Why was Gandhi killed? Those who killed him claimed that he was the greatest enemy of the Indian nation, and also of Hinduism. They had a particular picture of India, and of Hinduism, in mind and believed Gandhi to be an obstacle in the implementation of that picture.
To get the facts straight, Gandhi was killed on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, directly assisted by Gopal Godse, Narayan Apte and Vishnu Karkare, all of them associated with Hindu Mahasabha. It is possible that more may have been involved in the conspiracy to eliminate him. Killing Gandhi was not a spontaneous, on-the-spot decision. Considerable preparation had gone into it. A bomb was thrown at his prayer meeting on January 20.
It was suggested that, given the threat to his life, security at his meetings should be increased. But Gandhi refused to allow it on the ground that it would create inconvenience for common people who regularly attended his prayer meetings. He was completely against security arrangements that would separate him from his own people. Given the lack of these restrictions, it is surprising that such meticulous and comprehensive preparations were needed to eliminate Gandhi. It is quite clear that if somebody really wanted to kill Gandhi, it was not at all difficult to do so.
In retrospect, it seems difficult to believe why anyone would want to kill Gandhi. His life was dedicated to serving others. His activities were not against anyone in particular. For instance, he fought British imperialism, but was always friendly to the British people. He was convinced that the system of imperialism was bad, above all, for the people of England. They needed to be liberated from the evil of imperialism. In a famous appeal, Gandhi called on the British to get off the back of Indian people so that they could all walk together.
Even though he maintained total opposition to anti-human ideologies such as racism, fascism, imperialism and — in the Indian context — communalism, he expressed love for the individuals and leaders practising those ideologies. There was not a trace of any personal hatred or animosity in his speeches and writings. Gandhi truly practised and popularised the Biblical maxim: Hate the evil, not the evil doer. Given these traits, it is difficult to believe that someone, anyone, should want to physically eliminate him.
However, attempts had been made on Gandhi’s life even earlier. He was assaulted twice in South Africa, in 1897 and in 1907, but survived miraculously. In India, a hand grenade was thrown at his car in Pune in 1934 in a violent reaction against his campaign to open wells, temples and public roads for lower castes. But the determination by some to eliminate him became much more sustained in the 1940s.
National unity of all the Indian people, cutting across religion, caste, language and region, was a mission with Gandhi. This mission of achieving national unity received a severe setback with the demand for Pakistan in 1940. Muslim League, under Jinnah’s leadership, declared that Indian Muslims were not a religious minority, but a nation, and therefore entitled to their own separate nation-state. This extraordinary demand, for which there was no proof in history, was based on the famous two-nation-theory, according to which there was no single nation of Indian people. Rather there were two separate nations — Hindu and Muslim.
Jinnah also asserted that there was nothing in common between Muslims and Hindus and that the two could not possibly live together in peace and harmony. Therefore, according to Jinnah, the only solution to the Hindu-Muslim problem was a physical and geographical separation of Hindus and Muslims, and their constitution into separate nation-states. The British government appeared sympathetic to this demand, purely for tactical reasons. Gandhi and other national leaders were quite taken aback by this demand. Gandhi called the demand for Pakistan a “basic untruth”, perhaps the strongest word in his dictionary.
However, in the 1940s, the demand for Pakistan gathered momentum. It was generally aided by the politics of the British and the activities of Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha. The two organisations were in principle opposed to each other, claiming to represent Muslims and Hindus, respectively. But, through their activities, they actually ended up helping each other. The leaders of both the organisations — Jinnah and Savarkar — succeeded in creating a deep communal divide between Hindus and Muslims. Never before in Indian history was the divide, mutual contempt and suspicion between the two communities as deep as it was in the 1940s.
Gandhi was distraught by these developments and tried to counter it in his own way. He was uncompromisingly opposed to the partition of India. But he also knew that partition could be prevented only by the concerted efforts of Muslims and Hindus. However, the active intensification of communalism made it difficult. Gandhi spent all his energies against communalism, but also witnessed, somewhat helplessly, the growing tide of communalism.
