The darkness followed the three bullets fired by Nathuram Godse, which felled Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.
Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere...” So spoke Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a broadcast to the nation exactly 70 years ago on January 30, 1942. The darkness followed the three bullets fired by Nathuram Godse, which felled Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. Godse, a Champawat brahmin from Maharashtra, had conspired to kill the Mahatma as part of a conspiracy hatched by his brother Gopal Godse, Madan Lal Pahwa — a refugee from Punjab — and a few others which, allegedly, included V.D. Savarkar. Madan Lal Pahwa had made an attempt to kill Gandhi by throwing a bomb at the same venue, and almost the same time, at his regular prayer meeting at Birla House (Tees January Marg) 10 days earlier. But the attempt failed as the bomb fell far away from the target.
Pahwa was caught and though he revealed the names of individuals and organisations who were co-conspirators, the intelligence agencies of the home ministry could not act with swiftness. Otherwise, perhaps, the greatest tragedy that hit the country like a cyclone could have been avoided.
On January 13, 1948, Gandhiji had started what was to be his last fast. The riots against Muslims in Delhi, as also against Hindus in Pakistan, and the Indian government’s refusal to pay Pakistan a sum of `55 crores it owed to the newly-created state as part of an understanding reached at the time of Partition. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, despite their unwillingness, gave in to the Mahatma’s pressure and released the sum on January 14 itself.
But not till he was given firm assurances by the representatives of Hindu and Sikh communities that they will not indulge in violence against Muslims did Gandhi break his fast on January 18, 1948. A pledge signed by a Central Peace headed by Dr Rajendra Prasad, Congress president as well as president of the Constituent Assembly, gave the following assurance: “We shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place will not happen again.” 117 mosques occupied by Hindu refugees were returned to Muslims along with other residential and commercial properties belonging to them.
The Mahatma’s passionate efforts to promote Hindu-Muslim unity and fraternal ties with Pakistan were the two prime factors that motivated Godse and his accomplices to get rid of him.
Acharya Kripalani, one of the earliest associates of Gandhi, and Congress president at the time of Independence, wrote: “The most cruel part of this tragedy is not only the death of Gandhiji. It is that he fell by the blow struck by one who considered himself a Hindu, against one who had ordered his life in the spirit of the Upanishad and the Gita… The assassin has betrayed the whole history of Hinduism… Hindus have not only tolerated but even welcomed differences in belief… it was for such misguided people, who injure their religion while seeking to protect it through violence and murder that it was said: ‘God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
However, Gandhi’s death wrought a miracle. India reacted to the ghastly crime with a resolve and determination to preserve and protect the patrimony he left behind. Throughout the country the people responded as one to the appeals of Nehru and Patel in the face of the great national calamity. In his broadcast Patel appealed to the people “not to think of revenge, but to carry Bapu’s message of love and non-violence enunciated by him… it is a shame that the greatest man in the world had to pay with his life for the sins which we have committed.” After the immersion of his ashes in the Ganga, Nehru said that “we have to hold together and fight the terrible poison of communalism that has killed the greatest man of our age.”
There is, most of the times, a blessing in disguise whenever a disaster takes place. And the greatest blessing of the tragedy was the emotional unity between Nehru and Patel, who were drifting apart on various issues. The powerful duo resolved their differences and assured each other of affection and cooperation with a renewed energy to protect the hard-won freedom from external and internal threats. Two days after the assassination Patel told a journalist: “Nehru and he had instinctively felt that they must come together in the face of the crisis. We owe it to the country.”
But, perhaps, the best tribute that was paid to Mahatma Gandhi came from Albert Einstein: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
The writer, an ex-Army officer and a former member of the National Commission on Minorities, is a New Delhi-based political analyst