There is no specific record about what led [Nathuram] Godse to visit [VD] Savarkar, nor about who arranged the introductory meeting. According to Godse’s brother Gopal, a silent link seemed to have developed between the Godses and Savarkar the moment they moved to Ratnagiri in 1929.

“Quite unknowingly it so happened that the place where we had now gone to reside was the very place where Savarkar had stayed when he first came to Ratnagiri. Thereafter he shifted to another house at the other end of the same lane,” Gopal recounted.

Savarkar was a distant figure during Godse’s early adulthood but apparently an inspirational one, for he paid his first visit to Savarkar just three days after his family shifted to Ratnagiri. Yet, most of the reliable evidence about Godse’s transformation into a fully recognised follower of Savarkar dates to the early months of 1930.

Godse was nineteen when he first met Savarkar. He was thin but looked healthier than Savarkar, who was a notch taller than him. Restrained in his demeanour, Godse remained quiet and deferential, apparently mesmerised by Savarkar’s stature as a revolutionary who had returned after a decade spent in the Andamans.

Godse’s political beliefs were vague at best, if they could be said to exist at all. Though he had started taking part in Congress-led processions and protest meetings against the colonial regime, and had even addressed some of them, he was essentially an outsider who had still not made up his mind regarding his own future. Yet, he loved the rush of adrenaline from these political activities and seemed set to throw himself into the freedom movement.

Godse’s conversion into a follower of Savarkar and an enthusiastic cheerleader of Hindutva was not smooth. His own observations testify that initially he was not very responsive to the commands of the eccentric exponent of Hindu communal philosophy.

“He [Savarkar] seemed annoyed when I informed him about my decision not to re-appear for the matriculation examination in response to Gandhi’s call to boycott schools and colleges,” Godse said later. “Twice or thrice he tried to persuade me to change my decision, saying how important it was to continue my studies.”

Savarkar’s suggestion could seem like a bit of well-meaning advice by an elder but it may hardly have been so, given his eagerness to keep his flock away from the great upheaval India was experiencing at the time. As it happened, Godse refused to back off from his decision, thus foiling Savarkar’s first overt bid to extricate Godse from the camp of anti-British agitators.

Godse’s initial resistance suggests that he was self-conscious about his conversion experience in the beginning, but this broke soon enough. Perhaps he was thrilled to be close to someone who was seen by many – especially Chitpawan Brahmins – as the authentic continuation of the line of the Peshwas, former Brahmin rulers of Maharashtra.

Like Savarkar, Godse too came from this elite subgroup of Brahmins who considered themselves the heirs of the Peshwas. It seems that the caste bond he shared with them gave him, in his own eyes, a certain sense of superiority over other Hindus.

Chitpawans are one of the rare Brahmin communities in India who claim to have a long history of valour on the battlefield, apart from the usual priestly privileges that Brahmins traditionally enjoy. As rulers during the later medieval times, they also had a long history of struggle against Mughal and Pathan rulers in India. This fact now led them to reinterpret their history in terms of the needs of Hindu nationalism; they presented themselves as the upholders of a tradition of Hindu resistance against Muslim occupation.32

In any case, Godse might have been no stranger to the sense of pride that Savarkar provoked in enthusiasts of Hindu revival. Being ancestrally connected to Poona, Godse would have known – even if vaguely – something of this sentiment. Poona was seen by traditional Chitpawans as the staging area of Hindu national revivalists. It was in the hills beyond Poona that Shivaji was born, where he lived and launched his guerrilla campaign against the forces of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

Shivaji was a Maratha of the warrior caste but his heirs, the prime ministers or the Peshwas, were Chitpawan Brahmins. Poona served as their nerve centre as, after Shivaji, the Peshwas fended off the Mughals, the Pathans and the British until succumbing, finally, to the last in 1818.

Poona’s Chitpawans had produced a stream of men opposed to the British rule like Tilak, the militant Congress leader, and the Chapekar brothers – Damodar Hari Chapekar, Balkrishna Hari Chapekar and Vasudeo Hari Chapekar – the Indian revolutionaries involved in the assassination of WC Rand, the British plague commissioner of Poona, in 1897.

Though Godse belonged to a lower middle-class family, his known ancestors, by virtue of belonging to the Chitpawan Brahmin caste, were of the priestly class at Uksan village near Poona. The family’s genealogy holds that towards the end of the seventeenth century, they had moved to this village from Harihareshwar, the land of the rocky beach in the sheltered creek formed by Savitri river on the Arabian Sea coast in Raigad district of Maharashtra.

