In his death, Gandhi joined a mortal act to an immortalisation
As the rest of India hailed Independence, Gandhi mourned its division. This year marks 75 years of a mortal act that led to an immortalisation. May Gandhi’s ideals always remain a guiding light on the power of ahimsa
Hai bahar-e-bagh duniya chand roz
Dekh lo iska tamasha chand roz
(Spring fleets into this world’s bower only to slip away
Watch its dizzy dance through that very short day).
The 78-year-old repeated Nazir’s Urdu couplet in what his secretary Pyarelal described as “a tone of infinite sadness”. It was January 29, 1948. The place: Birla House, Delhi. Only five-and-a-half months earlier, as India hailed its Independence, Gandhi, mourning its division, had fasted to bring murderous rioting to a halt in Calcutta. At least two Hindu men — Sachin Mitra and Smritish Banerjea — as passionate about Hindu-Muslim unity as he was, were killed while interposing between armed mobs. Martyrs, both, in the cause of concord. Two years earlier, in Ahmedabad, Rajab Ali Lakhani and Vasantra Hegishte had faced hordes of rioters from both communities— Lakhani protecting Hindus and Hegishte rescuing Muslims and Hindus, and both were killed.
With these examples before his mind’s eye, Gandhi believed the two communities were not meant to be asunder. And just a few days earlier, in Delhi, he had fasted again, to bring about a change of heart among the violent in the new nation’s capital. His health worsening sharply, representatives of refugees from the worst-hit parts came to him as did a peace committee that included representatives of Delhi’s Muslims, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu Mahasabha, and Sikh organisations. They gave him a written pledge that, “the incidents which have taken place in Delhi will not happen again”. Gandhi, from the portals of death, had shaken the poison out of Delhi’s system, calming nerves. Moreover, he had paved the way for a visit to Pakistan to bring heart to the anxious beleaguered Hindu minority there.
Gandhi was, at this point, very unwell, with a hacking cough. To an associate who asked him to try penicillin pastilles, he said, “If I die of a lingering illness, it will be your duty to proclaim to the world, even at the risk of making people angry with you, that I was not the man of God that I claimed to be.” And then, “Note down this also that if someone were to end my life by putting a bullet through me — as one tried to do with a bomb the other day — and I met his bullet without a groan and breathed my last taking God’s name, then alone would I have made good my claim.”
Readers of this column need no reminder of what happened in the minutes after 5pm the following day. As Gandhi was on his way to the prayer ground with his grand-niece Manu to his right and grandniece-in-law Abha to his left, a man elbowed his way roughly through the assemblage from the right. Manu tried to stop him by holding his hand, saying “Bhai, we are getting late…”. He brushed her hand off, causing the rosary and prayer book that were in her other hand to fall to the ground.
For that fleeting moment, Gandhi’s blood pressure must have zoomed to a spike. Even if he had not been as hypertensive as he was, seeing his grandniece rough-handled thus would have incensed him, as it would have anyone in that situation. But only for a moment. For, the next second he was absorbed in the Rama that he longed to be one with. Abha, a daughter of Bengal, cradled the sinking head in her lap. These details are not as well known as they should be.
Rama infused that moment. If Gandhi died with that name on his breath , the man who fired the shots also had it as part of his name, as did the humble gardener who grappled with him — Raghu.
Seventy-five years on, this needs to be known: Never in all these intervening decades, not once, did Gandhi’s sons or daughters-in-law or his senior associates use a single abusive word of hate against the principal assassin or his collaborators. From the depths of bereavement, two of Gandhi’s sons — Manilal and Ramdas — appealed to the government to commute the death sentences passed on the two principal convicts. They failed, a thousand pities. But they tried their best to do something their father would have wanted ardently. Grandchildren in Gandhi’s family instinctively recoiled from the brutal killing of a loved and loving grandfather but were never taught anything that would make them hate his assassin. That was Gandhi’s ahimsa at work within his home.
The assassination prevented Gandhi from going to Pakistan as he had planned, to give succour to Hindus there and help the two dominions take the sting out of Partition — a grievous loss to our civilisational history. But let the millions across the world who mourn his loss know that the man who ended Gandhi’s chand roz abruptly also made, unwittingly of course, Gandhi’s non-violence perfect, his love replete, his truth aglow. He made Gandhi immortal. The precincts having been those of prayer, the congregation having been one in preparation for prayer, the man chosen for the killing being headed for prayer, and the word with which he died being Rama, lifted the act of assassination to a sublimation. In that one word, Rama, Gandhi was saying, “Be unruled by fear, un-schooled by hate, un-fooled by the brandishings of the bully. But have no ill-will, none whatever, for the man who is sending me to Rama.”
On January 30, along with the bullets, Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram rang out unsung in its greatest and most resounding invoking of Ishvar and Allah, joining a mortal act to an immortalisation.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former diplomat and administrator
The views expressed are personal