, one can hardly call Godse the first “extremist” of his time, regardless of the religion he belonged to. There were literally scores of them.
The next point to dispute is Haasan’s choice of the word extremist to describe Godse. He shot Gandhi at point-blank range, and did not try to terrorise anyone, nor did he attempt to run away. He was someone who assassinated a popular leader for religious-political reasons.
If we take a commonsense meaning, an extreme view should be seen as the farthest one from views in the middle of the spectrum. It implies at least two different kinds of extremism — you can be extreme in opposite directions from the middle. Just as we can have extreme Right and extreme Left positions in the political arena, in the area of violent political action you can be at one of two extremes: violence turned outward, or violence turned inward. The latter could also be called the pacifist position. Both are extreme positions that most people would find unacceptable.
So, if Godse’s decision to kill Gandhi for his views can be considered extreme, so can Gandhi’s extreme pacifism.
Consider how little difference (in terms of outcome) there is between a jihadi extremist who blows himself up to kill scores of people from a community he hates, and Gandhi’s advice to the British to allow themselves to be killed by Hitler and Mussolini by the thousand, if the latter invaded Britain. Gandhi also wrote two letters to Hitler, calling him as “my friend”.
In an open letter to the British in July 1940, Gandhi asked them to surrender and/or get slaughtered, but not give the Nazis their allegiance. He wrote:
“You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
How many people in today’s world, even those who want peace at any cost, would think these views represent the commonsense middle and not the extreme? Is this pacifism not an act of violence against oneself? What is the true difference between the extremist who blows himself up and the “peaceful extremist” who voluntarily invites similar violence on himself and thousands of people in the name of non-violence?
Gandhi’s pacifism was extreme, and these came from three influences. One was his proximity to the Jain idea of ahimsa, and the second was the deep influence Christ’s Sermon on the Mount had on him. Turning the other cheek was his preferred moral position whenever someone did you an injustice, never mind that no Christian nation has ever followed this advice.
The third deep influence was the Bhagawad Gita, but only a pacifist like Gandhi could partly misread it as a manual on ahimsa. The Gita talks about doing your duty and, if needed, going to war to defend dharma. But for Gandhi the Kurukshetra war was purely allegorical and internal — something intended to prove the futility of war. No one can deny this angle in the Gita, but Gandhi digested only one half of the message — the part that suited his pacifist beliefs.
You don’t have to believe in assassination, like Godse did, to realise that his own understanding of his duty towards fellow Hindus could also have been derived from the Gita — a deed done without fear of the negative consequences to himself. He was hanged after a trial along with a co-conspirator.
Judge G D Khosla, former Chief Justice of the Punjab & Haryana High Court, who heard the appeal of Godse and confirmed his death sentence, gave Godse time to speak about the reasons for murdering the Mahatma. Godse’s speech in court can be found in this short book, The Murder of The Mahatma, by Khosla, from page 42 onwards.
This is what Khosla had to say towards the end of the book, at the point where Godse had concluded his statement with a quote from the Gita. Note, particularly, how the audience reacted to Godse’s speech.
“He ended his peroration on a high note of emotion, reciting verses from Bhagawad Gita. The audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men were coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs. The silence was accentuated and made deeper by the sound of an occasional subdued sniff or a muffled cough. It seemed to me that I was taking part in some kind of melodrama or in a scene out of a Hollywood feature film.
“Once or twice I had interrupted Godse and pointed out the irrelevance of what he was saying, but my colleagues seemed inclined to hear him and the audience most certainly thought that Godse's performance was the only worthwhile part of the lengthy proceedings. A writer's curiosity in watching the interplay of impact and response made me abstain from being too conscientious in the matter. Also, I said to myself: “The man is going to die soon. He is past doing any harm. He should be allowed to let off steam for the last time.” I have, however, no doubt that had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse's appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of 'not guilty' by an overwhelming majority.” (Italics mine)
If this is true, that large sections of Hindus quietly agreed with Godse despite their reverence for Gandhi, one can hardly call Godse an extremist and not Gandhi, who was at the other extreme.
Godse took the extreme action of taking his differences with Gandhi towards murder. In this he not only was wrong, but also damaged his own cause. By making him a martyr, Godse immortalised Gandhi when the chances are that, if he had lived another decade, his idiosyncrasies would have damaged his credibility before his own people. The fact that today we call Gandhi a Mahatma, but follow none of his principles, tells us a lot about why he was an outlier, an extremist.