Who got away with Gandhi's murder?
The Asian Age
Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination
By Teesta Setalvad
It is rather strange that the most regrettable assassination in the immediate aftermath of Independence has been a rarely discussed topic in India. Although the possibility of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination was in the air for quite some time as several attempts had been made on his life since 1934, these grew in intensity around the time of Partition and Independence.
The last unsuccessful attempt was made on January 20, 1948, when one Madan Lal Pahwa set off a bomb at the venue of Gandhi’s prayer meeting.
Pahwa was part of a group of conspirators which included Nathuram Godse, who edited a Marathi journal in Poona called Hindu Rashtra, Narayan Apte, the journal’s manager, Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother, Digambar Badge, who ran an arms shop in Poona, Shankar Kistayya, who was Badge’s servant, and Vishnu Karkare from Ahmednagar. Pahwa was a refugee from Pakistan and Karkare’s assistant. Many of them were Maharashtrian brahmins and their hero was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, also a Maharashtrian brahmin. Savarkar, allegedly, was part of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, but he was cleared of the charge by the court trying the case. For some years past, this group had been trying to get close to Gandhi with conspiratorial intentions. Godse was possibly present among a group of people creating commotion in Gandhi’s prayer meeting in Panchgani in July 1944 and again in Sevagram in 1946.
On the morning of January 20, 1948, this group had visited Birla House in Delhi where Gandhi was staying, to survey the place of his prayer meeting. In the evening, during the prayer, the bomb blast took place but the rest of the plan could not be carried out. Having read the news report on the bomb blast, Prof. Jagdish Chandra Jain of Bombay recalled Pahwa whom he had known through his work in the refugee camps. Pahwa had told him of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi which the professor had taken as an expression of refugee anger. Now with this news he thought it prudent to inform Bombay home minister, Morarji Desai, of the plan and the names of some of the conspirators that Pahwa had shared with him. Desai, in turn, immediately shared this information with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Union home minister. These details are part of the deposition made by Morarji Desai himself to the Justice J.L. Kapur Commission which was appointed in 1966-67 to investigate the conspiracy behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
The release of Gopal Godse, Pahwa and Karkare in 1964, and the resultant celebrations in Poona led to public outrage and setting up of the Pathak Commission. But when Pathak became Central minister and then governor of Mysore, the then Union home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, appointed the Kapur Commission in 1966.
Teesta Setalvad, the well-known social activist and compiler of the book, skips this detail about the Kapur Commission in her long introduction that sets the documents in an appropriate context.
The leads given by Prof. Jagdish Chandra Jain were not taken with the seriousness they deserved, nor followed up by energetic action either on the part of the department of home affairs of Bombay or Union ministry of home affairs. Some police bandobast was made by Patel despite Gandhi’s resistance to have police present in his prayer meetings. But the bandobast was rather poor.
As Jagan Phadnis, in Last Days of the Mahatma (Mahatmyachi Akher), says, “In September 1947 there was an inspector and four head constables on the bandobast. It was increased after January 20, 1948, to an assistant inspector, two sub-inspectors and 16 constables… One of the officers, A.N. Bhatia, did not turn up for the bandobast on January 30, 1948. He had neither taken leave, nor did he attend… sub-inspector Amarnath attended the place of the bandobast late”.
Jagan Phadnis’ book in its entirety, and in English translation from the Marathi original, occupies a large part of the volume under review.
Setalvad has put together many pieces earlier published in Communalism Combat, Economic and Political Weekly, Organiser, Frontline etc., as well as certain archival documents, letters of important national leaders, excerpts from crucial interviews — all related to Gandhi’s assassination. The whole volume is expected to serve as an indispensable collection for understanding the tragic event.
Setalvad’s effort was triggered by the apprehension that these documents might be permanently lost through destruction.
She notes, “All these and other archival documents are today under grave threat of destruction by the present government… Between June 5 and July 7, 2014, i.e. within 9 to 39 days of assuming power, 11,100 files of the ministry of home affairs were destroyed by the government… Following an uproar in Parliament in its then ongoing Monsoon Session, home minister Rajnath Singh said that ‘documents pertaining to Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Louis Mountbatten and others are safe.’ However, there is no clear information to date on the issue and the suspicion remains that these papers may have been destroyed; neither is there an unequivocal assurance on the preservation of crucial Central and Provincial government documents relating to the Gandhi assassination, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha”.
As far as Gandhi’s assassination is concerned, the varied material in Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination clearly establishes that there were strange coincidences which required to be seriously and immediately investigated by the highest level of the government. If the incident of January 20 had been taken more seriously and the police had been encouraged to act energetically in investigating and arresting the persons involved, probably the tragedy of January 30 could have been avoided.
There was also the feeling and allegations about the possible involvement of a wide network of individuals and groups. Gandhi himself hinted at this when he said in his prayer meeting the next day, “Those who are behind him or whose tool he is, should know that this sort of thing will not save Hinduism. If Hinduism has to be saved it will be saved through such work as I am doing…” (Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas). Although no evidence was found linking the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, suspicion remained, as expressed by none other than Sardar Patel. The Sardar wrote to Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee on July 18, 1948: “…As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha… our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former (RSS), an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible.”
And to Golwalkar, the RSS chief, Patel wrote on September 11, 1948: “…All their (RSS persons) speeches were full of communal poison… As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the valuable life of Gandhiji”.
The sources included in the volume under review go to show that Gandhi’s assassination was the result of a long cherished ideology of hatred and violence rather than being the product of such immediate issues like the Partition or Gandhi’s insistence on paying `55 crore to Pakistan as part of the terms of division of assets and liabilities. The volume puts beyond doubt that a nation cannot be respectful to Gandhi and at the same time build memorials to Godse.
There are some unavoidable repetitions as a number of sources for the same event have been put together in the book. Stephen Murphy’s The Last Hours of the Mahatma is a moving description of that fateful day. Readers should have been provided with some information about Murphy.
The compiler’s on the whole, Setalvad’s volume is a valuable contribution to an understanding of the circumstances of Gandhi’s murder.
Dr Rakhahari Chatterji is a retired professor and an adviser at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata