Saturday, 14 February 2009

Book of the Month: Let's Kill Gandhi (Tushar Gandhi)

In 1947, hundred-and-fifty years of British rule in India came to an end. Severely weakened at the end of the Second World War, the colonialists finally accepted that they were not going to be able to hold on to the Jewel in the Crown of their empire.

The dying days of the British Raj witnessed horrific and senseless atrocities, and an undeclared civil war, which led to the partition of the country along communal lines—the day before India achieved her independence, a new country, Pakistan, came into existence on the east and North of India, whose people had very little in common save Islam—and the biggest forced migration of people in the recorded history.

Within six months of independence, Mohandas Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation and a key player in India’s struggle for freedom, the pioneer of non-violence movement that became a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden, was shot dead at point blank range by a Hindu fanatic.

Six decades after the momentous event comes a Brobdingnagian chronicle of the Mahtama’s last days, the conspiracy, murder, investigation, and trial, Let’s Kill Gandhi, written by Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar A. Gandhi. This is not the first book to have been written on the Gandhi-assassination, which still arouses strong passion in India—many of the key persons involved in the trial (even the statement of Nathuram Godse, the man who pulled the trigger, May It Please Your Honour, has been published), have written at length on the subject—although, at almost thousand pages, it is, by a long chalk, the most voluminous.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, which begins with the dramatic description of the murder—Tushar Gandhi, in an interview, declared that he did not want to lend credibility to the heinous act by allocating the weighty term assassination to it (‘Bapu's killing had no credibility, his murderers had no justification, neither the ones who pulled the trigger, nor the ones who sought to legitimise the act nor the ones who conveniently turned a blind eye could ever justify their actions, so I prefer the more honest and brutal term murder.’)—, deals with the profiles of the men involved in the conspiracy, the plot (such as it was), and the investigation of the tragedy. The second part deals with the last years of the Mahatma, and, linked to them, the sequence of events that led to the dismemberment of the country. The third and final part is about the trial, the executions, and the ‘fact finding’ Kapur Commission (constituted eighteen years after the murder to find out if there were any aspect of the conspiracy that had not come to the fore at the time of the original trial).

Tushar Gandhi is on a mission. He wants to put the facts straight. He wants to explode, once and for all, what he calls the lies and half-truths that have been passed off as whole truths surrounding the tragic death of his great-grandfather. This is a worthy aim. Mohandas Gandhi was one of the most remarkable human beings of the 20th century, a man ahead of his times whose doctrines of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (insistence on truth) influenced many a generation, and, many may argue, has never been more needed than now. Yet the man described by Lord Casey, the governor of (undivided) Bengal, as a statesman amongst saints and a saint amongst statesmen, is accused, by the apologists of his killers, of being solely responsible for the partition of India. Gandhi, the malcontents argue, had abandoned the Hindus, and his policy of appeasing the Muslims encouraged Mohammad Ali Jinah (the founder of Pakistan) and his band of fanatics to make increasingly belligerent demands and wreak unspeakable havoc on the minority Hindus and Sikhs in provinces controlled by his communal Muslim League, eventually leading to the vivisection of the motherland. The ‘old man’ had become a liability and needed to be removed for the good of the country. Gopal Godse, the younger brother of Nathuram and a co-conspirator (he served a life sentence for his part in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi), remained unrepentant till the end. ‘We did away with somebody who was not only satisfied with the creation of Pakistan, he wanted to see Pakistan progress; he was in fact the father of Pakistan. Gandhi used to systematically fool people, so we killed him,’ said Gopal after his release from prison. These are the lies and half-truths Tushar Gandhi seeks to demolish. In the process he makes a few contentious, though not altogether new, claims, and tries to pass of what at best are conjectures as truth. Tushar Gandhi ties his yoke irrevocably with the Gandhian ideology and seeks to justify all the decisions and actions of the great man during those extraordinary times. He is avowedly emotionally invested in Bapu (the sobriquet by which Gandhi is frequently referred to in India) of whom he is a direct descendent. Gandhi remains perched on a pedestal; at no place in this meticulously researched and exhaustive book is he liberated from the straight-jacket of the Mahatma (Literal meaning: Great Soul) persona. Gandhi’s bitter political and ideological rival, the right-wing Hindu ideologue Savarkar, one of the accused in the Gandhi-murder trial (who was acquitted), is described stereotypically, his ideology dismissed forthwith (using stock terms of criticism) without actually clarifying its content, which makes the author susceptible to the charge of forsaking objectivity.

