Fate denied Madanlal Pahwa the chance to acquire greater infamy than he eventually did. Before he detonated a slab of guncotton at Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meeting at Birla House, in Delhi, on January 20, 1948, he had been questioned by a gardener. That threw Pahwa’s band of conspirators into a panic. They fled without acting as planned – hurling grenades and shooting at Gandhi after the explosion created panic.

Ten days later, on January 30, the band’s leader, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Gandhi at the same spot. In the trial that followed, Pahwa was among the nine accused of conspiring to kill Gandhi. Godse was hanged. Pahwa, just 21 years old then, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was 38 when he came out of prison in October 1964. He died in anonymity in 2000.

Political psychologist Ashis Nandy contacted Pahwa to study the process through which he overcame the inner moral restraint to violence, present in every human, to plot Gandhi’s death. Nandy met Pahwa twice between 1998 and 1999. He had to abort both his meetings, after a brief chat, because Pahwa was exhausted. Running a nondescript employment agency, Commercial Services, in Mumbai, Pahwa was 71 then and was undergoing dialysis twice a week, which would often leave him debilitated.

Unable to travel to Mumbai from his base in Delhi on short notice, Nandy requested the journalist-activist, Rajni Bakshi, a Gandhian, to conduct interviews with Pahwa. These interviews provided Nandy rich material to write Coming Home, a chapter in his book Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Change. In it, he unravels Pahwa’s psychological motivation to target Gandhi and the mechanism through which he tackled the memory of his unconscionable action in the years of his freedom after 1964.

Before joining the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, Pahwa had been sucked into Partition violence for nearly a year. In Gwalior, where he had shifted from Ferozepur in Punjab, he was a member of a group that randomly attacked Muslims on the streets. His group also swooped down on a train ferrying Muslims from Gwalior to Bhopal. Apart from a pistol, he used grenades to kill.

Pahwa, then, moved to Bombay, where he continued to target Muslims and clandestinely produced and sold grenades. He also started a small business in fruits, which often took him to Ahmednagar, where he met Vishnu Karkare, who too was convicted in the Gandhi assassination case. Once, Karkare dared Pahwa to bomb a cinema hall.

Pahwa boasted to Bakshi, “I did it…The bomb killed between 15 and 20 persons in the cinema.”

Bakshi asked, “How many of these people were Hindus and how many Muslims?”

Pahwa replied, “It didn’t matter; it was just a dare from Karkare.”

Pahwa’s next hunting ground was Hyderabad. Bakshi asked, “What did you do there?”

“More killings,” replied Pahwa.

His narrative sapped Bakshi of enthusiasm to conduct the interview any further. Nandy wrote: “She was a Gandhian but confronting in real life what some may call sickness of soul, she felt morally outraged and disoriented.”

By then, Bakshi had collected ample material for Nandy to conclude that Pahwa’s childhood experiences provided the psychological spring to throw away the inbuilt restraint to violence.

Childhood traumas

Born in 1927, Pahwa grew up in Pakpattan, a small town in Montgomery district of West Punjab (now Sahiwal district in Pakistan). His father, Kashmirilal, was a petty bureaucrat. Pahwa’s mother died when Kashmirilal was just 21. He remarried and had several children. Intense conflict defined the relationship between Pahwa and his stepmother. His childhood trauma was aggravated because Kashmirilal liberally used the cane on him.

When he was six years old, Pahwa joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, tempted, like so many lower middle class children, by the opportunity to play games and do physical exercise in its daily camp. Kashmirilal, however, looked upon RSS activities as anti-government and would thrash Pahwa whenever he was caught attending the camp.

There was a Hindu and a Muslim gang in Pahwa’s school. When a Hindu boy was attacked with a knife, Pahwa’s gang “beat up four of them [Muslims]”. At home, Pahwa was thrashed for having resorted to violence at school.

