Past Continuous: How Independent India Failed to Prevent Gandhi's Assassination

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

This article was originally published on February 06, 2018. It is being republished on the occasion of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

Woh phir aayega (He will come again).” Three cataclysmic words uttered by a 20-year-old man – his youthful innocence corroded by hatred – as he was being led away by the police, should have been ample tip-off that his was not an act of personal vendetta but part of a plan which, though devised somewhat haphazardly, was adequate in motivation.

Yet, for inexplicable reasons, the nascent ‘free’ Indian state failed in its task, this one less daunting than managing the fallout of the Partition riots. Even if one discounts that the government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, with the Iron Man (Sardar Patel) manning the crucial home or internal security ministry, failed to see the seriousness of the danger to the life of Mahatma Gandhi after he arrived in Delhi on September 7, 1947, days after his first fast in independent India, there is little defence of its incapacity to assess the grave threat after the failed assassination bid on January 20 at the prayer meeting. And this after the unambiguous warning in those three words – there was more to come.

The ten days between Madanlal Pahwa’s attempt and the eventual assassination of the Mahatma even today remains a textbook case on how not to conduct an investigation into a murder bid on the country’s most endangered man – ironically in 1948, a 79-year-old man on the verge of losing relevance in the wake of the rise of amoral practicability of governance and statecraft.

India’s destiny was greatly shaped not just by the failure of police and intelligence agencies to join the dots that were there for all to see. The progression of India into an independent and secular nation was also hampered by the myopia and egotism of principal investigators and the lackadaisical approach of politicians in key positions in government. If any cluster of days could ever be revisited and events altered, the ten eventful days between January 20-30 must rank at the top of this list.

Also read: Can Gandhi’s Teachings Help Us Find a Way Out of a World Full of Strife?

How does one evaluate threat when none was issued? This was a counter-question raised by the government when, in the aftermath of the assassination, it was accused of not taking adequate pre-emptive measures. This argument, provided in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, appears grossly deficient for no reason other than the Kapur Commission’s observation more than a decade and a half later.

The venerable Justice Jeevanlal Kapur took charge of the inquiry commission established to ‘re-investigate’ the conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi after its original chief, Gopal Swarup Pathak, then MP but later vice president, was appointed central minister. Kapur wrote his assessment of sentiments of Hindu and Sikh refugees who arrived in India from Pakistan.

He wrote that though displaced persons had “full faith in Gandhiji but this faith was largely eroded by Mahatma’s solicitude for the Moslems (who decided against migrating to Pakistan) who had brought about (sic) the partition and the advice to them to go back to their homes made them angrier”. It is pertinent to recall that insecure Muslims who chose to stay back, sought shelter in graveyards, dargahs, other Islamic shrines and several monuments. Gandhi wanted them to return to their homes and pleaded with their Hindu neighbours to facilitate this.

Discussing the political mood in the country in the days preceding Gandhi’s murder, the commission added, “There was amongst a large number of Hindus, particularly the Hindu Mahasabha, a strong feeling against Mr. Gandhi for his fast to coerce the payment of Rs 55 crores and appeasement of Moslems, and neglect of dishonoured, pillaged, robbed and homeless Hindus – the refugees from Pakistan”. About the last fast, Justice Kapur concluded that it significantly “restore(d) communal peace in Delhi but the hearts of some of the extreme Savarkarites were bent on Mahatma’s removal by violence”.

These observations establish that despite the pledge drafted and signed by over 100 leaders, including from the Hindu Mahasabha, there was opposition to Gandhi on two counts. First, a significant section of Hindu leaders and people felt that Gandhi was a serial ‘appeaser’ of Muslims. Second, they felt he ‘sided’ with Pakistan by demanding the release of Rs 55 crore – due to it as part of Partition settlement but withheld by the Indian government because of Pakistan’s intrusion into Kashmir. Moreover, the Hindu Mahasabha formally disassociated with the pledge within a day of its adoption. Failure to read the ominous signs emanating from these developments was little short of criminal neglect on the government’s part.

An ignored threat

Undeniably, there was ample evidence that Gandhi’s life was under threat, but no one in the government was willing to read the writing on the wall. Why? Was it, as Kapur wrote, due to “a split in the Central Cabinet in which Sardar Patel was on one side and Pandit Nehru and Maulana Azad on the other; so much so that it reached the stage of Sardar Patel’s resignation sent to the Mahatma because Sardar thought that he had lost the Mahatma’s confidence”.

The ten days between the audacious bomb attack on January 20 and the final assassination by Nathuram Godse was witness not just to political inadequacy regarding safeguarding Gandhi’s life, but also failure of police, other investigating and intelligence agencies to follow leads that emerged from Pahwa’s disclosures and what was revealed by other sources.

