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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, is assassinated in New Delhi by a Hindu extremist.
Born the son of an Indian official in 1869, Gandhi’s Vaishnava mother was deeply religious and early on exposed her son to Jainism, a morally rigorous Indian religion that advocated nonviolence. Gandhi was an unremarkable student but in 1888 was given an opportunity to study law in England. In 1891, he returned to India, but failing to find regular legal work he accepted in 1893 a one-year contract in South Africa.
Settling in Natal, he was subjected to racism and South African laws that restricted the rights of Indian laborers. Gandhi later recalled one such incident, in which he was removed from a first-class railway compartment and thrown off a train, as his moment of truth. From thereon, he decided to fight injustice and defend his rights as an Indian and a man. When his contract expired, he spontaneously decided to remain in South Africa and launched a campaign against legislation that would deprive Indians of the right to vote. He formed the Natal Indian Congress and drew international attention to the plight of Indians in South Africa. In 1906, the Transvaal government sought to further restrict the rights of Indians, and Gandhi organized his first campaign of satyagraha, or mass civil disobedience. After seven years of protest, he negotiated a compromise agreement with the South African government.
In 1914, Gandhi returned to India and lived a life of abstinence and spirituality on the periphery of Indian politics. He supported Britain in the First World War but in 1919 launched a new satyagraha in protest of Britain’s mandatory military draft of Indians. Hundreds of thousands answered his call to protest, and by 1920 he was leader of the Indian movement for independence. He reorganized the Indian National Congress as a political force and launched a massive boycott of British goods, services, and institutions in India. Then, in 1922, he abruptly called off the satyagraha when violence erupted. One month later, he was arrested by the British authorities for sedition, found guilty, and imprisoned.
After his release in 1924, he led an extended fast in protest of Hindu-Muslim violence. In 1928, he returned to national politics when he demanded dominion status for India and in 1930 launched a mass protest against the British salt tax, which hurt India’s poor. In his most famous campaign of civil disobedience, Gandhi and his followers marched to the Arabian Sea, where they made their own salt by evaporating sea water. The march, which resulted in the arrest of Gandhi and 60,000 others, earned new international respect and support for the leader and his movement.
READ MORE: When Gandhi’s Salt March Rattled British Colonial Rule
In 1931, Gandhi was released to attend the Round Table Conference on India in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. The meeting was a great disappointment, and after his return to India he was again imprisoned. While in jail, he led another fast in protest of the British government’s treatment of the “untouchables”—the impoverished and degraded Indians who occupied the lowest tiers of the caste system. In 1934, he left the Indian Congress Party to work for the economic development of India’s many poor. His protege, Jawaharlal Nehru, was named leader of the party in his place.
With the outbreak of World War II, Gandhi returned to politics and called for Indian cooperation with the British war effort in exchange for independence. Britain refused and sought to divide India by supporting conservative Hindu and Muslim groups. In response, Gandhi launched the “Quit India” movement it 1942, which called for a total British withdrawal. Gandhi and other nationalist leaders were imprisoned until 1944.
In 1945, a new government came to power in Britain, and negotiations for India’s independence began. Gandhi sought a unified India, but the Muslim League, which had grown in influence during the war, disagreed. After protracted talks, Britain agreed to create the two new independent states of India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947. Gandhi was greatly distressed by the partition, and bloody violence soon broke out between Hindus and Muslims in India.
In an effort to end India’s religious strife, he resorted to fasts and visits to the troubled areas. He was on one such vigil in New Delhi when Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who objected to Gandhi’s tolerance for the Muslims, fatally shot him. Known as Mahatma, or “the great soul,” during his lifetime, Gandhi’s persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States.
READ MORE: 6 Things You Might Not Know About Gandhi
Nathuram Vinayak Godse (19 May 1910 – 15 November 1949) was the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, who shot Gandhi in the chest three times at point blank range in New Delhi on 30 January 1948.  Godse, a Hindu nationalist from Pune, who believed Gandhi to have favoured the political demands of India's Muslims during the partition of India, plotted the assassination with Narayan Apte and six others. After a trial that lasted over a year, Godse was sentenced to death on 8 November 1949. Although pleas for commutation were made by Gandhi's two sons, Manilal Gandhi and Ramdas Gandhi, they were turned down by India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel, and the Governor-General C. Rajagopalachari.  Godse was hanged in the Ambala Central Jail on 15 November 1949. 
The Death of Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi was shot on 30 January 1948 by the Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse.
The 20th century’s most famous apostle of non-violence himself met a violent end. Mohandas Mahatma (‘the great soul’) Gandhi, who had taken a leading role in spearheading the campaign for independence from Britain, hailed the partition of the sub-continent into the separate independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947 as ‘the noblest act of the British nation’. He was, though, horrified by the violence that broke out between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and the eviction of thousands from their homes in the run-up to Independence Day, 15 August 1947, and undertook a fast to the death, a tactic he had employed before, to shame those who provoked and took part in the strife. Messages of support came from around the world, including Pakistan, where Jinnah’s new government commended his concern for peace and harmony. There were Hindus, however, who thought that Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence and non-retaliation prevented them from defending themselves against attack. Ominous cries of ‘Let Gandhi die!’ were heard in Delhi, where Gandhi was occupying a mansion called Birla Lodge.
On 13 January, beginning what would prove to be his last fast, the Mahatma said: ‘Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I should be a helpless witness of the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam’, and explained that his dream was for the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims of all India to live together in amity. On the 20th a group of Hindu fanatics, who detested Gandhi’s calls for tolerance and peace, set off a bomb some yards from him, which did no harm. It was not the first attempt on Gandhi’s life, but he said: ‘If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips.’
