Pune’s love-hate relationship with Gandhi

Radheshyam Jadhav Pune | Updated on October 01, 2019 Published on October 01, 2019

Gate of Aga Khan

The city that gave the Mahatma both his guru and his assassin grapples with its ‘bipolar’ identity

‘Shastra se shakti’ (Strength through arms) proclaims the board outside the Indian Army’s Southern Command Stationery Depot. The depot is located at one of Pune’s busiest roads, leading to the Gandhi National Memorial Society’s Aga Khan Palace, where Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and his closest aide Mahadev Desai were imprisoned during the ‘Quit India Movement’.

It is a windy Sunday evening and a few people are milling about near the compound wall of the spacious palace, which stands on a sprawling 19-acre estate. “Is this Gandhiji’s jail?” asks a young boy, trying to catch a glimpse through the closed iron gate of the palace. As his father nods, a security guard comes to the gate and asks people to leave. “The government is doing restoration work. No entry. Can’t you people read the board? Come after October 2 and you will see a renovated Gandhiji,” he says.


There are some lovebirds who have made the area and its serene surroundings a regular haunt. “No blessings from Bapu today,” a youth tells the girl riding pillion on his bike, with a broad smile. The girl, her face covered by her dupatta, prods him and they ride away. Many others are busy taking selfies near the closed gate. “Gandhi’s samadhi is inside,” a youth who has brought his parents on a Pune tour tells them. The father is silent for some moments and then says: “I think there are samadhis of Kasturba and Mahadev Desai inside. Gandhi’s samadhi is in Delhi. How could it be in Pune?” The youth is not sure, and is now busy booking a cab on his cellphone.

The pages of history tell us that Gandhi’s samadhi could have been in Pune, alongside those of his wife and close aide. A handful of Puneites did try to end his life in the city, known as the ‘Oxford of the East’, but failed to do so. They did, however, succeed in Delhi. Pune-based scholar Sadanand More has noted that Gandhi had expressed a wish that he be cremated wherever he dies.

Tushar Gandhi, a writer and great-grandson of the Mahatma, says that there were four recorded attempts on Gandhi’s life before the last two on January 20 and 30, 1948. Four of the five failed attempts were made at a time when Pakistan was not even in the picture. All the four attacks were made by extreme right-wingers from Pune.

Tushar Gandhi, a writer and great-grandson of the Mahatma   -  Nagara [email protected]


“I would characterise it (Pune and Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship) as a love-hate relationship,” says Tushar.” There were those who worshipped him unconditionally in Pune and then there was a bunch of people subscribing to the ideology of hate. It was like his personality; you couldn’t be indifferent to him in any situation. He forced you to respond, to react. Pune characteristically responded in both manners.” He points out that some of the major events in Gandhi’s life took place in Pune.

A clarion call

Tushar agrees that Nathuram Godse’s murder of the Mahatma was a clarion call for Hindutva politics and ideology. “Bapu’s guru was from Pune. He also had immense respect for (Lokmanya) Tilak Maharaj,” Tushar adds.

There were right-wing politicians across the country, but why were those in Pune keen to kill Gandhi, wonders veteran Gandhian Kumar Saptarishi. He has an answer: “Lokmanya Tilak was the tallest leader of the Congress at that time. The right-wingers in Pune believed that nobody could replace him. Chitpavan Brahmins in Maharashtra believed they were born to rule. When Gandhi entered politics and slowly took over the reins of the Congress party, Tilak’s followers went against him.”

Saptarishi adds that Hindutva followers in Pune spread in various camps “hated” Gandhi as he opened the doors of the party to common, downtrodden people and propagated non-violence. Not surprisingly, after Tilak’s death, a major chunk of his followers in the Congress joined other right-wing organisations.

But there is another side to the story, as well. Sadanand More, in his magnum opus Lokmanya to Mahatma, states that a major chunk of Gandhi's followers in Pune were from the same community as Gandhi’s killers.

And it was not just Tilak’s followers who rejected Gandhi. Gopal Krishna Gokhale was Gandhi’s political guru. But Gokhale’s colleagues opposed Gandhi’s entry into the Pune-based Servants of India Society that he had founded. “Today, nobody in Pune cares for Gandhi or Gokhale, not even the Congress Party,” says Arun Khore, a Gandhian scholar. He alleges that meanwhile, efforts are being made to strengthen Godse’s legacy in the city.

Godse’s growing appeal

Even as right-wing politicians across the country stir the political pot now and then by celebrating Godse’s birthday and by attempting to install statues honouring him, the third generation of the Godse family avoids the limelight. They have preserved his ashes in an urn: Godse left instructions that they be immersed in the Sindhu when the dream of an undivided India is fulfilled.

Indeed, the legend of Godse still has substantial followers in the city. “We have to narrate history with a different perspective,” says Vidyadhar Nargolkar, a 78-year-old Hindu Mahasabha activist. He narrates how Hindus were victimised and Godse was agitated by the political developments of his time. “Nathuram did not emerge from any ideology, but he was the result of the historical developments in that particular period,” insists Nargolkar.

An alternative Dalit perspective

Meanwhile, decades after making a villain out of Gandhi, the Dalit movement is trying to reinvent the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship. Veteran scholar Raosaheb Kasbe is proposing a new theory against the Kanshiram-Mayawati political line that pits Gandhi against Ambedkar, accusing him of foisting the ‘Poona Pact’ upon Ambedkar.

The Poona Pact was an agreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar, finalised in Pune. Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate for Dalits but gave up this demand as Gandhi had begun a fast unto death against the move. Gandhi did this as he believed having a separate electorate would only serve to broaden the division between Dalits and caste Hindus.

Kasbe said recently that while conducting research to understand the Gandhi-Ambedkar dynamic, he found that Ambedkar himself did not support the idea of a separate electorate and only wanted reserved seats for Dalits. But, as the Congress had rejected this demand, he decided to push for a separate electorate. According to Kasbe, people today have vested interests in pitting Gandhi against Ambedkar even though they played a complementary role on many occasions.

And thus, a century and a half after he was born, Mahatma Gandhi continues to tower over the nation’s — and indeed the world’s — consciousness. In Pune, which gave him both his guru and his assassin, Gandhi refuses to die. But Nathuram Godse’s sympathisers refuse to give up hope: they believe they will someday redeem his name.

Published on October 01, 2019
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