Beyond Doubt I – Who killed the Mahatma?

First published on: 02 Jan 2015

Courtesy: The Hindu
“By Ram Rajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya Divine Raj, Khuda ki Basti or the Kingdom of God on Earth”  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi[1]
At the heart of the visceral animosity that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) and all the affiliates have against Gandhi is his deep, reasoned and passionate commitment to a composite Indian nationhood. His writings in Young India and Harijan are well-documented as also is his subsequent clarity on the issue which is unequivocal. [2]
Faced with the growing appeal of communalists across the religious spectrum, in the early-mid 1900s, Gandhi remained firm in his commitment to equal citizenship based on human rights and dignity. His equally deep commitment to reform in a caste-ridden Hindu order also led him to launch campaigns for the dignity and place of those deemed by a discriminatory caste hierarchy as “untouchables’ and in his way of assimilation name them ‘Harijan’ ( ‘Creation of God.’ While his approach to the caste system and its attendant discriminations, not least his compromises and strategy around the Vykom Satyagraha [3]has rightly irked those committed to a more radical approach to the caste question, the fact that Gandhi, among others made central to the issue of mass mobilization dignity for those hitherto treated by caste Hindu society as invisible and worse, was an equally weighty factor behind this animosity of the Sangh.

The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948 was a declaration of war and a statement of intent. To those forces who, 67 years ago, conspired to the killing, the act declared an everlasting commitment to India only as a Hindu Rashtra and signified how the RSS and Sangh affiliates would be at perpetual war with the secular, democratic Indian state and any and all who stood to affirm these principles. And how far they could and are still prepared to go. The assassination was also an act to signaling elimination for all that Gandhi and the national movement for independence against foreign yoke, stood for.  Equality of citizenship and a non-discriminatory democratic governance has been and is anathema to the Sangh’s ideal political order.
Now more than ever when a majoritarian government dominated by the RSS rules India, in 2015, it becomes critical to place the developments leading up to the political killing in their historical perspective. For the first time readers in English will benefit from Jagan Phadnis book Mahatmanchey Akher, published in Marathi first in 1994 that ran into its seventh edition in 2013. This book, has, for the first time carefully documented the fact that the assassination of Gandhi, was not an isolated act but the last, successful one in a series of attempts that began in 1934. . Since 1934 there had been a total of five previous attempts in July and September 1944, September 1946 and 20th January 1948. Godse was involved in two previous attempts, that is, in a total of three. Nathuram Godse was involved in two previous attempts, that is, in a total of three.
The Gandhi Murder Trial commenced on June 22, 1948 in the historic Red Fort in Delhi before Shri Atmacharan, who was specially appointed for the purpose. Appeal was heard by a full bench of East Punjab High Court, at Shimla from May 2, 1949. The final judgement was delivered on June 21, 1949 and the guilty punished. The J.L. Kapur Commission was appointed in November 1966 and through this the Government of India again instituted another inquiry into Gandhi murder. Shri J.L. Kapur, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, made a fresh and thorough inquiry into the conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi, though in a different context. The commission sat at different places and examined 101 witnesses and 407 documents before it published its report in 1969. The second Volume in this series will bring to readers the J.L. Kapur Commission report.
The Karachi Resolution of March 1931, to which Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were all party, also stipulated religious neutrality of the state. The Karachi session of the Indian National Congress took place in tumultuous times, with Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru having been executed just a week before. The resolution passed at this session, which was drafted by Gandhi, admired the bravery and sacrifice of the three martyrs and reiterated the goal of “Poorna Swaraj”. As critically, this Karachi Session of 1931, which was presided by Sardar Patel, resulted in the Congress adopting a resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy which represented the Party’s Social, Economic and Political programme. It came later to be known as Karachi Resolution.  It was this resolution that made this session memorable, because for the first time, the resolution tried to define what would be the meaning of Swaraj for the common Indian. Some important aspects of these resolutions were: basic civil rights of freedom of speech;  freedom of press; freedom of assembly; freedom of association; equality before the law; elections on the basis of universal adult franchise; free and compulsory primary education; substantial reduction in rent and taxes; better conditions for workers including a living wage, limited hours of work; protection of women and peasants; government ownership or control of key industries, mines, and transport; protection of Minorities. Relevant sections of it constituted a legal attack on the institution of untouchability. Section 4 declared that all “citizens are equal before law, irrespective of caste, creed or sex”. Section 6 endowed all citizens with equal rights and duties with regard to wells, tanks, roads, schools and places of public interest maintained out of state or local funds or dedicated by private persons for the use of the general public. Section 10 decreed universal adult suffrage. These principled statements were later included in the Consti­tution of India. With this, the Congress established a strong and democratic basis for its political programme for many years to come.
Under Gandhi’s guidance and leadership, communal amity remained central to the constructive programmes of the Congress. Muslim intellectuals and leaders of national stature, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, Dr Ansari Hakim Ajmal Khan, Badruddin Tyabjee, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Jauhar Ali were proud part of the Congress fold. While the larger national movement, represented by the Congress and Revolutionaries, was surging ahead with a wider vision and inclusive foundation of Indian nationhood, at play were majoritarian and minority communal forces, in parallel, pushing their narrow, hate-driven, communal agendas. In 1937, at the open session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad, V.D. Savarkar, in his presidential address asserted: “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main – the Hindus and the Muslims.”[4] By 1945, Savarkar had gone to the extent of stating, “I have no quarrel with Mr. Jinnah’s two–nation theory. We, the Hindus are a nation by ourselves, and it is a historical fact that the Hindus and the Muslims are two nations”. [5].

This book, has, for the first time carefully documented the fact that the assassination of Gandhi, was not an isolated act but the last, successful one in a series of attempts that began in 1934. . Since 1934 there had been a total of five previous attempts in July and September 1944, September 1946 and 20th January 1948. Godse was involved in two previous attempts, that is, in a total of three. Nathuram Godse was involved in two previous attempts, that is, in a total of three.”
It was this sentiment of separate and irreconcilable identities of the followers of these religions that led to the communal holocaust and the formation of Pakistan.  If the Muslim League and Jinnah need to squarely be positioned for their responsibility in articulating a politics that eventually led to a communal bloodbath, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtritya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with their consistently divisive politics, cannot escape their share of the blame.
Arguably, as much as Gandhi’s and the larger, Congress’ commitment to secular and composite Indian nationhood, a deep source of resentment for the proponents of a Hindu Rashtra was the democratic and egalitarian agenda being articulated by the national leadership through the Karachi resolution. The attempts on Gandhi’s life that began in 1934 , were a response to the dominant political articulations on nationhood, caste and economic and other democratic rights that were in direct challenge to a hegemonistic and authoritarian Hindu Rashtra. 1933, the year before the first attempt on Gandhi’s life, he had declared firm support to two Bills, one of whom was against the abhorrent practice of Untouchability.
The run up to Independence and unfortunately, Partition, was the scene or battle ground for fundamentally different notions of nationhood. While over one hundred years of sustained movements and mobilizations to throw off British yoke were wedded in the united battle of all Indians against foreign rule, the early-mid 1900s saw the birth and emergence of sectarian and communal definitions of Indian and Pakistani nationhood. With the birth of the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the RSS, these movements were in constant battle with the larger movement, significantly, at different points of time actually acting as collaborators with the British.  This volume also contains valuable references to how and when these rightwing protagonists collaborated with colonial rulers.
Parallel to clear articulations of India as a secular state by Gandhi from the early 1930s, this period also sees the emergence of clear positions by the national leadership on the caste question as also on the issue of the economic rights of large sections of Indians. Two laws pertaining to the abolishment of Untouchability were before the Central legislature around this time.
A repeated usage of the term secular, appears quite early in Gandhi’s writings and speeches in 1933. [6] Developing a comprehensive understanding of the political context around this period of time is critical to locate the motivations that led to systematic attempts on his life. Two proposed laws were before the Central Legislature at the time and one of these related to untouchability. Though much reviled in public discourse on his compromises on the caste question, Gandhi was clear that a “custom that is repugnant to the moral sense of mankind” should be outlawed by a secular law.  Such a practice, he said on May 6, 1933, “cannot and ought not to have the sanction of the law of a secular state”. In November 1933 he defended the Bill against the charge that it was an undue interference in religion, saying that there were many situations in which it was necessary for the state to interfere even with religion. Only “undue” interference ought to be avoided.
A year after this support for the law against Untouchability and his speech on the subject in the Central legislature, in 1934, the first unsuccessful attempt on Gandhi’s life is made. At the time there is absolutely no question of the issue being Partition or the giving of Rs 55 crores to Pakistan. The fact that Gandhi is a vocal proponent of India as a secular state and moreover is at the forefront for legal mechanisms to abolish discriminations based on religion certainly did not make him popular to Hindutva fanatics.

The Manu Smruti, dated to about 1600 years ago, remains a guiding doctrinaire for the Sangh and all its affiliates including the Hindu Mahasbha with its particularly offensive categorization of those
It deems ultimate superiority of the dwij or twice-born Brahamans, Kahsatriyas and Vasihyas and the rest as mlechhas or barbarians (Shudras, Muslims and other non-Brahmans are among these with women too not in the twice-born category) Gandhi’s real and spiritual commitment to reform the Hindu faith through according a position of dignity to Untouchables –while deemed patronizing by the followers of Dr B.R. Ambedkar— remains a source of repugnant anathema to Hindu communalists. [7]  or enemies of a pure caste Hindus.
Later, on January 27, 1935, Gandhi addressed some members of the Central Legislature. He told them that “(e)ven if the whole body of Hindu opinion were to be against the removal of untouchability, still he would advise a secular legislature like the Assembly not to tolerate that attitude.”.[8] On January 20, 1942 Gandhi remarked while discussing the Pakistan scheme: “What conflict of interest can there be between Hindus and Muslims in the matter of revenue, sanitation, police, justice, or the use of public conveniences? The difference can only be in religious usage and observance with which a secular state has no concern.” [9] From then until he was shot dead in cold blood on January 30, 1948, his responses and articulation on the disassociation of religion from politics became even clearer and sharper. This meant in effect he was a great threat to past and present day proponents of a Hindu Rashtra In September 1946, Gandhi told a Christian missionary: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!” Gandhi’ s talk with Rev. Kellas of the Scottish Church College, Calcutta on August 16, 1947, the day after Independence, was reported in Harijan on August 24:
“Gandhiji expressed the opinion that the state should undoubtedly be secular. It could never promote denominational education out of public funds. Everyone living in it should be entitled to profess his religion without let or hindrance, so long as the citizen obeyed the common law of the land. There should be no interference with missionary effort, but no mission could enjoy the patronage of the state as it did during the foreign regime.” This understanding came subsequently to be reflected in Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution.
On the next day, August 17, Gandhi elaborated publicly on the same point in his speech at Narkeldanga, which Harijan reported thus: “In the India for whose fashioning he had worked all his life every man enjoyed equality of status, whatever his religion was. The state was bound to be wholly secular. He went so far as to say that no denominational institution in it should enjoy state patronage. All subjects would thus be equal in the eye of the law.” Five days later, Gandhi observed in a speech at Deshbandhu Park in Calcutta on August 22, 1947: “Religion was a personal matter and if we succeeded in confining it to the personal plane, all would be well in our political life… If officers of Government as well as members of the public undertook the responsibility and worked wholeheartedly for the creation of a secular state, we could build a new India that would be the glory of the world.” Speaking on Guru Nanak’s birthday on November 28, 1947, Gandhi opposed any possibility of state funds being spent for the renovation of the Somnath temple. His reasoning was: “After all, we have formed the Government for all. It is a `secular’ government, that is, it is not a theocratic government, rather, it does not belong to any particular religion. Hence it cannot spend money on the basis of communities.”
(Excerpted from the Introduction to the publication edited by the Author, Teesta Setalvad – Beyond Doubt-A Dossier on the Gandhi assassination published by Tulika Books)


[1] Gandhi in Young India, September 19, 1929, p. 305.
[2] Gandhi on secular law and state, Anil Nauriya
[3] Deihl, Anita, “E.V. Ramasamy Naicker-Periyar”, pp. 22-24, Kent, David. “Periyar”. ACA. Retrieved 2007-06-21. Veeramani, K., Periyar on Women’s Rights, p. 14
[4] Swatantarya Veer Savarkar, Vol. 6 page 296, Maharashtra Prantiya Hindu Mahasabha, Pune
[5] Indian Educational Register, 1943, vol. 2, page 10
[6] Gandhi on secular law and state, Anil Nauriya
[7] Dr BR Ambedkar actually burned the Manu Smruti at the Mahad Satyagraha as a sign of Dalit emancipatory protest on December 24, 1927. In 1977, on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘cremation’  Narhar Kurundkar delivered an inspired series of lectures, Manusmruti: Kahi Vichar. These were translated by Madhukar Deshpande and brought out by Bombay Popular Prakashan. Manusmriti Contemporary Thoughts, 1993
[8] Ibid, from The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi
[9] Ibid





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