On 29 January one of the fanatics, a man in his thirties named Nathuram Godse, returned to Delhi, armed with a Beretta automatic pistol. About 5pm in the afternoon of the next day, the 78-year-old Gandhi, frail from fasting, was being helped across the gardens of Birla House by his greatnieces on his way to a prayer meeting when Nathuram Godse emerged from the admiring crowd, bowed to him and shot him three times at point-blank range in the stomach and chest. Gandhi raised his hands in front of his face in the conventional Hindu gesture of greeting, almost if he was welcoming his murderer, and slumped to the ground, mortally wounded. Some said that he cried out, ‘Ram, Ram’ (‘God, God’), though others did not hear him say anything. In the confusion there was no attempt to call a doctor or get the dying man to hospital and he died within half an hour.
Nathuram Godse tried but failed to shoot himself and was seized and hustled away while the shocked, hysterical crowd cried out, ‘Kill him, kill him!’ and threatened to lynch him. He was tried for murder in May and hanged in November the following year.
Meanwhile, Gandhi’s body was laid out on the terrace of Birla House, draped in a white cotton cloth that left his face uncovered, and a single spotlight focused on the corpse as all the other lights were turned off. Speaking on the radio, the Indian prime minister Pandit Nehru said: ‘The father of the nation is no more. Now that the light has gone out of our lives I do not quite know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader is no more.’
The following day an enormous crowd estimated at nearly one million people lined the five-mile route of the funeral procession to the bank of the Jumna River as the body, draped in the Indian flag, was carried on an army truck while air force planes overhead dropped flowers. Repeated incursions from the crowd meant that the journey took five hours and the police had to clear space by force while the bier was lifted onto the sandalwood funeral pyre and the body was cremated in the traditional manner. As the flames burned, the grieving crowd showered the pyre with petals. The ashes were kept on the river bank for three days before they were taken away for immersion at the spot where the Jumna joins the Ganges.
Despite the efforts of Nehru and other leaders, violence erupted in Bombay and elsewhere in India, with riots and arson. There were attacks on Brahmins, because the killer was a Brahmin. Police in Bombay had to open fire on the rioters. It was an outcome which would have profoundly horrified Gandhi himself.
GANDHI. GODSE ASSASSINATION
The killer of Gandhiji and his apologists sought to justify the assassination on the following arguments:
- Gandhiji supported the idea of a separate State for Muslims. In a sense he was responsible for the creation of Pakistan.
- In spite of the Pakistani aggression in Kashmir, Gandhiji fasted to compel the government of India to release an amount of Rs. 55 crores due to Pakistan.
- The belligerence of Muslims was a result of Gandhiji's policy of appeasement.
Scrutinized in the light of recorded history, these prove to be clever distortions to misguide the gullible. Gandhiji in those days was very active in the rough and tumble of politics. The proposal for partition of the country and violent reaction against it generated tensions which ultimately resulted in sectarian killings on a scale unprecedented in human history. For the ethnic Muslims, Gandhiji was a Hindu leader who opposed the creation of Pakistan on sectarian grounds. Ethnic Hindus looked upon him as an impediment to their plan to revenge the atrocities on Hindus. Godse was a child of this extremist thinking.
The assassination of Gandhiji was a culmination of decades of systematic brain-washing. Gandhiji had become a thorn in the flesh of the hard core Hindus and in course of time this resentment turned into a phobia. Beginning with the year 1934 over a period of 14 years on as many as six occasions attempts were made to kill Gandhiji. The last one by Godse on 30-1-48 was successful. The remaining five were made in 1934, during the months of July and September 1944, September 1946 and on 20th January 1948. Godse was involved in two previous attempts. When the unsuccessful attempts of 1934, 1944 and 1946 were made, the proposal regarding the partition and the matter regarding release of Rs. 55 crore to Pakistan were not in existence at all. The conspiracy to do away with Gandhiji was conceived much earlier. The grounds advanced for this heinous crime are clever rationalization to hoodwink the gullible. The staging of the play entitled, "Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy" is a clear proof of the fact that the mindset that led to Gandhiji's assassination has not disappeared from our national psyche.
A civil society is wedded to the democratic method of resolving differences by a frank and open debate and evolving a working consensus. Gandhiji was always open to persuasion. Gandhiji had invited Godse for discussions but the latter did not avail of this opportunity given to him. This is indicative of the lack of faith in the democratic way of resolving differences on the part of Godse and his ilk. Such fascist mindset seeks to do away with dissent by liquidating the opponents.
The Hindu backlash was as much responsible for the creation of Pakistan as the sentiments of the ethnic Muslims. The hard core Hindus looked down upon the Muslims as misguided "Mlechchh" - unclean and came to believe that coexistence with them was not possible. Mutual distrust and recriminations led the extremists among both the groups to regard Hindus and Muslims as different nationalities and this strengthened the Muslim League's demand for partition as the only possible solution to the communal problem. Vested interests on both the sides stirred up the separatist sentiment and sought to justify their hate - campaign by clever and selective distortion of history. It is indeed a matter for serious concern for the nation that this mentality has not disappeared even today.
Poet Mohamed Iqbal who wrote the famous song "Sare Jahanse Acchchha Hindostan Hamara" was the first to formulate the concept of a separate State for Muslims as early as 1930. Needless to state that this sentiment, in a sense, was strengthened by the Hindu extremists. In 1937, at the open session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad, Veer Savarkar in his presidential address asserted: "India cannot be assumed today to be Unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main - the Hindus and the Muslims." (Vide writings Swatantrya Veer Savarkar, Vol. 6 page 296, Maharashtra Prantiya Hindu Mahasabha, Pune). In 1945, he had stated "I have no quarrel with Mr. Jinnah's two nation theory. We, the Hindus are a nation by ourselves, and it is a historical fact that the Hindus and the Muslims are two nations." (vide Indian Educational Register 1943 vol. 2 page 10). It was this sentiment of separate and irreconcilable identities of the followers of these religions that led to the formation of Pakistan.
