Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Tragic Assassination : Gandhiji's Last Walk to Immortality

An imposing building swathed in a shimmer of white - Gandhi Smriti, known earlier as Birla House [erstwhile home to the family of Late Ghanshyam Das Birla] - stands majestically on Tees January Marg [visuals on the right and below], the cross-over between Akbar Road and Albuquerque Road in New Delhi. An eerie silence awaits you on arrival and a feeling of tranquility prevails all-round, at what used to be a site pulsating with activity at one point of time. This is where Gandhiji spent the last 144 days of his life. The typical old world charm of the building with its huge glass doors and wooden panels and diminutive window panes, the protuberant arches and sandstone steps, all add up to a grandeur reflecting the vestiges of a glorious past.

As you enter the modest gate [visual below left] and walk along the pathway, you have the huge white mansion on the right, part of which has been converted to a picture gallery. These small wooden gates apparently relate their own tale for despite the apparent threat to Gandhiji's life, they were left unguarded except for the routine security that was deployed at the entrance, which apparently didn't even carry out a routine check on the people entering or leaving the premises. On the fateful day - 30th of January 1948, a stout young man of average built in a khaki tunic and blue trousers managed to gain surreptitious entry throught these very gates armed with a 38 caliber Baretta pistol of Italian manufacture to carry out a sinister mission that continues to be referred to as one of the most sordid chapters in world history.

The room where Gandhiji spent his last days is still maintained in its quint-essential state, with his bed, writing table, charkha, sandals, a mattress and other sundry items all tidily arranged, recreating his frugal living [visual to the left shows the open doorway leading up to Gandhiji's living room]. Just outisde the room is another adjoining portion overlooking the backyard, where Gandhiji received visitors, generally twice a day. This was where some of the most important decisions with regard to the nation's constitutional framework to general political and administrative functioning were deliberated and decided upon and Gandhiji was a pivotal figurehead in each one of these discussion rounds. It was unanimously felt that no major decision could be taken without his consent and approval.

Beyond the building is the garden porch, slightly raised above ground level with its lush greenery, overlooking another small perimeter of green-open space [visual to the right]. After a reconaissance of the building interiors, as you move further down the pathway, you are led to an arch-like entrance that opens out to the lush greenery [visual below left]. This was the pathway used by the people who used to be a part of the prayer meetings of Gandhiji that used to be held as a ritual at 5 p.m. every evening. One can well imagine that Gandhiji's assassin and his other accomplices used this very entrance to carry out their sinister task. The visual on the right gives a broadside view of the main entrance and the pathway on the right that leads up to the garden porch and slightly beyond that, the small portion above ground level leading up to the prayer ground. A steel barricade separates the main pathway and the garden porch. The memorial erected at the spot where Gandhiji attained martyrdom can be seen at the farthest right. On the opposite side is the small pathway that Gandhiji took on the fateful day of his assassination.

The lush greenery is otherwise barren except for an isolated stele (a 'smriti chinha') [visual to the right] made of marble at the extreme end traces back one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the relam of Indian nay world history, which has been erected as a mark of tribute to the memory of one, who, in the words of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, represented ‘the eternal truth, who spiritually and politically led the nation on the path of independence’. Bapu – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who for two generations symbolized the collective conscience of the nation, who attained martyrdom at this very spot – shot at point blank range – 58 years ago.
More than 500 people had congregated across the green open space on the fateful day – 30th of January, 1948 – for what used to be Gandhiji’s prayer meet, where chanting of hymns from various scriptures used to be followed by Gandhiji’s brief but cerebral snap of words & intonations. At the far end of the garden porch still stands the sandstone mound where Gandhiji used to sit facing the audience. The backdoor leads out to a small path strewn with red terracotta steps running parallel to the one from the main entrance, which symbolically recreate Gandhiji’s last walk to the prayer meeting [visual above right].

Ten days earlier, on the 20th of January, there was an abortive attempt to assassinate him, even as a crude bomb exploded by Madanlal Pahwa, a refugee from the Punjab apparently meant as a signal for the other conspirators to attack Gandhiji, proved a failure. Ten days later, the gruesome plot was reorganized. However, this time it would be a one-man act and the others would stand vigil in case of any eventuality. That one man was Nathuram Vinayakrao Godse, belonging to the clan of ‘Chitpawan’ Brahmins, whose lineage could be traced back to the Peshwas. Believed to be the antecedents of the Quintessential Hindu class, the community was stridently militant towards the Muslims and followed the theory of ‘absolutism’ or racial Hindu supremacy. Abhorring the seemingly pro-Muslim sentiment of Gandhiji, it perceived him as a threat to their ‘ancient’ religious order. Nathuram, by profession was the editor of a newspaper, ‘Agrani’ (‘Hindu Rashtra’), whose editorials were supposedly caustic in their pro-Hindu overtones. Infuriated at what he misguidedly felt could be ‘the dark future of Hinduism if left to face Islam from outside and Gandhiji inside’, he decided to carry out a ghastly act that would shock the entire world.

Even after the initial attempt on Gandhiji’s life had failed, there was no effort to beef up his security, partly due to Gandhiji’s own intransigence at not allowing the entrants to the site to be checked for arms or ammunition. So much so that on the fateful day, when a stout man in a Khakhi tunic walked up to the Birla House, armed with a Baretta pistol, nobody was there to stop or debar him from entering. At ten minutes to five, Gandhiji was engrossed in a heated conversation with Sardar Patel, whose relationship with Nehru had run into rough weather. Nehru’s socialist-idealism was anathema to Patel’s staunch realism and the feud had now reached a veritable flashpoint. Gandhiji admonished Patel in his attempts to palliate the differences, which were likely to have disastrous consequences for a country just freed from the fetters of colonial rule. As it was now ten minutes past five, Abha, his grand niece, summoned the courage to gently point this out to Gandhiji who stole a glance at his Nickel-coated Ingersoll watch and almost instantly excused himself to undertake his final journey into the hallways of immortality.

On the other side of the building is a smaller pathway that also leads to the garden porch, which traces Gandhiji's 'Last Walk to Immortality'. The short walk up to the prayer site was peppered with juvenile talks between Gandhiji and his grand-nieces. ‘I hate to be late even by a minute for the prayer meet. Why should I keep an eye on my watch? You are my time-keepers’. As the seconds kept ticking by, Gandhiji and his entourage ascended the sandstone steps that led up to the prayer site. It was now ten minutes past five as the skyline was aglow with an orangish hue of the twilight hour. Gandhiji took his hands off the shoulders of his grand-nieces and greeted the crowd with a namaste. This was the moment that beckoned Nathuram, who realised there could not be a more providential moment for him to carry out his deed. As he rushed out of the crowd and surged forward, he initially attempted to prostrate himself before Gandhiji. At this Manu, one of Gandhiji's grand-nieces, gently beckoned him not to obstruct Bapu as he was already late for his prayers. Just then, in a split second, three violent sounds shattered the stillness of the atmosphere. The trigger of the Baretta pistol was pulled only once but three bullets passed by and tore violently into the chest of Gandhiji’s, who collapsed almost instantly and in a matter of minutes, his body went still and motionless. The shining-white Ingersoll watch fell off Gandhiji’s hips and stopped instantly. It was seventeen minutes past five. Brigadier Chandiwalla, one of Gandhiji’s disciples who was just a few centimeters behind Gandhiji recalls – ‘As I lifted my head, my eyes fell on the blood flowing along the left side of Bapu’s cotton shawl, even as he collapsed on Abha’s lap, As he fell, twice he exclaimed – ‘He Ram’.

This was the second crucifixion in history, on a Friday – the same day when Jesus was put to death 1916 years ago.