Patel and Morarji wanted to avoid communal violence and political instability at all costs
The accused in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. Front row (L-R): Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare; 2nd row (L-R): Digambar Ramchandra Badge (obscured), Shankar Kistaiya, Gopal Godse; 3rd row: Unidentified, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, DS Parchure; May 1948 (Photo: Alamy)
THE BIRTH ANNIVERSARY of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar on May 28th is an appropriate occasion to re-evaluate his involvement in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as lacunae in the investigation and prosecution which enabled Savarkar get the benefit of the doubt.
My late mother Kamalamma Madikera Sharada Prasad was part of the prosecution team in the Mahatma Gandhi murder trial in Red Fort, a role for which she had been specifically handpicked by Oscar Henry Brown, Chief Presidency Magistrate of Mumbai.
Her assigned task was to elicit evidence from one of the accused, Shankar Kistayya, servant of Digambar Ramchandra Badge, a weapons dealer in Pune, who had turned approver in return for a pardon.
Brown was a Scotsman who stayed on in India after Independence, and he knew my mother’s family in Hampi. He thought that with her postgraduate degree in psychology and with her knowledge of Telugu, she would be able to elicit evidence from Shankar Kistayya.
A key issue is whether a thorough investigation of the failed attempt on January 20th, 1948 could have prevented the successful attempt on January 30th, 1948.
My discussions with my late mother indicate that political considerations of avoiding communal violence, incompetence and carelessness, and turf wars between Delhi and Mumbai police officers were major factors.
Vishnu Ramakrishna Karkare was the seniormost leader of the Hindu Mahasabha in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, and he was elected to the Ahmednagar Municipal Committee.
Digambar Ramchandra Badge owned a shop in Pune selling arms and ammunition. The local authorities tacitly encouraged his activities because most of his customers were members of the Hindu Mahasabha who further supplied these weapons to Hindus of the Hyderabad Nizam’s kingdom to protect themselves from the tyranny of the Muslim Razakars. Gradually, Badge became a member of the Hindu Mahasabha too.
Shankar Kistayya was a servant of Badge. Coming from a poor family in a small village, he was illiterate, knowing only how to speak Telugu and a little bit of Marathi. He could not read either language. Starting out as Badge’s domestic servant, he began to assist Badge in manufacturing weapons and transporting them surreptitiously to customers.
Madanlal Pahwa was a Punjabi refugee from Pakistan. His entire family had been massacred, and he sought revenge. After fleeing from Pakistan to Mumbai, Pahwa was engaged by Professor Jagadish Chandra Jain, head of the department of Hindi at Ruia College, to sell his books on a commission basis. Pahwa simultaneously worked in a firecracker factory which surreptitiously made hand grenades to be supplied to Hindus in Nizam’s Hyderabad.
After the assassination, Badge turned approver in return for a pardon. The evidence presented by the prosecution against Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was that on both January 14th and 17th in 1948, Nathuram V Godse and Narayan D Apte, accompanied by Badge, visited Savarkar at his residence, carrying a bag filled with explosives and armaments. On both occasions, Nathuram and Apte went upstairs, while Badge was made to wait outside.
The deputy commissioner of police of Bombay had asked Morarji Desai for permission to arrest Savarkar. Desai had angrily denied permission, exploding in anger to Nagarvala: “Are you mad? Do you want all of Bombay to go up in flames?”
Badge’s statement in prosecution evidence was that after the first meeting on January 14th, 1948, Apte told Badge, in the presence of Nathuram, that Savarkar had “decided that Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Suhrawardy should be finished” and had “entrusted the work to them”.
Badge’s next statement was that after the second meeting on January 17th, 1948, Savarkar, while seeing off Nathuram and Apte, told them: “Be successful and return.” Further, that on their way back in their vehicle, Apte remarked that Savarkar had predicted that “Gandhi’s hundred years are over”, adding, “There was no doubt that their work would be completed successfully”.
