Bhilare Guruji, who passed away on July 19 at the age of 98, will be remembered for generations for saving Mahatma Gandhi’s life in 1944.
A few days ago, I heard Bhilare Guruji had passed away. Bhiku Dadaji Bhilare, who was respectfully called Bhilare Guruji, was a wrestler from Satara and also a Gandhian, a freedom fighter and a Congress stalwart. Most of all, he was my hero because he had saved Bapu’s life. After independence, Bhilare Guruji became an active Congressman and was elected multiple times to the Maharashtra legislature. He was a gram sevak and a rural banker.
I first read his story while researching for my book Let’s Kill Gandhi!. His heroic action was mentioned by Bapu’s secretary and biographer Pyarelal Nayyar in his multi-volume biography Mahatma and by the late Jagan Phadnis in Mahatmyachi Akher. Then, just before my book was published in 2007, I heard the story from the horse’s mouth when I met Bhilare Guruji at a function in Sangli, Maharashtra. I invited him to grace my book release function. Even in his autumn years, he looked like a mighty oak. As he recounted the story of that day in 1944, he left the audience spellbound.
Subsequently, we met on several occasions where Guruji was often asked to narrate that story. What struck me was that Guruji always said he had saved Bapu’s life on one occasion, suggesting that there were more attempts on his life.
After Bapu’s murder, many myths and lies have systematically been spread to justify the terrible deed. His murderer, Nathuram Godse, has become a hero for many. They worship him as well as the gun he used. Moves are afoot to build memorials and temples in the name of Bapu’s murderer. A murderer is being portrayed as the saviour of Hinduism, of a Hindu rashtra. The process to bestow sainthood on Godse is in progress. A murderer is being presented as a saint.
Much needs to be said about the truth behind Bapu’s murder, murderers and the larger conspiracy afoot to subvert the fledging nation, about the kingpin who was let off, about the organisation which conveniently washed Bapu’s blood off their hands and disowned the murderer who was one of their own.
But let me start by talking about all the attempts on Bapu’s life that failed, including the one that Bhilare Guruji foiled. This is my tribute to the memory of the man who saved Bapu.
The first attempt: Grenade attack in Poona on June 25, 1934
This happened when Bapu was travelling the length and breadth of the land, getting temples to throw open their doors for the Dalits and to convince upper caste villagers to allow them to use community wells. There was a lot of resentment and anger among upper caste Hindus. Sanatanis were raving and ranting against what they called desecration. Threats were uttered, hate was spewed – their target was Bapu. Bapu wasn’t bothered.
While passing through Poona on a Harijan yatra, members of the city’s municipality decided to honour him. A function was organised in the municipal hall. The following is an abridged eye witness account of the incident written by Shripad Joshi in his book, Mahatma, My Bapu, from the chapter, ‘From the Jaws of Death’:
The municipal hall was full of people that evening; the crowds had spilled into the street outside. Our boy scout band was excitedly waiting to play the welcome tune for Bapu; we waited in the southern balcony on the first floor, overlooking the street. I was the flute player of the band. Our scout master had ordered us to be ready to perform on his command, he was peering over the bannister at the street below. We heard a car pull up, someone said in a loud voice, “Gandhiji has arrived”; our master signalled us to start, we did. Just then, there was a loud bang. We thought they were bursting crackers to welcome Bapu. But the sound was much too loud. A cloud of dust and smoke drifted past our balcony. There were a few shouts and moans. “It’s a bomb”, we heard someone shout. Even before the sound of the explosion died down, we heard another car drive up. Bapu had arrived in the second car. “Vajva re!” (play), our master ordered. Bapu was rushed into the hall and the function continued. It was only after we finished playing the welcome tune and were packing up that a few policemen came up and asked us if we had seen anything suspicious or anybody lurking around suspiciously. None of us had. It was then we were told that a hand grenade had been tossed on the car from the terrace above. Fortunately, Gandhiji wasn’t travelling in the car and the grenade bounced off the bonnet of the first car and rolled into the middle of the street before exploding. The car, carrying Bapu and Ba, arrived just as the grenade exploded, but they were shielded by the first car. A few people suffered injuries, a couple of policemen suffered deep gashes from shrapnel, but there were no grievous injuries. Bapu was safe!
