Attempts of murder that failed
before the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

By the grace of God I have been saved from the proverbial jaws of death, seven times. I have not ever hurt anybody. I consider no one to be an enemy, so I fail to understand why there have been so many attempts on my life. The attempt on my life yesterday failed. I am not ready to die just yet. I am going to live till I reach 125 years.

M.K. Gandhi, on 30 June 1946 in Poona, after surviving one more attempt on his life

पण तुम्हाला जगू देणार कोण? (But who will allow you to live that long?)

A mocking retort from Ramchandra ‘Nathuram’ Vinayak Godse, Gandhi’s murderer

glasses of Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was assaulted many times in South Africa. Several attempts on his life and threats to do him harm were made there.

The first known attempt on Gandhi's life in India and the only one involving an Englishman occurred during the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917. There was a lot of resentment against Gandhi amongst the British zamindars and indigo factory owners of Champaran due to the success of Gandhi's Satyagraha in Champaran. On the afternoon of 15 April 1917, thousands had gathered at Motihari railway station in Bihar's Champaran district to wait for the man who they hoped would lift their lives out of despair: after all, he was the hero of South Africa. Rajkumar Shukla had promised them that he was bringing a saviour, a messiah who would free them from slavery and oppressive poverty.

Gandhi alighted at the station from a train coming from Muzaffarpur at 3:00 p.m. He had come to probe the appalling conditions under which local farmers were being forced by landlords to grow indigo and the cruel Tinkathia system. Tinkathia was a barbaric system under which the native peasants of Champaran, Bihar, were forced to cultivate indigo on 3 katha of land out of every 20 katha of land they cultivated. (A katha is a land measure, little less than an acre.) Inhuman taxes was levied and extorted from the poverty-stricken farmers, to add to their misery. Nobody knew it then, but Gandhi's fact-finding mission would snowball into the first successful Satyagraha in the country and begin a new chapter in India's fight for independence.

According to the account in the book Champaran ke Swatantatra Senani, towards the end of this visit, Gandhi was invited to have dinner by Erwin, a notorious British manager of an indigo factory in Motihari. Angered by Gandhi's interference and successful abrogation of the exploitative Tinkathia system, the Englishman planned to murder Gandhi. Under the guise of making friends, he invited Gandhi to dinner. Gandhi accepted the invitation but declined dinner, since it was his day of weekly fasting. Rajendra Prasad was accompanying Gandhi on this occasion. Erwin persuaded Gandhi to accept a glass of milk. Erwin had ordered his cook Batak Miya Ansari to mix poison in the milk before serving it to Gandhi. He warned Batak Miya that obedience would be handsomely rewarded but disobedience would attract severe punishment, penury and even death. When the time came, the pious cook could not be part of the evil scheme. He did bring the poisoned glass of milk to Gandhi, but pretending to be clumsy, he spilled the milk before Gandhi could drink it. The plot came to light when a cat lapped up the spilt milk, collapsed and died. Gandhi ignored the attempt on his life and refused to file a complaint against Erwin.

Batak Miya paid a heavy price for defying Erwine; he and his family were reduced to penury. Rajendra Prasad, independent India’s first president, was a witness to the incident, and on a visit to Bihar post-Independence, he recalled the incident and praised Batak Miya’s valour. Independent India did not honour or reward Batak Miya despite its — president acknowledging his heroism. Recently, the Bihar government celebrated the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha, but Batak Miya remains forgotten. This was the first recorded attempt on Gandhi's life in India and the only one made by an Englishman.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill is known to have, on many occasions, castigated the British Secret Service for their failure to ‘deal’ effectively with Gandhi. There is no record of the British government agencies or the colonial administration making an attempt to ‘deal’ with Gandhi or any other Indian leader. What the British never did was done by their long-time supporters, the Hindu extremists.

Of the seven attempts on Gandhi's life in India, five are well-documented and involve the Pune branch of the Hindu Mahasabha and fanatics loyal to Savarkar. Three of these point specifically to the involvement of Narayan Apte and Nathuram Godse. The last of these was when a bomb was exploded at a prayer meeting on 20 January 1948. It was immediately after this failed attack that Madanlal Pahwa was arrested.

Godse and Apte, the Hindu Mahasabha as well as its offshoot, the RSS, have always claimed that Gandhi was murdered because he was partial to Muslims, because he was responsible for the partition of India, because he was an enemy of Hindus and if allowed to live would cause Hindus great harm. They claim that the last straw was when he forced the Government of India to pay Pakistan ₹550 million. However, most of the failed attempts on his life took place at a time when Gandhi had not displayed any ‘partiality’ towards Muslims and the country was yet to be divided, and, therefore, there was no question of paying Pakistan anything. Yet the Hindu Mahasabha, Sanghis and the Godse-Apte gang had made him their target. Was it Gandhi's campaign to eradicate untouchability that offended these caste supremacist Hindus?