The events of late-1946 and early-1947 shattered all Gandhi’s hopes of finding an amicable settlement of the communal problem. In August 1946, Muslim League was the government in Bengal and gave a call for ‘direct action’. The result of the call was sheer mayhem. Calcutta witnessed the bloodiest of communal violence for the next four days in which around 5,000 people died in violence. Soon, communal violence engulfed large parts of India, spreading to Noakhali in East Bengal, Bihar, Bombay and UP before finally descending on Punjab in its full fury. Muslims were the aggressors in Bengal and Hindus in Bihar. This was the first time in Indian history that the country had experienced communal violence at such scale and intensity. It was also the first time that communal violence had spread like wildfire, forming a chain of barbarity. With the possible exception of 1857, never before, and certainly never after, had India come so close to a civil-war-like situation. To be precise, incidents of communal violence have been quite frequent in independent India, but nowhere near the scale and intensity reached during 1946-47.
Gandhi understood that these events were inevitably taking India closer to partition, but felt helpless in the face of deepening communal divide. In his prayer meetings, he often gave into a feeling of despair: “As a result of one year of communal riots, the people of India have all become communal. They are tired and frightened... The popular view is contrary to mine... No one listens to me any more. I am a small man... neither the Congress nor the Hindus nor the Muslims listen to me... I am crying in the wilderness... Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues (but) nobody really wants to follow my advice.”
However, since Gandhi realised that he did not have the support of the people to fight against the partition, he decided to do the next best thing — to try and prevent communal violence, reach out to the victims of communal violence, and provide his healing touch to them. He reached Noakhali in November 1946 and stayed there till March 1947 giving solace to Hindu victims and making appeals to Muslims for sanity. From there he went to Bihar to provide a similar healing touch to Muslims and appealing to Hindus to give up violence and provide all security to Muslims. Hearing of renewed violence in Calcutta, Gandhi again rushed to Calcutta to spend all his time with Hindus and Muslims. On the eve of independence, he refused to come to Delhi and decided to observe India’s independence — a day he had eagerly looked forward to — with silent prayers and fasting.
After partition in August 1947, communal violence increased further, and was much more severe, particularly in provinces that were partitioned — Punjab and Bengal. However, the fury was much greater in Punjab than in Bengal. One simple reason was Gandhi’s presence in Bengal. His appeal to people worked like magic and helped subside communal passions considerably. Gandhi went on a fast against violence, drawing very positive response from the people, both Hindus and Muslims, who laid down arms and promised to Gandhi not to indulge in violence and arson. But, unfortunately, there was no Gandhi in Punjab (and no Gandhi-like figure in Pakistan) which experienced the worst form of violence. The power of Gandhi’s magic was recognised even by the last British Viceroy, Mountbatten, who called Gandhi a “one man boundary force” and wrote in a letter: “My Dear Gandhiji, In the Punjab we have 55 thousand soldiers and large scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting.” This was an open recognition of Gandhi’s miracle and his remarkable influence on the people of India.
The great divide
It was this success of Gandhi which actually cost him his life. His activities really offended the communal leaders who saw in him the biggest obstacle to their agenda of creating a communal divide. They renewed their efforts against him. The partition of India had been opposed not only by nationalists like Gandhi, but also by Hindu communalists. They were opposed to partition for entirely different reasons. Gandhi saw it as a violation of national unity, but the Hindu communalists saw it as a concession to Muslims and were opposed to it. The truth was that both Hindu and Muslim communalists had contributed to partition by preventing Hindu-Muslim unity. However, once Gandhi accepted partition, he continued to work for Hindu-Muslim unity.