In complete contrast to this mentality, Gandhiji throughout his life remained an un-compromising advocate of oneness of God, respect for all religions, equality of all men and non-violence in thought, speech, and action. His daily prayers comprised verses, devotional songs and readings from different scriptures. All people irrespective of their allegiance to different religions attended those meetings. Till his dying day Gandhiji held the view that the nationality of fellow citizens was not in any way affected by the fact of his subscribing to religious belief other than yours. During his life, on more than one occasion he strove for the unity and equality among Hindus themselves as well as amity among Hindus and Muslims even risking his life. The idea of partition was anathema to him. He was given to saying that he would sooner die than subscribe to such a pernicious doctrine. His life was an open book and no substantiation is necessary on this score.
Under Gandhiji's leadership, communal amity occupied the pride of place in the constructive programmes of the Congress. Muslim leaders and intellectuals of national stature like Abdul Gaffer Khan, Maulana Azad, Dr. Ansari Hakim Ajmal Khan, Badruddin Tayabji, even Mr. Jinnah himself were in the Congress fold. It is but natural that the Congress opposed the proposal for the division of the country but as a result of the incitement on the part of the lumpen elements among the Hindus and Muslims a tidal wave of carnage and lawlessness engulfed the nation. Faced with the breakdown of law and order in Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan, North West Frontier Province and Bengal, the Congress lost nerve. Mr. Jinnah adopted an inflexible attitude. Lord Mountbatten being motivated by the time-limit given to him by the British Cabinet used all his powers of persuasion and charm to steer all the leaders to a quick solution and yet acceptable to all but the adamantine attitude of Mr. Jinnah made everything except partition unacceptable.
Partition seemed to be the only solution. In the nationwide elections of 1946 the Muslim league secured 90 per cent seats. Faced with such a scenario Congress found it difficult to keep up its morale. Gandhiji conveyed to Lord Mountbatten on 5th April 1947 that he would agree even if the British made Mr. Jinnah the Prime Minister and left the country as it was. But on the other hand Lord Mountbatten succeeded in getting the Congress to agree to partition. Gandhiji was in the dark about it he was shell-shocked when he learned about it. The only remedy available to him was fasting unto death to dissuade his followers from acquiescence to a ruinous course of action. After sustained soul searching he came to the conclusion that in the prevalent situation such a step on his part would further deteriorate the situation, demoralise the Congress and the whole country. The factors that weighed with him were (a) Importunate demands of a rapidly changing national scenario, (b) Non-existence of alternate set or leaders of proved nationalist credentials.
The most perplexing and yet a pertinent question was Mr. Jinnah's most vocal propagation of the idea of Pakistan. With the intentional or otherwise efforts of Mountbatten, he succeeded in carving it out. Then, instead of making the two his targets why did Godse select one for murder who vehemently opposed the idea of partition till the resolution by the Congress accepting the partition of the country was passed on 3rd June 1947 and Pakistan became fate accompli? Or is it that, as Savarkar put it, he had no quarrel with Mr. Jinnah and his two-nation theory but, can one surmise that he and his apologists had real quarrel with Gandhi and Gandhi alone?
In view of this, Gandhiji acquiesced into the situation. It is necessary to point out an aspect of Gandhiji's personality that made him a source of unabated distrust and dislike in the eyes of hard core Hindus. Though he was a devout Hindu, he had the most amicable and warm relations with many who did not belong to the Hindu fold. As a result of this exposure he had developed an eclectic religious sense based on oneness of God and equality of all religious sense based on oneness of God and equality of all religions. Caste divisions and untouchability prevalent among the Hindu social organization distressed him immensely. He advocated and actively encouraged inter-caste marriages. Lastly he blessed only those marriages wherein one of the partners belonged to the untouchable castes. Vested interests amongst high caste Hindus viewed this reformist and other religious programmes with bitter resentment. In course of time it developed into a phobia and thus he became anathema to them.
The matter regarding the release of Rs. 55 crore to Pakistan towards the second instalment of arrears to be paid to it under the terms of division of assets and liabilities requires to be understood in the context of the events that took place in the aftermath of partition. Of the 75 crore to be paid the first instalment of Rs. 20 crore was already released. Invasion of Kashmir by self-styled liberators with the covert support of the Pakistani Army took place before the second instalment was paid. Government of India decided to withhold it. Lord Mountbatten was of the opinion that it amounted to a violation of the mutually agreed conditions and he brought it to the notice of Gandhiji. To Gandhiji's ethical sense the policy of tit for tat was repugnant and he readily agreed with the Viceroy's point of view. However, linking his stand in this matter with his fast he undertook, as you will find in the following lines, is an intentional mix-up and distortion of facts of contemporary history. The fast was undertaken with a view to restoring communal amity in Delhi. Gandhiji arrived from Calcutta in September 1947 to go to Punjab to restore peace there. On being briefed by Sardar Patel about the explosive situation in Delhi itself he changed his plans and decided to continue his stay in Delhi to restore peace with the firm determination to "Do or Die."
The influx of Hindus from Pakistan who were uprooted and who had suffered killings of relatives, abduction and rape of women and looting of their belongings had created an explosive situation. The local Hindus who were outraged by the treatment meted out to their Hindu brethren and the anger of local Muslims against reports of similar outrages on their coreligionists in India made Delhi a veritable witches' cauldron. This resulted in killings, molestation, torching of houses and properties. This caused deep anguish to Gandhiji. What added poignancy to this was the realization that it happened in India itself just after a unique incident in the history of mankind: doing away of the shackles of a colonial regime by non-violent means. It was in this background that he undertook a fast unto death to restore communal amity and sanity in Delhi. And, as if to allow the critics of Mahatma Gandhi a chance to mix-up and manoeuvre, the decision of the government of India to release Rs. 55 crore to Pakistan came during this period of his fast.
The following facts dissolve this much touted thesis that Gandhiji had fasted to bring moral pressure on government of India to relent:
- Dr. Sushila Nair, as soon as she heard Gandhiji proclaim his decision, rushed to her brother Pyarelal and informed him in a huff that Gandhiji had decided to undertake fast till the madness in Delhi ceased. Even in those moments of inadvertence the mention of 55 crore of rupees was not made which clearly proves that it was not intended by Gandhiji.
