75 years ago, on January 30, 1948 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was shot and killed while on a nightly public walk in Delhi by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist enraged that the Mahatma had promoted communal peace between India and Muslim Pakistan by fasting until the Indian government made a 550 million Rupee payment to Pakistan and paid reparations to Indian Muslims whose homes had been destroyed in the civil unrest following Independence and Partition. It was the last great non-violent protest of Gandhi’s long life.
One would think that the accomplishments of a man who since returning to India in triumph following campaigns on behalf of Indian laborers in South Africa, had worked tirelessly for independence since joining the Indian Congress Party in 1915, and whose famous Salt March in 1930 was the opening of a long campaign of non-violent struggle and passive resistance which led ultimately to independence in 1947 would have been honored by nationalists. You would, of course, be wrong. Fanaticism, particularly that inflamed by religious righteousness, is incapable of gratitude and intolerant of the slightest perceived attempt to bridge divisions.Gandhi leading the Salt March in 1930--one of his epic peaceful mass defiance of the British Raj in India.
And Gandhi had been doing that his whole life. In the 1920’s he reached out to Indian Muslims becoming the first Indian leader to be truly national rather than sectarian. He had opposed outbreaks of inter-communal violence and had repeatedly reached out to Muslim victims of Hindu rioters. When the British Raj finally agreed to independence based on a partition into two states—India and Muslim Pakistan, Gandhi personally rejected the terms and refused to either celebrate Independence or recognize it on those terms. He refused to take any official part in the new Indian government which his leadership of the Congress Party would have entitled him to.
Upon Partition horrific inter-communal violence broke out across the Indian Sub-Continent, particularly in the Punjab and Bengal. As many as half a million people were killed and 12 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were displaced from their homes creating waves of refugees and abject misery.
Gandhi launched a series of “fasts unto death” to protest the Partition and violence and to try and bring about peace and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims who he considered to be one Indian people. The last of these fasts was launched on January 12, 1948 and lasted until the 27th which was three days after the Indian Parliament had reversed a previous stand and released the money to Pakistan promised in a division of the former colony’s assets and the recompense to Muslim victims of the sectarian violence.Gandhi's Hindu nationalist assassin Nathuram Godse.
The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was no lone wolf. He was a member of the extremist Hindu Mahasabha and had several collaborators and accomplices. And Godse’s hatred of Gandhi went far back—he was involved in the last four of five previous assassination attempts dating back to the 1930’s. Just days before on January 20 Godse and his group had bungled an attempt at Birla House in Delhi that involved a bomb which exploded at a podium from which Gandhi was scheduled to speak.
Godse and Narayan Apte another of the plotters escaped to Godse’s native Pune via Bombay by rail. Determined to make another attempt Godse obtained a Beretta .38 caliber semi-automatic pistol with the assistance of other members of the group. Godse and Apte returned to Delhi on January 29 and checked into a room at the Delhi Railway Station.
On the evening of the 30th Gandhi was walking in the garden toward Birla House to take part in a prayer meeting. As usual he was unaccompanied by any security. Escorting him were young women including his nieces. At 78 years of age the Mahatma was still recovering from his fast and somewhat feeble.Gandhi on his customary evening walk escorted by his nieces.
At 5:17 that evening Godse approached Gandhi and bowed. The old leader paused to acknowledge the greeting, as was his custom. One of the young women with him, Abha Chattopadhyay, tugged at his arm and told Godse, “Brother, Bapu is already late,” but the assassin shoved her aside, raised his pistol and pumped three shots into Gandhi’s chest at close range.
Gandhi reportedly cried out Hey Rama!—O Lord!—as he collapsed. The phrase became a rallying cry for remembering the martyred leader in the days and weeks following his death.
Godse himself called out—“Police! Police!” and waited to be arrested. He was ready—eager to be a martyr for his cause. He later told investigators that he knew he would be hated for his act in the short run but that eventually his “removal of Gandhi from Indian politics” would prove such a blessing that he would be honored for his “sacrifice.”
Gandhi was taken to a hospital where he was officially pronounced dead two hours later. In fact, he had probably died at the scene but the delay allowed government and Congress Party leaders time to be informed and prepare for the public reaction that was sure to follow.Jawaharial Nehru had been Gandhi's protégée and closest supporter in the Congress Party but had become estranged over partition of India and Pakistan. It fell to the Prime Minister to announce the Mahatma's assassination on radio.
Later that evening Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, one of Gandhi’s oldest and closest associates from whom he had become estranged for agreeing to form a Congress Party government on the basis of Partition, addressed the nation by radio:
Friends and comrades, the 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. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, 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.
The shocked nation went into deep mourning. Communal violence once again broke out until the Government assured the nation that it had arrested the murderer and his associates and that they were not Muslim. The Mahasabha and other Indian religious parties, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh were outlawed and upward of 20,000 secularist militants were taken into custody. The Congress Party draped itself in the memory of Gandhi and built loyalty across India from the poor who had little previous allegiance to the new government. Nehru was, for the time being, able to still calls for an invasion of Pakistan.
Over two million people joined the five-mile long funeral procession that took over five hours to reach Raj Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi from Birla House. Gandhi’s body was elevated on platform atop an artillery caisson pulled through the streets by fifty men. At the site overlooking the river, his body was cremated on an open pyre. Some of the ashes were scattered immediately in the river. The rest were divided and placed in small urns distributed across India to be scattered in local rivers and bodies of water to unite the country in participation of the final Hindu ritual. Some of those urns were misplaced or for other reasons not immediately scattered. Over the last 25 years or so a few have been discovered and ashes scattered at other Indian holy sites, the Headwaters of the Nile, and even near the Los Angeles Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine. The cremation site at Raj Ghat is now a national memorial and still attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.Gandhi's body on his funeral pyre, his bullet wounds still visible on his chest.
Godse, Apte, and six others were tried for participation in the assassination plot. After an eight month trial all but Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a leading political figure in the Hindu nationalist movement, were convicted on at least some charges. Dattatraya Parchure, a medical doctor and intellectual later had his conviction overturned by the High Court of Punjab. Godse and Apte were sentenced to death by hanging. The remaining defendants received life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder or violating the Explosive Substances Act in connection with the January 20 failed bomb attempt.
Despite appeals by the Gandhi family and Prime Minister Nehru to spare the lives of the assassins in the spirit of Gandhi’s non-violence, Godse and Apte were hung on November 15, 1949 at Ambala Jail.The Memorial at the Raj Ghat cremation site.
It must be said that 75 years later India has a Hindu nationalist government, however not as virulent as the Mahasabha. But religious minorities are subject to punitive legislation, sectarian violence is on the rise, and tensions over Kashmir regularly threaten to plunge nuclear-armed India and Pakistan into war.