Now his efforts for communal unity acquired a new dimension. He also became active in promoting India-Pakistan fraternity. Gandhi understood better than anyone else that if the two countries did not develop and maintain friendly relations, this would lead to disaster, taking its toll on both. Neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan simply could not afford to remain antagonistic to each other. It was clear that in promoting Indo-Pak friendship, Gandhi was thinking not only of present, but also of future. In a statement, remarkable for its prophetic value, made in July 1947, Gandhi said: “The Pakistanis will say that they must increase their armed forces to defend themselves against India. India will repeat the argument. The result will be war... (Shall) we spend our resources on the education of our children or on gunpowder and guns?”
Such statements and efforts of Gandhi really offended the members of Hindu Rashtra Dal, an organisation set up in 1942 by Savarkar, whose members were to act like storm troopers of Hindu Mahasabha. They accused Gandhi of placating Muslims and of being an enemy of Hindus. In reality, Gandhi was only working for Hindu-Muslim unity and India-Pak friendship. He sent a message to Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, expressing a desire to visit Pakistan to speak to the people. He fixed up to visit Pakistan in February 1948.
It was always an integral part of Gandhi’s politics that he did not simply preach or talk; he backed it up with concrete action. When he found that the Muslims of Delhi had become unsafe and vulnerable to violence at the hands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, themselves victims of communal fury in Pakistan, Gandhi promptly went on what became his last fast on January 12, 1948, making an appeal for peace and sanity. And, as always, his appeal found a positive response from the people of Delhi, including refugees. The violence on the Muslims of Delhi came to a dramatic end in a week’s time, leading Gandhi to break his fast on January 18. Gandhi had once again been successful in bringing to an end large-scale violence through his personal efforts.
It was this success of Gandhi with his people which made him the object of deep visceral hatred by the communalists and they became determined to eliminate him. Nathuram Godse later declared that Gandhi, with his “pro-Muslim fast”, had acted “treacherously to the nation” and had proved to be a “father of Pakistan” instead. Godse was, therefore, determined that Gandhi’s life “had to be brought to an end immediately” so that the “Indian nation could be saved”. On January 30, Godse implemented his resolution by pumping three bullets into the frail 78-year-old body of the apostle of peace and love.
Godse killed Gandhi. But, was he able to eliminate Gandhi? Gandhi’s efforts towards the end of his life were geared towards ensuring that India would not become the Hindu equivalent of a Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi wanted India to develop as a secular, democratic republic. Those who wanted India to be a Hindu mirror image of Pakistan also knew that Gandhi was the biggest obstacle to their plans. And so they killed him. But in the end, it was Gandhi who won. The people of India backed him rather than the Hindu communalists, by choosing a secular and democratic polity for independent India. Gandhi’s magic worked even after his death.
There was another arena of contest between Gandhi and those who killed him. This pertained to the nature of Hinduism and the direction in which it should grow. Both Gandhi and Godse had contrasting images of Hinduism they wanted to build. For Godse, it was a militant, aggressive, violent and intolerant Hinduism, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, driven towards a physical conquest over adversaries.
The Hinduism Gandhi practised was just the opposite — inclusive, compassionate, harmonious, and at peace with itself and with others. Godse understood, quite correctly, that Gandhi was the real obstacle to his brand of Hinduism. And so, in order to save “his” Hinduism, he decided to kill the “greatest Hindu”. As Gandhi himself said in his prayer meeting of January 21, 1948 referring to the bomb attack a day earlier: “Those (behind the attack) should know that this sort of thing will not save Hinduism. If Hinduism is to be saved, it will be saved through such work as I am doing. I have been imbibing Hindu Dharma from my childhood... Do you want to annihilate Hindu Dharma by killing a devout Hindu like me?”
This debate on Hinduism has its reverberations even today. Both the possibilities — the Gandhian and the Godse-ite — are present within Hinduism today. Which one will eventually prevail? The fate of Hindus, and indeed of India, will be eventually decided by the course taken by Hinduism — Gandhi’s or Godse’s.
(The writer teaches History at the Ambedkar University Delhi)