During one of his rage-filled tirades against Muslims, Pahwa had let slip to Professor Jain that he and his friends were going to kill Gandhi, and that Karkare had taken him to meet Savarkar, who patted Pahwa and told him to carry on. Jain dismissed this as the bragging of a youthful traumatised Partition victim.
The plan of the unsuccessful January 20th, 1948 attempt was that Pahwa would explode a gun cotton slab to create a commotion, and in the confusion, Badge, who was stationed in the servants quarters of Birla Bhavan, would fire shots at Gandhi from the back and hurl a grenade at him. Shankar Kistayya was to fire shots at Gandhi from the front and also hurl a grenade at him. Apte and the Godse brothers and Karkare were not to carry any weapons, but would coordinate the operation by giving signals to the others.
But as soon as Pahwa exploded the gun cotton slab, Badge saw that Apte and the Godse brothers and Karkare had already slipped away. Badge instantly realised that Apte and the Godse brothers had abandoned them to their fate. Badge grabbed his faithful servant Shankar Kistayya, and both fled without firing or hurling their grenades. Both went into hiding in Pune. Pahwa was caught and handed over to the police, and unexploded grenades were found on him.
During his interrogation on January 20th, 1948, Pahwa at first claimed that he acted alone, and that his intention in exploding the gun cotton slab was to register his displeasure with Gandhi, and that he had no intention of injuring anyone at all.
However, on January 22nd, 1948, Pahwa named Karkare, but said he did not know the names of the others, although some of them were associated with a newspaper called Hindu Rashtriya. Pahwa added that some of them had stayed at Marina Hotel in Connaught Place, and others at the Hindu Mahasabha Bhawan.
But it took until January 23rd for the Delhi police to go to Marina hotel in Connaught Place, where they found clothes bearing the initials ‘NVG’, as well as documents of the Hindu Mahasabha.
But the Delhi police made no efforts to find out who NVG was. Kali Ram, the attendant of Marina Hotel, gave detailed descriptions of the room’s occupants, but the Delhi police did not follow through.
Ashutosh Lahiri, the head of the Hindu Mahasabha in Delhi, was never questioned at all even though there were signed documents from him in the room. Moreover, the Delhi police did not make any efforts to trace who the editors and proprietors of the Hindu Rashtriya newspaper were.
On January 21st, 1948, Jain read in the newspapers that Pahwa had exploded a bomb. Recalling Pahwa’s boasts to him, Jain immediately telephoned Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, but Patel was not available to speak to him.
Jain then rushed to the premier of Bombay province, Balasaheb Gangadhar Kher. Kher was short of time, and passed Jain on to Morarji Desai, then Home Minister of Bombay. Desai heard Jain for a few minutes and cut him short. Desai angrily accused Jain of being part of the conspiracy to murder Gandhi along with Pahwa, and added that he too should be arrested.
That night, Desai mentioned to Jamshed Dorab ‘Jimmy’ Nagarvala, the Deputy Commissioner of Police of Bombay, what Jain had told him about Pahwa. Nagarvala later told my mother, who worked closely with him, that he had immediately asked Desai for permission to arrest Savarkar, and that Desai had angrily denied permission, exploding in anger to Nagarvala: “Are you mad? Do you want all of Bombay to go up in flames?”
Nagarvala managed to convince Desai of Savarkar’s guilt, but Desai was still reluctant to arrest Savarkar. My assessment is that Desai thought that arresting Savarkar would lead to uncontrollable communal violence. Just a few weeks after Partition, Desai wanted to avoid violence at all costs.
UH Rana, Deputy Inspector General of the Criminal Investigation Department of Pune, happened to be in Delhi. A copy of Pahwa’s interrogation report, naming Karkare and the owners of the newspaper Hindu Rashtriya, was given by TG Sanjeevi Pillai, Director of the Intelligence Bureau, to Rana on January 25th, 1948.
But Rana, who was in Delhi on a personal visit, declined to fly back to Mumbai immediately to pursue the leads, saying that flying did not suit him. Rana instead took a train to Allahabad, where he took a dip in the holy Ganges and prayed overnight, and only then did he take a train from Allahabad to Bombay, arriving on January 27th.
THE INTERROGATION REPORT of Pahwa by the Delhi police was in heavily Persianised Urdu, and it could not be understood by Nagarvala’s team. Moreover, there were severe disagreements between Rana and Nagarvala about the conspiracy and arresting the suspects.
It is not clear now as to why Nagarvala did not immediately arrest the Godse brothers, Apte, Karkare and Badge. The Godse brothers, Apte and Karkare had a meeting at Thane on the night of January 26th, 1948, where they planned the second attack. After escaping from Birla Bhavan, Badge and Shankar Kistayya had gone into hiding near Pune. On the morning of January 27th, Nathuram and Apte flew to Delhi, giving false names of V Vinayakrao and D Vinayakrao while booking their flight tickets. From Delhi, they immediately took a train to Gwalior, arriving on the night of January 27th, 1948, where they purchased the Beretta pistol which they used to assassinate Gandhi from Dattatreya Sadashiv Parchure, head of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior.
It is a mystery as to why the numerous clues in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune were not investigated quickly. My mother said that Nagarvala was a diligent and capable police officer. However, most of the Mumbai and Delhi police were sympathetic to the ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and were in a position to tip off the conspirators, which was emphasised by Nehru in his correspondence with Patel.
The Home Secretary, RN Bannerjee, later accused TG Sanjeevi Pillai, Director of the Intelligence Bureau, of ‘gross incompetence and lethargy’ in not following through on the numerous clues.
On March 4th, 1948, Nagarvala questioned Savarkar’s bodyguard, Appa Ramachandra Kasar, and Savarkar’s secretary, Gajanan Vishnu Damle. Both Kasar and Damle confirmed to Nagarvala numerous visits paid by Nathuram and Gopal Godse, and Apte and Karkare and Parchure to Savarkar Bhavan for years.
Surprisingly, two senior employees (Bhide and Shinde) of the Hindu Mahasabha, which had an office on the ground floor of Savarkar Bhavan, were never questioned at all.
In particular, Kasar and Damle confirmed to Nagarvala that the two Godse brothers, Apte and Karkare had long meetings with Savarkar on January 14th, 17th and 24th (after the blast) in 1948.
Several junior members of the prosecution team obtained the impression that the prosecution case against Savarkar was deliberately not pursued with diligence.
Circumstantial evidence requires independent corroboration from two different sources. However, other than the approver Badge, the prosecution team (led by Chander Kishan Daphthary, who was assisted by NK Petigara, MG Vyavaharkar, Jwala Prasad and my mother’s colleague JC Shah, a future Chief Justice of India) did not introduce any other significant witnesses against Savarkar.
In particular, Savarkar’s bodyguard, Appa Ramachandra Kasar, and his secretary, Gajanan Vishnu Damle, were never summoned as witnesses by the prosecution in the trial court of Justice Atma Charan. This was in spite of their admissions to Nagarvala of the CID on March 4th, 1948 confirming numerous visits made by Nathuram, Apte and Karkare to Savarkar.
My mother had developed a good rapport with the affable Badge and the friendly Karkare, and had won their confidence. Karkare was chatty and forthcoming and would often whisper to her during the course of the testimonies of the accused and of the witnesses, whether what they said was true or not, even when it was inimical to their defence.
Savarkar had been asked, under Section 364 of the Code of Criminal Procedure: ‘—It is in evidence as below:– About 2-3 days after the end of the first week of January 1948 Madanlal told Dr JC Jain that when you heard of his (Madanlal’s) exploits at Ahmednagar you sent for him, had a long talk with him for about two hours, patted him on his back and said ‘carry on’. Would you like to suggest anything?’
—This is all false.
Karkare whispered to my mother that Savarkar was lying, because he himself had taken Madanlal Pahwa to meet Savarkar.
