By Kanchan Gupta
Sixty years after the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a 'mahatma' to many but really a cunning politician who had mastered the art of manipulating the Indian National Congress and offering simplistic solutions to the most complex problems, apart from coercing others to toe his line by abandoning food, the story of his murder continues to elicit both curiosity and passion. He was not the first leader to be felled by an assassin's bullet, nor is he the only eminent Indian, or South Asian for that matter, to fall victim to an elaborate murder conspiracy.
Thirty-six years after Gandhi was shot dead, Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security guards. In between, officers of the Bangladeshi Army killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the man whom Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had made Pakistan's Army chief sent him to the gallows after a bogus trial. At a lesser level, Pratap Singh Kairon, described as the "architect of post-independence Punjab", was murdered in 1965; three decades later, another Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, died when his car was blown up by Khalistani separatists. Rajiv Gandhi died a brutal death when an LTTE suicide bomber pulled the trigger of her explosives-packed belt. Last year Benazir Bhutto was shot dead on the same spot where Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on October 16, 1951. Politics is a violent affair in this part of the world.
But Gandhi's assassination was different. Not only were his killers Hindu, they killed a man who had by then come to be regarded at home and abroad as an "apostle of peace" and symbolised the unique doctrine of 'non-violence'. In those early days of freedom, it was unthinkable that anybody would dare raise a finger, leave alone a gun, at Gandhi. Yet Nathuram Vinayak Godse did the unthinkable, with more than a little help from Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Gopal Godse, Madanlal Pahwa and Digambar Badge. The historic trial that followed – it was held in Delhi's Red Fort — captured the imagination of the nation, unleashing sympathy and hate for the conspirators in equal measure. Barring Badge, who was either openly spat upon or secretly reviled for turning approver — turncoats may win reprieve from the state, but they are looked down upon by all.
The first book of any substance on Gandhi's assassination was Stanley Wolpert's Nine Hours to Rama, published in 1962 and promptly banned by the Government of India; the ban still remains in place, although you can order a copy from amazon.com. It's largely an anodyne version of the killing that shocked the entire world, but Wolpert's suggestion that perhaps those responsible for Gandhi's protection failed in their task riled — and continues to rile — Government. Nine Hours to Rama was made into an eponymous film by Mark Robson in 1963; DVD versions of the film are also available at amazon.com.
Manohar Malgonkar's book, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, a gripping recreation of India's partition, independence and Gandhi's assassination on January 31, 1948, was first published during Mrs Gandhi's Emergency when manuscripts were cleared by censors who merrily ran their blue pencil through text which probably they could not even comprehend. "This made it incumbent upon me to omit certain vital facts," Malgonkar writes in the introduction to a new and lavishly illustrated edition of the book published by Roli, "such as, for instance, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar's secret assurance to Mr LB Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr VD Savarkar, had been implicated as a murder suspect on the flimsiest ground." The excised portions find their rightful place in the new edition, as do rare photographs and documents from the National Archives. Nathuram Godse, Apte and their accomplices look remarkably relaxed during the trial, unconcerned about the possibility of being sentenced to death – eventually Godse and Apte were hanged; Karkare, Gopal Godse, Pahwa were sentenced to life imprisonment. They never regretted their deed.
Those were terrible days. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were struggling to keep body and soul together. Many of them had lost their loved ones in the partition riots — women were raped in front of their husbands and children; young girls were abducted; men were disembowelled; trains arrived laden with dead bodies; people fleeing marauders were set upon with ferocious brutality. Madanlal Pahwa, a young refugee, Malgonkar writes, "reached a place called Fazilka, in Indian territory, and discovered that another refugee column in which his father and other relatives had set out, had fared much worse. They had been attacked by Muslim mobs: 'Only 40 or 50 had survived out of 400 or 500…'." Delhi was flooded by nearly one million refugees, all of them desperately looking for food and shelter. They were distraught and traumatised, unable to figure out why their lives had been turned upside down in so gruesome a manner. Nor could they understand the rationale behind protecting Delhi's Muslims. What left them aghast was Gandhi's insistence that Hindu and Sikh refugees should be sent back to Pakistan and Muslims who had left India be brought back. It didn't make sense. Nor did the vicious blood-letting that followed. Meanwhile, Pakistan had launched its mission to smash and grab Jammu & Kashmir and was demanding that India hand over Rs 55 crore, its share of the cash reserve inherited from the departing British colonial Government.
The proverbial last straw was Gandhi's threat to go on a fast to force the Government of India to accept Pakistan's demand. In all fairness, it needs to be recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru was opposed to the idea: He famously declared that giving the money to Pakistan would mean providing it with "sinews of war". The old man was not listening: In the end, Gandhi had his way although people were aghast. But did this gross act of injustice to the people of India and the callous disregard for the sentiments of millions of refugees — half-a-million people perished in the violence, 12 million were rendered homeless — justify Nathuram Godse's action? What inspired Narayan Apte, son of a well-known historian and Sanskrit scholar, to decide on January 13 (the day Gandhi declared he would go on a fast to press Pakistan's demand for Rs 55 crore) that he must turn into a killer? What was Madanlal Pahwa's role in the conspiracy? And why did Badge turn approver?
Entire generations have come of age since The Men Who Killed Gandhi was first published. Children are taught in school that Gandhi was killed, not why Godse and Apte and the others did what they did. The new edition of Malgonkar's classic answers this and other questions; it's history brought alive. Read it.