Book Review | Good journalism shows difference between history, Hindutva legend
Deccan Chronicle.| Anand K Sahay
Jha traces the journey of Gandhi's killer from the latter's childhood in a story-telling format
Cover image of the book 'Gandhi's Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India' by Dhirendra Jha. (by Arrangement)
What is so remarkable about this volume is the engaging style in which the author deals with an extremely complex theme of the history of modern India that has been very inadequately explored by history professionals.
This feature makes the book easily accessible to anyone with a modicum of interest in the story of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi — and once that curiosity is engaged, the reader is apt to be immersed in the fascinating detailing of the labyrinths through which the anti-Gandhi ideology sprouted, spread, and played ducks and drakes with the governance and judicial system.
If the story of the Gandhi-helmed anti-colonial movement leading on to Indian Independence is the story of the success of the monolithic effort of a multi-hued society as a whole, the sheer largeness and spread of that enterprise has somewhat obscured the development of other patterns that challenged the Gandhian paradigm which shaped what has come to be known as "the idea of India".
The Partition of India was such a striking accomplishment of the British colonial rulers in promoting and harnessing the communal virus amongst the country’s Muslim society that its study could not but command the attention of historians as well as myth-makers in both India and Pakistan. The same cannot, however, be said for the study of Hindu supremacist thought. In this domain, the myth-maker has outrun the historian.
Dhirendra Jha’s important work more than restores that balance. Jha is a practising journalist, not a historian. But in this volume he delights by giving evidence of the trade-craft of both domains which — come to think of it — are far from being at variance with one another.
An investigative journalist must ask question after question in pursuit of a story, and follow every lead that ingenuity and doggedness can throw up. A historian must corroborate every thread of a narrative that surfaces. Without corroboration, no reference to an event that occurred in the past, no matter how compelling, can be structured as history even if it were to pass muster as myth or legend. In this book, Jha takes us into the world of Hindu supremacist thought in its citadel centred on Pune of the late 1930s and the 1940s.
He convincingly shows us that such a world was ready for a Nathram Godse, the man who murdered Gandhi in cold blood and through a well-deliberated, collectively mounted, effort. The assassination can, in fact, be said to have been a disaster waiting to happen, such was the atmosphere created by the communalists.
India’s first Hindutva party was not the BJP or its earlier incarnation the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, but the Hindu Mahasabha whose ideological mentor was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Founded by K.B. Hedgewar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was envisaged as the militant cadre of the Hindu-supremacist outlook, both as a thought and ideal. It is generally not known that Hedgewar was brought up and promoted by Savarkar, who managed to escape the gallows in the Gandhi assassination case on technical grounds.
The author presents the proposition that the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha of the time were intertwined organisations, in practical terms going beyond kinship.
This case is built on the strength of detailed archival material, interviews with RSS and Hindu Mahasabha members and their families, and reading contemporary records in Marathi with the help of those familiar with that rich language of western India. These resources are backed up with a formidable catalogue of secondary sources that would be required of any historian of the period.
Jha traces the journey of Gandhi’s killer from the latter’s childhood in a story-telling format. The narrative serves as a psychological biography as well. Godse’s intimate contact with Savarkar, and from his very early days his close association with the RSS, besides his co-founding of the Hindu Rashtra Dal (HRD), a violent fascist outfit or army, are brought alive in the pages of this book which has been fashioned like a thriller in parts. In suitable measure, the insincere amour of Apte has also been thrown in to delineate the character of Godse’s fellow-fascist associate and accomplice who also received the death sentence for assassinating Gandhi.
A craftily sustained and assiduously cultivated myth has endured over the decades. According to it, the driven Godse was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha alone and had left the RSS years before he assassinated Gandhi. Citing the records from the archives, including those from the RSS headquarters in Nagpur used by contemporary intelligence reports, as well as interviews, Jha shows this claim to be bogus. It is in doing so that Dhirendra Jha’s work stands out and can be separated from those of other writers and commentators on Gandhi’s assassination.
His exhaustive documentation and the filling of gaps in our knowledge of the development of the ideology and organisational framework of Hindu communalism enriches our understanding of a crucial period of our modern history. As the India at the end of British rule was taking shape, a corner of it was already darkening. That is the story told in these pages.
Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India
By Dhirendra Jha
pp. 335, Rs.699
Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.