Most significantly, Karkare let slip to my mother that Savarkar had ordered that “Gandhi, Nehru and Suhrawardy should be finished”, which was exactly what Badge too had alleged in his approver evidence for the prosecution.
My mother passed on this information to the lawyers in the prosecution team, but this was never followed up on, was not placed into the formal evidence, and she was ordered to confine herself to her assigned task of obtaining evidence from Shankar Kistayya alone.
When my mother persisted in informing CK Daphtary and his legal team that Karkare had confirmed to her Badge’s allegation that Savarkar had ordered that “Gandhi, Nehru and Suhrawardy should be finished”, she was threatened with disciplinary action “for hobnobbing with the accused persons”.
The junior members of the prosecution team suspected that the prosecution case against Savarkar was being deliberately weakened under instructions from the very top. Tushar Gandhi, a great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, alleged that it was Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Patel himself who had ensured that Savarkar was let off, in order to avoid antagonising Hindus.
In the trial court of Justice Atma Charan in Red Fort, Savarkar asserted that he had not met Nathuram Godse, Gopal Godse, Narayan Apte or Vishnu Karkare since 1946, because he was in poor health and not receiving any visitors at all. Karkare had whispered to my mother that Savarkar was lying.
After Savarkar starved himself to death in February 1966, the Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission, which examined fresh evidence unearthed by Nagarvala, stated: ‘Karkare was also well known to Savarkar and was also a frequent visitor. Badge also used to visit Savarkar. Dr. Parchure also visited him. All this shows that people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating sometime or the other at Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar. It is significant that Karkare and Madanlal visited Savarkar before they left for Delhi and Apte and Godse visited him both before the bomb was thrown and also before the murder was committed and on each occasion they had long interviews.’
Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur concluded: ‘All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.’
PL Inamdar, the lawyer of Gopal Godse, mentioned how astonished he was that Savarkar was acquitted by Justice Atma Charan, who had no option but to give him the benefit of the doubt, because of the weakened prosecution case.
Professor Jain continued to maintain that Gandhi’s assassination could have been avoided if Kher and Desai had acted on his warnings. But the two instead accused Jain of being involved in the conspiracy together with Pahwa, and they harassed him for years.
REGARDING TUSHAR GANDHI’S allegation that it was Patel himself who ensured that Savarkar was acquitted, my personal assessment, based on my discussions with various sources, is that Patel, while convinced of the personal guilt of Savarkar, wanted to ensure that he was given the benefit of the doubt.
My personal assessment is that the aim of Patel and Desai was to avoid communal violence and political instability at all costs. Govind Ballabh Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri corroborated that Patel and Desai were apprehensive of uncontrollable communal violence if Savarkar was convicted. Patel is reported to have said at a meeting of top Congress leaders, “The Muslims are already against us. If Savarkar is arrested/ convicted, then the Hindus too will turn against us.”
The entire investigation and prosecution teams were handpicked by Patel and Desai. Patel had written to Prime Minister Nehru on February 27th, 1948: ‘I have kept myself in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination. I devote a large part of my evenings to discussing with Sanjeevi [TG Sanjeevi Pillai, Director of the Intelligence Bureau] the day’s progress and giving instructions to him on any points that arise. All the main accused have given long and detailed statements of their activities… It also clearly emerges from these statements that the RSS was not involved in it at all. It was a fanatic wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that hatched the conspiracy and saw it through… Of course, his assassination was welcomed by those of the RSS and the Mahasabha who were strongly opposed to his way of thinking and to his policy. But beyond this, I do not think it is possible, on the evidence which has come before us, to implicate any other members of the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha… .’
Syama Prasad Mookerjee, head of the Hindu Mahasabha and a cabinet minister in the government of Nehru, wrote to Patel on May 4th, 1948, well before the chargesheet was filed: ‘I understand Savarkar’s name is being mentioned in this connection. I do not know what evidence has been found against him. I have not the least doubt that you will satisfy yourself that nothing is done which may give rise to the suggestion later on that he was prosecuted on account of his political convictions. I hope the records will be placed before you before any decision is taken. His sacrifices and suffering in the past have been considerable, and unless there is some positive proof against him, he should not, at this age, be subjected to charge of conspiracy to commit murder. I leave the matter to your decision… .’
Patel replied to Mookerjee on May 6th, 1948: “As regards Savarkar, the Advocate-General of Bombay [CK Daphtary], who is in charge of the case, and other legal advisers and investigating officers met me in Delhi before I came here. I told them, quite clearly, that the question of inclusion of Savarkar must be approached purely from a legal and judicial standpoint and political considerations should not be imported into the matter. My instructions were quite definite and beyond doubt and I am sure they will be acted upon. I have also told them that, if they come to the view that Savarkar should be included, the papers should be placed before me before action is taken. This is, of course, in so far as the question of guilt is concerned from the point of view of law and justice. Morally, it is possible that one’s conviction may be the other way about… .’
After Savarkar was given the benefit of the doubt by Atma Charan, no appeal was filed in the Punjab High Court against his acquittal, a decision which fell within the authority of the home ministry. Justice GD Khosla, who was one of the three Punjab High Court judges hearing the various appeals, expressed his surprise that Savarkar’s acquittal was not challenged.
Regarding the involvement of the Hindu Rashtra Dal, a fanatic wing of the Hindu Mahasabha and of the RSS, it is significant that Patel wrote to Mookerjee: ‘I quite agree with you that the Hindu Mahasabha, as an organisation, was not concerned in the conspiracy that led to Gandhi’s murder, but at the same time, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets. On this matter, reliable reports have come to us from all parts of the country. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Rain Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS with the additional danger inherent in an organisation run in secret on military or semi-military lines… .’
Patel again wrote to Mookerjee on July 18th, 1948: ‘As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, the case relating to Gandhiji’s murder is subjudice and I should not like to say anything about the participation of the two organisations, but our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the State. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure… .’
In fact, Patel wanted to incorporate both the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS into the Congress. He tried to split the hardliners top leadership of these two organisations away from their cadres, and he invited their cadres to join the Congress.
My personal assessment is that Patel, being a highly experienced criminal lawyer and a shrewd administrator, wanted the needle of suspicion to fall on Savarkar, which would turn public opinion against the ideology of the Hindu Rashtra Dal, the fanatic wing of the Hindu Mahasabha, which Patel had referred to in his correspondence with Nehru. But by ensuring that Savarkar was let off, he would be able to persuade the footsoldiers of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS to join the Congress.
In fact, the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, had proposed to Patel that the Congress and the RSS should work together, writing to the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister: ‘I and all my co-workers have been striving from the very start to cooperate with you to bring the situation under control and make our Motherland invincible… Keeping in mind the delicate situation in the country and with a view to removing dissensions for the sake of a glorious future, I had instructed all my swayamsevak brothers to be peaceful and I strove to see that between the Congress, which is capable of delivering goods in the political field and is at present the ruling party, and the RSS in the cultural field, which has achieved success in creating a matchless spirit of patriotism, brotherhood and selflessness among the people, there be no bad blood, there be only ever-lasting love, one supplementing and complementing the other, both meeting in a sacred confluence. I extend my hand of cooperation… .’
Patel wrote to Golwalkar on September 11th, 1948: ‘In this delicate hour there is no place for party conflicts and old quarrels. I am thoroughly convinced that the RSS men can carry on their patriotic endeavour only by joining the Congress… .’
Patel further wrote to Golwalkar on September 26th, 1948: ‘My suggestion to you is that the Sangh should be brought to adopt fresh lines of technique and policy. That new technique and new policy can be only according to the rules of the Congress… .’
When Nehru was abroad to attend a Commonwealth conference, Patel extended a formal invitation from the Congress to members of the banned RSS to join the Congress. There was speculation that Patel wanted to use these erstwhile members of the RSS to undermine the support base of Nehru.