- b. Gandhiji's own announcement about his resolve on 12th January in the evening prayer meeting did not contain any reference to it. Had it been a condition, he would have certainly mentioned it as that.
- Similarly, there was no reference to it in his discourse on 13th January.
- Gandhiji's reply on the 15th January, to a specific question regarding the purpose of his fast did not mention it.
- The press release of the government of India did not have any mention thereof.
- The list of assurances given by the committee headed by Dr. Rajendra Prasad to persuade Gandhiji to give up his fast did not include it.
We hope these facts should put at rest the 55 crore concoction.
With regard to the last allegation regarding appeasement of Muslims, it should be conceded that a certain amount of antagonism between Hindus and Muslims existed in the nation. The colonial power cleverly exploited it during its reign and the inevitable result was the division of the country. Long before Gandhiji appeared on the national stage, sagacious leaders like B. G. Tilak had started attempts to secure the participation of Muslims in the nationalist struggle. Under what came to be known as Lucknow pact, Lokmanya Tilak, Annie Besant and Mr. Jinnah evolved a formula under which the Muslims would get representation greater than what would be justified on the basis of the percentage of Muslim population. The frank and bold statement of Tilak defending the Pact is an eloquent refutation of the charge that Gandhiji began the policy of appeasement of Muslims.
The author of the play "Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy", Shri Pradip Dalvi described the order of Maharashtra government banning the staging of the play as an attack on freedom of expression. This is a travesty of truth and perversion of the fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. The constitution also provides for ban on the abuse of this freedom vide its section 19(2). The implication of what Shri Dalvi and ilk profess requires to be carefully analysed. Under the guise of defending the freedom of expression what they are seeking to do is to advocate the right to murder those who do not agree with them they seek to spread hatred and violence they want to propagate the pernicious doctrine that under certain circumstances the murder of the opponent becomes an act of religious sacrifice. It is revolting to find that the heinous murder of one who was a living embodiment of nonviolence, peace and love and who was as defenceless as a naked new born child should be made scaffolding for a neo-fascist doctrine.
Godse is no more but the mindset which gave birth to such distorted philosophy is unfortunately still with us. One can dismiss what he did as an act of a lunatic bigot. Assassination by itself is not as wicked as the attempts to rationalize, justify masquerade it as a religious act. Permitting such plays to be staged amounts to permitting mis-education our children. The only sane response to such insidious propaganda is unequivocal rejection thereof.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, is assassinated on this day in New Delhi by a Hindu fanatic. Born the son of an Indian official in 1869, Gandhi's Vaishnava mother was deeply religious and early on exposed her son to Jainism, a morally rigorous Indian religion that advocated nonviolence. Gandhi was an unremarkable student but in 1888 was given an opportunity to study law in England. In 1891, he returned to India, but failing to find regular legal work he accepted in 1893 a one-year contract in South Africa. Settling in Natal, he was subjected to racism and South African laws that restricted the rights of Indian laborers.
Gandhi later recalled one such incident, in which he was removed from a first-class railway compartment and thrown off a train, as his moment of truth. From thereon, he decided to fight injustice and defend his rights as an Indian and a man. When his contract expired, he spontaneously decided to remain in South Africa and launched a campaign against legislation that would deprive Indians of the right to vote. He formed the Natal Indian Congress and drew international attention to the plight of Indians in South Africa. In 1906, the Transvaal government sought to further restrict the rights of Indians, and Gandhi organised his first campaign of satyagraha, or mass civil disobedience.
After seven years of protest, he negotiated a compromise agreement with the South African government. In 1914, Gandhi returned to India and lived a life of abstinence and spirituality on the periphery of Indian politics. He supported Britain in World War I but in 1919 launched a new satyagraha in protest of Britain's mandatory military draft of Indians. Hundreds of thousands answered his call to protest, and by 1920 he was leader of the Indian movement for independence. He reorganised the Indian National Congress as a political force and launched a massive boycott of British goods, services, and institutions in India. Then, in 1922, he abruptly called off the satyagraha when violence erupted. One month later, he was arrested by the British authorities for sedition, found guilty, and imprisoned. After his release in 1924, he led an extended fast in protest of Hindu-Muslim violence.
In 1928, he returned to national politics when he demanded dominion status for India and in 1930 launched a mass protest against the British salt tax, which hurt India's poor. In his most famous campaign of civil disobedience, Gandhi and his followers marched to the Arabian Sea, where they made their own salt by evaporating sea water. The march, which resulted in the arrest of Gandhi and 60,000 others, earned new international respect and support for the leader and his movement. In 1931, Gandhi was released to attend the Round Table Conference on India in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress.
The meeting was a great disappointment, and after his return to India he was again imprisoned. While in jail, he led another fast in protest of the British government's treatment of the "untouchables" - the impoverished and degraded Indians who occupied the lowest tiers of the caste system. In 1934, he left the Indian Congress Party to work for the economic development of India's many poor. His protege, Jawaharlal Nehru, was named leader of the party in his place. With the outbreak of World War II, Gandhi returned to politics and called for Indian cooperation with the British war effort in exchange for independence. Britain refused and sought to divide India by supporting conservative Hindu and Muslim groups. In response, Gandhi launched the "Quit India" movement in 1942, which called for a total British withdrawal.
Gandhi and other nationalist leaders were imprisoned until 1944. In 1945, a new government came to power in Britain, and negotiations for India's independence began. Gandhi sought a unified India, but the Muslim League, which had grown in influence during the war, disagreed. After protracted talks, Britain agreed to create the two new independent states of India and Pakistan on 15 August 1947. Gandhi was greatly distressed by the partition, and bloody violence soon broke out between Hindus and Muslims in India. In an effort to end India's religious strife, he resorted to fasts and visits to the troubled areas. He was on one such vigil in New Delhi when Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who objected to Gandhi's tolerance for the Muslims, fatally shot him. Known as Mahatma, or "the great soul," during his lifetime, Gandhi's persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States.
Why Was Mahatma Gandhi Killed?
This January 30, let us remind ourselves of the motive behind the Mahatma’s assassination. An ideological argument was sought to be cut short with a revolver. The debate continues.