On the one side, the weekly intelligence abstract – dated January 24 – of the Delhi police wrote that “the explosion at Birla House was considered to be the index of seething unrest prevailing amongst the masses against the Gandhian ideology,” yet there was no follow-up action to prevent this anger from getting converted once again into another attack on the Mahatma.

Manohar Malgonkar, in his definitive book The Men Who Killed Gandhi, described Pahwa’s interrogation and concluded that while he held back crucial information, “he certainly had told them enough. If the police had acted with more than routine zeal, it is doubtful if Nathuram Godse or any of the other conspirators would still have been free on January 30.” The question was what had the young man, detained when fleeing from Birla House, told the police and when?

A statue of Gandhi. Credit: Pixabay

A statue of Gandhi. Credit: Pixabay

First, within three hours, the police secured descriptions of six associates, three of whom had recced Birla House. A few hours subsequent to that, when the night was deep, Pahwa led his interrogators to Marina Hotel in Connaught Place, where Godse and Nayaran Apte had stayed and bolted from after the botched attempt. They found an incriminatory letter in the room, signed by Ashutosh Lahiri, general secretary Hindu Mahasabha, stating that the party was not a signatory to the seven-point pledge that made Gandhi end his last fast. None in the investigating team had the wisdom to ask the leader how his statement landed up in an upmarket Delhi hotel.

Second, before night fell, Pahwa revealed to interrogators that one of his associates was the editor of Hindu Rashtra or Agrani published either from Bombay or Poona. Shockingly, Delhi police did not make rudimentary inquiries about the paper from counterparts in the two cities, or even seek information about the paper, its owner, publisher and editor, all information listed with the government while registering a paper.

Third, the police laid hands on three pieces of clothing that residents of room no 40, Marina Hotel had left behind because those had been given to the laundry man. On them, three letter were neatly initialled – ‘NVG’. The police made no effort to find out the identity of this man or match it with the editor Pahwa had described. Godse’s identity was an open secret, but not to the police and government.

The tale of missed opportunities continued even in Bombay. J.C. Jain, a 40-year-old Hindi professor in a city college, got himself into a tangle on learning about the arrest of Pahwa, his ‘friend’. He decided to report whatever he knew. Pahwa had spent hours with him narrating almost the entire plan, but at that point Jain had imagined it to be a flight of fancy.

Quixotically, Jain sought appointments with the deputy prime minister and state Congress chief instead of heading off to meet the nearest responsible police officer who would believe his words given the professor’s stature. Eventually, he went to the Bombay chief minister, B.G. Kher, who kept him waiting before passing him off to Morarji Desai, state home minister.

Even after learning what Jain wanted to talk about, Desai not only did not call a member of his staff to take notes, but he also acquiesced to Jain’s condition that he would talk only if assured that he would remain unidentified.

Later, Jain claimed he divulged names of Pahwa’s associates, but Desai disputed the claim. The word of a powerful leader was against that of a politically unconnected teacher, already running scared. This conversation took place on January 21 when Godse and Apte was still on their adventurous return journey after traversing through large parts of northern and western India.

Also read: Reading as a Sadhana: Gandhi’s Experiments With Books

The same evening, Desai summoned Bombay’s deputy commissioner, J.D. Nagarvala, and narrated the entire tale without, incredulously, naming Jain. Because the name of Vinayak Savarkar cropped up, Pahwa had told Jain that Vishnu Karkare had taken him to meet the Mahasabha leader and after listening to his valorous stories asked him to “carry on”.

Nagarvala increased surveillance at Savarkar’s house but it had become a dead end, the assassins no longer needed assistance of leaders. Nagarvala told Malgonkar: “To my dying day, I shall believe that Savarkar was the man who organised Gandhi’s murder.” But beyond keeping him under watch, the police did little else.

Leads were not even followed up in Poona, where several of the conspirators included Digamber Bagde, who later turned an approver, and Gopal Godse had returned. Godse and Apte returned to Bombay and spent days in various hotels, met various friends and associates, Apte even whiled away time in the privacy of hotel rooms with his girlfriend for many years. The police remained oblivious. The duo flew back to Delhi while Karkare followed suit by train. Godse and Apte then went to Gwalior, met Dattatraya Sadashiv Parchure to pick up the infamous pistol, the 9mm Beretta.

True to their trait, the bumbling assassins left a mile-long trail and clues that could be spotted from yards away. Yet, so consumed were the police, intelligence agencies and their political masters that they failed in their basic duty and allowed such a heinous crime to be carried out.

Kapur wrote of the investigation: “(It) was not of a high professional order and it lacked investigational skill and drive which one should have expected from a trained police force and particularly in the case of threat to the life of a person of the eminence of Mahatma Gandhi taking into consideration the knowledge of the factum of a conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi which information Madanlal after his arrest gave to the Delhi Police.”

Need one add a line to this in the 70th anniversary year of Gandhi’s assassination?

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.