“While walking through the gardens to this evening’s prayer meeting, Mr. Gandhi had just reached the top of a short flight of brick steps, his slender, brown arms around the shoulders of his granddaughters, Manu, 17, and Ava, 20.
Someone spoke to him and he turned from his granddaughters and gave the appealing Hindu salute — palms together and the points of the fingers brought to the chin as in a Christian attitude of prayer.
At once a youngish Indian stepped from the crowd — which had opened to form a pathway for Mr. Gandhi's walk to the pergola — and fired the fatal shots from a European made pistol. One bullet struck Mr. Gandhi in the chest and two in the abdomen on the right side. He seemed to lean forward and then crumpled to the ground.”
— The New York Times, 30 January 1948
The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, sent waves of shock and grief across a newly-independent India and beyond. Gandhi, who in the last months of his life was deeply pained by the communal violence that had overtaken the subcontinent, had for several decades led India to a non-violent struggle against the British.
After Gandhi returned from South Africa, the Non-Cooperation Movement was one of the major mass campaigns that he initially led. Under his leadership the Congress urged people to shun foreign-made goods and use homespun cloth and boycott British educational institutions and courts. Also, women were urged to participate in the national movement. The Non-Cooperation Movement thus brought Indians together to serve a common cause.
But later for much of the 1920s, the nationalist movement lost steam. Gandhi resumed his leadership role in 1928 in opposing the Simon Commission. Set up with the stated aim of furthering political reforms in India, the Commission angered Indian nationalists of all hues as the British in their imperial arrogance had not included a single Indian as a member of the Commission.
In December 1928 the Congress passed a resolution, backed by Gandhi, calling for the granting of dominion status to India within one year. If the British failed to do so, another campaign, this time for complete independence, would be launched, the resolution said.
But with Britain giving no quarter, a historic ‘purna swaraj’ (complete independence) resolution was passed in the Congress session of the following year.
Gandhi stepped up the tempo by carrying out the famous Dandi (salt) march in March-April 1930 from Ahmedabad to Dandi in Gujarat. The government responded by doing what it did best — mass arrests of non-violent protestors.
Besides campaigns against the British, Gandhi, who was acutely conscious of the religious and caste divide in the country, reached out to Muslims and campaigned against the marginalisation of Dalits throughout the 1930s.
After the start of World War 2, Congress leaders were divided about lending support to British war efforts. Eventually Gandhi called upon the British to ‘Quit India’, a direct and blunt message that nothing short of complete and immediate independence was acceptable to the Indian people. The entire Congress leadership, including Gandhi, was jailed. By the time he came out of jail the political climate had changed. While India’s freedom was now well within sight, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League was adamant in its demand for a separate homeland of Pakistan.
Gandhi was deeply opposed to dividing the country on religious grounds. Ironically, extreme Hindu nationalists like Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse held him responsible for the Partition. In an interview to Times Crest in August 2012, the historian Roderick Matthews said: [Jinnah] had a very negative nationalism. His vision of Pakistan was that it should not be Hindu-dominated or British-dominated and filled with Muslims. But he made no attempt to define what a Muslim nation was . . . Gandhi had a positive inclusive nationalism that anyone in India was Indian. India is now inclusive, noisy, merry, vibrant and positive and that is what Gandhi tried to propagate.”
In 1946 when vicious communal riots broke out in Calcutta, Gandhi stayed in riot-hit localities and went on a fast to put an end to the killings. But even Gandhi could not stop Partition and the orgy of violence that accompanied it. When Independence finally came on 15 August 1947, Gandhi, sickened by the communal madness around him, chose not to celebrate it.
After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948, a grief-stricken Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the nation: “[T]he light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more . . . we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.”
Also on this day:
1910 — Chidambaram Subramaniam, union defence and finance minister, was born
1913 — Amrita Sher-Gil, eminent Indian artist, was born