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The Mahatma lives on

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's death at the hand of an assassin.

"Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, the father of the nation, is no more." - Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the death of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948

JANUARY 30 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the 20th century's greatest leaders - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as the Mahatma, or Great Soul. He was assassinated by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse who shot him three times as he was walking to his evening prayer.

A political scientist has described the killing of Mahatma Gandhi 60 years ago as the last 'moral assassination' in South Asia. In contrast, the murder of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto last month could be described as a 'criminal' assassination.

The violent death of a man who steadfastly preached and practised non-violence, shocked the world and was seen as an international catastrophe.

Last month, as I began thinking of ways to commemorate the life of this remarkable man who was a beacon of hope to so many, the world was hit by the horrifying news of the death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Once again a prominent leader had been struck down by an assassin, and I couldn’t help wondering: What makes a human being decide to target the life of another, often laying down his own life in the process ?

As a “strategic principle”, the concept is simple; cut off the head and kill the body. But does it really work ? Do assassinations, which date as far back in recorded history as the murder of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhat I over 4,000 years ago, accomplish the goals of the assassin?

Dr Ng Kam Weng is the director of Kairos Research Centre, and a keen student of history. He took the trouble to take a look at the history of assassinations with me and share his views.

“We have to start by looking at the difference between assassination and murder,” he explains. “To me, an assassination is the killing of a political figure with a view to promoting a cause or the cynical calculus of war and conflict.

Often the political figure is a symbolic one and the assumption in the mind of the assassin is that this leader is the cause, either directly or indirectly, of the sufferings and misfortune of a particular community.”

Killing for such a reason is defined as a “moral assassination”, according to Sankaran Krishna, a political science associate professor from the University of Hawaii, who adds that Gandhi’s killing was the last of such moral assassinations in South Asia.

From “moral and political”, such killings became “criminal” in the 1990s after Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (Nehru’s grandson and no relation to the Mahatma) was killed in 1991 by a suicide bomber.

The term assassin is derived from the fanatical followers of Hassan-I-Sabbah, leader of a mysterious Ismaili sect that was founded in Alamut (modern day Iran) in the 11th century.

According to legend, members of the sect would commit murders to further their cause while under the influence of the drug hashish.

While there are conflicting tales about this ancient cult, the appellation “hasshishins” now survives in mutated form!

Such fanaticism was responsible for the taking of Gandhi’s life, for he was killed not just by a random hothead, but as a result of careful planning by a Hindu nationalist group, angered by Gandhi putting pressure on the newly independent Indian government to make concessions to Pakistan for the sake of peace. But what purpose was achieved by the killing of a 78-year-old man ?

Regardless of the historical accuracy of that issue, this segment of Hindu society felt that Gandhi’s willingness to make sacrifices for peace was resulting in a weakened India and that is why they took the extreme decision to kill him.

Godse and fellow conspirator Narayan Apte, who were executed on Nov 15, 1949, might have hoped to strengthen India over Pakistan by killing Gandhi.

The entire South Asian sub-continent has experienced an alarming number of assassinations over the last half century. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been dogged by political assassinations, quite often running within a single family, as can be seen by the tragedies that have befallen the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India and the Bhutto family in Pakistan.

One can only wonder what must pass through the minds of young men like Rahul Gandhi (who lost his grandmother Indira Gandhi in 1984 and father Rajiv to assassins) or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (whose grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged after a politically-motivated trial and whose mother and uncles also met violent deaths) as they venture into politics.

While Gandhi’s killers might have succeeded in taking away his life as punishment for “desecrating mother India”, they failed to kill his powerful legacy which has inspired many others, chief among them, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

In today’s India, Gandhi continues to be revered as a secular saint and the father of the nation. His popularity, 60 years after his death, remains undiminished.

In a poll conducted last year by New Delhi Television or NDTV, India’s equivalent of CNN, Gandhi was voted the country’s greatest icon.

Indeed, Gandhi was prescient when he wrote on May 3, 1919, that “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” The Mahatma lives on.

 

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