The view of Connaught Place’s Outer Circle from the Radisson Blu Marina reveals a city centre which has seen better days. In 1948, it was simply the Marina Hotel, one of the first hotels to come up in “new” Delhi. Owned by Haji Hafiz Mohammad Ismail Japanwala and his brother Haji Mohammad Ibrahim Japanwala, one of the oldest Muslim families of Delhi, this was where Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte had checked in on January 17.
“During the Partition, Ibrahim left with his family for Pakistan; his brother Ismail’s family — my great-grandfather — stayed back,” says Afshan Japanwala, the 35-year-old owner and great granddaughter of Ismail Japanwala. The rooms in which Godse and Apte lived have not survived.
From here, Narayan Apte and Co would launch the first of two attempts on Mahatma Gandhi’s life in January 1948. “Until this time, Apte was the leader of the gang,” says Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s great-grandson, who spent four years researching the January 30 conspiracy for his book Let’s Kill Gandhi. The map of their operations was spread across a tiny radius, Connaught Place to Mandir Marg and Birla House, where Gandhi was on his last fast.
On Tees January Marg, Ashok Kumar, the 59-year-old estate manager of Gandhi Smriti and its oldest employee, shrugs at reports that the Hindu Mahasabha in Meerut has proposed a temple to Godse. “Whatever they might say, at the end of the day, Godse was a killer, wasn’t he?” he says.
He has been here since 1973, when the sprawling house where Gandhi was killed was turned into a memorial. In 1972, Kumar, a 17-year-old high school dropout from Dhadhou village in Mathura district, found a job as a labourer at Birla House, lugging photographs from room to room.
He stayed on, educating himself on Gandhi and the freedom movement. “I resumed studies, and earned a Bachelor’s degree from IGNOU. Of course, it was in history,” he says. Of the many visitors he has seen at Birla House, one he remembers particularly: Gopal Godse, who visited it in the 1970s after his release from jail. “I did not ask him about the murder, or why he was here. To us, he was like any other visitor,” he says.
Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life in a bare room at Birla House. When he arrived here a month after Independence, September 1947, he wrote that he found “gay Delhi” transformed into “a city of the dead”. Less than a week ago, he had performed the “miracle of Calcutta”, getting rioting Muslims and Hindus to cease killing each other by going on a three-day fast.
In Delhi, too, he found anger everywhere. At his prayer meetings, Hindu refugees from Pakistan objected to passages from Quran being read out. Meanwhile, his disciples Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel had decided not to give Pakistan its share of the money Britain owed to the two nations (Rs 55 crore), in the light of the attack in Kashmir.
On January 13, saddened by another spiral of communal violence in Delhi, he would go on a fast again, hoping to dissuade Nehru and Patel from reneging on a bilateral agreement.
In Pune, the news of the fast electrified Godse and Apte. It was a “final betrayal”.
“At that time, Nehru and Patel thought it was an impractical to think of giving Pakistan that money. But Gandhi’s sense of dharma being more defined than others, he was against going back on our word,” says Sucheta Mahajan, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Tushar Gandhi counters the allegation that Gandhi had sold out. “This was a pact signed after Independence by two sovereign nations. You cannot expect the Mahatma to be a moral force, and criticise him when he refuses to condone an immoral act.”
The Delhi Godse and Apte arrived in was in tumult. It was a city struggling to cope with waves of traumatised Hindu and Sikh refugees. Many Muslim families had empied out of their Old Delhi homes and were camping in Purana Qila, before they left for Pakistan.
As Gandhi carried on his fast, groups of Hindus, angered by his stance on Pakistan, would walk up to Birla House crying, “Marta hai toh marne do.” “In a sense, it was the Partition which had given Hindu Mahasabha and other communal forces an opportunity that they never had,” says Mahajan.
They were joined by an arms dealer from Pune, Digambar Badge; his servant Shankar Kistayya; a Hindu Mahasabha worker from Ahmednagar, Vishnu Karkare; a refugee from Punjab, Madanlal Pahwa, and Nathuram’s brother, Gopal Godse. Badge brought the explosives; Gopal Godse, who had served in the army, a revolver.
After the assassination, Badge would turn approver. According to his statement to the police, the group met at the Hindu Mahasabha on Mandir Marg to finalise their plan. In the dense woods behind it, they practised firing their arms. Gopal’s revolver, it turned out, was too rusted to go off. This was not a particularly efficient group of assassins.
By January 18, Gandhi’s self-deprivation was working again. A peace committee of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, including representatives from Karol Bagh, Sabzi Mandi and Paharganj, the colonies worst-hit by the riots, signed a pledge, promising Gandhi that violence would cease. At his insistence, the document was recorded in both Persian and Devanagari scripts, the Harijan reported.
Two days later, on the evening of January 20, the gang was at Gandhi’s prayer meeting. The plan went like this: Pahwa would explode a bomb, and taking advantage of the confusion, Badge and Kistayya, stationed at the servant quarters in front of which he held his prayer meeting, would fire at Gandhi’s back.
“Badge realised that there was no way Kistayya and he would be able to get out after the shots were fired, while the rest would go scot free,” says Tushar Gandhi. Pahwa set off the bomb. But Badge slipped out with Kistayya, without pulling the trigger.
The plan had failed.
Later, Nathuram Godse denied he had anything to do with the January 20 bombing, despite the testimonies of Pahwa, Badge, and numerous eyewitnesses at Birla House, as well as a trail of evidence (laundry with the initials NVG was found at the Marina Hotel rooms). It is a line which the Godses stick to even today.
Pahwa was arrested on the spot, and revealed the plot, including the involvement of the editors of Pune’s Dainik Agrani. “They will be back,” he said.
Mahatma Gandhi had ten days to live.
(Tomorrow: The weapon and the assassination)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines