An account by the Mahatma’s great-grandson of the prelude to Gandhiji’s assassination
‘LET’S KILL GANDHI!’ — A Chronicle of His Last Days, the Conspiracy, Murder, Investigation and Trial: Tushar A. Gandhi; Rupa & Co, 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.
In ‘Let’s Kill Gandhi!’ (LKG) Tushar Gandhi has sought to discuss the prelude to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and put together some materials relating to the conspiracy, investigation and murder trial. This review confines itself largely to the extent to which this is able to add to barrister K. L. Gauba’s Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (AMG), and the report of the “J. L. Kapur Commission of Inquiry into the Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi.” (JLKC)
Like AMG, a large part of this book deals with the political background to the assassination. But it does so in six times as many pages. There was sufficient material before JLKC to show that the provocation for the murder was not merely the Partition or giving Rs. 55 crores to Pakistan as is made out by the Hindutva word-of-mouth narrative. In fact, as per Gauba, the conspiracy to kill Gandhiji was far advanced by the time the Rs. 55-crore question came up.
Although its own narratives on the Partition have provided grist to the Hindutva mill and were offered as an explanation for Gandhiji’s assassination, AMG and LKG stress that it was the assassin Nathuram Godse’s mentor V. D. Savarkar who first made the two-nation theory into the ideological basis of a political formation, the Hindu Mahasabha. The Muslim League formally adopted the theory later. Gandhiji never. This is only one of the several issues on which the assassin’s political statement at the trial is silent. There is also sufficient material to indicate a British strategic interest in the Partition. Clearly, if the assassin was out to enforce accountability for Partition, there were multiple directions in which he could have proceeded; and the starting point of his journey, at Savarkar Sadan in Bombay, was perhaps a more pertinent spot for his exertions.
LKG also interrogates the notion which visualises the assassination merely in the context of Hindu-Muslim, and later India-Pakistan relations. In view of earlier attempts to assassinate Gandhiji, Tushar Gandhi asks: “Was it Gandhi’s campaign to eradicate untouchability that offended the Hindu supremacists?”
This is better contextualised by Marxist socialist Narendra Deva’s assertion that Gandhiji was “in no sense an orthodox Hindu…, he breaks almost every rule and practice enjoined by orthodox Hinduism.” Socialist Ram Manohar Lohia wrote that the assassination “was not so much an episode of the Hindu-Muslim fight as of the war between the liberal and the fanatical in Hinduism. Never had a Hindu delivered greater blows on fanaticism in respect of caste, woman, property or tolerance. All the bitterness was accumulating. Once before, an attempt had been made on Gandhiji’s life. It was then obviously and openly for the purpose of saving Hinduism in the sense of saving caste. The last and successful attempt was outwardly made for the purpose of saving Hinduism in the sense of protecting it from Muslim engulfment, but… it was the greatest and the most heinous gamble that retreating fanaticism risked in its war on liberal Hinduism.”
Some of the earlier attempts on Gandhiji’s life are dealt with in the book including the bomb-throwing incident in Pune on June 25, 1934, during Gandhiji’s anti-untouchability tour. JLKC did not go into this incident “because untouchability was a different topic altogether,” adding however that “if the culprits then also were the Poona Hindu Mahasabha people that would be quite relevant.” The attempt on Gandhiji 10 days before the assassination finds mention in LKG. As more or less the same group which carried out the assassination was involved in the January 20 attempt, and one of the conspirators, Madanlal Pahwa, was actually apprehended, the failure to unravel the conspiracy in time has haunted students of the subject.
The trial court judgment became available in 1949 and was published the same year by an unknown compiler under the title “Gandhi Murder Trial”. The trial itself was covered in some detail by Gauba in AMG, and in broad strokes by an Allahabad advocate, Tapan Ghosh, in The Gandhi Murder Trial, as also by Parchure’s lawyer, P. L. Inamdar in The Story of the Red Fort Trial: 1948-49. Interestingly, LKG has referred to all but AMG.
The account of the appeal before the Punjab High Court in this book is based mainly on G. D. Khosla’s book of legal and other reminiscences, Murder of the Mahatma. One of the three judges who heard this appeal, Khosla left a short account, The Crime of Nathuram Godse, which was included in these reminiscences. The Privy Council appeal by Godse is mentioned in LKG but there is still no detailed account of it. The appeal was dismissed in October 1949, a month-and-a half before the Constitution of India was adopted.
Locating Savarkar’s role
This relies largely on Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase in delineating Savarkar’s role. Savarkar’s message to his confidantes in essence was: “If you want to establish a Hindu Rashtra, get rid of Gandhi and subvert the Congress.” The approver, Badge, was also quite specific on Savarkar’s role. Gauba also concluded: “It is difficult to believe that Savarkar, though acquitted…, had no hand in the murder.” JLKC reached a similar conclusion: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group…”
An important omission in this book seems to be Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel’s letter dated February 27, 1948 to Prime Minister Nehru: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”
There are certain things connected with the assassination which, even if they may now fall outside the legal sphere, could still be subject of future academic work. The role of communal-sectarian organisations, and the part played by some lesser-known shadowy figures — some with deep pockets — require further research. That it was well financed is beyond doubt, with the conspirators travelling to and fro by air some 60 years ago. It was apparently a feudal-capitalist-religious sectarian alliance that organised the murder which possibly involved also some princely states.
LKG is not error-free. One cannot discount the possibility of the existence of a person called Phulwari Sharif; but it was from the place of that name that members of the Muslim League Relief Committee met Gandhiji on March 15, 1947. Sources also need better and specific identification, particularly in Book 2. The material in the rest of the book is more useful. The index, which needs to be exhaustive especially in a large work, is quite perfunctory.