“Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. Our beloved leader Bapu, as we called him, the father of the nation is no more. The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. In a thousand years, the light will still be seen…The world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented more than the immediate present, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.”
So spoke Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in an emotional broadcast to the nation exactly 72 years ago on January 30, 1948. The light went out after three bullets fired by Nathuram Godse, which felled Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. Godse, a Champawat brahmin from Maharashtra, had conspired to kill the Mahatma as part of a conspiracy hatched by his brother Gopal Godse, Madan Lal Pahwa — a refugee from Punjab — and a few others which, allegedly, had links with Nagpur and Mumbai. Madan Lal Pahwa had made an attempt to kill Gandhi by throwing a bomb at the same venue, and almost the same time, at his regular prayer meeting at Birla House (Tees January Marg) 10 days earlier. But the attempt failed as the bomb fell far away from the target. Pahwa was caught and though he revealed the names of individuals and organisations who were co-conspirators, the intelligence agencies of the home ministry could not act with swiftness. The Mahatma’s passionate efforts to promote Hindu-Muslim unity and fraternal ties with Pakistan were the two prime factors that motivated Godse and his accomplices to get rid of him.
On January 13, 1948, Gandhiji had started what was to be his last fast. The riots against Muslims in Delhi, as also against Hindus in Pakistan, and the Indian government’s refusal to pay Pakistan a sum of Rs 55 crore it owed to the newly-created state as part of an understanding reached at the time of Partition compelled Mahatma Gandhi to undertake the fast. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, despite their unwillingness, gave in to the Mahatma’s pressure and released the sum on January 14 itself.
But not till he was given firm assurances by the representatives of Hindu and Sikh communities that they will not indulge in violence against Muslims, did Gandhi break his fast on January 18, 1948. A pledge signed by a Central Peace committee, headed by Dr Rajendra Prasad, Congress president as well as President of the Constituent Assembly, gave the following assurance: “We shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place will not happen again.” About 117 mosques, occupied by Hindu refugees, were returned to Muslims along with other residential and commercial properties belonging to them.
Acharya Kripalani, one of the earliest associates of Gandhi, and Congress president at the time of Independence, wrote: “The most cruel part of this tragedy is not only the death of Gandhiji. It is that he fell by the blow struck by one who considered himself a Hindu, against one who had ordered his life in the spirit of the Upanishad and the Gita…The assassin has betrayed the whole history of Hinduism…Hindus have not only tolerated but even welcomed differences in belief…it was for such misguided people, who injure their religion while seeking to protect it through violence and murder that it was said: ‘God, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.”
However, Gandhi’s death wrought a miracle. India reacted to the ghastly crime with a resolve and determination to preserve and protect the patrimony he left behind. Throughout the country the people responded as one to the appeals of Nehru and Patel in the face of the great national calamity. In his broadcast Patel appealed to the people “not to think of revenge, but to carry Bapu’s message of love and non-violence enunciated by him…it is a shame that the greatest man in the world had to pay with his life for the sins which we have committed.” After the immersion of his ashes in the Ganga, Nehru said that “we have to hold together and fight the terrible poison of communalism that has killed the greatest man of our age.”
There is, many times, a blessing in disguise whenever a disaster takes place. And the greatest blessing of the tragedy was an instant emotional unity between Nehru and Patel, who were drifting apart on various issues. The powerful duo resolved their differences and assured each other of affection and cooperation with a renewed energy to protect the hard-won freedom from external and internal threats. Two days after the assassination Patel told a journalist: “Nehru and he had instinctively felt that they must come together in the face of the crisis. We owe it to the country.” Few months later, the Sardar paid the following tribute to Pt. Nehru in a commemorative volume brought out on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the country’s most beloved Prime Minister: “Gifted with idealism of a high order of…equipped with an infinite capacity to manetise and inspire others, and a personality which would be remarkable in any gathering of the world’s foremost men, Jawaharlal has grown from strength to strength…The sincerity of his convictions, the breadth of his outlook, the clarity of his vision and the purity of his emotions, all these have brought to him the homage of millions in this country and outside. It was, therefore, in the fitness of things that in the twilight preceding the dawn of independence, he should have been our leading light and that, when India was faced with crisis after crisis, he should have been the upholder of our faith, and the leader of our legions.”
Today when India pays homage to the ‘greatest Indian ever’, we must remember that both Nehru and Patel, the two top trusted lieutenants of Mahatma, also deserve to be equally revered. Trying to separate the two for selfish political goals is the biggest disservice one can render to the sacred memory of the father of the nation.
(The writer, an ex Army Officer is a former member of National Commission for Minorities and a political analyst propagating secular unity)