November 15th, 2007 Headsman
On this date in 1949, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was hanged at India’s Ambala Jail, together with one of his co-conspirators.
Often spoken of posthumously as little less than a saint, Gandhi was deeply immersed in the controversial rough-and-tumble politics of his time — India’s independence movement, and the shape of the nascent state. Winston Churchill, for instance, scorned him as “a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace.”
The hatred of a Tory M.P. at the twilight of the empire might be expected, but it was a Hindu nationalist who struck Gandhi down after the partition into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi had vocally opposed partition on the grounds of interreligious tolerance — but he eventually assented to Pakistan’s separation when he became convinced that the alternative was civil war.
Distrusted by Hindu partisans for his “appeasement” of minority groups within India, Gandhi survived numerous attempts on his life. But he sealed his fate by fasting to compel Delhi to make its agreed-upon partition payments to Islamabad even in the midst of war. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, gunned him down during evening prayers on January 30, 1948.
(For a less Hollywood take on Gandhi, a five-hour documentary available online surveys his life.)
Godse never betrayed doubt or regret. On the contrary, he cogently justified the murder at trial:
I thought to myself and foresaw I shall be totally ruined, and the only thing I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred and that I shall have lost all my honour, even more valuable than my life, if I were to kill Gandhiji. But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be proved practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces. No doubt, my own future would be totally ruined, but the nation would be saved from the inroads of Pakistan. People may even call me and dub me as devoid of any sense or foolish, but the nation would be free to follow the course founded on the reason which I consider to be necessary for sound nation-building.
I do say that my shots were fired at the person whose policy and action had brought rack and ruin and destruction to millions of Hindus. There was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book and for this reason I fired those fatal shots.
Sixty years later, the subcontinent and the world at large seem more strained than ever by the collision between these men’s visions — the secular and egalitarian as against violent religious animosity.
Godse’s old party, the RSS, has become a substantial far-right bloc in the modern political scene. And while the party has always disavowed responsibility for the murder, some still consider Godse a hero. Pakistan, for whose birth Gandhi was slain, totters on the brink of an abyss.
Gandhi, meanwhile, is not only the official “father of his country” but has become the very watchword for nonviolence, his tactics and ideas inspiring such luminaries as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. But his life and legacy remain live topics of research and dispute.
Also on this date
- 1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen
- 2011: Reginald Brooks, flipping the bird
- 2011: Oba Chandler
- 1781: Tupac Katari
- 1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother
- 1539: Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury
- 1924: Daisuke Namba, for the Toranomon Incident
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Infamous,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan
Tags: 1940s, 1949, gandhi, hinduism, islam, mahatma gandhi, martin luther king jr., mohandas gandhi, nathuram godse, nationalism, nelson mandela, nonviolence, rashtriya swayamsevak sangh, religion, winston churchill