By V Kalyanam
V Kalyanam, personal secretary to Mahatma Gandhi, recounts Friday, January 30, 1948, moment-by-moment—the day when the Mahatma was shot. V Kalyanam was just behind Gandhi when Naturam Godse fired his shots.
Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Delhi on Tuesday, 9 September 1947, from Calcutta. He was staying in Birla House at Albuquerque Road (now renamed Tees January Marg—30th January Road). A large carpeted room with an attached toilet was placed at his disposal for use by his entourage. This was an all-purpose room in the ground floor of the huge mansion. A thick cotton mattress and a huge pillow to recline, with a desk in front, was placed in one corner of the room. At the other end was a table and chair piled with correspondence. Gandhiji usually spent the whole day here attending to his correspondence, talking to people, spinning his charkha and taking his midday siesta. There was also a balcony, fully enclosed with glass doors, adjoining the room where he would sleep at nights on the carpeted floor, along with the rest of us.
Friday, 30 January 1948, dawned like any other day. We never knew what was going to happen in the evening. We got up as usual for our prayers at 3.30. We went about our daily routine with no thought about what the day had in store for us. Gandhiji roused his grand niece Abha to get up.
After his ablutions, Gandhiji came out of the toilet and squatted on the mattress. We sat before him. Gandhiji’s day always commenced with prayer. He described prayer as the key of the morning and bolt of the evening. His prayers included recitations from the scriptures of all religions, particularly Hindusim and Islam, in order to stress the essential unity of all religions.
He closed his eyes in meditation. Abha was still asleep. He had noticed her absence. Prayer was held without Abha’s participation. Immediately after the prayer Manu went to the kitchen to fetch Gandhiji’s morning beverage—a glass of hot water mixed with a tablespoonful of honey and lime. When she handed him the marble tumbler of nectar, Gandhiji told her in Gujarati, ‘It appears my influence, even among my close companions, is waning. Prayer is like a broomstick meant to cleanse one’s soul. Abha’s failure to participate in the prayer pains me. You are aware of the importance I attach to prayer. If you have the courage, you may, on my behalf convey my displeasure to her. If she is not willing to participate in the prayer she should take leave of me. This will be in our joint interest!’
Meanwhile, Abha got up and started attending to her work. Gandhiji, did not, for reasons known to him, confront her directly. I continued to sit by his side to receive my instructions for the day. He wanted me to make arrangements for his visit to Sevagram for ten days from 2nd February. I placed before him the typed draft of the new constitution for the Indian National Congress he had dictated to me the previous day, suggesting its disbandment and reconstitution as a new body with greater emphasis on social service and rural uplift. He was not inclined to go through it. He summoned my superior Pyarelalji and handed the draft to him with instructions to peruse it carefully and make any suggestions or corrections that he may consider necessary.
I Do Not Wish to Live Long
Conditions in Delhi were far from normal those days. There had been communal disturbances owing to the large influx of Hindu refugees from Pakistan. Having gone through unpleasant experiences at the hands of Muslims in Pakistan, they wanted to take revenge on Muslims in Delhi. Delegations of Muslim and Hindu leaders called on him everyday to discuss ways and means of restoring normalcy in the capital.
During those cold winter days, Gandhiji preferred to spend the day sitting on a charpoy in the open lawn, basking in the sun. His daily engagements were crowded. He could never be seen idle. When he had no appointments he would be busy writing letters and articles in Gujarati, Hindi and English. While Ministers and other VIPs visited him by prior appointment, Pandit Nehru, whenever he was in station, made it a point to call on Gandhiji, at about 9 am, on his way to office.
Among the prominent visitors who met Gandhiji that day was Mrs. R.K. Nehru, who came in at 6 am. She was scheduled to leave for USA in the afternoon. At her request Gandhiji gave her an autographed photograph with the message, ‘As a representative of a poor nation, you should lead a simple and frugal life while you are there’. At 2 pm, Margaret Bourke White, famous photographer of the Life magazine interviewed Gandhiji. In the course of her conversation, she asked him, “You have always stated that you would like to live up to 125. What gives you that hope?” Gandhiji surprised her by answering that he no longer entertained that hope. When questioned why, he replied, “Because of the terrible happenings in the world. I do not want to live in darkness”.
Most of his time at Birla House was spent in writing letters, meeting visitors and prayers. Soon after she left, Prof N.R. Malkhani, our Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan, met Gandhiji with two others and told him of the sad plight of the Hindus of Sind. After hearing them patiently, Gandhi replied, “These things would not have happened had people listened to me. I say things, which do not go home, yet I go on saying what I believe to be true. I know that I am a ‘back number’.”
Bob Stimsom of the BBC, who had submitted some questions to Gandhiji, was to meet him after the prayers. He had already arrived and proceeded straight to the lawn where Gandhiji was to hold the prayer. Chief Minister U N Dhebar and Rasiklal Parekh from Kathiawar and the celebrated author Vincent Shean, who had some interviews with Gandhiji in the last few days, had also come without prior appointment in the hope of meeting Gandhiji. All of them were disappointed.
Birla House had its own watchmen at the gate. There had been objections to the recitation of the Koran at Gandhiji’s earlier public meetings in the previous year. Sardar Patel had therefore, in his capacity as Home Minister, ordered the deployment of one head constable and four foot-constables at Birla House as a precautionary measure.
Bomb Explodes at Gandhiji’s Prayer Meeting
There was a bomb explosion at the prayer meeting on 20 January. Madan Lal, the Punjabi refugee had thrown a bomb, but it didn’t hit him. A wall was broken that’s all and Gandhi never thought somebody had come to kill him. Gandhiji had undertaken a fast against the Government of India’s decision to hold back payment of Pakistan’s share of the cash balances (Rs. 50 Cr) due to them on the ground that Pakistan had connived with the Afridi tribesmen to invade and occupy Kashmir. To save Gandhiji’s life, the government relented and released the amount. Fundamentalist Hindus were infuriated by Gandhiji’s tactics and felt that he was appeasing Muslims to the detriment of the Hindu community. The bomb incident referred to was a consequence of this.
The police guards at Birla House were therefore increased. They had instructions to stop all persons who appeared to be of doubtful character. However, the police considered that to make the precautions more effective they should be permitted to search every visitor entering the compound to attend the prayer or at other times. When a police Superintendent approached me with this proposal, I consulted Gandhiji. He did not agree to the search and I informed the Superintendent accordingly. This decision was conveyed to the higher authorities and within minutes the DIG arrived and sought permission to speak to Gandhiji. I ushered him in. The DIG represented that there was danger to his life and the facilities asked for should be allowed as otherwise the police would be discredited if any mishap took place.
Men Who Want Security Have No Right To Live: Gandhi
Gandhiji would have none of it and told him bluntly that his life was in the hands of God and that if he had to die no precautions could save him. ‘Those who preferred security to freedom had no right to live’, he said. He would rather stop holding public prayer meetings than agree to any such personal search. Police in plain clothes were then asked to keep a watch on suspicious characters and prevent anyone from attacking Gandhiji while he was on his way to the prayer and back. At two in the afternoon Abha and Manu had, with Gandhiji’s permission, gone to visit some friends, promising to return in time for the evening prayers. The responsibility of serving Gandhiji’s evening meal fell on me. Although the government had been in office for only five months, the media was full of alleged differences between Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. Gandhiji was distressed with these rumours and wanted to counter this. He was even thinking of asking Sardar Patel to resign so that Nehru may have a free hand to conduct the affairs of the country. But that didn’t happen. He had summoned Patel for a discussion at 4 pm and intended to speak on the subject after the prayers, but that was not to be. Accompanied by his daughter Maniban, Patel arrived on time when Gandhiji was having his frugal supper. While they were conversing, Abha and Manu had also arrived.
