March 2, 1998
By JOHN F. BURNS
PUNE, India — If India’s general election brings a Hindu nationalist government to power, the event will have a special resonance for a courteous but hard-eyed old man who has made his two-room walk-up apartment in this old garrison city a shrine to Hindu nationalism and to its role in one of history’s most notorious assassinations.
On Jan. 30, 1948, Gopal Godse was a 28-year-old storekeeper at an Indian Army barracks in Pune. At 6 p.m., All-India Radio announced that a lone gunman in New Delhi had shot and killed Mohandas K. Gandhi, the 79-year-old apostle of nonviolence who led India to independence from Britain at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947.
The assassination stunned India but came as no surprise to Godse. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was his older brother. The two men had been active in the Hindu nationalist movement since the 1930s and had planned the assassination along with several others.
Their purpose was to punish Gandhi, a Hindu, for his evenhanded attitude toward Muslims — in particular for acquiescing in Britain’s partition of India into the separate nations of India and Pakistan.
Gandhi was killed with three pistol shots to the chest as he walked to an evening prayer meeting at an industrialist’s house where he stayed during his sojourns in New Delhi.
Nathuram Godse was sentenced to death for the killing and hanged on Nov. 15, 1949. Another conspirator, Narayan Apte, found by the court to have been the mastermind of the plot, was hanged beside him. Four men, including Gopal Godse, were sentenced to life in prison. He was released on parole after 18 years in 1967.
Now, as Godse awaits the election results, expected as early as Tuesday, he is quietly triumphant. For more than a decade after Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu nationalist organizations were banned, and for at least 20 years after that the creed remained so tainted that Hindu nationalist parties were virtual pariahs. As late as 1989, the group that is the main Hindu nationalist standard-bearer now, the Bharatiya Janata Party, won only 89 of 543 seats in Parliament.
But every major opinion poll in the current election has pointed to the Hindu nationalists’ best showing ever — one that could finally bring them to power in New Delhi and assuage the bitterness that men like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, feel over their years in the political wilderness.
Vajpayee has repeatedly condemned the Gandhi killing, but other, more hard-line party leaders have been more equivocal.
“The BJP will get the maximum number of seats, you will see,” Godse said during a discussion in his apartment that was punctuated by the rhythmic chanting of his wife, Sindhu, 76, as she performed her morning puja, a Hindu prayer ritual. “This will be a vindication for my brother and for myself, of course, but it will be much more than that. It will be a vindication for all Hindus.”
Godse, the last surviving member of the group that plotted the Gandhi killing, described the ascent of the Hindu party as a critical step toward achievement of the “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation — a nationalist concept that hearkens back to ancient Hindu kingdoms that ruled before the first Muslim invaders arrived.
“It’s been 1,400 years, but we’ve kept the faith, and now it is going to happen,” he said. “Finally, we will have our Hindu Rashtra.”
The Hindu nationalists’ prospects received a further boost from exit polls published after the third and conclusive round of balloting on Saturday among India’s 605 million voters. One poll of 26,000 voters conducted for the state broadcasting network, Doordarshan, predicted that an alliance of Hindu nationalist parties led by Bharatiya Janata would win 244 seats, against 140 for an alliance led by the Congress Party and 118 seats for the United Front, a center-left coalition.
A separate poll conducted for a privately owned television channel, TVI, also predicted a strong showing by the Hindu nationalists, but with a narrower lead. The TVI poll, based on a similar sample of voters, forecast 208 seats for Bharatiya Janata and its allies, 171 for the Congress-led alliance and 140 for the United Front. The polls indicate that there will most likely be intense political maneuvering after the results are announced, with Bharatiya Janata and Congress maneuvering to line up a parliamentary majority.
The decor of Godse’s apartment demonstrates his unrepentant attitude toward the Gandhi assassination. A glass-fronted cabinet serves as a shrine, with photographs of Nathuram Godse, Apte and Vishnu Karkare, another conspirator, arrayed around the pewter urn used for Nathuram Godse’s ashes. The arrangement is completed by a flower that is replaced each day by Godse and by the swastika symbol that has served as a talisman among Hindus since ancient times.
Another case contains a library of books and pamphlets justifing the Gandhi killing, many written by Godse after his release. Godse is particularly proud of one — available to visitors for 40 rupees, about $1 — a hagiographic account of the assassination and its aftermath. The book describes Nathuram Godse walking to the gallows alongside Apte, with the two exulting about the clear winter light filtering into the Punjab prison yard — “Bestowed on us by our Motherland at this heavenly juncture,” according to the words the younger Godse attributes to his condemned brother.
Gopal Godse offered a razor-sharp recollection of his own role in the killing, from the moment when Nathuram Godse asked him if he would participate – “I gave my consent immediately” — to a first, botched attempt on Jan 20, 1948, 10 days before the assassination. On that occasion, the conspirators detonated explosives in a wall at the New Delhi house with a view to drawing people away from Gandhi, but stopped short of tossing a grenade at their intended victim for fear of killing bystanders.
Godse said he fled the scene and returned by train to Pune, meeting up again in Bombay a few days later with his brother, who told him that he was returning to New Delhi to carry out the assassination alone. Gopal Godse returned to his duties as an army storekeeper and said he had heard nothing more until the radio announcement of the assassination.
“You know, I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I knew I was going to lose a brother; and I had no doubt that I was going to be arrested and share his fate. On the other hand, our target had been fulfilled. We had done 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.
“So if you ask me, did I feel any repentance, my reply is no — not in the least. We had taken the decision fully knowing what we were doing. We knew if we allowed this person to live any longer, he would do more and more harm to Hindus, and that we could not allow it.”
Pausing for for a sip of sugary tea, Godse added: “So you see, it is not as if we had gone to New Delhi to steal Gandhi’s watch — that would have been a sinful, dirty thing. But that was not the case. We killed with a motive, to serve the highest interests of our people.”
Copyright 1998 New York Times Company