The First Attempt, 25 June 1934, Poona

Gandhi was passing through Poona while on his historic Harijan Yatra, his movement for emancipation, equality and dignity for the untouchables. He was to deliver a speech at the Corporation Auditorium and receive a citation from the city council. There are many versions of this story. An eyewitness account was written by Shripad Joshi in his book Mahatma, My Bapu. The following is an extract from the fourth chapter titled “From Death’s Jaws. There are other recorded versions which have slight variations, those have been described too. ‘Like men, towns and cities also have their individuality, their virtues and faults, their peculiarities. Some are primarily business towns, some are known for their fighting spirit and some for their interest in learning. Poona is no exception. It is known as the seat of learning. Poona has played a vital role in creating the national spirit and the reformist movements in Maharashtra. At the same time, side by side with these, there has been a strong current of reactionary thought, opposed to all progressive thought and action in Poona, like the serpent in the forest of sandalwood. It was Poona which led the strongest opposition to Gandhiji and his thoughts. Perhaps Poona was afraid that the leadership of India brought to it by Lokmanya Tilak would be taken away by Gandhiji. But it seems that Gandhiji had, inexplicably, a strong fascination for Poona. It is possible that he was secretly fascinated by Poona, which was sanctified by social reformers, workers and patriots like Ranade, Phule, Gokhale, Tilak, Agarkar, Shinde, Karve etc. He had stayed in and taken vital decisions at various places in Poona, like the Yerawada Jail, the Aga Khan Palace, Dr Dinshaw’s Nature Cure Clinic and Panchgani. I wonder if he knew that it was Poona which was going to make him a martyr!

‘On 30 January 1948, it was a Poonaite who assassinated the Father of the Nation and became the centre of world’s anger and loathing. What peace can this give to his soul! But even before obtaining this distinction, Poona had tried its hand at a similar attempt on 25 June 1934. Indian terrorists (revolutionaries) had tried their hand at throwing bombs at men attending a reception in honour of some British dignitary and had often gained the admiration of people because in those cases they reflected the feelings of the people. But the unknown person who threw a bomb (grenade) at Gandhiji in the Poona Municipal Hall was never honoured thus... Even today I recall the terrible blast of that bomb. The Municipal Hall was chockfull of the people of Poona and the crowd had spilled out into the streets outside. Our Boy Scout Band was awaiting his arrival in the southern balcony on the first floor of the building. I was the flute-player in that band. Our Boy Scout Band was patronized widely in those days. We used to feel somewhat embarrassed when called upon to play during ceremonies like marriages etc., but were glad to be called in for functions like the one in the Municipality. We were happy that we were participating in a welcome to Gandhiji and would see him that day... Shortly we heard shouts of “Gandhiji has arrived!”, “Mahatmaji has come!”, “That is his car!” etc., from the crowds outside and struck up a tune. A car stopped under the balcony. We thought that Gandhiji would alight and all of us would be able to see him. I leaned over the balcony while continuing to play the flute. Suddenly, a deafening noise was heard, drowning out the music of the band. Alarmed, we looked at each other. We could not guess what it was but felt that something evil had happened. However, we continued to play. After some time, we were told that it was not Gandhiji but Annasaheb Bhopatkar who had arrived. Gandhiji arrived after some time and we saw his frail figure. The function went through without a hitch. After he had left, we began to collect our instruments for departure when we were surrounded by the CID. We were searched thoroughly. But the real culprit had already run away. The government announced a big award for his apprehension but he was never found. As a result, it was never found out whether the terrorist was some opponent burning with jealousy at Gandhiji’s popularity or was some fanatic orthodox Hindu who thought that his religion would be destroyed by the removal of untouchability.’

Writing about this incident in Gandhi’s biography, Acharya Shankar Dattatreya Jawdekar mentions: ‘When Gandhiji was on his way to receive the address, some fanatic Hindu, enraged at his devotion to the cause of the untouchables, threw a bomb at him. Fortunately, it went astray and Gandhiji was unharmed. The police have been unable to catch the terrorist... The protection of righteousness, and righteous conduct, was the essence of Gandhiji’s eternal religion. But some of those who called themselves the real followers of the eternal Hindu religion thought that it could be saved only through the murder of Gandhiji. When this stupid and evil orthodoxy was embellished with politics, militant Hindu nationalism was born, which resorted to terrorist conspiracy. In the end, a blind follower of this perverted Hindu terrorism assassinated Gandhiji. But Gandhiji had already accomplished his mission of freedom for India.’