M.K. Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Note: This article was originally published on January 30, 2019 and republished on January 30, 2020.
As is their wont, our new rulers can be relied upon to convert Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary into an event on a staggering scale but it is important not to be taken in by this grand lip-service.
Rather, it is imperative for every Indian to remember that the greatest Indian of the 20th century was killed in cold blood when he was on his way to his customary evening prayers, and that this saint’s murder was not the handiwork of an isolated mad man but part of a collective enterprise of cold-hearted, brutal and evil men.
Above all, it is necessary to ask the question: what kind of ideology of hate had driven the masterminds behind the assassination? It is important this January 30 for us to try to find an answer to this question, because the ideological heirs of those who had planned Gandhi’s murder have managed to capture the commanding heights of Indian politics.
Of course, the immediate provocation for killing the Mahatma was his principled unwillingness to give in to a hatred of Muslims in the wake of the post-Partition turmoil. His refusal to concede to “the Hindus” a right to “settle score” with “the Muslims” was deeply resented by the proponents of Hindu assertiveness. And these proponents found it infuriatingly unacceptable that the Mahatma should invoke his moral authority to want to call a halt to the butchery at work right in the capital of independent India.
On January 12, 1948, a day before he started his last fast to bring sanity and peace, a very sad Mahatma had observed at the evening prayer congregation:
“I see the Muslims of Delhi being killed before my very eyes. This is done while my own Vallabhbhai is the Home Minister of the Government of India and is responsible for maintaining law and order in the Capital. Vallabhbhai has not only failed to give protection to the Muslims, he light-heartedly dismisses any complaint made on this count. I have no option but to use my last weapon, namely to fast until the situation changes.”
That fast and its moral rebuke were deeply provocative to the Hindu rashtra fringe. Something had to be done about this “turbulent priest”, preaching tolerance and forbearance. And, so a ‘hit’ was ordered. A crime was committed in the name of the Hindu community, though there has never been an answer to the question posed by Rajendra Prasad: “May I ask how Gandhiji’s assassination has saved Hindu religion or Hindu society?”
More than his principled rejection of the Hindu Raj and even more than his single-minded pursuit of a Hindu-Muslim rapport, it was the Mahatma’s propagation of ahimsa (non-violence) as a political instrument that invited the righteous wrath of the Mahasabhites/RSS. For Gandhi’s opponents, violence was not only inevitable but also necessary if “Hindu society” was to rediscover its glorious past.
Narendra Modi paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad. Credit: PTI/Files
It was a time, remember, when Europe was passionately enamoured of fascism and its eager embrace of violence as the currency of political mobilisation. In the context of the violent 20th century, Gandhi’s greatest service to India was to wean us away from this fascist allure of violence and coercion. On the other hand, the Hindu rashtra ideologues, as has been argued, were inspired and emboldened by the rampant success the fascists had achieved in Germany and Italy.
It is this infatuation with violence that refuses to fade away, despite more than six decades of a constitutional order in independent India. The argument has been joined vigorously. The Nehruvian consensus is to be dismantled precisely because its preferred mode of political exchange is argument and persuasion. Today we have a ruling clique that is in thrall of violence and its presumed curative influence in the society. New enemies are being invented and these have to be dealt with sternly, violently and coercively.
Today, majoritarian politics is being pushed ahead by a preference for violence in words and deeds. Indeed a strange fascination with violence has seeped into our collective functioning. On social media platforms, in television studios and newspaper columns, the use of intimidation and violence is sought to be rationalised as the inevitable manifestation of social churning. The gau rakshak crowd’s aggression, roughness and murderous impulses are explained away as the much-needed expression of anger and animosities of a long-suppressed “Hindu Samaj.”
An aggressive nationalism has been chiselled out of contrived resentments and deprivations. Almost all sections of society have fallen for a meretricious nationalism, as violence has always lingered on just beneath the surface. It was Gandhi’s eternal accomplishment that he succeeded in rolling back this engagement with violence by inviting Indians to experience the noble and spiritual joys of ahmisa.
And it is this Gandhian accent on ahmisa that the Sangh parivar finds most galling. Instead, violence is applauded as a necessary and unavoidable antidote to the traditional “Hindu cowardice.” The long centuries of domination of “outsiders” have been put down to our inadequate mastery over instruments of violence.
The NRI has perhaps become the most dangerous, if only a long-distance, partner in this infatuation with violence in India. From the safety of their North American perch, the NRIs are only too happy to applaud and finance the politics of resentment back in India indeed, they are working out their own prejudices and anxieties in an increasingly uncertain global order.
In this age of angry nationalism, the NRI is all too willing to position himself unapologetically as a partisan in the violent clashes unleashed in India in the name of this or that Hindu cause or sentiment. The juggalbandi across the seven seas is being touted as the finest expression of “new India”. In this “new India”, violence and aggression on the part of the majority community is seen as a prerequisite for new energy and new vitality.
So in this year of Gandhi’s 150th anniversary, we will stage elaborate ceremonies, spectacles and events, but there will be no slackening in the war against the Mahatma and his message. After all, his murder cannot be allowed to go in vain.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.
Jan. 30, 1948 | Mahatma Gandhi AssassinatedLIFE Magazine Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, shown here in 1946, was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948.
Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.
On Jan. 30, 1948, Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was murdered by the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, who fired three shots at close range as the 78-year-old Gandhi entered a prayer meeting.
“His death left all India stunned and bewildered as to the direction that this newly independent nation would take without its ‘Mahatma’ (Great Teacher),” wrote The New York Times. “The loss of Mr. Gandhi brings this country of 300,000,000 abruptly to a crossroads. Mingled with the sadness in this capital tonight was an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty, for now the strongest influence for peace in India that this generation has known is gone.”
