On January 30, 1948, when India was barely six months old as an independent nation, Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a young ideologue, Nathuram Godse, as the former was arriving at his usual evening prayer meeting adjacent to Birla House in Delhi. The scene was dramatic. A large crowd was waiting to hear the Mahatma as he arrived, accompanied by two of his grand nieces, Manu and Abha. Godse who was standing up front in the crowd greeted the Mahatma with a namaste, took out his pistol and fired two rounds. Gandhiji collapsed. Nathuram did not move. He made no effort to escape. He was caught by the police. Subsequently the police captured his associates involved in the crime. They were tried in a court of law set up in Delhi'sRed Fort; Godse and one of his colleagues, Narayan Apte were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The story of the conspiracy to kill Gandhiji was first compiled by Manohar Malgonkar way back in 1978 and published as a book entitled The Men Who Killed Gandhi. The book went into ten editions. Now we have the eleventh edition, this time replete with hitherto unpublished photographs and pictures of secret documents. Who was Godse? What made him take the decision to assassinate the Mahatma? Who were his co-conspirators? In what way, if any, was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar involved with the plot? What was the background to the decision taken by Godse? Did Godse really hate the Mahatma to the extent that he wanted to kill him? These and many other questions are answered in this book which looks like the last word in research and analysis.
It all started with the Partition of India. Gandhiji was opposed to it at the very beginning and had said that Partition could only take place over his dead body. But once it took place, true to his principles, Gandhiji did not wish Muslims who had decided to stay on in India to be hurt, even though, as a result of Partition, a two-way tide of migration involving twelve million people took place, with parts of refugee columns, in Malgonkar's expressive phrase resembling ?great rivers of humanity?.
About the same time, on October 26, 1947 to be precise, Pakistani troops under the guise of tribals had embarked on an invasion of Jammu and Kashmir and had taken over Baramula, killing 11,000 people out of a population of 14,000, burning a church, a convent and a missionary hospital, butchering hospital patients and publicly dishonouring nuns. All his had infuriated many citizens. Godse was just one of them.
Godse indeed held the Mahatma in high esteem but felt deeply hurt over the Mahatma'sconcern for Muslims in India in whose safety and well-being Gandhiji seemed actively interested. But that was Gandhiji.
Gandhiji being Gandhiji, he could not but have been concerned with the welfare of Muslims, even when they had actively participated in the movement for Partition. Then something more provocative happened. As a result of Partition, Pakistan was to get Rs 40 crore as its share of undivided India'srevenues. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabh Bhai Patel seemed hesitant to part with that amount at a time when Pakistan had mounted an attack in Jammu and Kashmir. In Gandhiji'seyes, that was unfair. As he saw it, having agreed to Partition, it was not proper for India to deny Pakistan its legitimate due.
To force Patel & Co. to do what he considered was just and honourable, the Mahatam threatened to go on a fast. The news was broadcast. Writes Malgonkar: ?In Poona, two men sitting in a shadowy newspaper office read it over their teleprinter. Read it and suddenly made their great decision: Gandhi had to be killed.?
What happened after that and how the conspiracy was hatched, how the conspirators meticulously planned the assassination and how, finally, they went about it, is described by Malgonkar in great detail.
Godse, strangely enough, was an admirer of Gandhiji. But he also held Savarkar in great respect for his indomitable will in fighting for freedom. That led some on in the Congress hierarchy to decide that Savarkar should also be treated as a co-conspirator and tried and possibly sentenced to jail Evidence, apparently, was concocted but, interestingly, one man saw through it all. That was Dr B.R. Ambedkar who went out of his way to inform Savarkar'sdefence lawyer, L.B. Bhopatkar that ?there was no real charge against Savarkar?, that ?quite worthless charges have been concocted? and several members of the Nehru cabinet were strongly against roping in Savarkar as a co-conspirator.
What is amazing it that Dr Ambedkar, then Law Minister, should have gone out of his way to inform Savarkar's Counsel of his client'sinnocence. The book goes deeply into the background of the alleged conspirators, including Vishnu Karkare and Madanlal Pahwa. Also charged was Nathuram Godse'syounger brother, Gopal Godse described by Malgonkar as ?a gentle, soft-spoken an self-effacing man who was much influenced by his brother'sfervent zeal for the Hindus cause.? He had to serve long term of imprisonment. As probably one of the last reporters still alive who covered the Godse Trial six decades ago, this reviewer sadly remembers the events preceding and following Gandhiji'smurder with painful nostalgia.
In 1948 Gandhiji could not have been anything else but the man he was, who believed in non-violence and forgiveness of enemies. But, given the circumstances, if there was no Godse, one would have been forced to invent one. There had to be an individual who was greatly offended with the Mahatma'ssaintliness and take revenge upon him.
History gave the India of the immediate post-1947 period both a forgiving Gandhiji and an unforgiving Godse. Both fulfilled the demands of history.
The Men Who killed Gandhi revives painful memories; it suffices to bring tears to one'seyes. Looking back one realises the sheer inevitability of everything'sthat happened. Malgonkar does not take sides. One must put oneself in the place of Pahwa, himself a refugee from Pakistan who witnessed a Hindu refugee column ?forty miles long? and another in which he saw ?five hundred women who had been stripped naked some with their breasts, noses, ears cut? to understand Godse'sfeelings. It was against this background that Godse acted as he did. This is his story.
Godse never regretted his act. As he walked toward the noose, the hangman heard him and his colleague Apte shouting: Akhand Bharat amar rahe. That was to end another chapter in India'slong and turbulent history. Only Malgonkar could have done justice to it. And that he has done, for the education and enlightenment of his fellow Indians.
(Roli Books Pvt. Ltd, M-75, G.K.-II Market, New Delhi-110 048.)