Unable to bear the harassment of his stepmother, Pahwa said he ran away from home at the age of 17. He joined the British Indian Army on a short service commission and retired when he was 20. Pahwa was given admission to a college in Lahore as a retirement benefit.

But he had to abandon his studies because of the Partition violence. Crossing the newly created India-Pakistan border with a caravan, Pahwa witnessed much violence, an account of which he gave in his deposition in the Gandhi assassination case. “There were occasional exaggerations and propaganda, too, in the testimony,” Nandy wrote.

The other members of Pahwa’s family made it to India. Pahwa was reunited with them at Ferozpur, but he then moved to Gwalior with his maternal aunt. He joined the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a wing of the Hindu Mahasabha, and went on a killing spree.

Nathuram Godse shot Mahatma Gandhi dead on January 30, 1948.

Two father figures

It can be argued that Partition unhinged Pahwa. But then, millions had experienced horrific violence, but not all took the leap that Pahwa took. According to Nandy, Pahwa crossed the internal line of control, so to speak, because Gandhi became a substitute for his father Kashmirilal and the moral universe they represented had to be defied.

“Once the opportunities for such defiance opened up, Pahwa’s inner checks failed,” wrote Nandy. “The rejection of Gandhi, as an extension of authoritative source of morality, smoothened his transition.” In other words, the Partition violence became a justification for defying Gandhi’s creed of non-violence.

In Bakshi’s transcripts, Pahwa’s complaints against Gandhi were full of telling imagery. Nandy wrote, “Pahwa complained of rejection and partiality [by Gandhi] like a child feeling wronged by a father, unwilling to listen to his children under the influence of a hostile stepmother.”

This is evident from Pahwa’s remarks such as this one: “That man [Gandhi] just would not listen. He gifted a Mahatma to the Muslims, nothing to the Hindus. Otherwise, he could have been a good leader. He wanted to be a peer [Sufi teacher] of the Muslims, but did not succeed.”

To understand Nandy’s point, substitute a few words in Pahwa’s remark, which would read as follows: Kashmirilal just would not listen. He gifted a father to my stepbrothers, nothing to me. Otherwise, he could have been a good father. He wanted to be a teacher to my stepbrothers, but he did not succeed with me.

“Godse in his last testament in the court accused Gandhi of failing in his paternal duty as the father of the nation and betraying Mother India,” wrote Nandy. “Pahwa’s no less oedipal accusation was that Gandhi was not an impartial father.”

The impartial father at home could not be punished. The father of the nation, therefore, had to pay the price.

To Bakshi, Pahwa said he did not regret his violent actions. He continued to verbally assassinate Gandhi many times over to the Gandhian interviewer. Yet he also told her that he was no longer a fanatic but a humanist.

Asked to define fanatic, Pahwa said, “The fanatic…sees only the flaws in others and turns against them. This is what happened to the Hindus and the Muslims at the time of Partition. Fanaticism blinds a person. But insaniyat, humanity, is also there…In this world, no one is born evil. Circumstances make a person bad.”

As if to bolster his definition, Pahwa narrated the camaraderie between Hindus and Muslims in Pakpattan, regardless of their occasional acrimony, his visits to the mausoleum of a Sufi saint to listen to qawwali, and the exemplary etiquette of Muslims. He remembered Pakpattan as idyllic, a land of plenty.

Pahwa swung between the two selves – the ideological self and the humanist self that identified with the “non-canonical, vernacular stratum of popular religion”. This process is called “doubling” in psychoanalysis. “His doubling was a way of making peace with his personal memories of a violent, partial father through Hindu nationalism’s ‘screen history’ of India and the role in that history of the man he conspired to kill as a false paternal authority,” wrote Nandy.

Pahwa’s story is of immense relevance in these years of the rise of religious nationalism in India. Like Pahwa, those who kill in its name perhaps have personal demons to slay, about which we have no clue and therefore club them in the category of extremism. They are disturbed souls for whom the political arena becomes a theatre to enact their trauma.