Situated on Tees January Road, New Delhi, the sprawling Gandhi Smriti (formerly known as Birla House) has a quadrangular structure in the middle of a lush lawn. The Martyr's Column, built as a remembrance spot, marks the exact spot where the blood of the Father of the Nation was spilt when he was assassinated on 30 January 1948. This is the exact location where the country's most shocking conspiracy was executed, leaving behind an indelible mark on a newly independent India.
An assassin's history
Vinayak Vamanrao Godse, a postal employee in British India, and his wife Lakshmi lived in Baramati, Pune district, Bombay Presidency. They were Chitpavan Brahmins, renowned for their high-caste status. Vinayak had a government job that allowed him to support his family adequately; they led a simple life. However, fate was not kind to them. Lakshmi gave birth and lost three boys during their infancy consecutively, leaving the family mired with loss and despair. Finally, a daughter was born who was spared the fate of her brothers. Once it was clear that she would survive, the couple sighed in relief.
Although it took them a long time to recover from the loss of their sons, Vinayak and Lakshmi gradually started looking forward to their lives — their daughter became their source of happiness. On 19 May 1910, Lakshmi gave birth to another child. It was a boy this time, and he was named Ramachandra Vinayak Godse. However, old memories flooded back and Lakshmi was petrified that this son would die too; just like the nightmares of her previous pregnancies. She shared her fears with her husband. Was there was a curse on the male children of their family? Fearing that something ominous would again befall them, the couple decided that baby Ramachandra would be brought up as a girl for the first few years of his life.
He was even made to wear a nose-ring, a nath, to dupe fate. Thus came about the moniker, Nathuram. When another boy was born, Nathuram's parents stopped treating him as a girl. But by this time, the moniker had stuck to him and remained with him for the rest of his life.
Nathuram studied in a local school in Baramati. Growing up, he heard a name often repeated around him wherever he went. The name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a skilled barrister who was battling the British imperial power with the philosophy of non-violence. He sometimes heard about Gandhi's adventures from his father. He was fascinated by Gandhi and used to avidly follow his activities. Nathuram studied in that school till grade five. After that, he left the school because his parents wanted him to study in an English-medium school, which was necessary for a government job. He was sent to live with an aunt in Pune where his parents hoped he would fulfil their dreams.
The 1920s and 1930s were marked with the British Raj's oppression of its Indian subjects. Nationalism and the demand for dominion status were growing, and Indians were increasingly becoming aware of the exploitative laws and policies of the British. Mahatma Gandhi's request to abolish all the repressive laws written by the British was rejected by the then Viceroy of British India, Lord Irwin. He rejected all his eleven demands. When his demands were refused, Gandhi initiated the Civil Disobedience Movement, leading the Dandi March on 12 March 1930. He, along with 78 of his followers, marched from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, situated on the coast of Gujarat. They travelled a distance of 200 miles and violated the salt law by making salt from seawater. This was a symbolic move; with one simple action, Gandhi instigated the nation to break British law everywhere.
The movement caused widespread enthusiasm among the people and drew worldwide attention to the Indian independence movement. The British Parliament and media noted this, which made the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald call for the First Round Table Conference in London. While the Indian National Congress (INC) and the most business leaders boycotted the First Round Table Conference, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the liberals and princes attended it. Many of the Congress leaders were put in jail for their involvement in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
After the Congress refused to join the conference, and no one could get any fruitful result due to the absence of any Congress leaders, the government started to convince the Congress to participate in the Second Round Table conference in 1931. On January 1931, Gandhi and all other members were released unconditionally.
Finally, Gandhi was convinced to negotiate with Viceroy Lord Irwin and they signed the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, which placed the Congress on an equal footing with the government.
On 5 March 1931, they agreed to pave way for Congress' participation in the Second Round Table Conference. Congress would discontinue the Civil Disobedience Movement and participate in the Second Round Table Conference. The government would withdraw all ordinances issued to curb the Congress, withdraw all prosecutions relating to offences not involving violence and release all persons undergoing sentences of imprisonment for their activities in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
The Second Round Table Conference was held in London from 7 September 1931 to 1 December 1931 with the participation of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Two weeks before the Conference was convened, the Labour government had been replaced by the Conservatives. At the conference, Gandhi claimed to represent the people of India. This view, however, was not shared by the other delegates. In fact, the division between the many attending groups was one of the reasons why the outcomes of the Second Round Table Conference were again of no substantial results regarding India's constitutional future. Meanwhile, civil unrest had spread throughout India again. Upon his return to India, Gandhi was arrested along with other Congress leaders. A separate province of Sind was created and the interests of minorities were safeguarded by MacDonald's Communal Award.
Nathuram Godse kept a close eye on the Civil Disobedience Movement. He respected Gandhi's defiance of the imperial laws and supported the popular movement but did not agree with his methods. This was also the time when he gravitated towards the freedom movement, aiming to contribute, and dropped out of school. He became a member of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Nathuram eventually left the RSS and joined the Hindu Mahasabha. It was here that Nathuram met Veer Savarkar.
The meeting of intention
In 1944, while Gandhi was staying at Panchgani, in Maharashtra, a group of around 25 young men staged a protest against his policies. Another protest was organised against Gandhi while he stayed in the sweepers' colony in Delhi. Both the protests were carried out by the same men under the leadership of Narayan Dattatraya Apte.
A Brahmin from Pune, Narayan Apte was the son of Dattatreya Apte, a respected scholar and historian. Narayan earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Bombay University in 1932. After three years of unemployment, he was taken in as a tutor in Mission High School in Ahmednagar. He aspired to become a master in the field of education. He started a shooting club in Ahmednagar that gained a lot of publicity, after which he accepted a teaching job at Ahmednagar. It was during this time when he married Champa, the daughter of an influential family from Pune. He too wanted to contribute to setting India free from the British. In 1939, Narayan Apte joined the Hindu Mahasabha, where he met his ally, Nathuram Godse.