Speaking about the attack Bapu said, “I cannot believe, that any sane Sanatanist Hindu could ever encourage the insane act that was perpetrated this evening. However I would like the Sanatanist friends to control the language that is being used by the speakers and writers claiming to be speaking on their behalf. The sorrowful incident had undoubtedly advanced the Harijan cause. It is easy to see causes prosper by martyrdom of those who stand for them….. Let those who grudge me what remains to me of this earthly existence, know that it is the easiest thing to do away with my body….. What would the world have said, if the bomb had dropped on me and my party, which included my wife and three girls who are as dear to me as daughters and are entrusted to me by their parents? …I have nothing but deep pity for the unknown thrower of the bomb. If I had my way, and if the bomb-thrower was known, I should certainly ask for his discharge even as I did in South Africa, in the case of those who successfully assaulted me…..”
Bapu did not file a complaint and the police did not bother to investigate the matter further. The case was closed with the comment “assault by unknown perpetrators”. In the mid-1940s, there were hand grenade attacks on Taziya processions and in a Muslim-owned cinema hall in Ahmadnagar. Weapons and explosives along with hand grenades were recovered from the house of the manager of the city Hindu Mahasabha chief Vishnu Karkare. Investigations later showed that the hand grenades recovered from Ahmednagar were of the same make and batch as the one used in the attack on Bapu in Poona. Karkare was convicted in the Gandhi murder case and sentenced to life imprisonment. Karkare was a known Savarkarite and an associate of Narayan Apte, who was convicted and executed in the Gandhi murder.
The second attempt: Armed attack in Panchgani, July 1944
After his release from the Aga Khan Palace imprisonment, Bapu was frail and in poor health. He was advised rest and taken to recuperate to Panchgani, a hill station near Poona. He stayed at the Dilkhusha Bungalow in Panchgani along with his entourage. A group of Rashtriya Sevadal volunteers took care of his needs and were his unarmed guards. Because it was the monsoon season, the daily evening prayers were conducted in a hall of a local school. The prayers were open to all and a large gathering of locals and visitors would congregate every evening. The Rashtriya Seva Dal volunteers would organise the prayer meetings and manage the crowds. Bhiku Daaji Bhilare, a young wrestler from Bhilar village in Satara district of Maharashtra, was one of the volunteers. This is how he told the story of that evening:
“I was on duty that day. We were tense as a group of hot heads had arrived from Poona and were going around demonstrating and hurling abuses at Bapu. We were all annoyed. But Bapu restrained us. He asked us to invite the hot heads to come speak to him. Of course, they refused. We were asked to remain alert as the young men were known to be violent. As the prayers began, the rascals arrived at the scene and started a ruckus. Just as Bapu started to speak, one of the young men rushed towards the door and jumped through it. I was stationed near Bapu. I saw that the man was brandishing a jambhiya (a kind of dagger) as he rushed towards Bapu screaming abuse. I reacted instantaneously. My training as a wrestler came in handy, I tackled him before he could reach Bapu and pinned him down. In an instance, I had disarmed him. We then dragged the troublemaker out of the hall. Bapu warned us not to harm the assailant. We rounded up the other troublemakers and drove them away. We were relieved that Bapu was unharmed and safe. I was so glad that I had the opportunity to save Bapu.”
The assailant was Godse. Before leaving Poona, he had boasted to his fellow journalists that they would soon receive some startling news about Gandhi from Panchgani. Joglekar, a reporter working for the periodical Agranee, edited by Godse and published by Apte, corroborated the fact. A. David, editor of Poona Herald, deposing before the Kapoor Commission averred that Godse had made an attempt on Gandhiji’s life and that he too had heard of Godse’s boasts to fellow journalists. Times of India had published the news, “Poona Editor Attempts to Assault Gandhiji in Panchgani”.
The third attempt: Attack at Sevagram, Wardha, September 1944
Bapu was preparing to meet Muhammad Ali Jinnah and convince him not to demand a separate state for Muslims. He was to go to Bombay to talk to Jinnah. Extremist Hindu organisations had declared their opposition to any talks with Jinnah. For days, batches of protestors from the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had laid siege to Sevagram. They shouted slogans against Gandhi and Jinnah and threatened to stop Gandhi from going to meet Jinnah in every way possible. The protests were becoming more angry day by day and there was a fear that it would turn violent. Sevagram was being monitored by the police.
As the car carrying Bapu drove up to the gate, a young man from the group rushed towards him brandishing a dagger. He was overpowered and disarmed by the police. The protestors were rounded up and taken to the Wardha police station. Bapu left for Bombay by train.
