On 12 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast to put pressure on the government to pay Rs 55 crore it owed to Pakistan.
This was part of the 17.5 percent liquid assets that Pakistan was entitled to as part of the deal that formalised the partition of India, or the ‘Terms of Alimony’ as some called it. These liquid assets included printed currency, stocks, coins, postal and revenue stamps, gold reserves, and assets of the Reserve Bank of India.
India had paid the first instalment of Rs 20 crore but had halted the rest of the payment (Rs 55 crore) asking Pakistan to first resolve the Kashmir issue.
Gandhi’s decision to fast was the final straw for Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte, who decided that Gandhi must die – and 20 January 1948 was to be the D day.
On Gandhi’s 70th death anniversary, The Quint revisits the events that preceded the assassination as well as the trial that saw Godse and his close associate Narayan Apte be hanged.
The Failed Attempt
On 20 January 1948, a week into his fast, Mahatma Gandhi made his first public appearance at Birla House in New Delhi, where he usually held his prayer meetings. The crowd on the day was larger than usual. The speakers were not working due to electrical problems. So, a close associate repeated Gandhi’s words for everyone to hear.
In ‘The Murder of the Mahatma’, GD Khosla, the former chief justice of Punjab, who heard the appeals of Nathuram Godse and others in the assassination case, recounted what had happened on the day.
After he had concluded it, Dr Sushila Nayyar repeated the substance of the speech to the audience from her notes. There was a loud sound. A large portion of the audience near Gandhiji’s seat did not know what had caused the noise and where exactly the explosion had taken place. Gandhiji himself thought that it was some form of military practice and, therefore, nothing to worry about. It was only when the prayer meeting was dispersing that those who had been sitting near Gandhiji’s divan learnt that a Punjabi youth had exploded a gun-cotton slab near the back gate of Birla House. No one was injured, and the misguided youth had been immediately apprehended and handed over to the police.
The bomb, which was to serve as a distraction, went off as per plan, but the gun did not fire. It was defected. The “misguided youth” who was immediately apprehended was Madanlal Pahwa, a Punjabi Hindu refugee from Pakpattan (now in Pakistan) who had seen his father and aunt being massacred by a Muslim mob before his eyes. His failure to retain a job added to his sense of disgruntlement.
In December 1947, Pahwa met Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte and joined their cause. The rest of the conspirators – Godse, Apte and Vishnu Karkare – rushed back to Bombay to look for the 1934 Italian-made automatic 9mm Berretta that would, unfortunately, come through.
Godse decided that a “five-pronged commando operation” would not succeed and decided to take matters into his own hand. While a search-operation had been launched following Pahwa’s arrest, Godse and Apte, having acquired a pistol from Gwalior, landed in Delhi on 29 January, in time for the prayer meeting at Birla House the next day.
GD Khosla’s memoir, written in 1965, states:
He was up first of all, and was bathed and dressed while Apte and Karkare were still asleep. All three had a light breakfast and then drove in a tonga to New Delhi. After paying off the tonga, they walked to a thick forest not far from where they had alighted, and Godse fired three or four rounds from his pistol while Karkare standing on a high rock kept watch. Godse was satisfied with the performance of his weapon, and the party returned to Old Delhi.
Karkare and Apte followed him to Birla House in another tonga a few minutes later. The prayer meeting had not yet started, but a crowd of about 200 persons was awaiting the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi. Godse was moving among the people apparently unconcerned. Suddenly, there was a stirring in the crowd, and everyone stood up to form a passage for Mahatma Gandhi, who was seen coming up slowly with his hands resting on the shoulders of two girls who were walking by his side. As he raised his hands to join them in the customary greeting, Godse took a quick step forward, pushed aside the girl on Gandhiji’s right and, standing in front of him, fired three shots in quick succession at point-blank range.
Those nearest to Gandhi pounced on Godse, but a police officer present there rescued him from instant justice at the hands of the angry mob. As for Apte and Karkare, they came out of Birla House in the panic that followed the gunshots and returned to Bombay the same day.
Godse was taken to the Tughlaq Road station where an FIR was registered. He reportedly told a journalist who had managed to see him in jail, “For the present I only want to say that I am not at all sorry for what I have done; the rest I will explain in court.”
The trial of Nathuram Godse commenced on 22 June 1948 before Atma Charan, a senior member of the judicial branch of the Indian Civil Service, at a specially-constituted court at the Red Fort. The court proceedings, open to the public and the press, were widely reported in all publications.
Between 24 January to 6 November, the statements of 149 witnesses were recorded and a large number of documents, letters, and newspaper articles were produced in court. Key witness for the prosecution led by CK Dhaphtary, the then advocate general of Bombay, was a man named Digambar Bagde who claimed to have been one of the conspirators and who had admitted to his own guilt, while also incriminating the other accomplices.
On 10 February 1949, the court pronounced it’s verdict. Of the 11 accused, Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were sentenced to death, while five others were sentenced to life in prison. Vinayak Savarkar was acquitted. Three others – Gangadhar Dandwati, Gangadhar Jadhav and Suryadeo Sharma – remained untraceable, and till date, there is no investigation that has been able to reveal what became of them.
The trial judge, Atma Charan, announced that the guilty could appeal against the verdict within 15 days. All but one challenged their conviction. Nathuram Godse did file an appeal, but not against his conviction, but against the court’s finding that there was a conspiracy to kill Gandhi. His plan was to assume sole and complete responsibility for the murder.
The appeals were heard from 2 May 1949 by a three-judge bench of the Punjab High Court – the court was hurriedly set up in 1947 at Peterhoff, a manorial building in Shimla that used to be occupied by the Viceory of India.
Justice Bhandari, Justice Achhuram and Justice Khosla heard the Gandhi assassination case. Godse declined to be represented by a lawyer and had requested to be allowed to appear in person and argue his appeal himself. Recounting the scene of Godse standing in the specially constructed dock, Justice Khosla wrote:
His small defiant figure with flashing eyes and close-cropped hair offered a remarkable and immediately noticeable contrast to the long row of placid and prosperous-looking lawyers who represented his accomplices. The plea of poverty on which Godse had based his request to be present in person was only an excuse, and the real reason behind the manoeuver was a morbid desire to watch the process of his disintegration at first hand and also to exhibit himself as a fearless patriot and a passionate protagonist of Hindu ideology.
Godse’s Final Appeal
In his appeal, Godse spoke for several hours discussing the case and his motives for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi. “I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces,” he said.
Godse read out a long written statement in which he accused Gandhi of succeeding in “doing what the British always wanted to do in pursuance of their policy of ‘divide and rule.’ He helped them in dividing India and it is not yet certain whether their rule has ceased.”
He also pleaded with Hindus to preserve their society and to fight for their motherland. Godse cited verses from the Bhagvad Gita, moving many men and women present in court to tears.
The audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men were coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs. The silence was accentuated and made deeper by the sound of a occasional subdued sniff or a muffled cough. It seemed to me that I was taking part in some kind of melodrama or in a scene out of a Hollywood feature film. Once or twice I had interrupted Godse and pointed out the irrelevance of what he was saying, but my colleagues seemed inclined to hear him and the audience most certainly thought that Godse’s performance was the only worth-while part of the lengthy proceedings. A writer’s curiosity in watching the interplay of impact and response made me abstain from being too conscientious in the matter. Also I said to myself: ‘The man is going to die soon. He is past doing any harm. He should be allowed to let off steam for the last time.’
On 15 November 1949, Godse and Apte were hanged in the Ambala jail. It is said that Nathuram, who showed no remorse in the course of the trial, was repentant afterwards. Apte was unrelenting and till the very end, refused to admit his guilt or plead innocence.