- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

PUNE, India — In a dingy two-room apartment where cardboard boxes spill over with a lifetime of angry writings, an elderly man keeps watch over the memory of his long-dead brother and the story of the murder that thrust them into worldwide attention more than 50 years ago.

“I want to explain how I was connected to this Gandhi assassination,” says Gopal Godse, beginning his story.

His voice is calm, sunken gray-green eyes fixed on his listener. But his words convey the cold, unrepentant fury that drove a tiny band of conspirators to plot the killing of Mohandas Gandhi, the pacifist who led India to independence, fought for equality in a nation sharply divided by caste, and became one of the most revered men in modern history.

“We did not want this man to live,” said Godse, a thin, bookish man who spent 16 years in prison for his role in Gandhi’s 1948 murder. “We did not want this man to die a natural death, even if 10 lives were to be lost for that purpose.”

“He was a very cruel person for the Hindus,” said Godse, a fervent Hindu whose brother led the plot.

In Godse’s view, Gandhi’s calls for nonviolence were part of a plot to allow Hindus to be slaughtered by Muslims. His urging for peace with overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan was seen as a betrayal of Hinduism, which Godse believes should rule over much of South Asia.

At 83, Godse is the last of the conspirators alive. Frail and largely forgotten, he and his wife live an isolated life with little money and few visitors. He survives off the royalties of his books: obscure, cheaply printed works on Gandhi and the life and eventual execution of his brother Nathuram.

But Godse has lived long enough to see his beliefs move from the fringes of Hindu militancy into the Indian mainstream — albeit in a milder version.

Today, India is governed by a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP, a Hindu party whose roots lie in a militant Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS.

Both Godse and his brother belonged to the RSS, which was influenced by German fascists of the 1930s. The RSS, which now distances itself from the Godses, has hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of followers, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and other top officials.

Godse, however, despises the current government, which India’s secularists see as hard-line but he considers too moderate. And his beliefs are common among the government’s more militant supporters.

In a nation of more than a billion people — some 840 million of them Hindus — Godse and like-minded Indians see Hindus as deeply oppressed.

It may seem incongruous that an overwhelming majority would see itself as threatened, but it’s a commonly heard fear among believers in Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness,” the doctrine that India should be governed by Hindu beliefs.

Self-defense training with bamboo staffs, swords and rifles is common among hard-line Hindutva believers, and Hindu suicide squads have vowed to defend their motherland.

The doctrine reaches from military training grounds to classrooms. Government textbooks distributed since the rise of the BJP government have been criticized for omitting mention of Gandhi’s assassination, discussing Nazism without mentioning its racist ideology, and saying a Hindu swami “established the superiority of Indian thought and culture over the Western mind.”

Such matters have sparked criticism from India’s secular intelligentsia, to whom Godse is an extreme example of the dangers of the militant movement.

The killing of Gandhi “was actually an assault on secularism by the Hindu right, and what Gopal Godse is doing is continuing that assault,” said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, an international-studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a prominent liberal crusader.

“For someone to be proud of his role in murdering the father of the nation is an insult to the entire nation,” Mr. Chenoy said.

Godse sees things far differently.

“If you do not protect your culture, your sovereignty is lost, your self-rule is lost,” he said. “That is what you must realize.”

Godse’s tiny apartment, where light filters in through laundry strung in front of the windows, is a monument to the assassination plot. In the office-living room, there is a larger-than-life photograph of a smiling Nathuram Godse adorned with a cheap plastic garland. There are fading pictures of the five convicted plotters, the frames warped with age, and a richly engraved silver urn for Nathuram’s ashes.

Despite his virulent hatred of Muslims and his lurking suspicions of nearly everyone else, Godse is polite and soft-spoken. He makes small talk about the traffic, and asks if it was difficult to find his apartment, which is hidden in a tangle of streets in a working-class neighborhood of Pune, the southern city where he was born.

While the years occasionally slip about in his stories, his mind is clear.

Godse doesn’t want pity. He only wants people to believe that the man they revere as a modern saint, a man most refer to as mahatma, or “great soul,” was a fraud.

“If the people knew the reasons [for the assassination], Gandhi would be exposed,” he said.

Godse’s life has been shaped by the belief that India is inherently Hindu and should be governed by its principles. He lives in a haze of relentless conspiracies, a high-caste Hindu who sees Hindus as victims of Muslim plotting. This is not bigotry, but self-preservation, he insists.

Godse believes Gandhi turned his back on the Hindus, allowing British India to be divided in 1947 into today’s states of India and Pakistan. He insists Muslims want to convert, or kill, all nonbelievers, and says peace between the two religions is impossible.

“When they say we have good relations with Muslims, it’s all humbug, it’s all bogus,” he said, his voice momentarily angry. “You can’t expect the Muslim to give up his religion.”

The final insult came when Gandhi, a Hindu himself, launched a hunger strike seeking to press India’s government into paying money it owed Pakistan.

The conspirators were ideologues, not trained terrorists, and their plotting was often amateurish. Gopal Godse was a clerk in a military store, his brother a newspaper editor. A few told outsiders of the plot.

Yet they succeeded on Jan. 30, 1948. That evening, Gandhi, a weak 78-year-old, was walking toward the prayer ground in the garden of a New Delhi home when Nathuram Godse stepped in front of him and fired three shots.

Gandhi died within moments.

Nathuram was tackled by bystanders and arrested. The other conspirators, including Gopal, who had returned to Pune after an earlier failed attempt to kill Gandhi, were arrested within days.

Nathuram and one other conspirator were hanged in 1949. The rest were sentenced to prison terms.

Nearly 40 years after his 1965 release, Godse’s beliefs remain unchanged. He talks of the horrors of India’s 1947 partition, in which 1 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed, as if it happened a few weeks ago. While many people say all those religions share blame in the sectarian bloodshed, Godse argues Hindus acted only in self-defense.

Now, he awaits the day when India’s Muslims convert to Hinduism.

He speaks almost gleefully about religious riots last year in the western state of Gujarat that killed about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. “If [Muslims] get the reaction like they did in Gujarat, they will get to know that Muslims are not supreme,” he said.

But he knows the Hindu paradise he wants — an India freed of Muslims, and again in control of Pakistan’s territory — will not come in his lifetime.

“It may be 100 years; it may be 200 years. It will eventually happen,” he said.

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