The setting up of the Godse Gyan Shala in Gwalior by the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha to propagate the ideologies of Nathuram Godse is an appropriate occasion to re-evaluate the involvement of the Hindu Mahasabha, and especially its Gwalior branch, in the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The Italian Beretta revolver that Nathuram Godse used to assassinate Gandhi originally belonged to Colonel V.V. Joshi, military secretary to the Maharaja of Gwalior, Jiwajirao Scindia. How it reached a gun trader was never investigated properly. Of the five people who conveyed the revolver to Nathuram and Narayan Apte, the biggest weapons dealer in Gwalior, Jagadish Prasad Goyal, was not named in the chargesheet at all.
The leader of the chain, Dattatreya Sadashiv Parchure, head of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, and physician to the Scindia royal family, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the trial court of Justice Atma Charan, but was acquitted on technicalities later. The three other persons, who were senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, were listed as untraceable.
My late mother Kamalamma Madikera Sharada Prasad was part of the prosecution team in the Gandhi murder trial. She also worked in the Bombay government. Oscar Henry Brown, chief presidency magistrate of Mumbai, had specifically recruited her to get evidence from one of the accused — Shankar Kistayya, who worked for Digambar Ramachandra Badge.
Badge, a weapons dealer and a Hindu Mahasabha member, had turned approver.
As I have pointed out in other articles, my mother, and other junior members of the prosecution team, suspected that the case against the Hindu Mahasabha and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was being deliberately weakened under directions from deputy prime minister and home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Morarji Desai, then home minister of Bombay. No matter what they personally said.
My personal assessment, based on my discussions with my mother and others such as D.G. Tendulkar and Robert Payne, is that there were numerous strategic and national interest considerations for Sardar Patel to ensure that the investigation did not probe the involvement of the Hindu Mahasabha too closely.
The proceedings of the murder trial were published by the government of India. The Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission report was also published in full. This article has drawn from these sources.
Pieces of the puzzle
First, according to my mother, Sardar Patel found the Hindu Mahasabha’s activities with Hindus strategically useful against the Nizam of Hyderabad, who had allowed Muslim Razakars to butcher Hindus. The role of the Mahasabha in Hyderabad is mentioned by both S.R. Date in Bhanagar Struggle and A.G. Noorani in Savarkar and Hindutva. Mahasabha branches in Pune, Ahmednagar, and Gwalior were said to be helping Hindus in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s territories. My mother worked in the Bombay government in close coordination with Jamshed Nagarvala who headed the CID. Nagarvala was close to Morarji Desai.
Two of the biggest weapons dealers were Badge in Pune, and Jagadish Prasad Goyal in Gwalior, who was instrumental in transporting the Beretta revolver to Nathuram Godse from the Maharaja of Gwalior’s army officer.
Second, the integration of the princely state of Gwalior into the Indian Union was then at a very delicate stage.
Sardar Chandrojirao Angre, the powerful and popular uncle of Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia, had established the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior. It was headed for long by Dr Dattatreya Sadashiv Parchure, who was close to both the royal family and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
The Hindu Mahasabha enjoyed strong support in Gwalior, and was expected to form the government after Independence, with Parchure becoming the premier. However, the Dewan of Gwalior, M.A. Sreenivasan, who was close to Jawaharlal Nehru, swore in Congress ministers instead. Narayan Apte and Parchure threatened Sreenivasan that they would “finish him and Gandhi off”. Sreenivasan wrote about this in his autobiography Of the Raj, Maharajas, and Me.
Third, with the assassination happening so soon after the massacres during Partition, Sardar Patel and Morarji Desai wanted to avoid communal violence. According to Govind Ballabh Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri, Patel and Morarji feared uncontrollable communal violence if Savarkar was arrested. Sardar Patel reportedly said at a Congress meeting, ‘The Muslims are already against us. If Savarkar is arrested/convicted, then the Hindus too will turn against us.’ This apprehension is talked of both by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in Freedom at Midnight and Tushar Gandhi in Let’s Kill Gandhi.
Fourth, my assessment, based on Sardar Patel’s papers [The Collected Works of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, by P.N. Chopra], is that he was shrewdly trying to split the hardline elements of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS away from their more moderate members, and then get the moderates to join the Congress party.
‘Are you mad?’
My mother described to me numerous lacunae in the investigation of the unsuccessful attempt on Gandhi’s life on 20 January 1948. The assassination of 30 January could have possibly been prevented too.
Madanlal Pahwa was a Partition refugee from west Punjab. His family had been massacred, and he was looking for revenge. Pahwa was employed by Professor Jagadish Chandra Jain of Ruia College to sell his books. Jain writes that during one of Pahwa’s tirades against Muslims, Pahwa said he and his friends wanted to kill Gandhi. Pahwa also mentioned that Vishnu Karkare, Hindu Mahasabha head in Ahmednagar, took him to meet Savarkar, who had shown his approval. Jain dismissed this as the bragging of a young traumatised man.