There is nothing in the first part which is not already known or published elsewhere. We learn about the rabid Hindu right wing views of Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte, which is explained by the fact that at a young age the two came under the influence of Savarkar, the evil messiah, spewing his theories of Hindu Rashtra (nation). Not much information emerges about the background of Madanlal Pahwa, who was born and bred in what is now Pakistan and came to India as a refugee at the time of partition. No attempt is made to understand the development of psychological profiles of the killers which is disappointing; the author appears simply to have lifted the already published material, in particular Manohar Malgaonkar’s The Men Who Killed Gandhi, which remains, to date, the best, most focused, and neutral account of the murder. Interestingly, the author has included Savarkar, the leader of the Hindu Maha Sabha (Literally ‘Great Gathering of Hindus’) and Gandhi’s ideological adversary, amongst murderers, even though he was completely exonerated by the courts. In author’s mind Savarkar is guilty—‘He [Savarkar] encouraged the efforts to assassinate Gandhi.’

The second part of the book gets wearisome not least because the author gets bogged down in small details from existing extensive writing—he quotes ad nauseum from the writings of Pyarelal Nayyar, Gandhi’s personal secretary during those turbulent times, and from the extensive correspondence Gandhi has left behind. Notwithstanding the cavalcade of minutiae, the author, to his credit, is able to convey the horror of the senseless violence as the ‘Frankestein of communalism’ gripped the country. The reportage-style, matter-of-fact descriptions of the atrocities inflicted on the helpless minorities in Noakhali, a remote region in the Gangetic delta (current day Bangla Desh), leave the readers with a harrowing sense of numbness. Mob lynching, beheading, burning, gang-rapes, forced conversions happened everywhere. The author lays the blame for this carnage on the Muslim League—the party in power in Bengal—and its communal chief minister, Shaheed Surhawardi, the perpetrators of violence, and the conniving British (who still controlled the army and police) who looked the other way as thousands were slaughtered. When the displaced refugees, in thousands, began to pour into the neighboring state of Bihar, bringing with them their tells of woes, the retaliatory violence, almost as brutal as that in Bengal, only this time directed against the innocent Muslims in Bihar, began. The statistics provided by the author beggar belief. In less than a week more than 350,000 Muslims fled their properties which were torched down by Hindu hooligans. Those who were not so lucky were killed and their bodies thrown into wells; in villages after villages wells were choked to the brim with dead, rotting bodies. The author alleges that the communal Hindu organizations such as Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh—‘Voluntary Servants of the Nation’) were at the vanguard of spreading violence and religious intolerance in Bihar, once the seat of Indian culture that boasted the first university in the region and gave the world Buddhism, but now, at the end of British rule, reduced to an impoverished agrarian state with landless rural population. While the leaders of the Indian National Congress were busy hacking out terms and conditions of the transfer of power—by this time all in Congress save Gandhi would appear to have accepted the inevitability of partition which the British presented as fate accompli—Gandhi went on a ‘peace pilgrimage’ first to Noakhali and then to Bihar. He repeatedly rejected requests of Congress leaders, Nehru included, to return to Delhi where, they felt, he was needed to guide them through the bureaucratic quagmire and political chicanery of the British. Gandhi’s ‘peace mission’ in the devastated regions, where he was surrounded by very hostile atmosphere, was an act of supreme courage. He was 77, and in frail health. He rejected the offer of the Muslim League government to give him armed escorts as he trawled, barefoot, the remotest regions. He said, ‘All my attempts to bring about real friendship between the two communities [Muslims and Hindus] must fail so long as I go fully protected by armed police or military. . . I do not need it. I even feel embarrassed and it certainly interferes with my sadhana.’ Gandhi did manage to bring peace to the burning regions, albeit only temporarily. This part of the book is liberally strewn with Gandhi’s sayings based on archival material and verbal history obtained from eye-witnesses. The picture emerges of a man who had the courage of his convictions, unstinting faith in ahimsa—non-violence, and secularism, and who was not afraid to tell home-truths. While addressing a largely Muslim gathering in the heart of Noakhali, he said, ‘I am a servant of both the Hindus and the Muslims. I have not come here to fight Pakistan. If India is destined to be partitioned I cannot prevent it. But I wish to tell you that Pakistan cannot be established by force. . . I ask my Muslim brethren to search their hearts and if they do not wish to live as friends with the Hindus, say so openly. Hindus must, in that case, leave East Bengal and go somewhere else. The refugees cannot stay as refugees for ever. If, on the other hand, you want the Hindus to stay in your midst, you should tell them that they need not look to the military for their protection but to their Muslim brethren instead.’ In one of the villages, the Hindus decorated the route Gandhi was taking to welcome him. Gandhi said, ‘Did you realize that by indulging in this vain display you would acerbate communal passion? This display means nothing to me. . . but it will leave a legacy of ill-will behind which will continue to poison the communal relations in this village for a long time to come.’ As India burned in the communal holocaust—several thousands, both Hindus and Muslims, perished in the massacres in Bengal and Bihar, and several thousand more were going to die in the violence that would grip Punjab and Sindh when the partition finally became a reality—the British, who, even at that stage had the ultimate responsibility for the continent they had ruled for more than hundred years, pressed ahead with what they called the timetable of the transfer of power. What followed was months of intrigue in which a number of formulae ranging from Balkanization of India (vehemently opposed by the Congress) to the continued independence of the ‘Princely states’ (which were notionally independent during the Raj, although, in reality, were controlled by the British, the Maharajas being mere puppets), to the partition of India along the communal lines, endorsing Mohammad Ali Jinha’s ‘Two Nations’ theory (The Hindus and the Muslims are two separate nations and cannot live together—the basis of the formation of Pakistan—also espoused, to an extent, by the Hindu-supremacists, who, nevertheless, wanted India to remain undivided which would have run the risk of reducing the Muslims, had they seized power (although there was no danger of that, such was the popularity of Gandhi), to secondary citizens), were put forth. According to the author, no party covered itself with glory in this Machiavellian, and ultimately sordid, drama. Jinah, the leader of Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan, comes across as a ruthless manipulator, for whom the end justified the means. The ‘Direct Action’ of Muslim League, which unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror and violence, is a blot on humanity’s landscape. The conduct of the British could be termed, depending on one’s view, either as maliciously duplicitous or driven by a misguided sense of correctitude and a desire to be seen as fair to all parties. The author is in no doubt that the British were Janus-faced and phenomenally hypocritical—Lord Wavell, the last but one viceroy of India, comes in for particularly harsh criticism for his blatantly partial attitude towards the demands of the Muslim League—although he concedes that some members of the Labour government that had been swept to power in the UK at the end of the second World War had sympathy towards the cause of Indian independence, and were genuine in their desire to leave India. The British rule in India, in its last 50 years, had come to be increasingly despised, and the colonialists were using every trick of the trade to hold on to the hen which was still laying golden eggs for the empire. Frontmost among the British tactics was the ‘divide and rule’ policy, which the colonialists had used with great success in different parts of the world. The British knavishly took advantage of the historical mistrust between the Hindus and Muslims as well as the inherent divisions amongst the Hindus to further deepen the fissures in the fabric of the Indian society. Towards this end the paranoia of the Muslims was systematically stoked and simultaneously they were given preferential political treatment, creation of separate constituencies for Muslims (where only Muslim candidates could contest) being just one example. The British also attempted to treat Congress, the only political party that had genuine pan-Indian presence and appeal, as being representative of only upper-caste Hindus and sought to