Gandhi had for decades been a leader of India’s independence movement. He preached “satyagraha” (a Sanskrit term loosely translated as “insistence upon truth”), a philosophy of non-violence and civil disobedience. He protested British rule and sought to improve the lives of Indians through frequent fasting and peaceful protesting. In the early 1920s, he led a boycott of British goods and campaign of non-cooperation. In 1930, he protested Britain’s tax on salt by leading a 250-mile Salt March.
Gandhi’s calls for independence grew louder during World War II. In 1942, his demand that Britain “quit India” spurred Britain to make mass arrests of independence leaders, including Gandhi, who spent two years in prison. At the end of the war, Britain began to move toward granting independence it developed a plan for India to be partitioned into two countries, India and Pakistan, which would become independent in August 1947. The partition, which Gandhi opposed, caused the displacement of millions of Hindus and Muslims and widespread violence between the two communities.
Gandhi continued to preach non-violence, which angered many Hindu nationalists who felt that Hindus needed to protect themselves from Muslim attacks. As Gopal Godse, brother and co-conspirator of assassin Nathuram Godse, explained before his death in 2005, Hindu extremists believed Gandhi’s calls for nonviolence were “part of a plot to allow Hindus to be slaughtered by Muslims.”
The Godse brothers and a team of conspirators carried out a failed bombing attack against Gandhi on Jan. 20, 1948. Ten days later, their second assassination attempt succeeded. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Dattatraya Apte were sentenced to death, while the other conspirators received prison sentences.
The Times’ obituary of Gandhi stated: 𠇊s was perhaps inevitable in the case of one who was the center of violent controversies for more than half a century, there were others who had very different views about the Indian leader, even contending that he was no better than a scheming demagogue. But, whatever view history may eventually take, there can be no contradiction of the statement that the emaciated little man in shawl and loin cloth made himself the living symbol of India in the minds of most Americans.”
Connect to Today:
Gandhi’s devotion to truth and non-violence have influenced leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and his beliefs continue to be studied and analyzed today. In a November 2011
Times op-ed piece, Gandhi scholar Ian Desai speculated on what the leader might think about the Occupy Wall Street Movement if he were alive today.
Dr. Desai maintained that Gandhi would reject the division of the 1 percent and 99 percent: “’We are the 100 percent’ may not make for a dramatic slogan, but from Gandhi’s perspective, it is the only way to achieve true and lasting change in society.” Furthermore, he argued that Gandhi would believe that the Occupy movement needs a more focused message and a greater commitment to “𠆌onstructive work’ and service” rather than mere protest.
In your opinion, should the Occupy movement adopt the ideals of Gandhi as described by Dr. Desai? Why or why not? In general, what lessons do you think modern leaders and movements might learn from Gandhi’s example?
1. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated
a) before India gained freedom from British rule
b) after India gained freedom from British rule
c) while India was gaining freedom from British rule
2. Gandhi advocated the use of
a) non-violence in the independence movement
b) independence in the non-violence movement
c) force in the independence movement
3. A pro-independence activist is someone who
a) supports independence activists
b) acts independently of other activists
c) plays an active role in a pro-independence movement
The raw truth: Real story behind the Rajiv Gandhi assassination
&ldquoMinutes after he walked unhesitatingly into the crowd, there was a deafening sound as the bomb spluttered to life and exploded in a blinding flash. Everything changed. A moment that, in my head, will always be frozen in time. It was exactly 10.21 pm.&rdquo
Neena Gopal&rsquos The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi gives a blow-by-blow account of the assassination as she was the last journalist to interview him and was just yards away when he was assassinated.
Rajiv Gandhi avarunde mandalai addipodalam.&rdquo &ldquoDump pannidungo.&rdquo Blow Rajiv Gandhi&rsquos head off. Eliminate him. &ldquoMaranai vechidungo.&rdquo Kill him. Of the hundreds of intercepts between the thirty-eight-odd Tamil insurgent camps in the Nilgiris in India and their cohorts in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, almost every single one centred on arms shipments and gunrunning between Vedaranyam and Point Pedro, barely 18 kilometres from coast to coast. But no intercept would be as chilling as the kill order that came through in short bursts of VHS communication on a frequency that the LTTE favoured, that April day in 1990.
When it was intercepted, it set off alarm bells among Tamil insurgents ranged against the Tigers, their numbers already worn thin by the LTTE's targeting of their cadres and top leadership. The intercept, in Old Tamil interspersed with English used by the Jaffna Tamils-and largely incomprehensible to Indian Tamils-only added to the confusion that hung over the all too brief radio message.
&ldquoDump&rdquo. That particular term came into use when the LTTE began to ruthlessly eliminate Tamil civilians who resisted their fiat and &ldquodumped&rdquo them in pits across Jaffna. It was another way of saying &ldquokill&rdquo.
But the difference this time was that the order was not to eliminate one of their own. The target was the former Indian prime minister, the leader of another country.
Rajiv Gandhi seconds before he was assassinated by Dhanu (inset) 25 years ago.
When PLOTE leader Siddharthan Dharmalingam first heard it, he was so alarmed, he immediately tipped off the IPKF's counter-intelligence head in Sri Lanka, Col. Hariharan.
A native Tamil speaker with an inside track into the Lankan Tamil narrative, Col Hariharan was greatly helped in his task, he says, by having an aunt who was married to a Jaffna native. It was Col. Hariharan, the head of Counter Intelligence (COIN), and one of a handful of Indian operatives with his ear to the ground and an understanding of the Tigers&rsquo mindset, who recognised its true import.
But it didn&rsquot fly. Whether it wasn&rsquot specific enough or clear enough to warrant immediate action, or was simply not taken seriously by the intelligence mandarins to whom the information was passed on, is not known. Either way, India&rsquos intelligence agents were clearly unequal to the task of reading the threat for what it was-a death sentence passed by the LTTE, an insurgent group nurtured by India, on India&rsquos former Premier.
&ldquoEven when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the R&AW had drawn attention to the likelihood of a threat to his security from the Sri Lankan Tamil extremist organisations. It repeated this warning after he became the Leader of the Opposition,&rdquo says B. Raman, head of R&AW during 1988-94, in his eye-popping memoir, The Kaoboys of R&AW.
