What is, perhaps, not well known is that Gandhi's assassination, too, has been more closely examined than that of almost any other great man’s. Apart from the dozens of accounts and interpretations that are available, it was studied and documented by the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Government of India and headed by the Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission, whose six-volume report was published in 1970.

On the one hand, the Kapur Commission Report, invaluable as it is, attempts only to examine the killing of Gandhi, notably whether there was a larger conspiracy behind it than the one hatched by the motley, almost gormless, bunch that carried out the deed and was convicted for it. I am more interested, on the other hand, in the fuller ramifications of his death rather than the mere details and circumstances of his murder.

What did Gandhi die for?

What, moreover, is the significance of his death? Why is it still so crucial to understand it? The answers to such questions are critical if we wish to form an appropriate estimate not only of his life, but of the life history of the nation that he was instrumental in bringing into being. In trying to address these questions, we must, of course, also engage with the one that most commentators have asked, namely, ‘Who killed Gandhi? Who was responsible for his murder?’ But the larger concern, with the meaning of Gandhi’s death, with its psycho-political implications for India and its people, is more demanding of our attention than merely the criminal conspiracy to assassinate him.

As a matter of fact, to all appearances, the question ‘Who killed Gandhi?’ is easily answered: Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, a misguided Hindu activist, as the ‘official histories’ of the event would put it. However, were matters as simple as that? That there was a criminal conspiracy in which a large number of people were involved was fairly obvious even at that time. Several other conspirators, in addition to the main accused, were therefore charged and tried.

But as Justice Kapur unearthed in his re-examination of the evidence and by recalling the available witnesses, the conspiracy to kill Gandhi was much wider than previously suspected.

Robert Payne in The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi observes, ‘The attentive reader of the voluminous trial reports soon finds himself haunted by the certainty that many others who never stood trial were involved in the conspiracy’.

Moreover, the persistence of the ideology that resulted in the Mahatma’s murder, its conspicuous presence in our midst especially on the World Wide Web, and its championing by a section of one of India’s leading political parties, to say the least, enlarges the circle of responsibility. Clearly Gandhi was not killed by a single individual. The individual was perhaps just an agent of history, but behind his murderous act were larger historical, political, and ideological forces.

Such a line of thinking, nevertheless, would appear to restrict the agency in Gandhi’s assassination to a particular political group if not to one individual; but is the imposition of such a limit admissible? We know for instance that the Government was quite well aware of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi; in fact the killers had botched up a bomb attempt on Gandhi’s life at the same venue, Birla House, just ten days earlier, on 20 January 1948.

Of the team of assassins, Madanlal Pahwa, the latest recruit and weakest link, actually an angry and restive refugee from the just-created Pakistan, was caught by the police. He not only led the investigators to the Marina Hotel in Connaught Circus where Godse had stayed, but warned them that he would be back, with the ominous prediction, ‘Phir ayega’ – he will come again.

Between Pahwa’s capture and the actual murder committed by the very same group a few days later is the story of an incompetent and messed-up police investigation, with gaps in communication, delays, misunderstandings, and erroneous conclusions, not to mention the stand-off between the Delhi and the Bombay police.

The story of this tragic bungling that cost the country its Mahatma has been documented in great detail by the Kapur Commission report and retold with the narrative verve of a thriller by Manohar Malgonkar.

Surely, then, the Union Government led by Gandhi’s chosen heir Jawaharlal Nehru, with Vallabhbhai Patel, so devoted to Gandhi as the Home Minister, not to speak of the Congress Government in Maharashtra, whose Deputy Premier, Morarji Desai, another of Gandhi’s disciples and later to be India’s Prime Minister, was directly involved in the investigation, are also responsible for being unable to prevent the Mahatma’s murder.

Indeed, Government had been aware for some time of the threat to Gandhi’s life.

