Sixty one years after the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a ‘mahatma’ to many but really a cunning politician who had mastered the art of manipulating the Indian National Congress and offering simplistic solutions to the most complex problems, apart from coercing others to toe his line by abandoning food, the story of his murder continues to elicit both curiosity and passion. He was not the first leader to be felled by an assassin’s bullet, nor is he the only eminent Indian, or South Asian for that matter, to fall victim to an elaborate murder conspiracy.
But Gandhi’s assassination was different. Not only his killers were Hindu, they killed a man who had by then come to be regarded at home and abroad as an “apostle of peace” and symbolized the unique doctrine of ‘non-violence’. In those early days of freedom, it was unthinkable that anybody would dare raise a finger, leave alone a gun, at Gandhi. Yet Nathuram Vinayak Godse did the unthinkable, with more than a little help from Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Gopal Godse, Madanlal Pahwa and Digambar Badge. Godse assassinated Gandhi on January 30, 1948, approaching him during the evening prayer, bowing, and shooting him three times at close range with a Beretta semi-automatic pistol. Immediately after this, he surrendered himself to police. Nathuram Godse, Apte and their accomplices look remarkably relaxed during the trial, unconcerned about the possibility of being sentenced to death – eventually Godse and Apte were hanged; Karkare, Gopal Godse, Pahwa were sentenced to life imprisonment. They never regretted their deed.
Those were terrible days. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were struggling to keep body and soul together. Many of them had lost their loved ones in the partition riots — women were raped in front of their husbands and children; young girls were abducted; men were disemboweled; trains arrived laden with dead bodies; people fleeing marauders were set upon with ferocious brutality. Madanlal Pahwa, a young refugee, Malgonkar writes, “reached a place called Fazilka, in Indian Territory, and discovered that another refugee column in which his father and other relatives had set out, had fared much worse. They had been attacked by Jihadi mobs: ‘Only 40 or 50 had survived out of 400 or 500…’.” Delhi was flooded by nearly one million refugees, all of them desperately looking for food and shelter. They were distraught and traumatized, unable to figure out why their lives had been turned upside down in so gruesome a manner. Nor could they understand the rationale behind protecting Delhi’s Muslims. What left them aghast was Gandhi’s insistence that Hindu and Sikh refugees should be sent back to Pakistan and Muslims who had left India be brought back. It didn’t make sense. Nor did the vicious blood-letting that followed. Meanwhile, Pakistan had launched its mission to smash and grab Jammu & Kashmir and was demanding that India hand over Rs 55 crore, its share of the cash reserve inherited from the departing British colonial Government.
After independence Gandhi used to start Satyagraha on every issue which went directly against the interest of India. Gandhi started hunger strike against sending of troops to Kashmir after Pakistani invasion. He was in favour of ahinsha Satyagraha against Pakistani invaders. In west Punjab, lakhs of Sikhs were killed and their body dispatched by train. In reaction to this, Sikhs started to retaliate here. Gandhi started hunger strike again to prevent it.
The proverbial last straw was Gandhi’s threat to go on a fast to force the Government of India to accept Pakistan’s demand of Rs 55 Crore. In all fairness, it needs to be recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru was opposed to the idea: He famously declared that giving the money to Pakistan would mean providing it with “sinews of war”. The old man was not listening: In the end, Gandhi had his way although people were aghast. But did this gross act of injustice to the people of India and the callous disregard for the sentiments of millions of refugees — half-a-million people perished in the violence, 12 million were rendered homeless — justify Nathuram Godse’s action? What inspired Narayan Apte, son of a well-known historian and Sanskrit scholar, to decide on January 13 (the day Gandhi declared he would go on a fast to press Pakistan’s demand for Rs 55 crore) that he must turn into a killer? What was Madanlal Pahwa’s role in the conspiracy? And why did Badge turn approver?
Godse is often a misunderstood character. He is referred to as a Hindu fanatic. It is often hard to understand Godse because the Government of India had suppressed information about him. His court statements, letters etc. were all banned from the public until recently. Judging from his writings one thing becomes very clear – He was no fanatic. His court statements are very well read out and indicate a calm and collected mental disposition. He never even once speaks ill about Gandhi as a person, but only attacks Gandhi’s policies which caused ruin and untold misery to Hindus. Another interesting point to note is that Godse had been working with the Hindu refugees fleeing from Pakistan. He had seen the horrible atrocities committed on them. Many women had their hands cut off; nose cut off, even little girls had been raped mercilessly. Despite this Godse did not harm even single Muslim in India which he could easily have. So it would be a grave mistake to call him a Hindu fanatic.
