A profoundly moving and gripping book, this is an attempt to understand not only Mahatma Gandhi's life and message but also the idea of India by inquiring into the meaning of his death. Nathuram Godse may have fired three bullets into the frail, 79-year-old Gandhi, but Makarand Paranjape holds that the Mahatma martyred himself. And this foiled the assassin's attempt to make Hindu majority India a mirror image of just born Pakistan.
Describing Gandhi as "arguably the greatest Hindu of modern times", the author is more interested in the fuller ramifications of his death than the mere details and circumstances of the January 30, 1948 murder. What did Gandhi die for, asks Paranjape. What is the significance of his death?
Godse may have pulled the trigger and a large number of Hindu nationalists may have cheered him, but the author is firm that many more people, including a sizable section of the Congress, cannot be totally absolved of their liability in the crime. And to the extent that innumerable ordinary people approved of or participated in hatred and violence against fellow countrymen during India's partition - all of which Gandhi strongly opposed - "we were all complicit in Nathuram's crime".
Paranjape is equally insistent that Gandhi was killed because Hindu nationalists thought he was the greatest obstacle to their goal to bring about a 'Hindu rashtra' or Hindu nation and to militarize Hindus. But the killing marked a fundamental rupture from the general Hindu tradition. It was "a radically un-Hindu act". Gandhi was not just the Father of the Nation but a holy man too. Spilling his blood was "highly polluting... for the whole country and its inhabitants".
The author goes into great details to prove that Gandhi's critics were wrong in alleging that he was partial to Muslims or incapable of facing the reality of what was happening in newly created Pakistan. "If there is any Muslim who has gone mad and who secretly keeps machine guns in his house, we would punish him. But no one can touch the Muslims who are loyal to the country," Gandhi would say. He repeatedly denounced the atrocities heaped on innocent Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. He also urged Muslims to "realize and admit the wrongs perpetrated under Islamic rule". Gandhi even approved of the army being sent to Kashmir to push back the invaders.
"The lie that Gandhi favoured the Muslims or wished to appease them was created and became an excuse to kill the old man," says Paranjape. Gandhi's final 133 days he spent in Delhi (after dousing communal flames in Bihar and Bengal) only prove that Nathuram's defence was "an elaborate tissue of lies, a deliberate fabrication of half-truths and allegations whose sole purpose seems to be to justify the unjustifiable".
In the end, Gandhi's murder put paid to any ambition the Hindu Mahasabha and its followers may have had of using Indian independence as a pretext to turn India into a Hindu nation. "The Mahatma's martyrdom, in the sense, was a mighty and potent act of love jihad - he died to stop hatred and bloodshed."
The Hindu right, the book says, is still uncertain and ambivalent about Gandhi's Hinduism. Gandhi never hid his love for Hindu religion. "I have been imbibing Hindu dharma right from my childhood. Do you want to annihilate Hindu dharma by killing a devout Hindu like me?" he asked.
Godse and his co-conspirators had other ideas. They did what they thought was right. But as Paranjape says, killing the Father "is not the same as eliminating his influence or presence". Mahatma Gandhi lives on.
Author: Makarand R. Paranjape
Publisher: Random House India
Price: Not mentioned