&ldquoThese warnings did not receive the attention they deserved because they were based on assessments and not on specific intelligence,&rdquo he writes.
Except, this particular intercept was as specific as it could get.
Prabhakaran&rsquos &ldquohandler&rdquo when the LTTE leader was in India, Chandran, is pushing eighty-five, but remembers the intercept as clearly as though it were yesterday. He recounts how everyone misread the signals-not just his men, but also agents from the IB who were tasked with monitoring the threat posed by Lankan Tamils residing in India, who had to trawl through hundreds of messages that went back and forth. Chandran, additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and in charge of R&AW in Sri Lanka, was sidelined once the Rajiv Gandhi government fell, and his years of cultivating the Tamil militants came to nought. &ldquoBy that time, the government had changed. Nobody wanted to hear what we had to say anyway. And I had been shunted out,&rdquo he said.
&ldquoThe IB and RAW didn&rsquot agree on much. If we had read the signals right, if we understood what was going on in Prabhakaran's mind, who knows, we could have prevented this. It was our fault, we made a huge error of judgement. We misread Prabhakaran. We never believed he would turn against us in this manner. We should have seen it coming. We didn&rsquot. We failed Rajiv Gandhi, we failed to save his life,&rdquo he said, emotional and close to tears as he spoke to me from his office in New Delhi.
Twenty-five years later, neither Siddharthan nor Col. Hariharan remembers more than this particular part of the intercept. But both say that if it had been taken on board, and acted on with the seriousness that such a tipoff deserved, history would have taken a different course. It was brought to the notice of Siddharthan (now a Tamil National Alliance MP in the newly elected Sri Lankan Parliament) by an alert Jaffna Tamil in his employ who monitored radio communications between Tamils on the Indian mainland and Jaffna. The PLOTE leader, in turn, alerted Col Hariharan who served in Sri Lanka from August 3, 1987 to June-July 1990 and was reaching the end of his tenure.
At the time, the LTTE was the predominant force in the RAW-run training camps in India. Col Hariharan who also had a small army of Jaffna Tamils keeping an eye on the LTTE for him, says he too was taken aback when he was given the cassette to listen to and, from what his codebreakers told him, was alarmed enough to warn India&rsquos IB that a plot was afoot to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi.
This was a full year before the suicide bomb blast claimed the former prime minister&rsquos life. &ldquoIt was the first time we heard any mention of Prabhakaran taking vengeance against Rajiv Gandhi,&rdquo Siddharthan said, quickly correcting himself after having first used the word &ldquorevenge&rdquo. But the warning-albeit tenuous and imprecise- instead of being investigated, was laughed out of court it was simply set aside and forgotten.
It wasn&rsquot the only warning that wasn&rsquot fully investigated. In his book, Raman talks of another alert, this time from German intelligence, about the repeated visits of a Sri Lankan Tamil explosives expert and an LTTE sympathiser to Madras. But it was not sufficiently probed by the IB. Instead, it ignored the warning on the grounds that the Lankan Tamil wasn&rsquot an explosives expert, and remained curiously blind to the question of what the man was doing in Madras in the first place.
In 1990, LTTE had the upper hand. PLOTE&rsquos founder Maheswaran had co-founded the LTTE with Prabhakaran in 1976. But by 1982, the two had fallen out and almost killed each other in a public shoot-out in Madras. Maheswaran went on to found PLOTE but was murdered in broad daylight on a Colombo street in 1989.
PLOTE made every effort to stay one step ahead of the main person of interest at the time-their main enemy, &ldquoBaby&rdquo Subramaniam, the LTTE commander operating out of Tamil Nadu. Subramaniam was the LTTE&rsquos point person to eliminate all challenges to Prabhakaran.
&ldquoSubramaniam was the darling of the Tamil Nadu politicians and knew exactly how to keep R&AW and everyone happy while doing exactly what Prabhakaran wanted him to do,&rdquo Siddharthan tells me. The intercept may have been to Subramaniam from someone speaking on Prabhakaran&rsquos behalf. Together with other LTTE leaders, like the intelligence chief Pottu Amman and the deputy head of the women&rsquos wing, Akila, Subramaniam was closely involved with the planning and execution of the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi.
Even though the Indian Army was making tracks for home, Prabhakaran was relentlessly whipping up anger against the IPKF, blaming them for excesses against civilians.
This single burst of chatter should have alerted the then V.P. Singh government and, subsequently, the Chandrashekhar government to restore the &ldquoZ&rdquo security that Rajiv Gandhi used to have before he lost the prime ministership. Opposition leader or not, he was on the hit list of the Khalistanis and the Sikhs, and warranted more than the negligible cover he had been provided.
Rajiv Gandhi was too proud to ask for it, and his political opponents lacked the generosity of spirit to give it to him. The PLOTE alert-which may or may not have changed their thinking-did not even reach the Prime Minister&rsquos Office. In fact, Col. Hariharan said he had his knuckles rapped for raising the alarm about the plot to assassinate the former prime minister even though the intercept was nothing less than Prabhakaran putting a hit on Rajiv Gandhi.
&ldquoI was asked to stick to my brief,&rdquo Col. Hariharan told me. The IPKF was after all, packing up to leave Sri Lanka, removing the main source of the grouse against Rajiv Gandhi. &ldquoPolitically, we had become unwanted baggage in both Colombo and New Delhi our mandate was finished, we were on our way out. But R&AW, overconfident of its influence over the LTTE, failed to factor in that revenge was always on the cards when it came to VP (Vellupillai Prabhakaran)&rdquo
Raman, commenting on the LTTE&rsquos poor communication security in his book, brings up the IB&rsquos &ldquobetter interception capability&rdquo &mdash which gave them the ability to listen in on the Tigers-versus &ldquoR&AW&rsquos better code breaking capability&rdquo, while driving home the larger point of how little trust there was between the various agencies running India&rsquos biggest covert operation. He said the huge gaps left in the intelligence gathering on the Tamil groups, resulting from how little one agency knew about what the other was doing, did enormous damage to India&rsquos conduct of its Sri Lanka policy.
