To hang or not to hang the murderers of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte – was a vexing issue for the new government of Independent India. Governor-General C. Rajagopalachari, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were all approached with requests of clemency for the murderers.
Brajeshwar Prasad, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Bihar, wrote to Sardar Patel: “It will be befitting Gandhiji’s memory to pardon this scoundrel along with others who have been sentenced. They should forcibly made to settle down in the Andamans as free man…”[Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Ed: Durga Das, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, Page 259]
Patel replied, “I am sure you will appreciate that nobody knows better than myself what Gandhiji would expect me to do in the matter. You can, therefore, leave the matter at that.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 259]
Several clemency requests
Brajeshwar Prasad was not alone in suggesting such a course for the murderers. Many prominent Gandhians and two of Gandhi’s four sons, Ramdas and Manilal, requested clemency for the assassins too. Ramdas, who was living in Nagpur, requested C. Rajagopalachari (‘Rajaji’) to send Nathuram Godse and his associates “to a penitentiary to find out for themselves and ponder and think over if in any way they have achieved this end in view and decide once for all that Hinduism or India cannot be and will never be saved by pursuing RSS methods”. He also suggested establishing a penitentiary if there wasn’t one already. [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 260]
Ramdas wrote a letter to Godse and tried to seek permission from the government to meet him in jail. It caused unease among top leaders.
Nehru wrote to him saying, “I confess that you have put me in a difficulty.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 265] Nehru advised him not to visit Godse in jail and sought the guidance of Rajaji and Sardar in this matter. Both of them were strictly against any such visit because it would raise Godse’s stature. Rajaji wrote emphatically to Sardar Patel, “It seems Ramdas is excited and is not able to restrain his anxiety to talk to condemned prisoners and convert them to the creed of non-violence and repentance! What Bapu himself was not able to do and to which he was sacrificed like a lamb led to the altar! I am surprised.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 265]
Patel was even more hostile to the idea. He termed it “somewhat quixotic”. Knowing full well the functioning of Godse and his fellow ideological associates, Patel wrote to Nehru, “There is every likelihood of an attempt being made to treat him as a martyr. The discussion which Ramdas proposes to have would invest the last days of Godse with a certain amount of glory. To me, it appears somewhat quixotic that any attempt should be made to convince a man who has done such a dastardly crime and takes pride in it.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 267-268]
Kishorelal Mashruwala, a veteran Gandhian thinker and editor of Gandhi’s paper Harijan, wanted to write in favour of clemency in Harijan. Both Rajaji and Sardar Patel disagreed strongly.
Saying that “no sensible man would think of abolishing the death penalty in India in the conditions which prevail today”, Sardar Patel informed Rajaji what he told to Kishorelal. He said, “If the death penalty is not to be abolished, then I could not think of a stronger case for the infliction of the death penalty than that of Godse. He has committed the worst crime imaginable and as you said in an earlier letter ‘he stabbed the heart of India’.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 279]
According to Narayan Desai, Gandhi’s biographer and son of Gandhi’s close aide Mahadev Desai, “A crowd of around 28 villages surrounding Vedchhi, a town in South Gujarat, inspired by veteran Gandhian Jugatram Dave, resolved that abolition of capital punishment in independent India should begin by not hanging Gandhiji’s murderers.” [Maru Jeevan E J Mari Vani, Vol 4, Navjivan Prakashan Mandir, 2003, Page 484]
Many other prominent leaders expressed their views, including an old associate of Sardar Patel and the first speaker of Lok Sabha, G.V. Mavalankar (personal letter to Rajaji dated 27 June 1949, National Archives digital collection), President of Assam Provincial Congress Debeswar Sarma (personal letter to Rajaji dated 20 September 1949, National Archives digital collection). Walter Koethiger from Zurich sent a telegram to Rajaji saying, “With the murderers India kill Gandhi once again….” [3 November 1949, National Archives digital collection] Rajaji forwarded this telegram to Patel with a note, “It is strange how people can talk like this….” [13 November 1949, National Archives digital collection]
Position of the Indian government
Gandhi’s son Manilal sent a telegram from Durban requesting clemency for Godse, followed by another telegram on 6 November 1949 saying, “Reference my cable appealing for Godse’s discharge desire include Narayan Apte whose name was inadvertently left out.” [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 287]
It is hardly surprising that Godse, blinded by the ideology of hatred hoped to convince Ramdas about his stand instead. [Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol 8, Page 263]
Nathuram Godse’s brother and accomplice Gopal Godse showed no remorse years after the assassination. He said, “I don’t regret it and never will.” [The Assassin’s Assistant, Radha Rajadhyaksha, 25 January 1998, Times of India) He tried to manipulate public opinion by praising the magnanimity of Ramdas Gandhi and even visiting him on his (Ramdas’) death bed. Godse could appreciate Ramdas’ magnanimity, but not Mahatma Gandhi’s.
After a discussion with Sardar Patel, Rajaji prepared a draft statement. Among other things, it clearly stated the position of the Indian government. It said: “It is suggested in some quarters that as Gandhiji favoured the abolition of capital punishment, we ought to extend clemency to those who murdered him. We have not abolished the death penalty and those on whom the responsibility of government is placed cannot make a distinction and treat more favourably those who have chosen to kill the best among us while ordering the execution of the death penalty in so many other cases.”
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.