Tushar A. Gandhi, the great-grandson of the Mahatma, is the author of the nearly 1000-page volume titled Let’s Kill Gandhi! A Chronicle of His Last Days, The Conspiracy, Murder Investigation and Trial. It is a product of years of exhaustive research into the previous attempts on Gandhi’s life starting from 1934 by Hindu fanatics and his assassination on January 30, 1948. In a long chat with Open, the author-activist justifies actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan’s recent statement condemning Godse as free India’s first extremist. Born in 1960 to Gandhi’s grandson Arun, son of Sushila and Manilal, Tushar decided to study the Mahatma’s works much later in life.
He speaks to Executive Editor Ullekh NP about the reasons why right-wing Hindus continue to hate Gandhi — who, ironically, had taken pride in being a Hindu — and make explosive statements that hit headlines and kick off ferocious debates. It wasn’t his perceived pro-Muslim slant during Partition that earned him their wrath, Tushar argues. They began to hate him when he started working towards the uplift of the Harijans. Edited excerpts:
Please tell us about all previous, unsuccessful assassination attempts on Gandhi before the final and the successful one by Nathuram Vinayak Godse on January 30, 1948.
There were several attempts while he was in South Africa also, experimenting for the first time with the idea of satyagraha, but they were mostly political in nature. And those were out of fits of anger and out of misunderstanding. But in India after he became the single-most important leader of the freedom movement, especially since the 1930s, there were meticulous and organized efforts to physically eliminate him and all these were spearheaded by active members of the fanatic Hindus groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. So, there was a campaign of hate against him starting from that time.
Why did such attempts surface all of a sudden in the 1930s?
That is the whole question. If this assassination (of Gandhi) took place out of a fit of exasperation against what they perceived as his pro-Muslim tendencies that damaged the hopes of a Hindu India, then why was there an attempt on his life as early as 1934, at a time when Muhammed Ali Jinnah had not raised a demand for Pakistan? The only one who had spoken about a division of India then was Savarkar. Mind, it was at this time that Gandhi had been working relentlessly in uplifting the untouchables and reduction of atrocities against them. He had been going around, ever since he was freed from jail after the Salt Satyagraha, working towards securing Harijans access inside temples and to village wells and so on. He had also been living with them in their villages, teaching them practical aspects about the need to maintain cleanliness.
So, were Hindu fanatics angry because of those activities of Gandhi?
Now, if you look at the thread of attempts on his life that had failed, they were either made in Pune or Brahmins from the region were involved in them. Of the seven attempts on Gandhi’s life, five involve the Pune unit of the Hindu Mahasabha. Of these, three had the involvement of Narayan Apte and Nathuram Godse (both executed in Ambala in 1949 for their roles in the assassination of the Mahatma). In 1934, they didn’t find anybody because the hand grenades were lobbed in Pune on a car that was to carry him to the Corporation Auditorium to receive a civic honour. This happened on June 25, 1934. Fortunately, nobody died in the attempt because the grenade didn’t explode on the bonnet but on the road side and a few were injured. Gandhi had arrived in another car to the venue, not the one at which the bomb was hurled at. You must remember that the British was in power and they didn’t enquire deeply into the incident.
At this time, Ahmednagar was also a hotbed of Hindu fanatics’ activities – those of Savarkarites. Vishnu Karkare, one of the accused in the Gandhi assassination case, was very active in the area, often launching attacks on Muslims. The Kapur Commission Report mentions that a raid on Karkare’s property led to the seizure of arms that bore marks similar to the one used in the Pune 1934 attack. Karkare used to be close to Narayan Apte, who was thick with Nathuram Godse. Apte and Godse were Savarkar’s most trusted lieutenants. So, there is a link that associates these people (Apte and Godse) with the very first recorded attempt on Gandhi’s life. It was no secret that ever since Gandhi launched his campaign for Harijan assimilation and his work for the rights of Harijans, he became a target of Sanatani Hindus. It was very evident from their public protests against Gandhi in various parts of the country.
When was the next attempt?
The next recorded one to kill Gandhi was when he was recuperating after his release from the Agha Khan Palace Prison Camp in mid-1944 from malaria, which he had contracted during his stay there. He was in Dilkush Bungalow at the hill resort of Panchgani at that time, on the advice of his doctor. In July 1944, a bunch of Hindu Mahasabha-RSS volunteers went around Panchgani shouting slogans against Bapu. Later they congregated outside a prayer meeting in a school that Gandhi attended. Suddenly, one young man jumped into the prayer hall and rushed towards Bapu brandishing a dagger. One of the volunteers was a wrestler from Satara: Bhilare Guruji. He and Manishankar Purohit, who owned a lodge in Pune, overpowered the attacker, who happened to be Nathuram Vinayak Godse. Those who had accompanied him ran away. At this point, Gandhi asked Godse to spend some days with him so that he could understand his views. Godse refused, and he was allowed to leave. There was a news item in the Times of India the next day that the editor of a Marathi newspaper (Godse) was in the group that tried to assault Gandhi. Bhillare late confirmed to me that Godse had carried a jambhiya, a knife. He also remembered that the other men who had demonstrated against Gandhi included Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge and Gopal Godse (all accused in the Gandhi murder case).
