Nation pays tribute to the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi on his 72nd death anniversary today. It was on this day in 1948, Mahatma Gandhi died to a bullet of his murderer. To hang or not to hang the murderers of Babu – Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte – was a serious issue for the new government of Independent India. Then comes mercy from Gandhi’s sons for the assassins, but how did Nehru, Patel, and Rajaji react; let us find out.
The country goes shocked and confused
72 years ago, on this day, Gandhi Ji was on his way to his daily prayer meeting in New Delhi when Godse fired 3 bullets in his chest. This event came less than a year after India finally won its independence, leaving the country shocked and confused, as to how it would drive its new land without the father of the nation.
After the shocking incident, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Governor-General C. Rajagopalachari and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were all approached with requests of mercy for the murderers. Many prominent Gandhians and two of Gandhi’s four sons, Ramdas and Manilal, asked mercy for the assassins too.
An appeal for mercy
Ramdas, who was residing in Nagpur, requested C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) to send Nathuram Godse and his partners to a jail “to find out for themselves and consider and think over if in any way they have achieved this end in view and choose once for all that Hinduism or India cannot be and will never be saved by proceeding RSS methods”. He also recommended setting a penitentiary if there wasn’t one previously. Ramdas even wrote a letter to Godse and tried to ask permission from the government to meet him in jail.
This incident caused turmoil among the top leaders. Nehru in reply wrote to him saying, “I notice that you have put me in a crisis.”
Nehru urged him not to visit Godse in jail and asked the guidance of Rajaji and Sardar in this matter. Both of them were strictly against any such visit because it would raise Godse’s height.
Rajaji wrote to Sardar Patel, “It seems Ramdas is excited and is not able to control his anxiety to talk to convicted prisoners and convert them to the faith of non-violence and regret! What Bapu himself was not able to do and to which he was sacrificed as a lamb headed to the altar! I am shocked.”
Patel was even more hateful to the idea. He termed it “somewhat quixotic” (unrealistic). Knowing full well the functioning of Godse and his fellow ideological associates, Patel wrote to Nehru, “There is every possibility of an attempt being made to treat him as a martyr. The discussion which Ramdas proposes to have would spend the last days of Godse with a certain amount of glory. To me, it appears somewhat quixotic that any attempt should be made to convince a man who has done such a cowardly crime and takes pride in it.”
Confusion amongst the top leaders
Kishorelal Mashruwala, an experienced Gandhian thinker and editor of Gandhi’s paper Harijan, wanted to write in support of mercy in Harijan. Both Rajaji and Sardar Patel disagreed vigorously.
Saying that “no sensible man would think of removing the death penalty in India in the conditions which prevail today”, Sardar Patel notified Rajaji what he told to Kishorelal. He replied, “If the death penalty is not to be removed, then I could not think of a stronger case for the infliction of the death penalty than that of Godse. He has performed the most serious crime possible and as you said in an earlier letter ‘he stabbed the heart of India’.”
According to Narayan Desai, Gandhi’s biographer and son of Gandhi’s close aide Mahadev Desai, “A crowd of around 28 villages surrounding Vedchhi, a town in South Gujarat, inspired by veteran Gandhian Jugatram Dave, resolved that cancellation of capital punishment in independent India should begin by not hanging Gandhiji’s murderers.”
Many other notable leaders displayed their views, including an old associate of Sardar Patel and the first speaker of Lok Sabha G.V. Mavalankar, President of Assam Provincial Congress Debeswar Sarma. Walter Koethiger from Zurich sent a telegram to Rajaji saying, “With the murderers, India kill Gandhi once again….” Rajaji forwarded this telegram to Patel with a note, “It is strange how people can talk like this….”
Gandhi’s son Manilal sent a telegram from Durban requesting mercy for Godse, followed by another telegram on 6 November 1949 saying, “Reference my cable appealing for Godse’s discharge desire include Narayan Apte whose name was accidentally left out.”
It is hardly surprising that Godse, shadowed by the ideology of hatred hoped to convince Ramdas about his stand instead.
Views of the Indian government
After meeting Sardar Patel, Rajaji furnished a draft statement. Among other things, it clearly stated the view of the Indian government.
The statement read “It is suggested in some parts that as Gandhiji favored the cancellation of capital punishment, we ought to extend mercy to those who murdered him. We have not abolished the death penalty and those on whom the blame of government is placed cannot make a difference and treat more favorably to those who have chosen to execute the best among us while planning the execution of the death penalty in so many other cases.”
The final punishment
Police finished the investigation in five months following the case started in the Red Fort and heard by judge Atma Charan. The court pronounced judgment on February 10, 1949, out of nine, Eight men were sentenced for the murder plot, and others convicted for breaking the Explosive Substances Act.
Savarkar was cleared and set free due to a lack of evidence. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were sentenced to death by hanging and the remaining six (including Godse’s brother, Gopal) were sentenced to life imprisonment.
After the court’s judgment, the convicts filed an appeal in the Punjab High Court. Justice Khosla was one amongst the three-judge bench that dropped their appeals. Godse did not question his conviction upon the charge of murder, nor did he question the propriety of the death sentence.
Anxiety on Godse’s face
“The two condemned prisoners were led out of their cells with their hands tied behind them. Godse walked in front. His step occasionally stammered. His behavior and general appearance evidenced a state of nervousness and fear.”
“He tried to fight against it and keep up a bold covering by shouting every few seconds the slogan ‘Akhand Bharat’ (undivided India). But his voice had a slight concern and the intensity with which he had argued his case at the trial and in the High Court seemed to have been all but exhausted,” noted Justice Khosla.
Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were hanged on November 15, 1949, in the Ambala jail.