create separate constituencies for the low-castes of the Hindu societies. Needless to say, the British had no desire to uplift the downtrodden—their record as regards social upliftment of the masses was abysmal—but were only hoping that the opposition of various constituents to their rule would weaken, busy as they would be squabbling amongst themselves. These unrightous methods yielded partial dividends for the colonialists in the short-term in that it stretched their regime for a few more decades, but left behind a legacy that haunts the region even now. As regards dealing with the opposition to their rule, the British had a two-pronged policy. The revolutionary—the British called them terrorists—who were not averse to using violent tactics, were dealt with savagely. Many were summarily hanged or subjected to kala paani—severe and brutal punishment in cellular jails on remote islands such as Andaman, where they remained incarcerated for decades. Savarkar, one of the accused in the Gandhi Murder trial, and still revered as a great freedom fighter in his native state, was subjected to 50 years of kala pani for his ‘terrorist’ activities; he was released after 15 years and kept under house-arrest for further 14 years. It has to be said, though, that, because of the unprecedented appeal of Gandhi and his doctrine of non-violence, the violent, ‘revolutionary’ methods did not receive widespread support of hoi polloi. Gandhi, and the Congress he led, although they were not treated as brutally as Savarkar and his band of revolutionaries (or terrorists), were the real thorn in the side of the colonialists, not least because Gandhi, by dint of his methods, assumed moral high ground, which allegedly used to irritate Winston Churchill, Brition’s war-time prime-minister. Churchill famously described Gandhi as ‘Naked Fakir’. In a letter to Churchill from prison Gandhi wrote: ‘You are reported to have the desire to crush the ‘Naked Fakir’ as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a Fakir and that naked—a more difficult task. I, therefore, regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.’ By the time the second world war came to an end and the British began to face up to the possibility of having to give up India, the demand for the separate homeland for the Muslims had been taken up by the Muslim League and its president Jinah, himself an ex-Congressman. The Congress leaders, the author would have us believe, were men in a hurry. They were eager to assume power; they were worried the time was running out for them. Prolonged periods of incarceration—the British, not wanting any trouble in the colonies while they were fighting the Nazis, had imprisoned all the leaders of Congress, without any trial, of course, for almost the entire duration of the second World War—had broken their spirit and they had no fight left in them. The exception was Gandhi. Throughout his life he had not lusted after power. He did not hold any position in Congress; indeed he was not even a primary member of Congress for the previous 15 years. He was prepared to wait, and had taken the stance that the third party [the British] should vacate forthwith and ‘leave India to her Fate.’ He did not want partition, though he was not going to go against the will of the people; but he did not want the colonialists, who, in his eyes, had no locus standi, to act as arbitrators, which, he was convinced, would further vitiate the atmosphere. Some of Gandhi’s utterances, quoted in the book, seem improbably idealistic, almost naïve. Gandhi’s stance was not acceptable to any of the stakeholders, including leaders of his own party. The Congress leaders were in a quandary. On the one hand, they did not strictly need him as he did not hold any position in the party. Yet no one amongst them had his pan-Indian appeal. The moral authority Gandhi wielded seems almost surreal. The news of him going on fast would bring the country to a standstill; ordinary people of all creeds and cast would flock to his camp and plead with him to end his fast. In the last phase of his life Gandhi was able to put a stop, albeit a temporary one, to the violence by the sheer force of his righteousness. The Congress leaders were only too aware of this. They needed Gandhi to put his seal of approval on their proposals because they knew that the Indian public would listen to him. As Pyarelal Nayyar, Gandhi’s personal secretary, wryly observed, ‘They [the Congress leaders] were the ones, the word went round, with whom 'business could be done. The impossible old man [Gandhi] was put on a pedestal, admired for his genius and 'unerring hunch', consulted, listened to with respectful attention—and bypassed.’

