Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Clear-eyed perspective on Mahatma's assassination

Deccan Chronicle.| Shashi Warrier

Published on: February 26, 2022 | Updated on: February 27, 2022

The first thing that strikes you about this book is its no-nonsense writing

Cover Image of the book 'Why They Killed Gandhi' by Ashok Kumar Pandey.

Cover Image of the book 'Why They Killed Gandhi' by Ashok Kumar Pandey.

"...Gandhi believed that India and Pakistan would again be one. For him they had in fact never been separated. That is why, while he tried to stop the mayhem in Delhi, he decried the violence in Pakistan as well and desired to go and do something about it. Gandhi was hence an inconvenience for all kinds of divisive forces who had been responsible for the Partition."

The first thing that strikes you about this book is its no-nonsense writing. The author wrote it in Hindi, under the title Usne Gandhi Ko Kyon Maara, which translates to Why He Killed Gandhi. When he translated it into English, he changed the "He" to "They", to make it clear that the book isn’t about any person in particular but about the conspiracy behind the killing of the Mahatma. He’s clearly taken pains over the translation, and it shows.

Much of Mr Pandey’s book is unexceptionable. There’s his obvious respect for Gandhi, which I happen to share. There’s the notion of the conspiracy: in those heated days, there was much opposition to what many Hindus saw as appeasement by the Mahatma and by the leaders of the infant country, an environment in which I’d be surprised if there weren’t a conspiracy.

The opening sentence, and, indeed, the opening section of the book, are a judgement on the men, Nathuram Godse and others, the guilty men of Red Fort: "Neither were they among the heroes who sacrificed everything for the freedom of the motherland, nor among the revolutionary intellectuals of that period working for a better future for the country." Past that is a brief history of the Peshwas and the Chitpavan Brahmins and their beliefs, with references to Koenraad Elst and his claims on Poona, as it was then called, being the centre of brahminical Hinduism.

Mr Pandey then lays out in some detail the character of the Mahatma, notably his fearlessness, his unconcern over other attempts on his life, and his inflexible morality. He describes the turmoil of the last days of the Mahatma, and his struggle to come to terms with the horrors of Partition and his bewilderment at it, his fasts for peace, his visit to Noakhali, his travel between Calcutta and Delhi, the continuous efforts to heal. He highlights, among other matters, Gandhi’s refusal to allow the scattered British forces remaining in India to intercede to control the killing, a refusal that was interpreted by many as an unwillingness to defend Hindus or Muslims, depending on who was doing the interpreting.
He moves on, then, to that terrible day when Godse fired three shots into Gandhi in full public view. He describes the aftermath, in particular the gloating of Gandhi’s Hindu fundamentalist enemies, who blamed him for Partition, and even more for the disbursement of Rs 55 crores from the treasury to the fledgling government of Pakistan.

He moves on, then, to the trial at which Godse was convicted, and during which he lied, for instance, about the notorious Rs 55-crore grant to Pakistan: it’s firmly established that both Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel had agreed to the grant, and not disbursing it would be at least immoral, if not illegal. At several points in the narrative, the author stresses that it was Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces that were really responsible for Partition, and that by killing Gandhi his killers failed the nation.

Then comes the controversial question: who were the people involved in the larger conspiracy? These are interesting times at which to raise such a question. Historian Vikram Sampath’s recent works on V.R. Savarkar paint a far different picture of him from the one that Mr Pandey does in this book.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to try to settle the question, but it’s worth noting that there are similar disturbances occurring in Pakistan, where Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, professor emeritus of political science at University of Stockholm, has shown, in a credible and well-documented book on Jinnah, that British military leaders — with US backing, of course, after World War II — were the keenest supporters of Partition because they saw in Pakistan a potential bulwark against the growing threat of communism…

Mr Pandey’s book contains other thoughts that don’t ring completely true. This is what he says: "We conveniently forget that Gandhi was not the only victim of religious fundamentalism… We have lost millions of lives in communal riots since then… Every time this fundamentalism returns in a new guise with the slogan,’Religion is in danger’, and each time it becomes crueller."

Yes, the subcontinent lost millions of lives to religious fundamentalism during Partition. Yes, religious fundamentalism has cost the world many more millions of lives. No question about that. But do consider this: between the two of them, the most bloodthirsty tyrants of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse Tung (now Zedong) caused the death of anything between fifty and a hundred million human beings — aside from deaths directly ascribed to World War II — for a set of political ideals that are as unhindered by science as any religion. Mao’s eventual successor is fast emerging, unacknowledged, as the leader of the biggest threat to the world order.

When historians wear blinkers, histories become stories, which in turn become myth. These days they call it narrative. And what the narrative makes us forget is Gandhi’s fearlessness. Mr Pandey quotes from B.R. Nanda’s Gandhi and His Critics: "Gandhi instigated, if he did not initiate, three major revolutions of our time, the revolution against [sic] racialism, the revolution against colonialism, and the revolution against violence".

This, in my view, limits Gandhi. For all his own fearlessness, he recognised fear when he saw it. He recognized that fundamentalism and hatred and violence are faces of fear, and that fear has other faces too, and he had the strength to deal with whichever face confronted him. Gandhi never thought in terms of "us vs them". For him, everyone was "us", including those who thought him their enemy, including those who brought about his death.

And so, for all its simplicity and directness and the value of the research that’s gone into it, the book doesn’t raise this crucial question: can we deal with Gandhi’s killers and with history with some semblance of his spirit? In that sense, this book fails the Mahatma.

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.

Why They Killed Gandhi
Ashok Kumar Pandey
Speaking Tiger
pp. 253, Rs.499

About The Author

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.

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