“If I’m to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. God must be in my heart and on my lips. And if anything happens, you are not to shed a single tear.”— January 28, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi.
January 30, 1948, remained crystal clear in the mind of Manu Gandhi, the great-niece of Mahatma Gandhi. Fondly known as Manuben, she was among the first eyewitnesses who saw the assassination of Bapu.
According to ‘Last Glimpses Of Bapu’, a memoir by Manuben Gandhi, it was almost as if the Mahatma had foreseen his death.
When told two Kathiawar leaders were looking forward to meeting him on the day, Gandhi, aged 78, told Manuben, “Tell them that, if I remain alive, they can talk to me after the prayer on my walk.”
He was already ten minutes late to reach the lawn behind Birla House where he conducted his multi-faith prayer meetings every evening. Walking with Manuben to his right and Abha Chatterjee (his adopted daughter) to his left, for support, he was approached by a ‘stout young man in Khaki dress’ who pushed his way through the crowd, pretended to touch Gandhi’s feet, and then shot him thrice at point blank range.
The man was Nathuram Godse. It was 5:17 on 30 January 1948.
While most might be familiar with the story of his death, did you know that Bapu successfully escaped five attempts of assassination in the past?
The book ‘Beyond Doubt — A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination’ compiled and edited by Teesta Setalvad published in 2015, is a collection of archival documents related to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
It talks about the five futile assassination attempts that Gandhi survived and the one he did not:
On June 25, 1934, Gandhiji was supposed to deliver a speech at the Pune Corporation auditorium. Accompanied by his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, they were travelling in a procession of vehicles, with two similar cars. On the way, luckily the car that the couple was travelling in was delayed at a railway crossing.
The first car, which was similar to the ones the Gandhis were travelling went on time. It was blown up by a bomb when it arrived, gravely injuring the Chief Officer of the Corporation, two policemen and seven others. Bapu’s secretary, Pyarelal in his book ‘Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase’ writes the bomb was the doing of anti-Gandhi Hindu extremists.
Setalvad writes about the deep agony Mahatma Gandhi expressed as he spoke about the attack saying, “It is sad that this happened. I have no desire for martyrdom yet, but if it is to happen, I am prepared to face it. It is easy to kill me. But in trying to kill me, why are they inconsiderate to the innocents who are likely to be killed or injured along with me?”
Ten years later, in July 1944, the second attempt took place. After Bapu was released from house arrest from Aga Khan Palace, he was diagnosed with malaria. Ordered to rest, he went to Panchgani, a mountain resort close to Pune, to spend some quiet time.
A group of 18–20 men reached the resort via a hired bus from Pune and started yelling anti-Gandhi slogans all day long. So, Bapu decided to invite the leader of the protesting group for a chat. That leader was Nathuram Godse, who quickly rejected the invitation.
Things got worse during the evening prayer meeting. Godse rushed towards Gandhi with a dagger in-hand, yelling anti-Gandhi slogans. But fortunately, he was tackled by Manishankar Purohit and Bhillare Guruji. Setalvad writes they swore under oath about this attack before the Kapur commission, during the investigation of the Gandhi assassination conspiracy.
Though the men with Godse abandoned him, Mahatma Gandhi asked him to stay with him for eight days, in an attempt to understand Godse’s point of view.
And when Godse rejected the invitation yet again, a generous Bapu just let him go.
The third attempt took place in September 1944 and was testified yet again before the Kapur Commission. The Hindu Mahasabha wanted to sabotage the talk Gandhi was to hold with Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Setalvad writes how Nathuram Godse and LG Thatte threatened to stop Bapu from meeting Jinnah. When Gandhi travelled from Sevagram to Bombay (where the talks were to commence), Nathuram Godse, with his gang, mobbed the ashram to stop Gandhi from leaving Bombay.
During the later investigation, Dr Sushila Nayyar revealed Nathuram Godse was detained by people at the ashram from reaching Gandhi and was found in possession of a dagger. A police report on the incident provided to the commission mentions that a sword was seized from the ‘group leader’.
The fourth attempt took place in June 1946 when a train en route Pune, known as the Gandhi Special, was derailed between Nerul and Karjat stations. But thanks to the quick actions of the loco pilot, a tragedy was averted despite the engine being damaged.
The train smashed into large boulders on the track, but luckily the loco pilot had managed to slow down the train before the impact – saving the lives onboard.
Recollecting the incident at a prayer meeting a few days later Bapu said, “By the grace of God, I have escaped from the jaws of death. I have not hurt anybody. I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life. Yesterday’s attempt too failed. I will not die yet, I aim to live till the age of 125.”
The fifth attempt is among the popular ones recorded on January 20, 1948. As per Setalvad’s book, Bapu was late in addressing the crowd due to technical difficulties.
It was the day Madanlal Pahwa, Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge, Gopal Godse and Shankar Kistaiya decided to attend the meeting at Birla Bhavan to execute their plan.
The original plan was for to throw a bomb near the podium. And when people ran in, for Badge or Kistaiya to shoot Bapu.
While Madanlal and Vishnu were already at the Bhavan, the others were driven to the prayer meeting through the back gate by a taxi. The driver, Surjeet Singh, later became a witness in the Gandhi assassination trial.
Madanlal posed as a photographer. He approached one of the drivers at the Birla Bhavan servant quarters called Choturam and asked him to help him enter the podium where Bapu was sitting to take his photograph from the back.
Choturam wasn’t convinced and asked him why a backshot was needed and where his camera was – if he was a photographer.
To avoid more suspicion, Madanlal acted as if he was going back to board the taxi but sneaked up to the wall behind the podium.
‘…he placed the gun-cotton slab on the wall and ignited the fuse. The others saw that the plan was not succeeding and so they rushed to the taxi and left. The explosion was mild,’ writes Setalvad.
But he couldn’t escape. He was identified by Sulochana Devi, who lived close to the Birla Bhavan and rushed to the Birla Bhavan watchman to tell them. The watchman, along with a policeman, captured Madanlal, who during interrogation, revealed he was part of a seven-member gang who wanted to kill Gandhi.
The police even dragged Madanlal that night to the two hotels the members were staying at, but they had fled.
Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte – who escaped to their hometowns – arrived in Delhi on January 29, after procuring a Beretta automatic and eleven bullets.
The rest is history.