The third part of the book deals with the investigations, trial and execution. As is the case with the other two parts, no new information or insight emerge. Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, and Narayan Apte, the man prosecution successfully argued was the mastermind of the plot, were hanged. Savarkar was acquitted, as was Dr. Parchure, an ideologue of the Hindu Mahasabha in the central province, who was accused of supplying the pistol that Godse used. Digmbar Badge, another Hindu fanatic and an arms-dealer, became the witness for the prosecution (it was Badge’s evidence that the prosecution used to try to nail Savarkar: according to Badge, two weeks before the murder, he, Godse and Apte visited Savarkar at his residence in Bombay. Badge was asked to wait outside while the two conspirators holed up with Savarkar in his study on the first floor of the residence for several minutes. Then they came out, and as Godse and Apte descended the stairs Savarkar said, ‘Yashsvi Houn Ya’ (Be victorious)’; this was refuted by Savarkar as well as the other accused) while the rest, among them Gopal Godse, a weak-willed man and Nathuram’s younger brother, were given life imprisonment. As Apte and Godse were being led to the gallows, Nathuram, who, throughout his trial, had been a picture of brave defiance, went weak at the knees and had to be supported by the jail wardens, while Apte remained calm, almost serene. Savarkar, exonerated by the courts, was politically finished, and, wrecked by ill-health, stayed out of the mainstream politics for the remainder of his life. He remains a controversial, if peripheral, figure in the Indian polity to this day. The rest of the conspirators, upon their release from prison, led obscure lives and, to all outward purposes, remained unremorseful of what they had done. It is a shame that the author has made no efforts to trace their lives, post-release, and all of them remain unconvincing two-dimensional characters. The author gives detailed descriptions of the plot to murder Gandhi, such as it was. The picture emerges of men who, rabidly fanatic (and united in their hatred of Gandhi for different reasons) as they were, were no professional killers. The handsome Apte, the so-called mastermind behind the plot, comes across as a fantasist. He was also a blabbermouth, and left a trail of their activities longer than Mumbai-Poona highway. Indeed, the readers learn, the shooting that finally killed Gandhi was the killers’ second, impromptu, attempt within two weeks. They had unsuccessfully tried to set off a bomb in Gandhi’s evening prayer meeting a couple of weeks earlier. The police had arrested Madanlal Pahwa (who had set off the bomb, and who was sentenced to life imprisonment) who had clearly told them the names of the key conspirators and had predicted ‘Woh Phir Aayenge (They will strike again).' Quite why and how the police could not act on this information and stop the murderers in their tracks is unfathomable. While Gandhi did not make matters any easier for them by not allowing any security for his evening prayers, the police were guilty of breathtaking ineptitude. The author drops oblique hints that some of the senior leaders in Congress, in particular Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, the iron-man of independent India and her first Home minister, bitterly disappointed at being passed over by Gandhi, who favoured Nehru as his political heir, for the preimership, and possibly coming under the sway of Hindu fundamentalists, wanted Gandhi out of the way. What is incomprehensible is the blasé attitude of Morarji Desai, a staunch Gandhian, who became India’s prime minister decades later, at the age of eighty one. Desai was the Home Minister of what was then the Bombay province and was given all the information that should have been sufficient to arrest the plotters, more than a week before the murder. Inexplicably, Desai, whose secular credentials were never in doubt, chose to sit on this information. Whether there indeed was a political conspiracy that allowed the conspirators to have that crucial extra week after the failed first attempt will remain a matter of conjecture and will, no doubt, continue to provide fodder for the conspiracy theorists for years. For what it is worth, the readers learn (from the practically unreadable last section of the book) that the fact finding Kapoor Commission, formed twenty years after the Mahatma’s murder, did not find any evidence of political conspiracy.

This is a book born out of anger. In the foreword Tushar Gandhi writes: ‘I can never forgive them [the men who killed Gandhi], nor can I forgive the philosophy that created Nathuram Godse, the murderer. . . I felt extreme rage inside me. . .This book is a result of that rage that has been bottled up in me for far too long.’ By his own admission, Tushar Gandhi has not written anything new: ‘What I have written, has been known, but to very few people,’ said he in an interview he gave when the book was released. This is what lets the book down in the end: it has an investigative veneer, but all that Tushar Gandhi has done, so it seems, is sit with a pile of reports, books and private correspondence, and prepare an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) compendium. It adds no new information to what is already known, nor does it offer any insight into the psych of the killers. The author offers no real evidence to back up his claims and innuendos with regard to public figures such as Patel and Savarkar. These claims, therefore, have as much authenticity as the gossip in the breadline. That said the book is written with conviction, single-mindedness of purpose, and great passion. The Mahatma once said, ‘Anger is an acid which corrodes the vessel in which it is stored.’ One hopes that this cathartic book has given his great-grandson some peace of mind.