At 5:17 p.m. on January 30, 1948, a 37-year-old Brahmin from Pune bowed before Mohandas Gandhi—one of history’s greatest voices of peace and non-violence—and proceeded to shoot him thrice with a Beretta M 1934 semi-automatic pistol. The Mahatma, who was on his way to address a prayer meeting at New Delhi’s Birla House, died in a few minutes.
After the trial, the unapologetic assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was sentenced to death and on November 15, 1949, and hanged at the Ambala jail. Narayan Apte, a co-conspirator in the assassination, was also hanged the same day.
Godse, a Maharashtrian, was born in 1910 in the Pune district. His father, Vinayak Vamanrao, worked in the post office. When he was in school, Godse reportedly respected Gandhi. But he dropped out of high school and became linked with Hindu right-wing groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Historians are, however, divided over how long his relationship with these organisations lasted. Godse launched Agrani, a Marathi newspaper for the Hindu Mahasabha. The paper was later renamed Hindu Rashtra.
The Hindu Mahasabha’s history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. The All India Hindu Mahasabha held its first session in April 1915. But, as Bipin Chandra and other historians have pointed out in the book India’s Struggle for Independence, “it remained for many years a rather sickly child compared to the Muslim League”. According to the authors, communalism in India remained at the “liberal stage” till 1937 when it “increasingly started assuming a virulent, extremist of fascist form”.
The book adds: “Extreme communalism was based on the politics of hatred, fear psychosis and irrationality. The motifs of domination and suppression, always present in communal propaganda . . . increasingly became the dominant theme of communal propaganda. A campaign of hatred against the followers of other religions was unleashed. The interests of Hindus and Muslims were now declared to be permanently in conflict.”
The Hindu Mahasabha had initially supported Gandhi’s campaigns of civil disobedience against the British. But eventually Godse and the others started believing that Gandhi, by fasting unto death, was giving in to ‘anti-national’ demands that were against Hindu interests. He later also held Gandhi responsible for the partition of India.
The book India’s Struggle for Independence puts the Partition and the role of the Indian National Congress into context: “. . . Nehru, Patel and Gandhiji in 1947 were only accepting what had become inevitable because of the long-term failure of the Congress to draw in the Muslim masses to the national movement and stem the surging waves of Muslim communalism, which, especially since 1937, had been beating with increasing fury. This failure was revealed with stark clarity by the 1946 elections in which the League won 90 per cent Muslim seats.”
With Partition becoming a reality, Godse and the other conspirators decided on their course of action. On January 30, 1948, legendary American photographer Margaret Bourke-White was only a few blocks away from Birla House when Gandhi was shot and thousands of people began to close in to the scene of the tragedy. She dashed back to Birla House. “The rush was so great, I could hardly reach the door, but the guards recognised me and helped me through. In the next moment, I was in the room where Gandhi, dead less than an hour, lay on a mattress in a corner on the floor,” she later wrote. “His head was cradled lovingly in the lap of his secretary; the devoted little grandnieces and daughters-in-law who had always surrounded him in life clustered around him now as he lay in this last sleep.”
Gandhi’s assassination shocked not just Indians but the world. “Nothing more revolting has occurred in the history of the modern world than the senseless assassination of this venerable man,” General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in Japan, said. “Gandhiji [. . .] was one of those prophets who lived far ahead of the times.” Albert Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of the last century, memorably remarked: “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a man ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was very close to Gandhi, told the grief-stricken Indians in a radio broadcast: “Gandhi has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. The father of our nation is no more; no longer will we run to him for advice and solace. This is a terrible blow to millions and millions in this country.”
Godse was put on trial in Shimla. He was sentenced to death on November 8, 1949. Nehru, Gandhi’s two sons, and others were in favour of leniency for Gandhi’s killer to honour the Mahatma’s philosophy of non-violence. But the death sentence was carried out a week later.
To his very end Godse believed Gandhi deserved to die. In his death, Nathuram Godse became a symbol of Hindu communalism. As for Gandhi, Nehru put it best after the assassination: “Our light has gone out, but the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. For a thousand years that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it.”
Also on this day:
1982 — Vinoba Bhave, non-violence and human rights activist, passed away
1986 — Sania Mirza, tennis player, was born
2000 — Jharkhand, new state of India, was formed
2012 — K.C. Pant, defence minister, passed away