Less than six months into a new India, the wounds of Partition were deep and raw. The violence of Hindus and Muslims against each other had left India in a state of utter anguish. Also, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Deputy Vallabhbhai Patel were not getting along. On 6th January 1948, Nehru told Mohandas Gandhi that either Patel had to go or he would.
A week later, an ageing Mahatma embarked on his final fast. No one knew exactly why. Some believed it was driven by the pain of Partition; others suspected that the Nehru-Patel rift had greatly upset the Mahatma.
A week later, Gandhi broke his fast. He was also a week closer to taking his final breath. For, on 30th January, Gandhi took three bullets to his chest, martyred by an assassin who believed that he had betrayed Hindus.
In an excerpt from Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007), British historian Alex von Tunzelmann describes in elegant detail the events that unfolded on the day of the Mahatma’s death, the outpouring of grief at his funeral, and a visibly shaken Nehru, who told the nation, “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”
On the morning of 30 January, Margaret Bourke-White went to interview Gandhi, and found him deeply depressed. ‘I can no longer live in darkness and madness,’ he murmured. ‘I cannot continue.’ Later, he was visited by Betty Hutheesing, Indira Gandhi and Padmaja Naidu, bringing with them Indira’s four-year-old son, Rajiv. While the adults talked and joked, Rajiv played with some jasmine flowers that had been brought for Gandhi. He wrapped them around the old man’s feet, but was stopped with a gentle hand. ‘You must not do that,’ said the Mahatma. ‘One only puts flowers around dead people’s feet.’
That afternoon, Gandhi shared a meal of goat’s milk, vegetables and oranges with Vallabhbhai and Maniben Patel. He got up and, supported by his grand-nieces Abha and Manu, walked down the colonnade that ran from outside his ground-floor quarters to the large and beautiful back garden of Birla House. He was about ten minutes late for the prayer meeting that day, and a crowd of around five hundred had gathered. As he walked through the bowing attendees towards his platform at the centre of the garden, a young man stepped out and pressed his palms together, with the traditional Hindi greeting, ‘Namaste.’ Manu caught his hand to move him out of Gandhi’s way, but he pushed her over. The man looked Gandhi in the eyes, pulled out a Beretta pistol, and fired three shots pointblank into the Mahatma’s chest. ‘He Ram’ – ‘Oh Rama’ – Gandhi was heard to say as he sank to the ground.
Immediately, there was chaos. As Gandhi was cradled by his devotees and carried back to the house, the assassin was seized and pummelled by thirty-two-year-old diplomatic officer Herbert Reiner of Springdale, Connecticut. A doctor was found within minutes, but he was no use. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was dead. Crimson blood spread across Gandhi’s white shawl, and the news spread through Delhi nearly as fast. Betty Hutheesing had gone on to a friend’s house, and asked her Muslim driver to take her home. The driver began to tremble and could hardly start the car. ‘My God, I hope it wasn’t a Muslim,’ he said. It was not. The murderer was Nathuram Godse, a Bombay Brahmin and member of the fundamentalist Hindu Mahasabha, an organization linked to the same RSS that Patel had recently endorsed so glowingly. He and his co-conspirator, Narayan Apte, had bonded over a shared hatred of Muslims, and love of detective novels: Apte preferred Agatha Christie, while Godse’s favourite was Erle Stanley Gardner. Godse was unpenitent for the murder of Gandhi, and asked that no mercy be shown to him. After a trial a few months later, he would be hanged.
Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Pandit, had been having tea with Indira Gandhi when they heard the news. They too rushed to Birla House. Shortly after they arrived, someone whispered, ‘Jawaharlal,’ and Indira’s father walked in. He had heard that Mohandas had been shot, but did not realize until he saw the body that his guru was dead. He knelt by Gandhi’s side, tears running down his face as he clutched the Mahatma’s lifeless hand. ‘I had never seen him so griefstricken before’, Nayantara wrote to her mother, Nan Pandit, ‘like a lost child.’ She was moved to note that her uncle, to whom it fell to lead the world’s mourning, had to sublimate his personal grief to the needs of his nation. ‘When Mamu [Uncle] rose to his feet he had regained complete self-control,’ she noted. ‘Those who could bear to look at his face during those days saw a strained white mask through which only the eyes revealed stark anguish.’ Nayantara’s aunt, Betty, remembered going into the quiet room and noticing Jawahar standing in the corner. ‘His face was drawn and tortured as it had not been even when our father died’, she wrote. ‘I was quite controlled, or stunned, until then, but the agony which showed so clearly on Bhai’s face made me break down.’
Devadas Gandhi arrived to press his father’s still-warm arm, and stayed with the body through the night. Dickie Mountbatten was there as soon as possible, but without Edwina, who had stayed in Madras and was trying desperately to organize her flight back. A tin can had been placed on the lawn to mark the spot where the Mahatma had been killed.
– People were clustered around it, scraping up bits of the bloodstained soil to carry off in their handkerchiefs for posterity.
Inside Gandhi’s chamber, the silence was broken only by the smashing of glass. The crowds massing outside pressed forwards so powerfully that they broke the windows of Birla House. Nehru went outside and climbed up the gates to address the people. Three times during his speech he broke down in tears. When he climbed down, he was visibly shaking. His words were not recorded but, soon afterwards, he went on All-India Radio to give another such speech to the nation. ‘The light has gone out from our lives and there is darkness everywhere,’ he began, his voice quavering. ‘And I do not know what to tell you and how to say it.’ But he did know how to say it: and he said it beautifully. ‘The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many, many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it, and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate present; it represented the living, eternal truths reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.’
Excerpted with permission from Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2007.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.