The evening of January 30, 1948, was a defining moment in Indian history. The Father of the nation was in the lawn of Birla House in Delhi, when a right wing advocate of Hindu nationalism, Nathuram Godse, walked up to him and fired three shots at point blank range. Gandhi died on spot jolting the barely six months old country into complete despair. Seven decades after the probe into the murder and the subsequent execution of the accused, a new petition has been filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging many facts in the case.
Petitioner Pankaj Phadnis, an independent researcher and co-founder of Abhinav Bharat (an organisation inspired by the ideologies of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar), wants to know whether anybody other than the accused had prior knowledge of the conspiracy to murder Gandhi. His petition is based on reportage and personal accounts pointing to the possibility of a fourth bullet being fired at Gandhi, but not from Godse’s pistol, suggesting that there could have been a second assassin.
Phadnis’ petition has come under heavy criticism, particularly from historians and intellectuals, who consider it to be an attempt to free the political descendants of Gandhi’s murderers from the burden of guilt. “These are political statements to confuse the issue, to denigrate people and to defend those who are responsible. The idea is to take the burden of the guilt, off the communalists of this country,” says historian Aditya Mukherjee. While the political motivation behind Phadnis’ petition can hardly be ignored, there are some interesting questions that his fourth bullet theory raises about the investigation of Gandhi’s assassination.
What is the evidence for the fourth bullet in Phadnis’ petition?
The pieces of evidence laid out by Phadnis include four media clippings of the reportage of Gandhi’s murder. The reports belong to Dawn, Reuters, Times of India and Loksatta, each of which clearly mention in their copies dated January 31, 1948 that four shots were fired at Gandhi. Apart from the news reports shown by Phadnis, he also explained that the board outside Gandhi’s bedroom in Birla house, that displays an eyewitness account of his death, speaks about four shots being fired and that a photograph published by the newspaper Hindu also show the existence of four wounds on Gandhi’s body.
“There are multiple records of people saying four bullets were fired. Seventy years later, this should not be a controversy at all,” says Phadnis.
While the media clippings referred to by Phadnis do corroborate his claim, the police records of the case as reproduced in Manohar Malgonkar’s book, “The men who killed Gandhi”, are not in line with the claim. Each of the accounts point to witnesses being aware of three shots fired by Godse at point blank range and do not mention the occurrence of a fourth shot at all. Other newspapers, namely the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Washington Post and the Hindustan Times reported three shots fired at Gandhi. It is to be noted that while the Times of India did report that “the Father of the Nation was shot four times,” they immediately followed it by saying “three bullets struck the Mahatma.” However, there is one report in the Guardian, published on January 31, 1948, that speaks of a fourth shot, but claims that it was an attempt by Godse to kill himself after the assassination. “The man, who gave his name as Nathuram, fired a fourth shot, apparently in an effort to kill himself, but a Royal Indian Air Force sergeant standing alongside jolted his arm and wrenched the pistol away,” says the report. However, on investigating further, no other report could be recovered that point to the possibility of Godse’s suicide attempt.
Phadnis has further corroborated his theory of a fourth bullet with evidence of a hand written account of Manuben Gandhi (grand niece of Mahatma Gandhi) as noted in her personal diary. “Police say they found two bullets at the spot. One remained in the body and was found in the ashes. So every bullet has been accounted for. So there was no scope for a bullet to be found anywhere else. But Manuben’s account in her handwritten diary, which I have annexed in the petition, very clearly says she found one bullet in Gandhi’s shawl when he was being given the last bath. Where did this bullet come from? Why have these four bullets been converted into three?,” questions Phadnis.
He goes on to explain the importance of the fourth bullet by stating that Godse’s pistol could fire only seven bullets. “Police records suggest that four bullets were recovered and three bullets fired. So all seven bullets of Godse were accounted for. But you have evidence of four bullets found. So where did this fourth bullet come from?” says Phadnis.
What do historians have to say about the fourth bullet?
Responding to the newspaper clippings provided by Phadnis, historian and one of the authors of the book, “RSS, school texts and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu communal project,” Mukherjee said history is not written on the basis of clippings, but on enormous amount of diaries and newspapers and thousands and thousands of pages of newspapers. “I don’t pick up just two clippings from here and three from there and one statement made somewhere and form a theory. That is not how history is written.” He goes on to add that “ We have to see through these clippings. We need to see what happened after that. If someone writes an article on a certain date, if I am a good historian I will follow the story through and see what happens over the next six months. But I must trust that the historian has seen all sides of the story. At the moment, I don’t see somebody trying to arrive at truth.”
Asked why historians have not paid attention to sources pointing towards a fourth bullet, Mukherjee explained that “ historians take into account what is the most relevant. If you write history, there are innumerable facts. So many facts that nobody can put them together. So when you write history, you choose some out of them. So obviously, the historians from all hues, left, right and centre, did not find these facts about the fourth bullet most critical. Neither did they find the evidence, nor this line of enquiry the most important one.”
The Director of Gandhi museum in Delhi, A. Annamalai, responded to Phadnis’ petition stating that as per his research, there is no evidence of a fourth bullet at all and this is just the imagination of the petitioner. “As far as my knowledge goes, there were only three bullets and three wounds. There is no substantial evidence of a fourth bullet or a second assassin. Further, Godse had himself claimed that he killed Gandhi. When the party himself has claimed that he committed the crime, then why are we speculating about a second assassin? These things are just his imagination,” said Annamalai.
Phadnis thinks he knows the second assassin
Phadnis explains that he suspects British involvement in the matter. He believes that the motive of the British in murdering Gandhi was to sabotage the Gandhi-Jinnah peace project, thereby creating lifelong tensions between India and Pakistan. “The British were bankrupt, they wanted money. They wanted exports. What better way to increase exports than creating enmity between India and Pakistan because if there is no enmity between India and Pakistan, Lahore would import from Amritsar and Mumbai would import from Karachi. But since there was enmity they would both import from London. The British had the motive and the means. What remains to be investigated is if they did it at all,” said Phadnis.
The evidence listed here is a document, which Phadnis claims originated at the British Embassy in Moscow and sent to Foreign Office in London, that mentions a conversation between Vijaylakshmi Pundit and ambassadors of few East European countries, referring to the “wickedness of the British in organising this dastardly act of murder.” Phadnis further notes the existence of a secret agency of the British called Force 136 as part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). “Force 136 had authorisation to do all kinds of illegal things which a normal soldier could not be ordered to do. Incidentally, it had authorisation to kill Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose,” says Phadnis. “I believe that the second assassin was an agent of Force 136,” he added.
Responding to Phadnis’s claim of British involvement, Mukherjee says that neither is the report from the British Embassy at Moscow an official document, nor is he aware of the existence of Force 136. He adds that “researchers have worked for years on what was the British strategy of the time. The murder of the Mahatma does not even fit in anywhere in all the analysis that has been done. This is one of those wild shots that is being thrown.”
How does this theory change perception about the case?
Mukherjee notes that “If Phadnis’ evidence is proven to be true, the present state of history writing and politics will become more complex, but it will not change anything.You cannot change the fact that the communal Hindu Right did what they did. The fact that Godse fired a bullet also does not change. If another person fired a bullet, for whatever reason there might be and if evidence comes to it, we will be enlightened.”