The incident has been described in detail by Pyarelal Nayyar, Bapu’s secretary and biographer in Mahatma The Last Phase Volume II. Pyarelal was accompanying Bapu and was an eye witness. Since no charges were brought and there were many RSS and Mahasabha supporters amongst the police, the protestors were treated to tea and snacks at the police station and let off. According to Pyarelal, a friendly policeman had told him about what had transpired at the police station: “The senior constable, while chatting with the leader of the group, casually asked why they were wasting their time in what was essentially a dispute between their leaders and Gandhi? Thatte, the leader of the group, contemptuously said, ‘Our leaders won’t need to sully their hands by dealing with Gandhi’. Then pointing to the young man who had rushed towards Gandhi with a dagger, Thatte said, ‘When the time comes to deal with Gandhi, this jamadar will do what is required’. The young man was Nathuram Vinayak Godse.”
The fourth attempt: Derailing ‘The Gandhi Special’ train, June 29, 1946
Bapu was travelling to Poona from Bombay. ‘The Gandhi Special’ train, made up of a steam engine, two third class coaches and the guard’s carriage, was used for the journey. The train was travelling between Nerul and Karjat late on a dark rainy evening. It was a treacherous section and the driver was alert. The engineer saw a large boulder on the tracks ahead. If the train hit it, it would derail and fall into the ravine. Instantly, he applied the emergency breaks and brought the train to a halt, but the front wheels of the steam engine hit the stone and were damaged. A major tragedy was averted. In his report, the driver wrote that the boulder had been purposely placed on the track with the objective of derailing the train and causing an accident.
Speaking about it at the prayer meeting on June 30 in Poona, Bapu said, “By the grace of God, I have escaped from the jaws of death seven times. I have not hurt anybody nor do I consider anybody my enemy. I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life. Yesterday’s attempt on my life failed. I will not die just yet, I aim to live till the age of 125”.
“Gandhi Mhantat ke te 125 varsh jagtil, pan tyana tevdha jagu denaar Kon?” (Gandhi says he will live till he is 125, but who will let him live that long?), Nathuram Godse was reported to have mocked Bapu at a meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha later.
The fifth attempt: Bomb explosion at the prayer meeting at Birla House, January 20, 1948
As Bapu began to speak after the prayers from the Quran had been recited, a bomb exploded a few metres behind where Bapu sat. The wall on which the bomb exploded was damaged extensively.
Those days, Bapu’s evening prayer speeches were broadcast by All India Radio live to the nation from Birla House. There is a tape of the prayer meeting held on January 20, 1948. At 17:13 into the recording, a loud explosion is heard. Voices rise in panic and then Bapu says, “Kuch nahi hua hai, baith jao, shant raho, kuch nahi hua hai….. agar sach mein kuch hoga toh hum kya dar jayenge? Shant ho jam cahlo baith jao…”. Bapu’s calming voice comforts the audience and the panic subsides. Madanlal Pahwa, a young refugee from Montgomery in West Punjab, was seen lighting the fuse of the bomb and was immediately arrested. He was interrogated and soon confessed that he was part of a conspiracy to murder Gandhi and that there were several others who had escaped. He exploded the bomb as planned but others had not done their part and the plot to murder Gandhi had failed. He hinted that an editor from Poona and the publisher of the periodical called Hindurashtriya were co-conspirators and leaders of the gang. Madanlal confessed that a dadhi-wala (bearded) arms supplier from Poona was assigned the job of shooting and killing Gandhi but he couldn’t fulfill the task. Digambar Badge was the bearded supplier from Poona who turned approver in the Gandhi murder trial. What troubled Madanlal’s interrogators was that despite the torture, Madanlal kept saying “Woh phir ayega!” (He will come back!).
On the evening of January 30, barely ten days after the failed attempt, Godse, Apte and Karkare returned to the prayer grounds at Birla House and mingled with the crowd, just as they had ten days ago. Nathuram blocked Bapu’s path as he walked towards his seat at the prayer ground accompanied by his walking sticks, Manu and Abha. He pulled out a 9 mm, semi automatic Berretta and from point blank range less than three feet, shot Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi thrice in the chest.
After failing several times in the past, the gang of murderers from Poona, with the support and help of their backers had finally succeeded in murdering Bapu. Alas, Bhilare Guruji wasn’t present to save him that fateful day.