The Death of Mohandas K. Gandhi
- 30th January 1948 -
At 5.10pm on 30th January Gandhi entered the garden of Birla House, New Delhi, to attend an evening prayer meeting. He ascended the four steps to the prayer mandap, a platform put up for the purpose. A man approached him and bent low. “You are late for prayer today,” he said. Gandhi replied, “Yes, I am”. With that the man pulled out a berretta semi-automatic pistol and shot him, point blank, in the chest with three bullets. It is said that Gandhi lifted his hands as if in prayer and said, “He, Ram”, meaning ‘Oh God’, before collapsing to the ground. He was quickly hurried inside the house but died soon after.
The man in question was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic, who was upset with Gandhi’s efforts to negotiate with the Muslims and their leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, over the partition of India. Godse was subjected to a trial that lasted over a year before being sentenced to death on November 8th 1949, along with Narayan Apte, a co-conspirator. Pleas by Gandhi’s two sons to have the sentence commuted were turned down and he was hanged on November 15th.
An account of Gandhi’s death was written by Vincent Sheean, an American reporter who had travelled to follow Gandhi in 1947. He was present in the garden.
"I got a taxi and went out to Birla House in time for the prayer-meeting. This time I was alone. I stationed my taxi under a tree opposite the gate of Birla House and walked down the drive to the prayer-ground. It was not yet five o'clock and people were still streaming in on foot, in cars and with tongas. As I came on to the prayer-ground at the end of the garden I ran into Bob Stimson, the Delhi correspondent of the B.B.C. We fell into talk and I told him about the journey to Amritsar and what had taken place there. It was unusual to see any representatives of the press at the prayer-meeting; Bob explained that he had submitted some questions to the Mahatma for the B.B.C. and thought he might as well stay for the prayers since he was on the premises. He looked at his watch and said: 'Well, this is strange. Gandhi's late. He's practically never late.'
We both looked at our watches again. It was 5:12 by my watch when Bob said: 'There he is.' We stood near the corner of the wall, on the side of the garden where he was coming, and watched the evening light fall on his shining dark-brown head. He did not walk under the arbor this evening but across the grass, in the open lawn on the other side of the flower-beds. (There was the arbored walk, and a strip of lawn, and a long strip of flower-bed, and then the open lawn.)
It was one of those shining Delhi evenings, not at all warm but alight with the promise of spring. I felt well and happy and grateful to be here. Bob and I stood idly talking, I do not remember about what, and watching the Mahatma advance toward us over the grass, leaning lightly on two of 'the girls,' with two or three other members of his 'family' (family or followers) behind them. I read afterward that he had sandals on his feet but I did not see them. To me it looked as if he walked barefoot on the grass. It was not a warm evening and he was wrapped in homespun shawls. He passed by us on the other side and turned to ascend the four or five brick steps which led to the terrace or prayer-ground.
Here, as usual, there was a clump of people, some of whom were standing and some of whom had gone on their knees or bent low before him. Bob and I turned to watch - we were perhaps ten feet away from the steps-but the clump of people cut off our view of the Mahatma now; he was so small. Then I heard four small, dull, dark explosions. 'What's that?' I said to Bob in sudden horror. 'I don't know,' he said. I remember that he grew pale in an instant. 'Not the Mahatma!' I said, and then I knew.
lt was during this time, apparently, that many things happened: a whole external series of events took place in my immediate neighborhood - a few yards away - and I was unaware of them. A doctor was found; the police took charge; the body of the Mahatma was, carried away; the crowd melted, perhaps urged to do so by the police. I saw none of this. The last I saw of the Mahatma he was advancing over the grass in the evening light, approaching the steps. When I finally took my fingers out of my mouth and stood up, dry-eyed, there were police and soldiers and not many people, and there was Bob Stimson. He was rather breathless; he had gone somewhere to telephone to the B.B.C. He came with me down the steps to the lawn, where we walked up and down beside the flower-bed for a while. The room with the glass doors and windows, by the rose garden at the end of the arbor, had a crowd of people around it. Many were weeping. The police were endeavoring to make them leave. Bob could not tell me anything except that the Mahatma had been taken inside that room. On the following day he told me that he had seen him carried away and that the khadi which he wore was heavily stained with blood."