Several refugees from Pakistan, who had lost home and hearth, whose loved ones had been raped, kidnapped and murdered, had been enraged, shouting anti-Gandhi slogans, such as ‘Mahatma Gandhi murdabad ’ (‘death to Mahatma Gandhi’, or if it is not taken literally, ‘down with Mahatma Gandhi’) outside his prayer meetings. One of these slogans, as reported by Manohar Malgonkar was, ‘Gandhi ko marne do, hum ko makan do’ (‘As to Gandhi, let him die; as to us, give us homes’); another one was ‘Marta hai to marne do! Khoon ka badla khoon se! ’ (‘If he so wishes let him die, what we want is blood for blood’).

With a section of the public so angry and with credible intelligence of a threat to the Mahatma’s life, why had the Home Ministry failed to prevent the second and, this time, successful attempt on his life within the space of ten days? Despite Madanlal’s arrest, despite Dr Jain’s warning to the Bombay Government, despite the failed assassination attempt on 20 January 1948 at Birla House itself, the police did very little to beef up Gandhi’s security, let alone to foil the plot.

According to Robert Payne, the total extent of the police bandobast (arrangement) at Birla House was only one assistant sub-inspector, two head constables, and sixteen foot constables; clearly insufficient to keep at bay the throngs of slogan-shouting refugees outside or to watch over the milling crowds inside. Gandhi, whether he or Government knew it or not, was a sitting duck – or, if we were to be more metaphorically generous to his exalted status, paramahamsa.

I am not suggesting that Patel or Desai were deliberately negligent in allowing Gandhi to die, but surely they are liable to bear some responsibility for the event.

Worse, the complicity of the entire Congress Party in the Mahatma’s neglect cannot be denied. After all, Gandhi’s last will and testament, written the night before his assassination, actually called for the dissolution of Congress as a political organization:

Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian National Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use… For these and other similar reasons, the A.I.C.C. resolves to disband the existing Congress organization and flower into a Lok Sevak Sangh.

So intent was he on finishing this new ‘constitution’ – though it was more a dissolution – of the Congress that he told Pyarelal the previous day, ‘My head is reeling. And yet I must finish this’, and to Abha, his young assistant, he remarked, ‘I am afraid I shall have to keep late hours’.

This ‘constitution’ was published as his ‘Last Will and Testament’ in the Harijan of 15 February 1948,a fortnight after his death. In it, instead of enjoying the spoils of office, Congress workers were enjoined by Gandhi to fan out into the countryside and become a vast volunteer corps which would, in effect, serve as a comprehensive peoples’ self-help network, almost an alternative government.

Surely Gandhi’s attempt to snatch away the rewards of power and pelf from Congressmen, just when they had started relishing such benefits, would have dismayed if not angered most Congressmen.

That this was his considered opinion is evident from earlier remarks in this vein. For instance in a fragment of a letter written from Birla House on 14 November 1947, he said: My suggestion is that, in so far as the Congress was intended solely to achieve swaraj and that purpose has been gained – personally I do not think that what we have gained is swaraj but at least it is so in name – this organization should be wound up and we should put to use all the energies of the country.

In addition, Gandhi’s demand for the repatriation of 55 crore rupees which was Pakistan’s share of the exchequer would have nettled the Congress Government as it incensed his right-wing opponents; some of the former would have liked to use it as a handle to rein in Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir, while most of the latter considered it the last nail in Gandhi’s coffin, proving beyond a doubt his continuing partiality to the newly created Muslim state.

Gandhi, old and feeble though he may have been, was surely a thorn in the side of the Congress establishment.

As early as 1946, the Congress Working Committee had at his own insistence chosen to bypass him, if necessary, in the most vital of decisions pertaining to Partition and the future of India. After 15 August 1947 his irrelevance would have been all the more obvious to the Congress rank and file.

That is why I would hazard to argue that though Godse pulled the trigger and a larger group of Hindu nationalists cheered his act, many more people, including a sizeable section of the Congress Party, cannot be totally absolved of their liability in the crime. They may not have wanted Gandhi dead, they would certainly not have tried to murder him, but by marginalizing and bypassing Gandhi they had all but ‘killed’ him symbolically. Gandhi himself said to an unnamed correspondent on 18 December 1947, one-and-a-half months before he was assassinated:

I know that today I irritate everyone. How can I believe that I alone am right and all others are wrong? What irks me is that people deceive me. They should tell me frankly that I have become old, that I am no longer of any use and that I should not be in their way. If they thus openly repudiate me I shall not be pained in the least.

But had Gandhi really lost the plot or was he the only one still thinking clearly in these terrible times?

In the same letter he says to his correspondent, ‘seeing all this, people like you should take pity on an old man like me and pray to God to take me away’, a wish he repeated very often in his last days. The violence and carnage around him were so intolerable to him that he would rather die than watch helplessly; or, if he remained alive, God should give him the strength to make a difference, something he tried to do until his dying day.

Whatever the case may be, his death, if not often wished for and actually invited upon himself, was certainly preventable. Payne observes wryly: So Gandhi died, and there was no comfort in the knowledge that his death could have been prevented. In the eyes of too many officials, he was an old man who had outlived his usefulness: he had become expendable. By negligence, by indifference, by deliberate desire on the part of many faceless people, the assassination had been accomplished. It was a new kind of murder – the permissive assassination, and there may be many more in the future.

Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, who wrote a very long book on this subject, is even blunter: The Congress government and at least some of the members of the Cabinet were fed up of the interventions of the meddlesome old man. To them, a martyred Mahatma would be easier to live with… The way the investigation was carried out, and the lackadaisical approach of the police in trying to protect Gandhi’s life, leads one to believe that the investigation was meant to hide more than it was meant to reveal. The measures taken by the police between 20th and 30th January 1948 were more to ensure the smooth progress of the murderers, than to try to prevent his murder.

That Gandhi was inconvenient is obvious: he had not only urged the disbanding of the Congress in his ‘last will and testament’, but he had opposed the Partition, threatened to walk across the border into Pakistan, asked for the Viceregal Palace to be turned into a hospital, and, of course, been conspicuous by his absence at the midnight hour when India kept its ‘tryst with destiny’, with Jawaharlal Nehru sworn in as the first Prime Minister.

By a similar method we can widen the circle of responsibility of Gandhi’s death to a much larger section of Indian people, including those whose rights he fought for, such as the Dalits, the Muslims, the women of India, and ultimately even the Hindus whose leader he was according to Muslim separatists – thus amounting to millions and millions of Indians – all of whom turned their backs on him over a period of time.

To that extent were not all of these groups responsible to varying degrees for his real and metaphorical assassination? Arguably this is the line of argument that a popular commercial movie such as Hey Ram ends up taking. The protagonist, unlike Nathuram Godse, is actually one of us, the so-called normal middle-class Hindu, who comes precariously close to murderous rage and violence before being pulled back into a safer, wholesome, ‘secularist’ position.

Hey Ram seems to suggest that there is a Gandhi-killer lurking in the deeper folds of the psyche of the average Hindu. Or, according to the more sophisticated analysis of political psychologist Ashis Nandy, the ‘real’ killers of Gandhi were

the anxiety-ridden, insecure, traditional elite concentrated in the urbanised, educated, partly Westernised, tertiary sector whose meaning of life Gandhian politics was taking away. Gandhi often talked about the heartlessness of the Indian literati. He paid with his life for that awareness.

Who really killed Gandhi? Are we not, all of us, in one way or another, responsible for his death? Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s chosen heir and successor admitted as much when he said, in speech at Jalandhar on 24 February 1948, ‘We are all responsible for this unprecedented tragedy’ and ‘It is a disgrace that [the] people of India could not save Mahatma Gandhi.'

Excerpted with permission from The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, Makarand R. Paranjape, Random House India.