On 20 January 1948, Pahwa placed a bomb (gun-cotton slab) at Birla Sadan in an attempt to kill Gandhi.
During his interrogation, according to the case diary, Pahwa first claimed that he acted alone. However, on 22 January, Pahwa named Karkare, but said that he did not know the others. He said some of them were associated with the Pune newspaper Hindu Rashtriya and had stayed at the Hindu Mahasabha Bhawan.
On 21 January 1948, professor Jain read in the newspapers that his employee Pahwa had exploded a bomb. Jain immediately called Sardar Patel, but couldn’t get through (Patel was leaving Delhi for Ahmedabad and did not have time to speak to Jain, but the latter left a message). Jain then went to Balasaheb Gangadhar Kher, the premier of Bombay province, who directed him to go to Morarji Desai. Jain was cut off after a few minutes by Morarji, who also accused him of being part of Pahwa’s ploy. However, that night, Morarji told Jamshed Dorab Nagarvala, the deputy commissioner of police of Bombay, what he had heard about Pahwa.
Jain wrote about this in three of his books — I Could Not Save Bapu, Murder of Mahatma Gandhi and The Forgotten Mahatma.
As I have written in my Open article, Nagarvala told my mother that he had immediately asked Morarji for permission to arrest Savarkar. Morarji angrily denied it, saying: “Are you mad? Do you think I want this whole province to go up in smoke?” However, Nagarvala managed to obtain Morarji’s reluctant consent to place Savarkar under surveillance. Morarji had also rushed to Ahmedabad to meet Sardar Patel after talking to Nagarvala.
In the trial court, Morarji was questioned by Savarkar’s lawyers as to why he had placed Savarkar under surveillance two days after Pahwa exploded the bomb.
Morarji replied: “Shall I give the full facts? I am prepared to answer. It is for him [Savarkar] to decide.”
Savarkar signalled to his lawyers to withdraw this question. Lawyer A.G. Noorani, too, has written about this episode.
Could Morarji’s reply have revealed something about the Hindu Mahasabha’s role in Hyderabad? Multiple sources make it clear that Morarji was in the know about Sardar Patel’s Hyderabad strategy.
Justice Atma Charan, at first, refused permission to have this question withdrawn, remarking that it was central to the prosecution’s case against Savarkar. Only after elaborate arguments by both Savarkar’s lawyers as well as by the prosecution team was this question expunged from the official record. My mother told me this.
No wonder Nagarvala did not arrest Nathuram and Gopal Godse, Apte, Karkare, and Badge at the time, though he was quite capable.
In reply to a question by Balakrishna Sharma in the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Patel stated that arresting them would have alerted the principal conspirators to escape.
Acquittals in the way
The Godse brothers, Apte, and Karkare then met at Thane on the night of 26 January 1948 where they planned the second attack on Gandhi.
The chargesheet mentions that on 27 January, Nathuram and Apte flew to Delhi, from where they took a train to Gwalior, and stayed overnight with Parchure. Parchure refused to give his personal weapon to them. However, Parchure’s aide, Gangadhar Dandavate, said that he would obtain a suitable revolver. Enter Colonel Joshi’s revolver.
The 9 mm M1934 model Beretta revolver originally belonged to a senior Italian army officer in Ethiopia during World War II. The Fourth Gwalior Infantry regiment, led by Colonel Joshi, captured this Italian commander in Ethiopia, who ceremonially surrendered his weapons to Colonel Joshi. After the war, Colonel Joshi became military secretary to the Maharaja of Gwalior.
The persons who brought this revolver from Colonel Joshi and sold it to Nathuram Godse for Rs 300 included arms dealer J.P. Goyal, and three senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha — Gangadhar Dandavate, Gangadhar Jadhav, and Surya Deo Sharma. Tushar Gandhi’s book Let’s Kill Gandhi and the chargesheet both mention this.
However, according to my mother, Goyal was crucial to Sardar Patel’s strategy against Nizam’s Hyderabad, and Colonel Joshi was never even named in the chargesheet filed in the trial court.
Dandavate, Jadhav, and Sharma were listed as untraceable in the chargesheet. They were expected to become cabinet ministers if a Mahasabha government had been sworn in with Parchure as the premier, according to the intelligence my mother had.
Parchure was questioned on 3 February, and formally arrested on 18 February 1948. The same day, he gave his statement before the magistrate of Gwalior, R.B. Atal, confessing to supplying the Beretta pistol to Nathuram and Apte. The trial court sentenced Parchure to life imprisonment. However, on appeal, the Punjab High Court acquitted him because he was a British citizen, and proper procedures had not been followed to extradite him from Gwalior to Delhi. The Punjab High Court also held that the provisions of the Indian Penal Code did not apply in the princely state of Gwalior.