The Last Meeting with Sardar Patel
Prayer was scheduled to start at 5 pm. The discussion between Gandhiji and Patel continued beyond 5 pm. In view of the importance and seriousness of the talk, none of us dared to disturb them. The girls gestured to Sardar’s daughter Maniben and the talk ended at 5.10 pm. After that, Gandhi went to the toilet and immediately proceeded to the prayer ground, which was nearly 30-40 yards away. There were four or five steps and then there was a big lawn. Gandhiji was late by fifteen minutes for the prayer meeting. There were about 250 people anxiously awaiting his arrival. I could see from the distance that the attention of the gathering was focused on Gandhiji’s room. And, as he emerged, I heard people saying, ‘There comes Gandhiji’. The word went round when all necks craned and eyes stared in his direction. Gandhiji walked briskly as usual with his head bent and his glance glued to the ground, supporting himself on the shoulders of the two grand nieces. I was following closely to his left.
I heard him admonishing the girls for not telling him that it was getting late for the prayer meeting. He told them that they were his time-keepers. “I am late. I do not like all this,” he added. When Manu replied that they did not want to interrupt because of the serious nature of their talks, Gandhiji shot back, “It is the duty of a nurse to give medicines at the right time to a patient. If there is delay the patient may die”.
When Nathuram Godse Fired His Shots...
We ascended the steps leading to the prayer platform. People stood with folded hands and Gandhiji reciprocated. They made way for him to go to the rostrum, about 25 feet from the steps, where he would sit on a one-foot-high wooden dais. The assassin (Nathuram Godse) had obviously been waiting in this crowd hiding a revolver in his pocket. Gandhiji had walked hardly five or six paces when the assassin fired some shots in quick succession from close range resulting in the Mahatma’s instantaneous death. He fell behind bleeding profusely and in that melee, his spectacles and footwear were thrown asunder. I was too shocked and dumb-founded to react. Later, in loneliness, tears came to my eyes.
The news spreads fast. Within minutes, a crowd started gathering outside Birla House and the gate had to be closed to prevent people entering the premises. Patel had already left. I rushed to my room and conveyed the news to Nehru’s office by phone. In those days we had free access to Ministers’ residences. I pushed my way through the crowd, got into a waiting car and sped to Patel’s house, hardly five minutes drive, to inform him of the calamity.
Meantime, his body was lifted and carried to his room. There he lay on the mat with people around him. He looked as if he was asleep. His body was warm for quite some time. Night was passed with distress and tears—not for a few chosen ones, but for the millions all over the world for whom he lived and died.
Immediately after Gandhiji’s body was carried away to his room, there was a scramble from the public to possess something belonging to Gandhiji as a souvenir. They started removing a handful of earth from the place where Gandhiji fell to the assassin’s bullet, leaving a big pit there within hours. Arrangements were then made to have the area cordoned and a guard was posted there.
In this connection, detailing the precautions taken by the government to protect Mahatma Gandhi prior to and after the bomb explosion at his prayer meetings, the Home Minister, Sardar Patel declared, “I had personally pleaded with Bapu to permit the police to do their duty in regard to his protection but without success. To my profound regret and utter sorrow and to the irreparable loss of all of us, the nation and the world, the weak spot both I and the police had apprehended was deceitfully and successfully exploited by the assassin and Gandhiji’s prophetic words that, if he had to die, no precaution could save him, came true”.
“Gandhi never uttered ‘Hey Ram’ when he was shot at”
It is widely stated that Gandhiji invoked God saying, “Hey Ram” as he was assassinated. There was no possibility at all of his uttering a single syllable although he had often proclaimed that he would like to die with the name of Ram on his lips. This speculative comment by some enterprising, shrewd reporter has gained worldwide currency, the authenticity of which has never been verified.
A monumental falsehood has been thrust into the mouth of the apostle of truth. Had he been sick or bed-ridden, he would have surely invoked Ram. But here he was denied that opportunity. It is indeed very strange that the commission that was appointed to probe into Gandhiji’s killing never thought of making any enquiries from any one of us who were so close to him on that day.
In his last few days in his post-prayer speeches, Gandhiji had been repeatedly expressing the wish that God take him away since he did not want to be a silent witness to the monstrous barbarities that were going on in the country. I thought God had answered his prayer through the assassin. He had a glorious death while he was walking towards God and not on sick bed. He died without anguish, without pain for a moment.