On January 20, 1998, exactly 50 years after having exploded a gun cotton-slab 150 feet away from the Mahatma at Birla House, Madanlal Pahwa is at peace. He waits, however, for accomplice Gopal Godse's call from Pune, "at quarter-rate timings, only to inquire about personal things". Thus the 71-year-old who runs Commercial Services, a poky placement agency in Bombay, mourns not the passing of an era. Nor for that matter, the passing of Gandhi.
The fire has indeed flickered low. Ravaged by advancing age and renal failure, Pawha marks out his days by a twice-a-week dialysis. If prodded, he haltingly walks the past, throwing up glimpses of the original angry young man. "I'm happy I've done something for my country and I am still proud of it," he says. The resolution to execute the first warning to Gandhi was borne out of the Mahatma's alleged posturing to please Pakistan. "I had another hand grenade in my hand," recollects Pahwa, "but our intention was only to convey the message to Gandhi that Pakistan did not deserve Rs 55 crore."
The severe stance adopted by Pahwa, as a young former warrant officer of the Indian Navy, was a direct fallout of the shocking sights and sounds of Partition. Born in Pakpattan in district Montgomery, now in West Pakistan, Partition compelled Pahwa and his family to flee the horrors that descended upon his hometown. Twenty members of the Pahwa clan who chose to travel by train met a tragic end at Dhundia—massacred by marauding hordes. Pahwa and a maternal aunt, who trudged 60 miles to enter India, escaped. But by then, he was already a prisoner of Partition. Haunted by the ghosts of the immediate past, Pahwa emerged as a reactionary—rejecting the study money sanctioned by the government after his voluntary retirement from the defence and refusing to consider angling for the post of a sub-inspector. "By then I hated the Muslims so much, I just wanted revenge," he remembers.
Revenge and the compelling thirst for it transformed Pahwa into a man on the run. Having joined the Hindu Raj Sena headed by Dr D.S. Parchure, life revolved around a one-point agenda: "To fight the Mohammedans". A warrant for his arrest forced him to flee to Bombay where he enlisted with a refugee group in suburban Chembur. Throughout, he never forgave Pakistan—and after the Noakhali massacre, Gandhiji was included in this circle of hate.
"I met Nathuram Godse for the first time on December 14, 1947. By January 17, 1948, all of us had assembled in Delhi. On January 18, I was arrested because I had disrupted Nehru's speech at Subzi Mandi with anti-Pakistan slogans and had dared to touch Indira's hand. Nehru was furious but I told him: 'You are disturbed because I only touched your daughter's hand—what about us who have seen our mothers, sisters and daughters raped before our eyes?'" Pahwa was arrested and released, only to be arrested two days later in the abortive attempt to kill Gandhiji.
Pahwa recalls a complete absence of apprehension as he readied himself for the act. His co-conspirators had already milled around for the Mahatma's prayer meeting—Narayanrao Apte, Nathuram Godse, Gopal Godse included. "For 10 days after my arrest, I was tortured in police custody. I kept repeating that I was a Punjabi and I didn't know anything about these Maharashtrians they were looking for. My father, a Congressman, had already disowned me, so information from that source was sealed. I was the only son of my father's first wife and since I didn't get along with my stepmother, my father's attitude did not bother me.Of course, I did not tell the police this: that Gandhi's days were numbered. Revolutionaries who visited me in prison informed me that within 10 days Gandhi would be dead."
To the present-day generation, the failed attempt of January 20, 1948, has made a blip out of Madanlal Pahwa. "In my opinion Gandhi ruined this country. I regret I wasn't the man who killed him. I lost that chance."
Sentenced to life, Pahwa claims that in the Punjab jail he was treated like a hero. "The Punjabis had experienced the pain of Partition—but the Maharashtrians hadn't. Gopal Godse had a rough time," he remembers. When finally released on November 14, 1964, Pahwa emerged with an MA degree in hand from Allahabad University. That qualification paled in comparison with his police record. After a short stint assisting the Gujarat Hindu Mahasabha president Maganlal Hirji Vyas in his legal practice at Masjid Bunder, Pahwa ventured into small-time business. Along the way, he took the matrimonial plunge; set up home and business at Dadar; but always had the police shadowing him. "Whenever presidents and prime ministers came visiting to Mumbai, the police would land up at home," says wife Manjari.
Today, Madanlal Pahwa is a man without a mission. "By the time I got back from prison, everything had changed. The Hindu Mahasabha was finished and I wanted no part of it. Also, a generation that loved the nation was replaced by a Westernised one. I rejected politics and have left Gopal Godse to do all the talking. The BJP-RSS disassociation from our act has not disillusioned me... they have their own political interests. I am an old man now and every time I return from dialysis, it seems I have been given a new life. These are bonus days." The man who, 50 years ago, had exploded on to the front pages of newspapers across the nation, now simpers in appeals to fund his dialysis. Then, he drops a quiet bombshell: "If the deed were to be repeated today, all the Congressmen and Leftists would have to be bombed out."