The Taliban gunmen who shot their targets, unarmed children, on their heads did so at "point blank range". The heinousness of that act, accompanied by that description of the range, took me back to when, a child myself, I wanted to know what "point blank range" meant. The term had been used almost mechanically, without sufficient explanation, to describe the assassination of M.K. Gandhi and was taken generally to mean "from up close".
We had no Wikipedia in those days but my father, a very facts-scrupulous newspaperman, supplied the detail. When a firearm's muzzle is not in actual contact with its target but is as close as about three feet from the chosen target at the moment of discharge, it is said to be at "point blank range". The gunmen who had stormed the Peshawar school, had shot the children, one by one, from that cynical distance. They wanted to be sure that they were not leaving their targets alive.
Other than being unarmed and un-guarded, Gandhi had this in common with the slain children: the 79-year-old took the three bullets Nathuram Godse's Beretta M 1934 emptied into him from less than three feet away, from point blank range. Godse too wanted to take no chances.
Anxiety and incredulousness pulsing in his voice, a friend asked me the other day: "Could you have imagined, even as of a year ago, that we would be discussing a statue for Nathuram Godse in our country ?"I have imagined many slights of the Mahatma by a Hindutva-powered dispensation but I had not, I admitted, visualized this fancy of a perverse imagination.
It is not as if Godse has been regarded by all hands as a villain, no. Guided by the principle of audi alteram partem ("hear the alternative party too"), many have wanted to find out what prompted Godse to murder Gandhi. His testimony, written as well as extempore, before the three-judge bench of the Punjab high court hearing his appeal has been regarded by many as exceptional. Godse's belief in 'Akhand Bharat' and his delusionary thought that Gandhi was responsible for the partition of India reached their boiling point when Gandhi, through his last fast, made the new government of India honour the agreed division of cash assets due to Pakistan. In Hindutva circles, particularly in Pune, Godse has been a cult figure who, by doing what he did on January 30, 1948, ranked in their esteem next only to his mentor, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
But this is neither unusual nor misplaced. The urge to be fair, objective and to walk the extra mile to understand the accused's point of view has been part of jurisprudential grace and historiographic civility. Abraham Lincoln's 26-year-old assassin, John Wilkes Booth, has received fair, even understanding attention from biographers of Lincoln and others. He had his beliefs. In a letter written to his sister, Booth had said that African slavery is "one of the greatest blessings... God has ever bestowed on a favored nation". And he regarded Lincoln as the reverser of that "blessing". Booth's boiling point came when Lincoln announced, after the war had been won, that he was going to give suffrage to the former slaves. Booth's diary entry has this about his victim: "Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment". This is often quoted to show Booth as a man who was "driven" to do what he did on April 15, 1865. And contemporary records show that many drawing rooms in pro-slavery states had Booth's pictures adorn the walls till well after the war and the assassination had become history.
So Godse has company. But there is a difference and it is huge.
Barring sympathizers of the Ku Klux Klan and racist freak-groups, no one in the United States of America or anywhere else speaks of Booth as a historical or even a 'personality' counter-point to Lincoln. This is where our histories converge and diverge.
Racism in the US has had its hidden, even entrenched, adherents. Communalism in India has had its disavowing advocates. But racism has never come close to acquiring power through the ballot in Lincoln's country. Communalism has been more successful in Gandhi's India. It is within point blank range of Gandhi once again.
Even as a strikingly beautiful statue to Gandhi becomes ready for unveiling in what could be regarded as his 'opposite goal-post', London's Parliament Square, we in India are talking about the rights and wrongs of a statue to his assassin. At one level, a rather facile one, this could be seen as a sign of India's political maturity, its democratic temper. "We have only come of age", I can hear a guileless democrat declaim, "if we can un-agitatedly deliberate on a statue for the murderer of the Father of our Nation".
In actual fact, if we are considering an 'artistic' celebration of Gandhi's assassin, we have 'come of' or into nothing of the kind. We have only come to a sorry pass in our history where the bully scores over the innocent, the tyrant over the peaceable and where a new fascism that feeds on hate seeks to prevail over the Republic of Equality. A new iconism, operating through deft official and political patronage, seeks now to install the visual and textual accoutrement of a democratic oligarchy. The 'statue for Godse' idea is another example, and a particularly sinister one, of the audacity of this oligarchy that exploits our civility and our liberal ethos to further its purposes.
I would concede here that the 'Congress years' in their purblind self-centredness overdid statues and portraits, each more unaesthetic than the other, of Gandhi and, rather more so, of the Nehru sequence of its leaders. The eruption of statues of their political alternatives such as, notably, of Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, B.R. Ambedkar and of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy was an inevitable and wholly welcome correction. And was very much part of an evolving historical narrative.
The advocacy of a statue for Nathuram Godse and, more than that, the latitude given to that advocacy by the political power-centres of the day, belongs to a different order of political iconography. It forms part of a conscious re-scripting of history, a re-choreographing of dramatis personae to validate that which is morally gross and politically outrageous.
It is my hope - even my 'gut' feeling - that the government of India will dissuade the Godse-statue advocates from proceeding with their idea.
But we may assume that the statue is already 'up', as a bronzed idea.
And the legend under it says: "At point blank range to plural Hindustan".