Gandhi's assassin and his association with the RSS revealed in a new book based on archival details

The making of Nathuram Godse, his relationship with the RSS, the aftermath of the murder, the trial and his relations with Savarkar come alive in 'Gandhi's Assassin' by Dhirendra K Jha

Mahatma Gandhi's funeral procession in New Delhi, January 31, 1948. Gandhi was shot dead by Hindutva fanatic Nathuram Godse a day before.
Mahatma Gandhi's funeral procession in New Delhi, January 31, 1948. Gandhi was shot dead by Hindutva fanatic Nathuram Godse a day before.

Dhirendra K Jha

Gandhi was not just a leader; he was an object of popular adulation. His assassination by a Hindu communalist had an overnight effect on public opinion. Prior to the murder, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha had been riding a tide of anti-Partition, anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim feeling. The assassination shook post-Partition India to normality.

The multitude that spent the night of 30 January in grief and anguish was suddenly seized by a blind fury against the ideological proponents of a Hindu rashtra—the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha as well as the Brahmin community in Maharashtra.

‘Bapu’s assassination had created violent storm against Brahmins in Maharashtra as Godse was a Konkanastha [another name for Chitpawan] Brahmin,’ noted Morarji Desai. ‘Tension between Brahmins and non-Brahmins in Maharashtra, and the violent anger against the Brahmins in general was a result of this terrible incident. In several places like Poona, Satara and Sangli, several Brahmins were attacked, and their property destroyed,’ he added.

In Bombay, a large mob of about 1,000 people stormed Savarkar Sadan and tried to set it on fire. Only because of the timely arrival of the police could Savarkar’s residence be saved. Mobs also attacked offices of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha across the province and in many other parts ofthe country. For several days the life and property of every member of the RSS and the Mahasabha was in peril. Many RSS members were stabbed in the streets of Bombay.

The retaliation on 31 January was intense, beyond what anyone had imagined.

The next morning, Golwalkar issued a written statement from Nagpur: ‘In the presence of this appalling tragedy I hope people will learn the lesson and practice the doctrine of love and service. Believing in this doctrine, I direct all my brother swayamsevaks to maintain a loving attitude towards all, even if there be any sort of provocation born out of misunderstanding and to remember that even this misplaced frenzy is an expression of unbounded love and reverence, in which the whole country held the great Mahatma, the man who made the name of our motherland great in the world. Our salutation to the revered departed one.’

This was not the usual language the RSS used for Gandhi when he was alive. All through, it had spewed venom against him and had even wished his death when he sat on fast a fortnight ago.

In fact, another statement, also issued on 1 February, by the ‘Sangha Chalak of Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, Bombay’ totally abandoned Godse. It said ‘the alleged assassin of Mahatma Gandhi was never connected in any way’ with the RSS. ‘We have already condemned the dastardly and cowardly attack on Mahatma Gandhi’s life and we mourn this national calamity. We are observing national mourning by closing our centres for 13 days,’ the statement said.

Savarkar’s attitude was no different. By evening, Savarkar issued a brief statement expressing strong denunciation and condemnation of the murder. Stating that ‘the news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was too shocking and sudden’, he appealed to the ‘people to stand by the Central Government of Free India and maintain order in the country’.

On the morning of 31 January, Godse was taken in a high-security van and produced before a judicial magistrate, who remanded him in police custody.

Towards the evening, when he might have heard of public outrage over the assassination, Godse started experiencing a faint sense of unease. He had apparently assumed that a significant section of Hindus and Sikhs, particularly refugees, would rise in his support after he killed Gandhi, just like in 1945-46, when the British government had to bow down to intense public pressure during the trial of the captured soldiers of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Boseled Indian National Army (INA), which had fought against the British Army during the Second World War.

There was, however, no trace of any popular uprising in favour of Godse. If he imagined himself as the triumphant leader of those who held Gandhi responsible for all their sufferings, he now confronted the scary prospect of being left in the lurch and the serious possibility that he would be fighting a lone battle in the days to come.

From what he could make out—and he could not get to know much because he was largely cut off from the outside world—the much-anticipated upsurge that might have turned Godse into a hero was nowhere in sight. Instead of Godse being hailed as a hero, Gandhi became an even bigger icon. Instead of triggering a wave of sympathy for Godse, the assassination had caused a massive and violent storm of revulsion against him, members of his caste as well as the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.

