The Assassination of Gandhi

The Crime

Ghandi suffered six known assassination attempts during the course of his life. The first attempt came on 25th June 1934, when he was in Pune delivering a speech, together with his wife, Kasturba. Travelling in a motorcade of two cars, they were in the second car, which was delayed by the appearance of a train at a railway level crossing, causing the two vehicles to separate. When the first vehicle arrived at the speech venue, a bomb was thrown at the car, which exploded and injured several people. No investigations were carried out at the time, and no arrests were made, although many attribute the attack to Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fundamentalist implacably opposed to Ghandi’s non-violent acceptance and tolerance of all religions, which he felt compromised the supremacy of the Hindu religion. Godse was the person responsible for the eventual assassination of Ghandi in January 1948, 14 years later.

During the first years of the Second World War, Ghandi’s mission to achieve independence from Britain reached its zenith: he saw no reason why Indians should fight for British sovereignty, in other parts of the world, when they were subjugated at home, which led to the worst instances of civil uprising under his direction, through his ‘Quit India’ movement. As a result, he was arrested on 9th August 1942, and held for two years at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. In February 1944, 3 months before his release, his wife Kasturbai died in the same prison.

May 1944, the time of his release from prison, saw the second attempt made on his life, this time certainly led by Nathuram Godse, although the attempt was fairly half-hearted. When word reached Godse that Ghandi was staying in a hill station near Pune, recovering from his prison ordeal, he organised a group of like-minded individuals who descended on the area, and mounted a vocal anti-Ghandi protest. When invited to speak to Ghandi, Godse declined, but he attended a prayer meeting later that day, where he rushed towards Ghandi, brandishing a dagger and shouting anti-Ghandi slogans. He was overpowered swiftly by fellow worshippers, and came nowhere near achieving his goal. Godse was not prosecuted at the time.

Four months later, in September 1944, Godse led a group of Hindu activist demonstrators who accosted Ghandi at a train station, on his return from political talks. Godse was again found to be in possession of a dagger that, although not drawn, was assumed to be the means by which he would again seek to assassinate Ghandi. It was officially regarded as the third assassination attempt, by the commission set up to investigate Ghandi’s death in 1948.

The British plan to partition what had been British-ruled India, into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, was vehemently opposed by Ghandi, who foresaw the problems that would result from the split. Nevertheless, the Congress Party ignored his concerns, and accepted the partition proposals put forward by the British.

The fourth attempt on Ghandi’s life took the form of a planned train derailment. On 29th June 1946, a train called the ‘Ghandi Special’, carrying him and his entourage, was derailed near Bombay, by means of boulders, which had been piled up on the tracks. Since the train was the only one scheduled at that time, it seems likely that the intended target of derailment was Ghandi himself. He was not injured in the accident. At a prayer meeting after the event Ghandi is quoted as saying: “I have not hurt anybody nor do I consider anybody to be my enemy, I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life. Yesterday’s attempt on my life has failed. I will not die just yet; I aim to live 'til the age of 125.”

Sadly, he had only eighteen months to live.

Placed under increasing pressure, by his political contemporaries, to accept Partition as the only way to avoid civil war in India, Ghandi reluctantly concurred with its political necessity, and India celebrated its Independence Day on 15th August 1947. Keenly recognising the need for political unity, Ghandi spent the next few months working tirelessly for Hindu-Muslim peace, fearing the build-up of animosity between the two fledgling states, showing remarkable prescience, given the turbulence of their relationship over the following half-century.

Unfortunately, his efforts to unite the opposing forces proved his undoing. He championed the paying of restitution to Pakistan for lost territories, as outlined in the Partition agreement, which parties in India, fearing that Pakistan would use the payment as a means to build a war arsenal, had opposed. He began a fast in support of the payment, which Hindu radicals, Nathuram Godse among them, viewed as traitorous. When the political effect of his fast secured the payment to Pakistan, it secured with it the fifth attempt on his life.

On 20th January a gang of seven Hindu radicals, which included Nathuram Godse, gained access to Birla House, in Delhi, a venue at which Ghandi was due to give an address. One of the men, Madanla Pahwa, managed to gain access to the speaker’s podium, and planted a bomb, encased in a cotton ball, on the wall behind the podium. The plan was to explode the bomb during the speech, causing pandemonium, which would give two other gang members, Digambar Bagde and Shankar Kishtaiyya, an opportunity to shoot Gandhi, and escape in the ensuing chaos. The bomb exploded prematurely, before the conference was underway, and Madanla Pahwa was captured, while the others, including Godse, managed to escape.

Pahwa admitted the plot under interrogation, but Delhi police were unable to confirm the participation and whereabouts of Godse, although they did try to ascertain his whereabouts through the Bombay police.

After the failed attempt at Birla House, Nathuram Godse and another of the seven, Narayan Apte, returned to Pune, via Bombay, where they purchased a Beretta automatic pistol, before returning once more to Delhi.

On 30th January 1948, whilst Ghandi was on his way to a prayer meeting at Birla House in Delhi, Nathuram Godse managed to get close enough to him in the crowd to be able to shoot him three times in the chest, at point-blank range. Ghandi’s dying words were claimed to be “Hé Rām”, which translates as “Oh God”, although some witnesses claim he spoke no words at all.

When news of Ghandi’s death reached the various strongholds of Hindu radicalism, in Pune and other areas throughout India, there was reputedly celebration in the streets.  Sweets were distributed publicly, as at a festival. The rest of the world was horrified by the death of a man nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize.