Memories long consigned to oblivion get re-ignited by stray events. The controversy following the mention of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Vinayak Godse on 30 January 1948 at Birla House, Delhi, brought back memories of a discussion with one of the finest individuals this columnist has ever met, Astad Dinshaw Gorwala. Then in his teens, the gap of half a century between this columnist and Gorwala did not prevent a friendship where the college student spent several late afternoons at the former civil servant’s apartment in (what was then named) Ridge Road in Mumbai, talking about a country that seemed to be moving towards a direction undeserving of the genius and qualities of its people. White-haired, passionate about wrongs both real and perceived, Gorwala in effect held a series of lecture classes for a single student on the country’s leaders and their shortcomings. His writing was fierce, so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that his column got stopped in the Times of India. Not finding — or trusting — any existing newspaper to carry his views sans censorship, Gorwala launched Opinion in 1960, a journal to which this columnist contributed a few articles before it was stopped in 1975 after the declaration of the Emergency, but not before its editor had penned a sharp rebuke of Indira Gandhi. Gorwala was impeccable in his conduct, whether in office or out of it, but saw clearly that not all his former colleagues in the ICS favoured that difficult path. One of his edits was headlined “Liengar”, a commentary on then RBI Governor H.V.R. Iyengar, who had clearly been responsible for some action seen by Gorwala as indefensible.
During an afternoon spent discussing the points that could be made in an article, Gorwala became silent, and disappeared into his own thoughts for many minutes. After a pause, he began speaking very slowly and deliberately of a conversation he had had in 1949 with a police officer about the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. According to this official, British authorities were aware of the plan by Nathuram Godse and his associates to kill the Mahatma, yet did nothing about it. Indeed, they were asked to ignore the developing plot, which had been reported by them to “the highest authority”, which would mean Governor-General Lord Louis Mountbatten. Gorwala recounted what the police official (who was a Briton) had told him, which was that they were ordered to keep information secret (about the Godse plot) from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Ballabhbhai Patel. Interestingly, Godse had come close to killing the Mahatma four years earlier, when, armed with a knife, he stalked him during a meeting, only to be pushed away by a policeman. And ten days before Gandhiji met his end, Godse’s friends were caught while detonating a guncotton bomb, and had their room searched and themselves tailed.
After the Mahatma was assassinated, the officer and his mates were warned by a superior not to mention the warnings or the surveillance. His presumption was that the concealment was ordered in order to avoid the obloquy that would ensue should it become known that Gandhiji could have been saved, but many years later, Gorwala had a different theory.
In his view, a cold-blooded decision may have been taken that the Mahatma was now expendable and that his sudden death would weaken the position of Home Minister Patel, whom the British disliked for his post-1947 firmness in rejecting views seen as less than fair to India’s interests. Was Prime Minister Nehru told of the plot? Gorwala was no admirer of India’s first Prime Minister, but he was certain that Nehru had been kept in the dark. “The English knew that Panditji’s emotion usually got the best of his intellect in any encounter with the facts.” Nehru loved Gandhiji and would never have allowed him to die. Neither would Patel have, had he known of the plot in the detail mentioned by the police officer. But then Gorwala felt he was perhaps being unfair on the British, a race he respected, so he gave the police officer’s alternative view, which was that the few in the know simply refused to believe that Nathuram Godse would actually see the plot through, and therefore did not take him seriously. However, the official claimed that Godse had been shadowed by plainclothes police on his way to Birla House, and that his procurement of a Beretta semi-automatic revolver became known to the Intelligence Bureau before 30 January.
The excuse, that Mountbatten spoke off the cuff when he shouted out that “it was a Hindu who did it”, has been accepted by all, so incurious are we about our history. But the Viceroy was known to have a military punctiliousness, and was not given to wild conjectures.
How was the Governor-General sure that it was a Hindu who killed Gandhiji just minutes after the assassination, when nothing was certain except that a titan had fallen? Whether it be the murder of the Mahatma or the manner of the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, successive governments in India have refused to allow citizens to look beyond the canned explanations of sarkari historians or the official recounters of events. The death of the Mahatma at the hands of a Hindu became the excuse to make India the only democracy where discrimination against the majority community has become the norm.