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South African racists to Hindu fanatics, the many times Gandhi faced death before 30 Jan 1948

Each time Gandhi was attacked, he prayed for the attacker and didn’t press charges – whether in Africa or India.

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Mohandas K. Gandhi experienced long shadows of death decades before his assassination on 30 January 1948. Some White racists bayed for his blood when he started working for the rights of the Indian population in South Africa. But the most fatal blow was from a fellow Indian in 1908. Enraged by the settlement Gandhi had made with the British government, his client Mir Alam attacked him.

“…a heavy cudgel blow descended on my head from behind,” wrote Gandhi, “I at once fainted with words He Rama (Oh God) on my lips, lay prostrate on the ground and had no notion of what followed. But Mir Alam and his companions gave me more blows and kicks, some of which were warded off by Essop Mian and Thambi Naidoo…” (Satyagraha in South Africa, M.K. Gandhi. S. Ganesan, Madras, 1928) After gaining consciousness, Gandhi pleaded for the release of the attackers and sent a telegram to the Attorney-General that he did not wish them to be prosecuted.

As the attackers were Muslims, Gandhi said the Hindus might probably feel hurt, but he advised them not to put themselves “in the wrong before the world and their Maker.” He wished “the blood split today cement the two communities indissolubly.”


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An ill Gandhi

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and had just established himself in a different orbit when he faced death closely again. The reason was an attack of dysentery and disruption in health. Trying to recruit non-combative soldiers in the Kheda district for the First World War to support the British war effort in 1918, Gandhi and his associates followed a harsh schedule. It “nearly ruined” his constitution.

Once on a festival day, he was tempted to eat a sweet and a bowlful of moong instead of skipping his meal. It worsened his already disturbed stomach. “I always thought that I had an iron frame, but I found that my body had now become a lump of clay,” wrote Gandhi. (The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K. Gandhi, Navjivan Press, Ahmedabad) Prolonged illness followed and then came a night when Gandhi thought his end was near.

“I gave up myself up to despair. I felt that I was at death’s door.” Dr Kanuga, a close friend of Vallabhbhai Patel, declared him without any danger. But “I was far from being reassured. I passed that night without sleep.”

Gandhi felt a similar kind of closeness to death on two occasions during his fasts. He announced a fast unto death in Maharashtra’s Yerawada Jail in August 1933. His health started deteriorating soon. He was sent to Sassoon Hospital as a prisoner. His wife Kasturba, a prisoner at Sabarmati Jail, Ahmedabad was called. After meeting him at the hospital on 21 August, Kasturba told close associates, “Bapu is dying. He has refused to drink any more water, and has distributed his few belongings amongst the hospital attendants. It’s all over.” (The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, Mira Behn, Longmans, London, 1960.) But Gandhi survived and ended his fast on 23 August.

Gandhi’s 21-day fast at the Aga Khan Palace in 1943 alarmed the British government. Looking at the 73-year-old’s failing health, the government felt he was dying and eventually decided to release him. But anticipating his death, the State also made arrangements of sandal and other wood needed for cremation. It even decided the route through which the funeral procession should pass. Officials were instructed to immediately suppress any disturbance caused by the news. (The Spirit’s Pilgrimage) The British foreign office issued a directive as to how his obituary should be written.

It read: “Do not diminish his moral stature, acknowledge his uncompromising allegiance to unworldly ideals, express regret that his unrivaled influence was not at the service of the Allied Nations, especially China and India.” (The Last Phase-I, Pyarelal, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1956)


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A call for killing

The first attempt on Gandhi’s life in India took place in Puna during his tour related to Harijan work in 1934. The conservative Hindus of Puna were seething with rage because of Gandhi’s reformist approach towards the so-called ‘untouchables’. N. V. Gadgil, a Congress leader tried to dissuade those who wanted to felicitate Gandhi, fearing the worst. Meetings after meetings were held in Puna both favouring and opposing Gandhi. One of the speakers declared Gandhi an ‘Aatatayi’ (tyrant) and gave a call to kill him according to the duty professed in the Gita.

Gandhi reached Puna, and a couple of programmes remained uneventful. When he was going to attend a meeting on the evening of 25 June 1934, a bomb was thrown at a car. Gandhi escaped the bomb because he was traveling by another car and reached 15 minutes later. The programme went on as per schedule. (Vadi Dharasabhaman 6 Varsha, N.V. Gadgil, Gurjar Grantharatna Karyalaya, Ahmedabad, 1950)

In a statement issued after the incident, Gandhi did not accuse the Sanatanists but advised them to control the language of the speakers and writers who work on their behalf. He expressed deep pity for the unknown thrower of the bomb and asked for his discharge. Underlining the importance of martyrdom and expressing that he was not aching for it, Gandhi said, “If it comes in the prosecution of what I consider to be the supreme duty… I shall have well earned it…” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.58)


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Godse and his ilk

Godse and a class of the Hindu fanatics related directly or indirectly to the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were upset with Gandhi’s agenda of Hindu-Muslim unity. A group tried to stop Gandhi at Wardha when he was leaving for Mumbai for talks with Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1944. The leader of the group claimed it was the first step and they will have to resort to force soon. In an exchange with the police, the leader said that they don’t need anyone of high stature to do away with Gandhi. The Jamadar (Nathuram Godse) will be enough for that. (The Last Phase-I)

The Godse gang tried to kill Gandhi on 20 January 1948, at the evening prayer meeting in Delhi’s Birla House. But the bomb blasted away from Gandhi’s seat and he remained safe. Even after that incident, Gandhi prayed and asked God to give the attacker good sense. He said, “Those who are behind him or whose tool he is, should know that this sort of thing will not save Hinduism. If Hinduism has to be saved it will be saved through such work as I am doing.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 90)

Gandhi was assassinated 10 days later in the Birla House compound at 5:17 pm by Nathuram Godse.

When Gandhi was threatened by a Pathan in South Africa in 1908, he said, “Death is the appointed end of all life. To die by the hand of a brother, rather than by disease or in such other way, cannot be for me a matter for sorrow. And if even in such a case I am free from the thoughts of anger, of hatred against my assailant, I know that that will redound to my eternal welfare, and even the assailant will later on realise my perfect innocence.” (Satyagraha in South Africa)

Gandhi’s hope proved a slice of wishful thinking in the case of Godse and his ilk who has remained unrepentant till the day, intoxicated by their version of Hindutva instead of Hinduism preached by Gandhi.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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