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Retro Flash! Reason & nationalism assassinate morality in India on Jan 30, 1948. Gandhi dead.

The assassin blamed Gandhi for an irrational, immoral pacifism.

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Walk up to the monument to Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi in the southwest part of Union Square Park. Reading the Q code with your phone, an actor will speak of Gandhi’s contribution to freedom. He is one of the quartet of freedom fighters memorialized in the park. George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette are there for their roles in founding the United States. And Abraham Lincoln is there for freeing the slaves and keeping the nation whole. Washington died peacefully; Lafayette was worn down by imprisonment and fights in France.  Gandhi and Lincoln were assassinated while trying to bring peace and freedom to their nations.


Gandhi in Union Square, SW. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


On his way to prayers in 1948, Gandhi was shot by Nathuram Godse. The attack took place just before the Indian peacemaker entered a covered alcove in the garden of an industrialist supporter to deliver a short sermon as was his custom at prayers. There were several hundred onlookers, including the new vice consul of the United States, Herbert Reiner, Jr.

Godse used a pistol, the Beretta M1934, that was manufactured for Italian Fascist and German Nazi officers and NCOs. The small, easily concealable gun has a seven round single stack magazine and can carry one more bullet in the chamber. The gun has a smaller stopping power than a heavier pistol like a Browning HiPower, so multiple shots are may be needed to do the cruel deed. In fact the assassin fired three bullets into Gandhi at close range. He didn’t fire all the shots that the pistol was capable of shooting at Gandhi or anyone else. This seems to indicate not wild rage but a rather deliberate, cold blooded calculus. This wasn’t the first assassination attempt. Indian militants had already tried at least five times to kill the pacifist Gandhi.

The American diplomat grabbed Godse by his shoulders and spun him around into the arms of some protective Indian military personnel. Afterwards, Smith grasped Godse tightly until he was taken away.

Gandhi was alive as he was carried into the house. As he was treated for his wounds, his family and friends read from the Bhagavad Gita. Within a half an hour, his attendants came out saying, “Bapu [father] is finished.”


Gandhi in 1931


Godse blamed Gandhi for an irrational pacifist morality that prevented the British and Indian governments from forcibly preventing the breaking away of a piece of India by Muslims into a new nation-state called Pakistan. Shortly before his execution, the assassin calmly wrote about how Gandhi’s prestige behind pacifism was forcing the Indian and British authorities to stay any military solution to the violence of the partition of India into majority Hindu and Muslim states. With a bit of one-sided exaggeration, the assassin claimed that this pacifism was letting Muslim terrorists wreck havoc on Hindus.

A few weeks earlier, Gandhi said that he would fast until his death in order to persuade the Indians and Muslims to remain peaceful. The moral exemplar feared that the use of force would provoke a long-lasting and incredibly bloody civil war. However, India did split amidst quite a bit of violence and, today, Indian and Pakistan are armed camps against each other.

The New York Times headlined that “Gandhi is killed by a Hindu, India shaken.” Indeed, Godse was a sometime activist in at least two militant Hindu organizations. Both groups remain potent powers in India today.

Although RSS, a common abbreviation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghm, has denied that the assassin was ever one of its adherents, Godse’s friends and relatives confirm his participation. He seems to have left RSS in 1946 because he thought that they were compromising militant Hindu principles. He was also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha organization.

Godse’s explanation of his motives intertwined reason, nationalism, and militant religion into an explosive mix that blew apart Gandhi’s hope for a peaceful unit of Indian factions. The assassin was a modern ideologue in the sense that he systematized Hindu thinking into a rigid morality-defying violent political ideology, much like was being done in the 1930s by radical Muslims, Fascists, and Nazis. Out of that ill-fated run-up to World War II, democrats faced violent wars from authoritarian foes of a nuanced balance between the conflicting values of truth and generosity.

Hindu militants continue to portray Godse as a hero in the Hindu cause. In 1997, the play “This is Nathuram Godse Speaking” idealized the killer. The government banned its presentation. The political conflicts in India involve ancestors of Gandhi and Godse as well as a radical Islam emanating out of Pakistan. So far, there is democracy, toleration, and relative peace compared to those civil war days of 1948.

In the United States, assertions of truth leavened with humility and wrapped in generosity seem to be in danger of disappearing. There are widespread fears on the left and right that we are in a totalitarian moment and a fight to the death.

Each of our Freedom Quartet of Union Square contributed to the deep religious culture of New York City that can help carry us through these troubled times.

Gandhi inspired Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. to work for peace among the nations and the elimination of the vestiges of slavery in the United States. In appreciation on October 2, 1986, Rustin gave the keynote speech at the erection of Gandhi’s statue sculpted by Kantilal B. Patel.

Washington presided over the constitutional convention that instituted freedom of religious belief, conscience, assembly and speech. Lafayette was an author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which declared, “no one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural presidential address is one of the greatest sermons ever preached, part of which used to be inscribed on the fence surrounding his monument: “with malice toward none; charity toward all.”

A ceremony takes place at the statue every year on Gandhi’s birthday of October 2nd .


Gandhi in Union Sqaure. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


Listen to Gandhi as spoken by an Indian American actor

Thanks to retired federal officer Kenneth Wong for pointing out some of the details of the weaponry and methods of the assassination.

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