Another attempt was made in the September of same year when Gandhi was preparing to hold talks with Jinnah. The fanatical Hindu right-wingers had pledged to stop Gandhi from meeting Jinnah to negotiate a formula to avoid the partition of India. Gandhi had made an appeal to Jinnah with the very elaborate Rajaji Plan. It was the last-ditch attempt to save India from Partition. At that time the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had vehemently opposed Gandhi’s move to offer Jinnah the Rajaji Plan. Their volunteers picketed the Seva Gram ashram and they pledged not to allow Bapu to meet Jinnah in Bombay.
On the designated day when Gandhi was to leave on a train to meet Jinnah, as his car approached the gate, one of the Hindu right-wing members rushed towards Gandhi. Again he was disarmed and a dagger was found on him. Immediately the police arrived and detained these youths. They were released only after Bapu boarded the train (for the talks with Jinnah that started on September 9. These lasted for 18 days but ended in a failure after Jinnah rejected the proposals). Nathuram, Apte and Datte were part of the group. By then in the lower levels of the British police, the influence of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha was phenomenal and the arrested volunteers were offered snacks and tea by the police. The organizations behind this knew then that Nathuram would be the martyr when an occasion to kill Gandhi came along. Notably, even then, an assassin was being groomed in a highly organized way.
Wasn’t there an attempt some years later to derail a train and kill Gandhi?
Yes, all of these are detailed in my book, Let’s Kill Gandhi. Gandhi ji was travelling to Pune by a train on 29 June 1946. It was on a train that had a third-class compartment, a guard room and an engine. It was known as the ‘Gandhi special’. It met with an accident somewhere between Nerul and Karjat thanks to boulders placed on the track with the intention of derailing it. Gandhi was saved because the driver was prompt in applying the brakes and delinking the engine carriage from the passenger compartment. Another ‘Gandhi Special’ train had to be sent later to take Gandhi to Pune. The Mahatma was asleep through the entire incident. Since looters target only regular trains and since no such trains were to ply through the route in the next eight hours, sabotage was not discounted by the police. Besides, there was no reason for any rock-fall in the area around then. So, it emerged later that Gandhi was the target. Gandhi Special was identifiable. Bapu later said at a prayer meeting, “By the grace of God, I have escaped from the jaws of death seven times… I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life… I will not die just yet. I aim to live till the age of 125.” Later, after news reports of Gandhi’s statement came out, Nathuram Godse had reportedly said, as it came to light later, “But who will allow you to live that long?” This is mentioned in the Kapur Commission of Inquiry.
Then you have the very well-known bomb attack of 20 January of 1948 in which Madanlal Pahwa was arrested from the scene. What is striking about it is that an assassin had long been prepared to kill Gandhi by Savarkarites in the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS.
What do you think of Kamal Haasan’s statement that the first extremist of Independent India was Godse who was a Hindu?
In the context of what I have stated so far, the statement by him is very pertinent. Nathuram was classified by the police even before Bapu’s killing as a “hot-headed extremist”. Kamal Haasan’s statement is absolutely true.
How many years did you take to research on these plots to kill Gandhi?
Four years. I had to go through all the red tape because I worked on the book before the Right to Information Act came into effect. It has become easier now to access investigation reports from the government. But then I was lucky to find very reliable alternate sources of information. Thank god I could do this project before people have started destroying archival material. I found that a lot of papers were destroyed since 2014 without verifying whether they were useful or not.
What were the most striking lapses in the Gandhi murder probe?
Many. Now, the 9mm Beretta pistol, known as M1934 (serial number 606824) came from Italy and that was the one used by Nathuram Godse in the assassination of Gandhi. It was the most modern gun of its time. The pistol, manufactured in 1934, was brought to India from Ethiopia by a colonel from the Gwalior Regiment fighting in the British regiment. He took the Italian commander’s gun as a trophy back to Gwalior. Later on, this officer became the ADC to the Maharaja of Gwalior. Surprisingly on the 28th of January, when Nathuram Godse went to Gwalior along with Dattatreya S. Parchure (another accused in the Gandhi murder case) to purchase the revolver, that particular gun of the ADC was available with a gun trader named Jagdish Prasad Goyal in Gwalior. There is no investigation done yet how the gun under the custody of the ADC of the Gwalior Maharaja reached the gun trader’s hands, and then to Godse. If that investigation had been done, the role of Savarkar would have been established. In fact, Godse didn’t have the stature to find the network that took him to the gun trader that sold him the most effective close-range revolver at the time. Until several decades later, this revolver remained the most preferred one by contract killers in Europe. Nathuram had no experience in handling such a gun and 36 hours before the assassination of Gandhi, he got hold of that with requisite number of bullets. How he got it is still the weakest link in the Gandhi murder investigation.
Besides, my book covers all aspects of lapses between January 20 and January 30 and the indifference of police officers who had served the British empire for long. Savarkar had close ties with several of those top-ranking officials in the police and the armed forces.
(Savarkar was later acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence and lapses in the Gandhi murder probe and died of ill health in 1966.)