Mahatma Gandhi is several minutes late for his evening prayer meeting at the lawns of the Birla House in New Delhi. Leaning on his two grand-nieces, Gandhi made his way to the dais when he was approached by Nathuram Godse. Accounts differ on how Gandhi reacted to Godse’s ‘namaste’ greeting of him. Some say he smiled at him, others say he uttered a few words. Godse was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Godse whips out his Beretta M 1934 semi-automatic pistol and shoots at Gandhi three times. Manuben, Gandhi’s grand-niece, writes later that he said, ‘Hey Ram’ twice. He passes away from the gunshot wounds soon after. Herbert Reiner Junion, the new vice-consul at the American embassy in Delhi is first to seize Godse. Royal Indian Air Force guards disarm him. An enraged crowd descends on Godse but police take him away.Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
News of Gandhi's death is announced by the All-India Radio. Several thousands arrive at Birla House. “The light has gone out from our lives and there is darkness everywhere,” Jawaharlal Nehru says over the radio.
Before news is made public that a Hindu extremist is responsible, there are ‘violent attacks against Muslims in Lucknow and Bombay’ based on the assumption that a Muslim man has killed him, Yasmin Khan writes. This compels the Nehru government to disseminate information on Godse quickly.
Gandhi’s body is brought out from Birla House on a gun carriage. It is covered in flowers. There is a procession comprising top political leaders, Gandhi’s family members including son Devdas, thousands of army and navy soldiers of various units, and policemen.
Millions gather and unprecedented scenes of public grief are witnessed. The funeral is widely photographed (including by Henri Cartier-Bresson) and broadcast over All India Radio.
Gandhi is cremated on the banks of the Yamuna, at Raj Ghat. Afterwards, people gather to collect keepsakes in the form of burnt twigs from his pyre.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is banned (along with the Muslim National Guards and the Khaksars). The Hindu Mahasabha continues to operate. Godse is linked to both organisations. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel says the RSS ban serves “to root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country and imperil the freedom of the nation and darken her fair name”. RSS members, the government says, have been carrying our “undesirable and dangerous activities” in several parts of the country.
The RSS has claimed many times since that Godse left it before killing Gandhi. In a 1993 book, Godse’s brother Gopal said both siblings had been active members of the RSS and never left it. To Frontline magazine, Gopal Godse said while RSS did not pass a resolution to ‘go and assassinate Gandhi,’ it should not have disowned him, just as the Hindu Mahasabha did not.Read an analysis of what happened here. The Wire
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, member of the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is arrested from his house in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. He is charged with murder, conspiracy to murder and abetment to murder. His charges are considered to have been mainly based on assassination conspirator-turned-approver Digamber Badge’s testimony alleging that Godse visited Savarkar days before killing Gandhi.
The mourning period following Gandhi’s death comes to an end as his ashes are taken by a train – the Asthi Special – to Allahabad, to be immersed at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. The train halts at 10 places in Uttar Pradesh, during each of which, large crowds gather.
The government decides to distribute Gandhi’s ashes to all the states of India. State governors arrive at Delhi to collect the respective urns in subsequent days.
In a letter from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to Jawaharlal Nehru, the former writes, "It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through." The RSS circulates this letter among the press in 2004 highlighting portions in which Patel claims that the “RSS was not involved at all.”
“It appeared that while the RSS was absolving itself of any guilt in the Mahatma's assassination, it unwittingly added fuel to the Savarkar controversy…,” The Hindu’s 2004 report says.
Times of India says the RSS has “put its foot in its mouth with the letter”.
The trial begins at a lower court. In addition to Godse, Badge and Savarkar, other accused are Narayan Apte, Shankar Kistayya, Dattatraya Parchure, Vishnu Karkare, Madanlal Pahwa and Godse’s brother Gopal.
Sardar Patel writes to Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, indicting the RSS for continuing with its activities despite the ban.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in the conspiracy [to kill Gandhi]. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the State. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure,” he writes.
Sardar Patel meets RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar, who reportedly refuses to commit to any change in the RSS’s activities unless the ban is lifted. A government communique says provincial governments have ‘declared themselves opposed to the withdrawal of the ban’ and that the government of India, too, agrees. It says the RSS’s activities “tend to be anti-national,” subversive and violent.
Justice Atma Charan passes the order in the Gandhi assassination case. Savarkar is acquitted. Godse and Apte are sentenced to death by hanging. Six others are sentenced to life imprisonment.
Appeals against the lower court ruling begin to be heard at the Punjab high court, then at Shimla’s Peterhoff. All the men convicted in the case appeal their conviction and sentence, except for Godse who appeals the ruling that finds him guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.
The ban on the RSS is lifted after Golwalkar pledges that the RSS will be loyal to the constitution and the National Flag.Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
Dattatraya Parchure and Shankar Kistayya are acquitted of all charges. The Punjab HC accepts all other sentences of the lower court.Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
Godse and Apte are sentenced to death. Gandhi’s sons Manilal and Ramdas plead for commutation of their sentences but are turned down by Nehru, Patel and Governor-General Chakravarti Rajagopalachari.
Godse and Apte are hanged to death in Ambala.