More fatally, &ldquoThe Monitoring Division failed to detect the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi before the tragedy took place,&rdquo says Raman. &ldquoSharing of knowledge of each other&rsquos capabilities-particularly in respect of intelligence collection-and joint or co-ordinated exploitation of these capabilities should be the norm if we have to avoid such surprises,&rdquo writes Raman, unsparing in his criticism of the agencies.
The Jaffna Conspiracy
In the dense jungles of north-eastern Sri Lanka, across the Palk Strait, Prabhakaran nursed a grudge against Rajiv Gandhi which would become a full-scale obsession. It was here, deep in the forests of the Wanni, that the plot to kill the former Indian prime minister was first hatched.
As the LTTE chief, solitary and furtive, moved like a hunted animal under the cover of darkness from one hideout to another, night after night, from Jaffna and Kankesanthurai to Vadamarachchi, and Vavuniya and back, the depth of his fury at Rajiv Gandhi's perceived perfidy was an open secret. That is, it was a secret to everyone but the Indians.
Through the IPKF deployment in the north-east, he played a game of cat and mouse with Delhi. Knowing he would be easy prey if he broke cover, he rarely slept in the same bed twice, neither took nor made any telephone calls, trusting no one, staying one step ahead of both Colombo and Delhi. It was a habit that stayed with him till his last days.
His only entertainment after he was forced to return to the island nation from India in 1987 came from a movie projector in the safe house he picked to hide out for the night. This is where he would watch the latest thriller play out as shadows on a blank wall. The Tiger chief 's obsessive paranoia fed off Kollywood, the Tamil movies that featured his idol, MGR, in the lead, and films of the same genre as the 1984 Kamal Haasan-starrer Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (A Convict's Diary) that spun stories of angry men nursing a grievance, extracting retribution, driven by revenge.
A school dropout, Prabhakaran did have his Achilles' heel. It wasn't wine or women or song, or books-he grew up on Phantom comics-it was the movies. He was addicted to the string of videos brought to him by the one RAW agent with whom he shared a very special rapport- the legendary S. Chandrasekharan, known affectionately by the moniker 'Chandran' Chandrasekharan, who retired from RAW and set up the respected Delhi-based think tank, the South Asia Analysis Group, says it was from these nightly thrillers that the Jaffna conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi probably took its inspiration. The Fred Zinnemann 1973 movie, The Day of the Jackal, based on the Frederick Forsyth bestseller, was the probable first seed.
Prabhakaran routinely settled scores by publicly eliminating his rivals to instil fear in his enemies his first 'kill' was the Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah in 1975, whom he reportedly shot as he entered the Varadaraja Perumal temple. Chandran believes the plan to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi was in keeping with this 'kill or get killed' philosophy. 'Everyone thinks it was the CIA and Mossad that planted the idea of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi in Prabhakaran's head. I believe it was the movies that he saw that's what gave him the idea,' says Chandran. Conspiracy theorists, however, demur.
It wasn't that Delhi didn't have him within sight. If Prabhakaran wanted to get back at India for trying to call the shots in his backyard, India had mobilized every resource at its command to have eyes on their prize target at all times.
But as a RAW operative from that era freely admits, with surveillance dependant on tip-offs from Lankan Tamils outside the inner circle, they never knew precisely where he was at any given moment. 'We knew the minute he left that location,' he laughs. Close, but never close enough.
Delhi undoubtedly had ample opportunity to eliminate the LTTE chief a number of times-and chose not to. As a senior member of the Indian Air Force (IAF), who served in the IPKF and was stationed as the IAF bases in Palaly and Trincomalee, recounts, he and the helicopter squadron he commanded had been given Prabhakaran's co-ordinates.
'I had my copter, all ready to go. We informed headquarters that we had been tipped off on where he was. One of our chaps had tracked him down. It was all systems go. All we needed was clearance from Delhi and we could eliminate him. Just like that,' he says, snapping his fingers. 'We waited for the signal but then came the message-a firm "no",' says the senior Air Force pilot. 'We had him in our sights. If we had eliminated him then, who knows . . .' he says with a shrug, leaving the sentence hanging.
Only once thereafter did the IPKF get close enough to Prabhakaran. They bombed his bunker in the Wanni, in his hideout Base One Four, in January 1989. The LTTE chief, though angry and upset, escaped with barely a scratch.
Complicating matters was the confusion and lack of clarity in Delhi's intelligence and strategic circles, on whether Prabhakaran constituted a short-term threat to be eliminated or a long-term asset to be cultivated. And added to this was the question of whether this bit player who had forcefully interjected himself into the Indo-Sri Lanka narrative by taking on the Indian Army, could still be 'turned' a Tamil 'card' that India could use to keep Colombo off balance in the years to come.
Prabhakaran was under no illusions about where he stood vis-à-vis Delhi. He may have made concessions on a one-on-one basis to Indians like Chandran, but Rajiv Gandhi's Delhi was the enemy.
In fact, the RAW operative's relationship with the LTTE chief and the man that RAW cultivated as its LTTE insider, Col Kittu, real name Sathasivan Krishnakumar, was so strong that when Indian soldiers were being held prisoner by the LTTE, it was Chandranas he himself admits-whom the Indian Army called for help.
Excerpts from The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by Neena Gopal, Penguin Viking, Rs 499.
About the author
A journalist for thirty-seven years, Neena Gopal began her career in a Bangalore that was the hotbed of post-Emergency politics. Moving to the UAE in the 1980s, she worked for the Dubai-based daily Gulf News where, as Foreign Editor, she travelled in the Middle East during and after Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War in 1990, covering war-torn Iraq and its neighbours through the Second Gulf War in 2003. Neena&rsquos other news-hunting ground has been India and its immediate neighbourhood, both as a foreign affairs journalist and as a close observer of the life and times of many leaders in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. She currently edits the Bangalore edition of Deccan Chronicle.