A little later, while discussing the antipathy towards him and Maharashtrian Brahmins with P.L. Inamdar, one of the defence lawyers who had become very close to him during the trial, Godse could not control his emotions. ‘With tears streaming down his cheeks he said to me that if he had had an idea of what his community would have to suffer for his deed, he would have thought ten times more before he decided to do it!’ Inamdar noted.

Godse told the investigators about Manorama. He described her as ‘a student of Wilson College’ who was ‘very intimate’ with Apte. Godse also revealed that Apte was in the habit of meeting her in hotels whenever he was in Bombay.

‘…Enquiries were made from the lady students in Pandita Ramabai Hostel for Women, [. . .] and it was learnt that Miss Manorama Salvi was Senior B.A. student and her father was doctor in the Police Hospital.’

She had always felt uncomfortable speaking about her secret relationship with Apte in public. She had met Godse a few times and knew that he had killed Gandhi but she had no idea that Apte too was involved in the crime.She was caught in a nightmare. Apte had not said a word about his involvement in this horrific murder though he had spent hours with her on 2 February at Sea Green Hotel and then again on 5 February at Arya Pathik Ashram.

On both occasions, she had been surprised at how much he had changed. His appearance had been similar: the lean physique, the black hair thrown back to make the face even more defined and his penetrating eyes which had lost none of their sensitive intelligence.

It was his attire that had changed: from shirt and trousers, he had suddenly shifted to traditional Maharashtrian clothes. He seemed less passionate somehow—his gait less confident—and he always seemed to be on high alert, as if the hunter she had once known had now become the hunted.

They had been lovers. But now, as she answered the policemen’s questions, she found herself hating him. For a few moments she sat there, uncertain what to do. Suddenly, she told her interrogators that she was sure he would contact her again in a day or two.

This was the assessment of the interrogators too. ‘I, therefore, deputed two police constables to receive every telephone call that came to Miss Salvi on telephone No. 305 at the Police Hospital,’ noted Nagarwala. Her residence was also watched.

The wait didn’t last long. ‘At 5.30 p.m., one person answering to the description of Apte walked into the Apollo Hotel. D.I. Sawant [one of the cops] accosted him and patted him saying, “Well, Apte, when did you come to Bombay?” He answered, “Two days ago.”

Nagarwala’s questioning of Manorama had at least one virtue, from her point of view— that it took place almost entirely in private. Far more painful was the condemnation of her relatives and friends. No one explicitly asked her to leave the family or keep her distance from the community but this could be freely interpreted from their decision to cut ties with her.

A relative of Manorama’s, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: ‘To them, Manorama’s sin was not just that she was in relationship with a criminal but also that this criminal was part of the conspiracy to murder a Christ-like figure. It was because of this that the family and the community backed away from her, and she was left alone.’

A devout Christian, Manorama had been associated in many important respects with the local church. Her voice was melodious and she could sing extempore the Marathi hymns by Narayan Waman Tilak, a renowned poet and a famous convert to Christianity from the Chitpawan Brahmin community. She had not been quite comfortable with Apte’s Hindutva ideology, but she seemed to believe that she would ultimately rid him of it.

The realisation that she was in love with a man who had taken part in the assassination of Gandhi left her devastated.

Perhaps Manorama also understood what her relationship with Apte would mean for her family. After the trial ended and Apte was hanged along with Godse, Manorama made a tough decision: she decided that she preferred quiet anonymity to societal hell. She was never seen or heard of again by her family and friends.

Apte and Savarkar were men who mattered the most in his life. It is through these relationships that Godse had developed his exalted self-image.

Their indignation probably struck at his very core, sapping the inspiration and sense of mission that sustained him.

In the given situation, there was only one way that Godse could have rectified his ‘mistake’ (of carrying a diary at the time of the murder with names and amounts paid to the conspirators): by vehemently refuting the existence of a conspiracy. In actual terms, this would involve Godse telling the court that the idea to kill Gandhi was solely his own and he never shared it with any of the co-accused.

Such a line of argument would help protect not just Apte and Savarkar, but also Gopal. This line of argument also suited Godse’s self-image—by doing so, he could carry the glory all on his own.

In any case, the rectification was to be a mammoth exercise, involving a serious perusal of questions of law. It is unrealistic to expect that Godse, with his limited legal knowledge and command over the English language, managed these questions on his own. There is evidence that the statement he would read out in court was not entirely of his preparation.

Inamdar subsequently noted that Mehta, a prominent member of the group of lawyers defending the accused and a staunch Savarkarite, helped him draw up a calculated written statement. ‘In Nathuram’s case, it was primarily Jamnadas Mehta, Barrister-at-Law from Bombay, who assisted him in preparing the statement,’ Inamdar wrote. The ponderous statement that ran into 150 paragraphs took Godse five hours to read in the courtroom.

Speaking quietly in English, he attempted at the very beginning to remove all traces of guilt from Apte, Savarkar and the other accomplices. ‘I say that there was no conspiracy of any kind whatsoever amongst the accused to commit any of the offences mentioned in the charge-sheet [sic],’ Godse read. ‘I may also state here that I have not abetted any of the other accused in the commission of the alleged offences.’

While giving an account of his past life, Godse also claimed that he had broken with the RSS long before he killed Gandhi. The claim ran contrary to what he had told the interrogators and what the documents seized from the RSS Nagpur headquarters had revealed.

Years later, Gopal, on seeing the RSS brazenly forsake Godse, sought to set the record straight. ‘He [Godse] said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi,’ Gopal declared. ‘But he [Godse] did not leave the RSS.’

Godse’s statement in the court showed his impeccable command over English, a language he supposedly did not know well.

In the group of lawyers defending the accused, Inamdar was the odd man out. While the others had been picked by L.B. Bhopatkar, who headed the team of advocates, Inamdar had joined them independently. He had been sent by Parchure’s wife from Gwalior as her husband’s counsel. In a way, therefore, both Inamdar and Godse shared the status of an outlier in their respective groups.

‘During the whole of the trial, I never saw Savarkar turning his head towards even Nathuram, who used to sit by him, in fact next to him, much less speak with him,’ Inamdar noted.

‘During the various talks I had with Nathuram, he told me that he was deeply hurt by this—Tatyarao’s calculated, demonstrative non-association with him either in court or in the Red Fort Jail during all the days of the Red Fort Trial. How Nathuram yearned for a touch of Tatyarao’s hand, a word of sympathy, or at least a look of compassion in the secluded confines of the cells! Nathuram referred to his hurt feelings in this regard even during my last meeting with him at the Simla High Court!’

According to Inamdar, even while Godse was reading out his statement in court and ‘deriding Prosecution for implicating Savarkar in this trial’, the Hindutva ideologue did not even look at him and just ‘sat in his chair, a sphinx sculpted in stone’. This was not the same Savarkar whom Godse had known as his patron.

Godse worshipped him as a father figure and perhaps this was why Savarkar’s aloofness hurt Godse so deeply.

Even when Inamdar met Savarkar separately in September 1948, he seemed concerned only about his own case. ‘He repeatedly asked me if he would be acquitted and wanted me to assure him sincerely,’ noted Inamdar, who was surprised to see that Savarkar didn’t ask a single question about the fate of Godse or the other accused.

Before 7.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 November 1949, by the account of Gopal, Godse chanted select verses from the Bhagavad Gita and then, like a committed swayamsevak, recited, along with Apte, the first four sentences of the RSS prayer in Sanskrit:

Namaste Sada Vatsale Matrubhume

Twaya Hindubhume Sukham Vardhitoham

Mahanmangale Punyabhume Twadarthe

Patatvesh Kayo Namaste, Namaste!

[O affectionate motherland, I eternally bow to you/ O land of Hindus, you have reared me in comfort

O sacred and holy land,

May this body of mine be dedicated to you and I bow before you again and again!]

Godse’s decision to recite the RSS prayer on the eve of his execution was perhaps not surprising. In fact, it was revealing of the fact that he was still an active member of the controversial organisation—a fact that goes against the efforts of the RSS to conceal its links with Gandhi’s assassin.

That Godse recited the RSS prayer is also corroborated by the news report published in the Times of India on 16 November, a day after the execution. ‘Godse and Apte, [. . .] after their usual morning duties, recited the 11th and 15th Chapter of the Bhagwad Gita and the first four lines of the R.S.S. prayer and took a cup of coffee each before mounting the gallows,’ said the news report.

(Excerpts from 'Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and his idea of India’ , published by Vintage Books, January @2022)

(This extract was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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