Then what was the motive behind Godse’s act??? Nathuram Godse was a learned man, very sharp and intelligent – editor of “Agrani” (one of the most famous newspaper of that time – with Nana Aapte). In his last editorial of “Agrani” which he changed overnight – he said “Gandhi must be stopped – at any cost” and he justified why Gandhiji’s assassination was not only inevitable but also a delayed action and that should’ve happened LONG AGO.
He knew exactly what he is going to do. In Nathuram’s Words – “Assassination is never as easy as picking up a rifle and pulling the trigger, assassination is never an accident. Yes, murder could be an accident but not assassination. In this case of Gandhi, it could never be…”
Did he tamper with an important era of history?? He said – “I differ with the word era. It could be a page, a leaf of history. Certainly not an era. If we don’t turn this page today, the rest of the pages of the history of our nation will remain unwritten, blank…”
By seeing the nature of the assassination in public space and Godse’s act of turning himself over to the Police, we can see that Godse did not do this for personal reasons. He very well knew that he would be hanged and his name would be disgraced as Gandhi was considered a saint. And again Godse could have ran away and escaped punishment. But he did the reverse. He called a police officer and courted arrest. Before we proceed it would be wise to understand the backdrop of the assassination. The central government had taken a decision — Pakistan will not be given Rs 55 Crores. On January 13 Gandhi started a fast unto death that Pakistan must be given the money. On January 13, the central government changed its earlier decision and announced that Pakistan would be given the amount. On January 13, Nathuram decided to assassinate Gandhi.
Also according to one source, after the state of Pakistan was formed administrative problems started to crop up. Therefore Pakistan came up with a proposal to link East Pakistan (the present day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. According to the plan a road (you could say an area) 10 km wide would be linking the east division with the west. Now the RSS activists feared that if Pakistan requested Gandhi to sanction such a proposal then Gandhi would readily agree and the Mahatma’s would be the final word as he was the father of the nation. They knew that Gandhi was Pakistan’s best lobby so they had him eliminated through Godse. I wonder what would have happened if we had allowed a road to be built across our country. I just can’t imagine.
In the Hindu Rashtra daily dated 9/7/1947, Godse had given the following message to the fellow Indians. “Brothers! Our mother land has been cut into pieces. The eagles have torn her skin into bits. Hindu women are being raped in the middle of the road. How long can we tolerate this? It’s a shame that lakhs of Hindus live like refugees in their own country. Women being raped burn my heart.”
He warned Gandhiji “Gandhiji! By approving the Pakistan partition, you have stabbed the nation. Unless you change your activities, you must face harsh consequences. We consider the dividers of our nation as traitors our nation.”
In Nathuram’s words – “I don’t refute Gandhi’s theory of non-violence. He may be a saint but he is not a politician. His theory of non-violence denies self-defence and self-interest. The non-violence that defines the fight for survival as violence is a theory not of non-violence but of self-destruction. The division of the nation was an unnecessary decision. What was the percentage of the Muslim population as compared to the population of the nation? There was no need for a separate nation. Had it been a just demand, Maulana Azad would not have stayed back in India. But because Jinnah insisted and because Gandhi took his side, India was divided, in spite of opposition from the nation, the Cabinet. An individual is never greater than a nation. But Gandhi has stared considering himself greater than the nation.
We never opposed a Muslim prime minister. In a democracy you cannot put forward your demands at knife-point. Jinnah did it and Gandhi stabbed the nation with the same knife. He dissected the land and gave a piece to Pakistan. We did picket that time but in vain. The Father of our Nation went to perform his paternal duties for Pakistan! Gandhi blackmailed the cabinet with his fast unto death. His body, his threats to die are causing the destruction — geographical as well as economical — of the nation. Today, Muslims have taken a part of the nation, tomorrow Sikhs may ask for Punjab. The religions are again dividend into castes; they will demand sub-divisions of the divisions. What remains of the concept of one nation, national integration? Why did we fight the British in unison for independence? Why not separately? Bhagat Singh did not ask only for an independent Punjab or Subhash Chandra Bose for an independent Bengal?
