In 1944, while Gandhi was staying at Panchgani, in Maharashtra, a group of around 25 young men staged a protest against his policies. Another protest was organised against Gandhi while he stayed in the sweepers’ colony in Delhi. Both the protests were carried out by the same men under the leadership of Narayan Dattatraya Apte.
A Brahmin from Pune, Narayan Apte was the son of Dattatreya Apte, a respected scholar and historian. Narayan earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Bombay University in 1932. After three years of unemployment, he was taken in as a tutor in Mission High School in Ahmednagar. He aspired to become a master in the field of education.
He started a shooting club in Ahmednagar that gained a lot of publicity, after which he accepted a teaching job at Ahmednagar. It was during this time when he married Champa, the daughter of an influential family from Pune. He too wanted to contribute to setting India free from the British. In 1939, Narayan Apte joined the Hindu Mahasabha, where he met his ally Nathuram Godse.
Savarkar’s The Indian War of Independence made its way to many revolutionary youths and eventually to Godse too. The book, which describes the 1857 revolt as a unified and national uprising of India as a nation against British authority, was seen at the time as highly inflammatory, and the Marathi edition was banned in British India even before its publication. Although this book was banned by the British administration, it was available for those who wanted it.
Godse and Apte found themselves gradually shifting from Gandhi’s principles to the revolutionary ideas of Savarkar. They were deeply influenced by his principles, both wanting the Hindus to become a rigidly closed religious group. They gradually came to believe that Mahatma Gandhi supported the Muslim minority at the cost of the Hindus.
Savarkar was arrested in 1910 for his connections with the revolutionary group India House. Following a failed attempt to escape while being transported from Marseilles, Savarkar was sentenced to two life terms – imprisonment totalling fifty years – and was moved to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but was released in 1921 after several mercy petitions to the Britishers.
In Ratnagiri jail, Savarkar wrote Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Godse and Apte were radicalised by Savarkar’s ideas and felt that Gandhi’s way of working was anti-national. The two men were friends for six years and then became business partners. On 28 March 1944, they jointly started the publication of a Marathi daily for the Hindu Mahasabha, Agrani, in Pune, which was later renamed as Hindu Rashtra. Godse was the editor and Apte the manager.
By early 1947, the Indian subcontinent stood on the verge of independence. People could feel that freedom would be granted by the imperial powers finally; it was just a matter of time now. However, a dark shadow was hovering over the nation. The idea of two nations – a separate nation for Muslims – was spreading like wildfire. A massive communal problem was emerging, and the partition of the subcontinent into two nation states seemed to be the only solution.
Extremists among both Hindu and Muslim communities had developed a mutual distrust and hatred for each other. Several regions of the country saw a breakdown of law and order, resulting in riots. Although initially, the Congress opposed the proposal for the division of the country, consistent reports of riots and skirmishes among the two religious groups forced them to reconsider the idea.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, once a prominent member of the Congress and now the leader of the Muslim League, stood stubborn on his demand for a separate nation for Muslims. Congress members, failing to find an alternate solution, increased pressure on Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.
Mahatma Gandhi stood firmly against the partition of the country, initiating another fast unto death. However, he was forced to discontinue it fearing that it may demoralise the nation. Nathuram learnt that Mahatma Gandhi had started a fast unto death to stop the Partition, but this did not change his attitude towards him.
He detested Gandhi’s belief in the oneness of god and the equality of all religions. Godse and his ilk considered these ideas to be at variance with their own Hindu beliefs. Various social reform programmes conducted by Gandhi, such as inter-caste marriages, highly distressed Godse who believed that Gandhi’s actions always evinced a bias for minority groups.
After spending around 200 years in India3, the British officially departed India on 15 August 1947. As the last act of imperial ruling, the subcontinent was divided into two independent nation states – India and Pakistan – initiating a transfer of population and property in both religious groups. The Partition brought havoc, tears and death. It triggered riots, mass casualties and a colossal wave of migration.
Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be a safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. Millions of people were eventually displaced – travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.
Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps. Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour, with up to 100,000 raped or abducted.
Godse and Apte watched the Partition and the horrors that ensued. They believed that Gandhi was responsible for it. Gradually, their hatred towards him started turning into an insidious conspiracy to assassinate him.
On 13 January, at the beginning of what would prove to be his last fast, the Mahatma said, “Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I should be a helpless witness of the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam”, and explained that his dream was for the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims of entire India to live together in amity.
At about five o’clock in the afternoon, the next day, the seventy-eight-year-old Gandhi, frail from fasting, was being helped across the gardens of Birla House. A huge crowd would gather to attend these meetings. On 30 January 1948, at the time of his evening prayer, a similar crowd waited for Gandhi. Unknown to all, would-be assailants Godse and Apte were a part of this crowd.
He was running a few minutes late for the meeting but when he emerged – supported by Abha and Manu, his constant companions – he looked fragile. While Gandhi climbed the steps of the raised lawn where he conducted his prayer meetings, Godse stepped out of the crowd to block Gandhi’s path, confronting him face to face. He bowed and pretended to touch his feet. Manuben objected to this.
Godse quickly raised himself, took out a pistol in full view of the crowd and aimed it at Gandhi. The distance between the two men was minimal. Godse did not falter in his mission as he pulled the trigger and shot Gandhi squarely in the chest three times. Gandhi collapsed and fell on Abhaben’s lap, murmuring, “Hey Ram.”
Godse’s radicalised mind had lost all rationality and was consumed with hatred for a man he had respected during his childhood.
Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were arrested along with six others involved in the assassination of Gandhi. During the trials, the perpetrators showed no remorse, claiming their actions were committed for the sake of the nation.
Godse’s reasons for assassinating Gandhi included Gandhi’s alleged attempt to sacrifice Hindu interests to appease minority groups and ultimately ended up blaming him for the Partition, which he believed could have been avoided. He recorded his reasoning in a 150-point statement, which he presented to the jury. Godse was kept in Ambala Jail and his trial lasted for over a year. He was sentenced to death on 8 November 1949 along with his co-conspirator Narayan Apte.
15 November 1949: Nathuram Godse emerged from his cell along with his companion Apte. As they were taken to the scaffold, Godse, in a hesitant voice, called out, “Akhand Bharat”. Apte completed his slogan by saying, “Amar rahe”. Those were the last words the men uttered. They were quiet after that till they were hanged.
Excerpted with permission from ‘, Bloomsbury India.