Savarkar's The Indian War of Independence made its way to many revolutionary youths, and eventually to Godse too. The book, which describes the 1857 revolt as a unified and national uprising of India as a nation against British authority, was seen at the time as highly inflammatory, and the Marathi edition was banned in British India even before its publication. Although this book was banned by the British administration, it was available for those who wanted it.
Godse and Apte found themselves gradually shifting from Gandhi's principles to the revolutionary ideas of Savarkar. They were deeply influenced by his principles, both wanting the Hindus to become a rigidly closed religious group. They gradually came to believe that Mahatma Gandhi supported the Muslim minority at the cost of the Hindus. Savarkar was arrested in 1910 for his connections with the revolutionary group India House. Following a failed attempt to escape while being transported from Marseilles, Savarkar was sentenced to two life terms — imprisonment totalling fifty years — and was moved to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but was released in 1921 after several mercy petitions to the Britishers. In Ratnagiri jail, Savarkar wrote Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?
Godse and Apte were radicalised by Savarkar's ideas and felt that Gandhi's way of working was anti-national. The two men were friends for six years and then became business partners. On 28 March 1944, they jointly started the publication of a Marathi daily for the Hindu Mahasabha, Agrani, in Pune, which was later renamed as Hindu Rashtra. Godse was the editor and Apte the manager.
By early 1947, the Indian subcontinent stood on the verge of independence. People could feel that freedom would be granted by the imperial powers finally; it was just a matter of time now. However, a dark shadow was hovering over the nation. The idea of two nations — a separate nation for Muslims — was spreading like wildfire. A massive communal problem was emerging, and the partition of the subcontinent into two nation-states seemed to be the only solution. Extremists among both Hindu and Muslim communities had developed a mutual distrust and hatred for each other. Several regions of the country saw a breakdown of law and order, resulting in riots.
Although initially, the Congress opposed the proposal for the division of the country, consistent reports of riots and skirmishes among the two religious groups forced them to reconsider the idea. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, once a prominent member of the Congress and now the leader of the Muslim League, stood stubborn on his demand for a separate nation for Muslims. Congress members, failing to find an alternate solution, increased pressure on Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.
Mahatma Gandhi stood firmly against the partition of the country, initiating another fast unto death. However, he was forced to discontinue it fearing that it may demoralise the nation. Nathuram learnt that Mahatma Gandhi had started a fast unto death to stop the Partition, but this did not change his attitude towards him. He detested Gandhi's belief in the oneness of God and the equality of all religions. Godse and his ilk considered these ideas to be at variance with their own Hindu beliefs. Various social reform programmes conducted by Gandhi, such as inter-caste marriages, highly distressed Godse who believed that Gandhi's actions always evinced a bias for minority groups.
After spending around 200 years in India, the British officially departed India on 15 August 1947.
As the last act of imperial ruling, the subcontinent was divided into two independent nation-states — India and Pakistan — initiating a transfer of population and property in both religious groups. The Partition brought havoc, tears and death. It triggered riots, mass casualties and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be a safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. Millions of people were eventually displaced — travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.
Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps. Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour, with up to 100,000 raped or abducted. Godse and Apte watched the Partition and the horrors that ensued. They believed that Gandhi was responsible for it. Gradually, their hatred towards him started turning into an insidious conspiracy to assassinate him.
On 13 January, at the beginning of 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 entire India to live together in amity. At about five o'clock in the afternoon, the next day, the seventy-eight-year-old Gandhi, frail from fasting, was being helped across the gardens of Birla House. A huge crowd would gather to attend these meetings. On 30 January 1948, at the time of his evening prayer, a similar crowd waited for Gandhi.
Unknown to all, would-be assailants Godse and Apte were a part of this crowd. He was running a few minutes late for the meeting but when he emerged — supported by Abha and Manu, his constant companions — he looked fragile. While Gandhi climbed the steps of the raised lawn where he conducted his prayer meetings, Godse stepped out of the crowd to block Gandhi's path, confronting him face to face. He bowed and pretended to touch his feet. Manuben objected to this. Godse quickly raised himself, took out a pistol in full view of the crowd and aimed it at Gandhi. The distance between the two men was minimal. Godse did not falter in his mission as he pulled the trigger and shot Gandhi squarely in the chest three times. Gandhi collapsed and fell on Abhaben's lap, murmuring, 'Hey Ram'.
Godse's radicalised mind had lost all rationality and was consumed with hatred for a man he had respected during his childhood.
The end of the story
Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were arrested along with six others involved in the assassination of Gandhi. During the trials, the perpetrators showed no remorse, claiming their actions were committed for the sake of the nation. Godse's reasons for assassinating Gandhi included Gandhi's alleged attempt to sacrifice Hindu interests to appease minority groups and ultimately ended up blaming him for the Partition, which he believed could have been avoided. He recorded his reasoning in a 150-point statement, which he presented to the jury. Godse was kept in Ambala Jail and his trial lasted for over a year. He was sentenced to death on 8 November 1949 along with his co-conspirator Narayan Apte.
15 November 1949
Nathuram Godse emerged from his cell along with his companion Apte. As they were taken to the scaffold, Godse, in a hesitant voice, called out, 'Akhand Bharat'. Apte completed his slogan by saying, 'Amar Rahe'.
Those were the last words the men uttered. They were quiet after that till they were hanged.
Thus, the curtain fell on the first instance of capital punishment in independent India.
(Excerpted from Hang Till Death by Prateek Jain with permission via Bloomsbury India)