His funeral was attended by over two million people in New Delhi. The American journalist Edward R Murrow, broadcasting at the funeral paid this moving tribute:
The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived - a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. Pope Pius, the Archbishop of Canterbury, President Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, The Foreign Minister of Russia, the President of France... are among the millions here and abroad who have lamented his passing. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, "Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires." And Albert Einstein added, "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."
Born in Porbander, in the province of Gujarat, on October 2nd 1869 Mohandas’ father was the chief minister in the state administration. His mother was a devout follower of Vishnu, the Hindu God. At the age of 19 he went to study law at the Inner Temple, London. After graduating he set up his own firm in Bombay but with little success. He joined a larger company and was posted to South Africa with his wife and children. He stayed for twenty years. He saw first-hand the division in that country and the segregation, apartheid, appalled him. Thrown out of a first class carriage of a train and beaten up by the guard to make way for a European was a turning point and was the root of his teaching and development of the idea of ‘Satyagraha’ – translated as truth and firmness, or passive resistance and non-cooperation.
In 1906 the Transvaal government passed a law on the registration of the Indian population. Gandhi led a period of civil disobedience for eight years. Indians were imprisoned, including Gandhi, flogged and even shot. With pressure from both the British and Indian governments a compromise was negotiated between Gandhi and General Jan Smuts, the South African leader.
In January 1914 he returned to India and, although he supported Great Britain during World War, he led resistance to the colonial authorities’ powers to suppress what they saw as subversive activities. Violence broke out including the massacre of 400 Indians at the holy temple at Amritsar. Gandhi also stressed the importance of economic independence and the manufacture of ‘Khadder’ – a homespun cloth – rather than imported textiles especially from Britain. The British were importing cheap materials and selling them back to Indians as cloth that the Indians could actually make themselves. He organised boycotts of British manufacturers and institutions. Gandhi said; “We must defy the British... Not with violence that will inflame their will but with a firmness that will open their eyes. English factories make the cloth that makes our poverty. All those who wish to make the English see bring me the cloth from Manchester and Leeds that you wear today and we will light a fire that will be seen in Delhi, and in London!”
Gandhi’s eloquence and lifestyle of prayer, meditation and fasting led to him being called ‘Mahatma’ or the ‘Great-souled one’ in Sanskrit. After violence broke out however he announced an end to the resistance movement as this went against all he stood for. Still he was arrested in March 1922 and imprisoned for sedition and sentenced to six years. Following an appendix operation, the following year he was released and in 1930 launched a new campaign based on a new tax on salt that effected the poor in particular. The Government made concessions and Gandhi represented the Indian National Congress Party (INCP) at the round table talks in London in 1931. Some of his party though were fed up with the tactics he employed and felt that they were not being radical or firm enough. Arrested again on his return by an increasingly aggressive colonial government he went on hunger strike about the plight of the ‘Untouchables’ – the poorest caste in Indian society. He called them the ‘Children of God’.
In 1934 he withdrew from frontline politics only to return during World War Two, demanding Home Rule as a condition for Indian support during the war. The entire Indian National Congress party were then arrested again.
The tide started to turn with the election of the Labour Government in 1945. Negotiations took place between Britain and the INCP, now led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Home Rule was granted but the country was to be split in two separate nation states – India and Pakistan – based on religious grounds, Muslims and Hindus. Gandhi was against this partition but hoped that once agreed peace and harmony could and would occur internally. There were riots in Calcutta and Gandhi urged Hindus and Muslims to live in peace. He went on hunger strike until the rioting stopped. It did when it looked as if he would die. The same happened in Delhi in January 1948 and it was 12 days after his fast for peace that he went to an evening prayer meeting and his assassination.
Gandhi’s ideas and philosophy have been taken up around the world, perhaps most notably by Martin Luther King Junior. Some of his ideas are below and what better way to finish than with his own words on his fight with injustice.
“Where there's injustice, I always believed in fighting. The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish? For myself, I've found we're all such sinners, we should leave punishment to God. And if we really want to change things, there are better things than derailing trains or slashing someone with a sword. When I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it: always. If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. NOT MY OBEDIENCE!”