Godse Kulvritant – a compilation of the genealogies of all Chitpawan Brahmins belonging to the Godse clan – puts Vinayakrao, Godse’s father, at the eighth ladder of his known ancestors, starting from Ramchandra Godse, who lived towards the end of the seventeenth century. Little is known about the intervening generations, except that the descendants of Ramchandra Godse, like other Chitpawan families, came into prominence and received land grants in Uksan village during the reign of the Peshwas in the eighteenth century. As agricultural land got divided through generations, Vinayakrao’s father, Vamanrao, inherited a meagre estate.

Like his forefathers, Vamanrao lived by mixing the profession of priesthood with agriculture, but he was keen on his son getting modern education. He, therefore, set up a parallel establishment in Poona as soon as his son finished his primary education. Vinayakrao was the first member of the family to complete his matriculation. Thereafter, he secured a government job in the postal department. As his job was transferrable, Vinayakrao almost abandoned his ancestral village, although he still owned a small patch of agricultural land and a spacious house there.

Godse’s background was enough to make him interpret his conversion or recruitment into Savarkar’s clique at that age as a natural passage of a true Chitpawan. Whatever his ideas about his past and his caste, it seems that Godse, for some time as a young adult, moved freely through the two worlds, oscillating between a radical anti-British sentiment advocated by Gandhi and a conciliatory attitude to the colonial regime preached by Savarkar in the name of preparing Hindus to fight the so-called internal enemies, the Muslims.

Eventually, the latter prevailed. And Godse, in his own way, started finding more comfort among his caste brethren and was integrated into their revivalist project. They were an eclectic group – some religious, some irreligious – tied together by their caste loyalties as well as their dependency on Savarkar’s leadership.

It seems Godse’s shift away from the freedom movement was also rooted – as he claimed years later – in the apprehensions of his father, who as a government servant didn’t want his son to annoy the authorities. “My father feared that my activities might jeopardise his job, and so he asked me not to take part in any movement that sought to break laws,” he recounted.

There is no known record about which of the two factors – Savarkar’s persuasion or his family’s pressure – had a greater bearing on Godse’s decision to give up his association with the nationalist agitators. It seems certain that while his father might have expressed his apprehensions ever since Godse began to take part in Congress-led protest meetings, he always ignored them until Savarkar took him on a different course.

Savarkar’s way, however, was cautious. He spoke with force but always flinched from revealing his mind, indulging instead in demagoguery carefully crafted to hide his conciliatory sentiment towards the British. “Barrister Savarkar rarely discussed politics as he had pledged not to do so during his restricted confinement,” recounted Godse. Perhaps he could not have known then that the demagogic rhetoric represented substantially strong politics of a certain kind.

Anxieties caused by Gandhi were the hallmark of this politics. Gandhi was presenting himself as if he was neither conservative nor progressive and was merely working to bring together the common essence of the two. But the social changes he suggested and the political activism he demanded from the people were highly subversive of orthodox Hinduism.

By taking the fight against British rule to India’s villages and framing the low-status, non-Brahminic and peasant cultures as genuine Hinduism, Gandhi was threatening those Hindu elites who dreamed of reviving their past supremacy. Even his bid to fight colonialism by fighting patriarchy and trying to bring women on an equal footing with men, was being watched with deep anxiety by such Hindus.

What must have multiplied their sense of insecurity was the fact that Gandhi, despite seeking to subvert Brahminical hegemony, was not ready to call himself a social reformer; he was convinced that he was a sanatani, an orthodox Hindu.

Ripping up this vision of Gandhi was an important part of Savarkar’s politics. For only then could he have thought of making his politics succeed. Savarkar had some advantages. The vision he espoused was easy to convey to those who shared his obsession with Brahmin ascendency in politics – projecting Muslims as enemies of their faith-based nationalism to unite various castes of Hindus without altering the hegemony of the traditional social elite.

It was precisely this possibility that Gandhi threatened with his constant emphasis on Hindu–Muslim unity and his attempts to politically redefine Hinduism by dislodging Brahmins from the centre of society. For the section of Chitpawan Brahmins, particularly those who couldn’t reconcile with the gap between their traditionally privileged position and their actual status in the contemporary sociopolitical setting, anxiety was a permanent emotion of the time. As they longed to redeem their lost glory, the charisma of Gandhi did not appeal to them.

There was also a parochial and casteist flavour to this aversion. Gandhi was a Bania, a caste of traders and moneylenders, and belonged to Gujarat, a sociocultural zone in the Bombay Presidency distinct from Maharashtra, the region traditionally dominated by Brahmins. A section of Maharashtrians always had reservations about Gujaratis, and many Brahmins considered Banias as scheming.

Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India

Excerpted with permission from Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India, Dhirendra K Jha, Vintage.