Drew Christiansen

Nefas, literally “unspeakable,” is a Latin word for evil. It is a heavy word, weightier than malum, the term for a garden-variety moral wrongdoing. It is an offense against the sacred, a sacrilege in the sense of a ritual violation, but even more in the sense of a violation of the divine, an offense against Goodness itself. It was in this sense that Thomas Merton wrote in Raids on the Unspeakable of the crimes of the national security state.

James W. Douglass, a scholar and friend of Merton, also applied the concept, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, a provocative view of the Kennedy assassination, to the American national security state. His latest book, Gandhi and the Unspeakable, centers around the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948. But its true focus is the hostility of the violent Hindu nationalist movement, the Organization of National Volunteers, known in the West by its Hindi initials, R.S.S., which for 40 years opposed Gandhi’s nonviolence and, before it finally succeeded, attempted to assassinate him numerous times, even as it penetrated the nascent Indian state.

When we think of Gandhi’s adversaries, we can name the South African colonials whose mistreatment of Indians he first opposed, certainly the British Raj, against which he campaigned for 30 years, and perhaps Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader who forced the partition of Pakistan and India; but we seldom think of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideologue, political strategist and intellectual author of Gandhi’s murder. As early as 1906, after Savarkar organized the assassination of the British official William Curzon Wyllie, Gandhi outed the militant, charging that the assassin was “mad” with the idea of liberation by assassination that Savarkar had fomented. The assassin, he chided, “was egged on to do this thing by the half-digested reading of worthless writings.”

Three years later, Gandhi debated Savarkar using the Indian epic The Ramayana as a common text. Gandhi saw the story as “a vision of suffering for the truth.” In nonviolence, he professed, Indians were already free of the domination of empire. For his part, Savarkar drew from the epic the lesson of victory through violence. Rama, he argued, established his ideal kingdom only after slaying Ravana, the oppressor. For 40 years Savarkar and Gandhi sparred. At the same time, Savarkar schemed to eliminate the Mahatma, because he regarded Gandhi’s satyagraha (active nonviolence) as corrupting Hindu India’s martial spirit, weakening it for its conflict with Islam.

The Unspeakable, however, held in its power not just Savarkar and the R.S.S. It included the police and security apparatus, which failed to protect Gandhi despite ample advance evidence of a plot; the courts which let Savarkar go free; members of the government sympathetic to the R.S.S.; and even leading disciples, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel, compromised by their ascent to political power. The ultimate betrayal, of course, came later, with India’s rise as a nuclear power with its own national security state. Douglass assembles the record of weakness, malice and treachery with the help of a late (1970) judicial re-investigation of the murder and voluminous studies prepared by Gandhi’s heirs in recent years.

Even in the darkest hours, there are moments of light, above all the conversion of Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Muslim chief minister of Bengal, who had abetted his co-religionists in expulsions and massacres of Hindus in Calcutta during the riots surrounding partition. When the minister sought Gandhi’s help to return peace to the city, Gandhi challenged him, “The old Suhrawrdy will have to die,” he told him, for the two to work side by side so that Muslims and Hindus might live together in peace.

In the months remaining before Gandhi’s death, he and Suhrawdry labored together to still the rioting in the rest of India; and Suhrawardy served as an intermediary to Jinnah, attempting to reconcile the Pakistani leader to the idea of a united India. In a long speech the assassin, Nathuram Godse, who on Jan. 30, 1948, had shot Gandhi three times in the chest, cited at his trial the wrongness of Gandhi’s “befriending an enemy such as Suhrwardy” as a justification for the assassination. “The enemy,” he pleaded, “should be killed.”

Gandhi and the Unspeakable is a short book, but it carries a profound lesson about the evil that feeds the politics of violence, reaching from rioting crowds in the streets to the councils of leaders preparing for war. But it offers a deeper lesson still about the godly power to love the enemy as children of the one God. Douglass, who in The Nonviolent Cross first celebrated the Second Vatican Council’s critique of war and its message of peace, here, by making evil so palpable, argues the case for religiously inspired nonviolence as persuasively as he ever has.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.