At the time of Partition, when Suharawady surrendered only due to political pressure, but only Suharawady, not his followers…they went on with the massacre. Gandhi started his fast; the Hindus put their weapons down. I still remember that day. A poor Hindu told Gandhi, ‘I am putting down my weapons because I don’t want your death on my conscience but I am staying alone with my family in the Muslim area. That night, before leaving Hyderabad I visited his home. The whole household was screaming, weeping, his only eight-year-old son had been killed by the Muslims. He had no weapon to defend himself. He threw his son’s body on my lap and said, “Take his blood to your Mahatma. Tell him, if he goes on fast again, he can finish it by drinking not orange-juice but my son’s blood.” I could not say anything. Gandhi was the Father of my Nation. For a moment, I was tempted to pull out the Muslims from their homes and chop them down. But I controlled myself. Violence for self-defence is justified; otherwise it is an ill-cultured act. I returned to where Gandhi was staying but he had already left by car. Of course, there would have been no point in meeting him… he would only have prayed for both the killer and the victim.
I am going to assassinate him in the open, before the public, because I am going to do it as my duty. If I do it surreptitiously, it becomes a crime in my own eyes. I will not try to escape, I will surrender and naturally I will be hanged. One assassination, one hanging. I don’t want two executions for one assassination and I don’t want your involvement, participation or company. (This was for Nana-Apte and Veer Savarkar as they were against Gandhi’s policies too; Godse wanted to assassinate Gandhi all by himself and took promise from Nana Apte that he will continue helping Veer Savarkar in rebuilding India as a strong free nation.)
On January 30, I reached Birla Bhavan at 12 pm. Gandhi was sitting outside on a cot enjoying the sunshine. Vallabhbhai Patel’s granddaughter was sitting at his feet. I had the revolver with me. I could have assassinated him easily then, but I was convinced that his assassination was to be a punishment and a sentence against him, and I would execute him. I wanted witnesses for the execution but there were none. I did not want to escape after the execution as there was not an iota of guilt in my mind. I wanted to surrender, but surrender to whom? There was a good crowd to collect for the evening prayers. I decided on the evening of January 30 as the date for Gandhi’s execution.
It was 4.45 pm when I reached the gate of Birla Bhavan. The security staff at the gate was scrutinising the crowd entering and I was a little worried about them. I mingled with a small group of people and sneaked inside. It was 5.10 pm when I saw Gandhi and his close associates coming to the prayer place from his room inside. I approached the passage from where he was likely to climb the steps of the lawn, in such a way that I was covered by a few people.
Gandhi climbed the steps and came forward. He had kept his hands on the shoulders of the two girls. I wanted just three seconds more. I moved two steps forward and faced Gandhi. Now I wanted to take out the revolver and salute him for whatever sacrifice and service he had made for the nation. One of the two girls was dangerously close to Gandhi and I was afraid that she might be injured in the course of firing. As a precautionary measure I went one more step ahead, bowed before him and gently pushed the girl away from the firing line. The next moment I fired at Gandhi. Gandhi was very weak, there was a feeble sound like ‘aah’ (There are proof that Gandhi did NOT say “Hey Ram” at that time – it’s just made up stuff) from him and he fell down.
Those who were close to me saw the weapon in my hand. They rushed away from the spot. Gandhi had fallen to the ground, I was standing and the crowd had formed a ring around us. After the firing I raised my hand holding the revolver and shouted, ‘Police, police’. For 30 seconds nobody came forward and I scanned the crowd. I saw a police officer. I signalled to him to come forward and arrest me. He came and caught my wrist, and then a second man came and touched the revolver… I let it go…”
Trial and execution
Following his assassination of Gandhi, he was put on trial beginning May 27, 1948. During the trial, he did not defend any charge and openly admitted that he killed Gandhi. On November 8, 1949 Godse was sentenced to death for the murder. Godse’s legal team was savaged by critics for not introducing considerable evidence that their client was mentally unbalanced and/or manipulated by others. Among those calling for commutation of the death sentence for both defendants were Nehru and Gandhi’s two sons who felt that the two men on trial were pawns of RSS higher-ups and, in any case, executing their fathers’ killers would dishonour his memory and legacy which included a staunch opposition to the death penalty. Godse was hanged at Ambala Jail on November 15, 1949, along with Narayan Apte, the other conspirator. Savarkar was also charged with conspiracy in the assassination of Gandhi, but was acquitted and subsequently released. Godse stipulated that his ashes were not to be deposited in a body of water according to Hindu dictates, but rather were to be held in storage until they could be deposited in The Sindhu after Pakistan had been reunited with India. For years, his brother kept Godse’s ashes over his fireplace and held an annual salute to “the hero martyrs” on the anniversary of the assassination.
Yes! I Killed Mohandas Gandhi and I am Glad I Did It!
That is what Gopal Godse says. Gopal Godse spent 18 years in prison for his role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. His brother and one other conspirator were hanged by the neck until dead. But it was all worth it, says Gopal Godse. Gopal Godse proudly recounts his role in plotting the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948.