Nagarvala also interrogated Savarkar’s bodyguard, Appa Ramachandra Kasar, and secretary, Gajanan Vishnu Damle. They confirmed, as many have noted, that the two Godse brothers, Apte, and Karkare had long meetings with Savarkar on 14, 17, and 24 (after the blast) January 1948. Later, it was said their confessions were extracted under torture.
The prosecution team, led by Advocate General Chander Kishan Daphthary, did not summon Savarkar’s secretary and bodyguard. The Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission castigated this lapse, remarking that the evidence against Savarkar would have been complete if these two had been summoned to give their statements.
Stickler for truth
My mother, a psychology graduate, had developed a good rapport with Badge and Karkare, and had won their confidence, while they played badminton together in the evenings at Red Fort.
Vishnu Karkare, head of the Hindu Mahasabha in Ahmednagar, was an absolute stickler for truth. He just could not tolerate anyone lying, even if it was to save their own lives.
While being questioned by the judge, Savarkar denied having met any of the conspirators since 1946, citing poor health. Karkare whispered to my mother that Savarkar was lying, saying he had met Savarkar numerous times, as did Nathuram and Gopal Godse, Apte, and Parchure.
More importantly, Karkare let slip to my mother while they were playing badminton that Badge’s statement on Savarkar saying “Gandhi, Nehru, and Suhrawardy should be finished” was absolutely true.
My mother told this to the lawyers in the prosecution team, but it was not presented as formal evidence.
After Savarkar’s death in February 1966, the Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission examined fresh evidence from Nagarvala and concluded: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”
A princely plan
Going through Sardar Patel’s papers (Collected Works of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel by P.N. Chopra, volumes 13 and 14) gives me the impression that he was very careful to distinguish the extremist Hindu Rashtra Dal from its parent organisation, the Hindu Mahasabha. My conclusion is that once the Mahasabha had served its purposes in Hyderabad and other princely states, Sardar Patel intended to weaken its top leadership and get its foot soldiers to join the Congress party.
My assessment is that while Sardar Patel was personally certain that V.D. Savarkar had ordered the assassination of Gandhi, he wanted to ensure Savarkar was given the benefit of doubt.
Sardar Patel wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 27 February 1948: “… All the main accused have given long and detailed statements of their activities…It clearly emerges from these statements that the RSS was not involved in it at all. It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that hatched the conspiracy and saw it through …Of course, his assassination was welcomed by those of the RSS and the Mahasabha who were strongly opposed to his way of thinking and to his policy. But beyond this, I do not think it is possible, on the evidence which has come before us, to implicate any other members of the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha….”
There were whispers in the prosecution team that Nehru wanted Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia to be investigated.
However, Sardar Patel strongly suspected another president of the Hindu Mahasabha, Narayan Bhaskar Khare, who was then premier of Alwar, of being involved in the assassination of Gandhi. This has been written about by many including Hari Desai in Asian Voice, Indira Mohal in Khare versus Nehru, and Kannan Srinivasan in Wire.
Sardar Patel and Khare had a tortuous association. In 1937, Khare became the Congress premier of Central Provinces and Berar. In 1938, Sardar Patel dismissed Khare as premier and expelled him from the Congress party. He then joined the Hindu Mahasabha.
At the time of Partition, Khare informed Sardar Patel about the overtures made by Pakistan to numerous Rajput kingdoms, where Muslims comprised over 25 per cent of the population. V.P. Menon’s book Story of Integration of Indian States describes this in detail, as does Khare’s own autobiography My Political Memoirs. But things soon went south when Khare allegedly ordered massacres in Alwar and Bharatpur.
On 7 February 1948, Sardar Patel dismissed Khare as premier of Alwar, and had him placed under house arrest together with Raja Jai Singh of Alwar. Suspicion of Khare’s involvement in Gandhi’s murder as well as charges of inciting communal violence had led to this. However, detailed interrogation of both of them by the police found that they were ignorant of all the attempts to assassinate Gandhi. They were never mentioned in the chargesheet.
Several junior members of the prosecution and Nagarvala’s team speculated that the Khare probe could have been a feint to draw them away from investigating the leads in Pune, Ahmednagar, and Gwalior. Khare was detained several days before Gopal Godse and Narayan Apte were arrested by Nagarvala.
In my assessment, Sardar Patel’s Hindu Mahasabha strategy appears to have been successful. He also used the opprobrium over Gandhi’s assassination to quickly install Congress administrations in the Hindu Mahasabha strongholds of Indore, Dewas, and Dhar, and incorporate them, together with Gwalior, into what became the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Ravi V.S. Prasad is a technology consultant and defence analyst. His mother, Kamalamma Madikera Sharada Prasad, was a freedom fighter and later an official interpreter during the Gandhi murder trial. His father, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, was a journalist, civil servant and adviser to three Indian prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Morarji Desai. Views are personal.