February 18, 2020
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Witness To A Murder

Time stood still at 5.17 pm on January 30, 1948, for those present at Delhi's Birla House as Godse's bullets found their mark

Witness To A Murder

Raghu maali was the first to act. The old gardener was guarding his precious flower-patch from the jostling crowds at the prayer meeting when, at 5.17 pm, the three shots rang out. Raghu sprang to the defence of his beloved "Gandhi baba", flinging his khurpi (grass-cutter) at the assassin, roaring with rage, as he strong-armed Nathuram Godse to the ground. Gandhian businessman Nandlal Mehta, shocked into abandoning all precepts of non-violence, twirled and slapped Godse hard, twice on both cheeks and once again.

Young UPI (United Press of India) correspondent Sailen Chatterjee, following just a few steps behind, saw Manu raise her hand, saw Gandhi fall and rushed into the fray. The Mahatma was soaked in blood. Chatterjee was faced with a dilemma: should he stay here or relay the news? In a flash he knew he must do a reporter's duty and ran to the telephone, through the screaming, running crowds. Manno Devi, wife of the Birla House sweeper, who used to warm Gandhiji's bathwater, heard the commotion and rushed to find her five-year-old son. Gathering him in her arms, she ran to her hut through the chaos, whispering numbly to the wide-eyed little boy," maar diya, re, Gandhiji ko maar diya ."

"We didn't know what would happen next," says Manno Devi urgently, frail, almost blinded with cataract, an 84-year-old great-grandmother who used to watch from a distance as Gandhi sat spinning in the Birla House garden. "It was everyone for himself. Would the police come? Would we be arrested? Would my husband be put in jail...the world had turned upside down, anything could happen."

In far away Bahawalpur, Gandhi's personal physician Sushila Nayar was about to sip her tea. Suddenly a woman came running in: "Mahatma Gandhi has been shot dead." Nayar's cup trembled, she went to the High Commissioner's house to request a car. "I kept telling myself, nothing will happen. Once I get there, I will look after bapu." Then the AIR broadcast Nehru, tremulous, hopeless: "The light has gone out." Nayar, in tears, flew back by the first flight, arriving just as the cortege was leaving Birla House. "Nehru pulled me up on the gun carriage. I wept. I buried my face in his body. He was like my father." Nayar recalls. "Then I walked all the way to Raj Ghat behind the body."

Now a heart patient, unable to walk unsupported, with thick glasses and shaking hands, Nayar, twice Union minister for health, once went to Birla House alone to pray on January 30, years after Bapu's death. She heard a sound and turned. Jawaharlal stood behind her, without any security guards, head bowed. "We both prayed, for ourselves who were alive and for our young country for which Bapu had given his life."

 Kirpal Kaur, daughter of Sir Datar Singh and today a 74-year-old devotee of Ma Anandamayee, arrived at Birla House an hour after the assassination. "There was a hush, crowds everywhere, everyone was dumbfounded, the hysteria was over, there was only sorrow, deepest sorrow." A few minutes ago, Gandhi's body had been brought in from the prayer site, one of the aides had been telephoning the hospitals: "Please...a doctor? Gandhiji is injured." "It was so very different in those days," Chatterjee recalls. "There were few hospitals, even fewer doctors." Finally, after what seemed like an interminably long time, civil surgeon Bhargava from Willingdon hospital arrived and, deadly quiet, he announced: "Life has gone."

Kirpal remembers the long line of people. Nehru walking in quickly, putting his head in the lap of political adversary Sardar Patel and weeping like a baby. "I met you in the afternoon," said the prime minister. "You never told me you would leave me." "They took his body in to be bathed," Kirpal recalls, "and I thought, my God, it is so cold, will they bathe him in cold water?" As the frail, old body was lifted, Chatterjee saw the injuries. "From the back, all the bones had come out. There were two bullets in the chest, one in the stomach. Blood, blood everywhere."

 Political leaders, the Birla ladies, other officials, Gandhi's trusted secretary Pyarelal (and Nayar's older brother), his aide Bishanbhai all walked in and out of his room. And outside in the silent, grieving throng there was not a skirmish, no anger, not one raised voice. "Indira's son said when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. Gandhi was surely a bigger tree...but the earth didn't shake," Nayar says.

Through the night there was singing, Chatterjee remembers. Manu and Abha sang bhajans. Kirpal and others recited the Sukhmani Sahib paath. The body was taken to the roof so that people could see it better. "We shivered in our huts," Manno Devi remembers. "We could not eat. Nobody ate that day and night at all. How could we?" Manno Devi and her husband used to look after the goat which provided the milk that Gandhiji drank. That night, as the dough for rotis lay untouched, the animal wandered into the kitchen and ate up all of it. The goat died at night, its belly swollen, its eyes popping out.

 The next day, Indira Gandhi arrived with huge amounts of flowers. She and aunt Krishna Hutheesing decorated the body. "What a job, cleaning the lawn!" Manno Devi exclaims. "Chappals, jholas, papers, everything strewn around and people just kept bringing more and more flowers." Thousands collected as "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram" was sung. Sucheta Kripalani sang " kar le sringar chatur albele, tujhe saajan ke paas jaana hoga (dress up, faithful devotee, you must go to your god)." Then the gun carriage rolled away, with Nehru, Patel and Maulana Azad riding on top, to Raj Ghat where Devadas Gandhi performed the last rites.

Nobody knew how much he suffered at the end," recalls Chatterjee, once a dashing young journalist, now one of Gandhi's last living associates. In Noakhali and in villages like Chandipur in West Bengal, in the freezing cold, clad only in dhoti and barefoot, he wandered among the villagers, sleeping on a bori, performing ablutions in the dank fields. He was sick, he vomited, fainted, contracted fever but went on travelling, old, lonely, with only two Bengalis, Chatterjee and Nirmal Kumar Bose, for company. Once when Nehru came to see him in one of the villages, he exclaimed, "What is this, Bapu, why are you living like this? You will die!" Gandhiji only smiled. "I have promised the villagers that I will meet them," he later told Chatterjee, "even if I die my body should be taken to them."

 In Delhi, at Purana Qila, angry refugees gathered to heap their resentment on the Mahatma. He was not scared. Says Nayar: "The car's driver suggested we turn back. But he thumped the car dashboard. No, he had shouted. I never saw him in such anger." The fasts had taken a toll on his health, he suffered from high blood pressure and weakness. "We used to tell him to rest," Nayar says. But he wouldn't listen.

On the day of the assassination, had he almost had a premonition of death? For, he had insisted on completing all his correspondence. When Sardar Patel came for a meeting at 4 pm, he had insisted on finishing all his business, even delaying the prayer meeting a bit. "It was getting late so we sent Manibehn Patel into the room where Gandhi and Patel were talking to remind her father that Bapu would be late for the meeting," Chatterjee notes.

And so began the fateful walk to the prayer meeting. Manno Devi, waiting at the back, saw him go through the trees, his nieces on either side, the followers a few steps behind. "It was like it had always been, I thought it would always be like this. But across the lawn somewhere Nathuram was waiting, with sin in his heart."

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