‘I cannot believe? Gandhi said about the attack, ‘that any sane Sanatanist (fundamentalist) Hindu could ever encourage the insane act that was perpetrated this evening. However, I would like the Sanatanist friends to control the language that is being used by the speakers and writers claiming to speak on their behalf. The sorrowful incident has undoubtedly advanced the Harijan cause. It is easy to see causes prosper by martyrdom of those who stand for them. I am not aching for martyrdom, but if it comes my way in prosecution of what I consider the supreme duty in defence of the faith I hold in common with millions of Hindus, I shall have well earned it and it will be possible for the historian of the future to say that the vow that I have taken before the Harijans that I would, if need be, die in the attempt to remove untouchability was literally fulfilled. Let those who grudge me what yet remains to me of this earthly existence, know that it is the easiest thing to do away with my body... What would the world have said, if the bomb had dropped on me and my party, which included my wife and three girls who are as dear to me as daughters and are entrusted to me by their parents? ... I have nothing but deep pity for the unknown thrower of the bomb. If I had my way, and if the bomb-thrower was known, I should certainly ask for his discharge even as I did in South Africa, in the case of those who successfully assaulted me. Let the reformers not be incensed against the bomb-thrower or those who may be behind him. What I should like them to do is to redouble their efforts to rid the country of the deadly evil of untouchability.’

A description that is slightly at variance with the one above says that the hand grenade bounced off the bonnet of the car in which Gandhi was travelling and rolled some distance away before exploding and injuring some officials. In another version, it is said that there were two cars in which Gandhi and his entourage were being brought to the venue. At a railway crossing, they got separated, so the car bringing Gandhi to the venue reached a minute after the first car. When the first car arrived, it was assumed that Gandhi was in it; the band started playing the welcome tune and the welcoming committee rushed towards the car. The assassin assumed that his victim had arrived and dropped the grenade from his perch on the roof. The hand grenade landed on the bonnet of the car and rolled on to the middle of the street where it exploded. The car in which Gandhi was travelling reached the venue a moments after the explosion. Gandhi saw the damage caused by the explosion, but decided to go ahead with the programme.

In yet another version, a number of people are claimed to have been injured: the chief officer of the municipal corporation, two policemen and seven others.

The grenade was reportedly thrown by anti-Gandhi Hindu extremists, as mentioned by Pyarelal in his book and by Gandhi's biographer B.G. Tendulkar. Pyarelal writes: “This time their attempt was very well planned and executed to perfection...” This implies that there had been prior attempts on Gandhi's life and that the people responsible for the previous attacks were involved in this one too. Pyarelal’s remark also implies that the attempts before 25 June 1934 had failed due to lack of planning and coordination and that the murderers were getting better with each attempt.

Pyarelal continues: “These people kept photographs of Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders in their shoes. They were trained to shoot using Gandhiji’s photograph as the target. These were the same people who later murdered the Mahatma while he was striving to bring peace to a riot ravaged Delhi, in 1948.’

This was the first documented attempt on Gandhi's life in India. Many historians have alleged that this could have been the work of the Nathuram Godse-Narayan Apte gang. The gang was involved in several other bomb attacks on those critical of their brand of Hindutva and those working against the dominance of upper castes. This was also the time when the Hindu Mahasabha was extremely active and Savarkar, confined to Ratnagiri, was spreading his doctrine of Hindu supremacy, Muslim hatred, and anti-Congress and anti-Gandhi venom.

Sanatani Hindus were enraged by Gandhi's movement of assimilation of the untouchables as equals in the Hindu fold, and began a nationwide hate campaign against Gandhi.

The Second Attempt, July 1944, Panchgani

Gandhi had contracted malaria during his imprisonment at Aga Khan Palace prison. On his release in May 1944, he was advised rest by his physician. He retired to Panchgani, a mountain resort near Poona, where he stayed at Dilkhusha Bungalow. A group of eighteen-twenty men reached Panchgani by a chartered bus from Poona and carried on a week-long protest against Gandhi. When Gandhi was told about this, he invited the leader of the group, Narayan Apte, for a discussion. Apte rejected the invitation and his group continued with the demonstration.

During a prayer meeting one evening, Nathuram Godse rushed towards Gandhi. He was brandishing a dagger—Jambhiya—in his hand and shouting anti-Gandhi slogans. Godse was overpowered and disarmed by Manishankar Purohit, proprietor of Surti Lodge of Poona, and D. Bhilare Guruji of Satara, who later became a Congress member of the state legislature from Mahabaleshwar. The other young men accompanying Godse ran away. Godse’ attack caused a minor panic in the prayer meeting, but Gandhi remained calm. He asked Godse to spend eight days with him so that they could understand each other. Godse rejected this invitation and was allowed to go free by a magnanimous Gandhi.

Before leaving Poona, Godse had boasted to his journalist friends that some important news concerning Gandhi would soon reach them from Panchgani. Joglekar, a reporter working for Godse's periodical Agranee, corroborated this fact. A. David, the then editor of the Poona Herald, stated under oath, while deposing before the Kapur Commission, that Godse had made an attempt on Gandhi's life. He had heard of Godse’s boast to fellow journalists about the planned attack. In a small news item, the Times of India reported that a Poona-based editor had attempted to assault Gandhi at Panchgani.

Police records show that there were day-long demonstrations against Gandhi at Panchgani. The records also mention that Godse was held for trying to rush at Gandhi shouting slogans but do not mention whether he was armed. Dr Sushila Nayyar, Gandhi’s physician and close associate, testified before the Kapur Commission that one of the protesters was found to be carrying a dagger but could not confirm whether it was Nathuram Godse. However, the two men who overpowered Godse, Manishankar Purohit and D. Bhilare Guruji testified to this attack at the Kapur Commission's inquiry, and stated emphatically that they had caught and disarmed Nathuram Vinayak Godse that day at Panchgani and saved Gandhi's life.

I had the opportunity to meet Bhilare Guruji on 13 January 2007 at Sangli. He was in his late eighties, a very strong and active man with a razor-sharp memory. In his youth, Bhilare Guruji had been a wrestler of renown. Asked to narrate the happenings of that fateful day sixty-three years ago, Bhilare Guruji firmly stated that Nathuram Godse had tried to attack Gandhi. According to him, Nathuram was brandishing a Jambhiya. Describing how he stopped Godse with the help of Manishankar Purohit, Bhilare Guruji recollected that when they grappled with Nathuram and wrestled him to the ground and disarmed him, Gandhi hailed them and instructed them not to be rough with the attacker. He wanted them to bring Nathuram to him so that they could talk. Bhilare Guruji also mentioned that Vishnu Karkare, Thatte, Badge and Gopal Godse were in the group of protestors too. Most of them were involved in Gandhi's murder four years later.

Bhilare Guruji attended my book launch in Mumbai in 2007. He narrated the incident, describing how he had save Bapu’s life in Panchgani and lamented the fact that he had not been at Birla House on the fateful evening of 30 January 1948 to save Bapu’s life one more time.

The Third Attempt, September 1944, Sevagram

Gandhi was preparing to hold talks with Jinnah to wean him away from the demand for Pakistan. The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS were opposed to any dialogue with Jinnah or his Muslim League. Nathuram Godse and L.G. Thatte had publicly threatened to do whatever was required to stop Gandhi from meeting Jinnah.

Gandhi travelled from Sevagram to Bombay for the talks. Godse and Thatte led a gang of men to stop Gandhi and were joined by another group from Bengal. The gang picketed the gate of Sevagram Ashram to ensure that Gandhi did not leave for Bombay and shouted slogans against Gandhi. Dr Sushila Nayyar testified before the Kapur Commission that Nathuram Godse was stopped and detained by Ashram residents as he rushed towards Gandhi brandishing a Jambhiya. He was disarmed and handed to the police. The police report of the assault also corroborates this fact. The report adds: ‘It wasn’t certain whether they meant to harm Gandhi, but they were armed and determined to stop him from meeting Jinnah at any cost.’

Pyarelal, in a letter to Tej Bahadur Sapru, wrote: “The leader of the protestors at Sevagram, an extremely bitter and fanatical die-hard, was ready to go to any lengths to stop Gandhiji from meeting Jinnah. The arresting officer who recovered the dagger from the leader of the band asked him mockingly whether he wanted to become a martyr. The leader replied that when Gandhi was eventually killed, one of them would become a martyr. The officer again asked him why they were wasting their time and lives in the fight between their leaders and Gandhi. If Gandhi was to be stopped, why didn’t they leave it to Savarkar, their leader? The leader of the gang replied, “If Savarkar talks with Gandhi, it will be an honour for Gandhi. The time will not come for Savarkar to have to talk to Gandhi. Gandhi will be dealt with by this Jamadar.” Pyarelal wrote that the person indicated by the group leader as ‘Jamadar’ was Nathuram Godse.

No information is available about the others in the gang. After the train carrying Gandhi departed from Wardha, the police let the detained gang members go.

The Fourth Attempt, 29 June 1946, en route to Poona

On his way to Poona, the train carrying Gandhi—known as the Gandhi Special-met with an accident between Nerul and Karjat stations on the night of 29 June. The engine driver in his report stated that he saw boulders placed on the tracks in front of the train with the intention of derailing it. The engine crashed into the boulders, but a tragedy was averted because the driver, Pareira, was alert and had applied the emergency brakes in time, which considerably slowed down the train before impact. The wheels and axle of the engine were severely damaged. Another engine was sent and the Gandhi Special was taken to Poona. Gandhi slept through the entire episode.

The Poona Police claimed that the boulders had been placed by looters to stop goods trains, but the railway records showed that no goods trains were scheduled to travel on that route before or after the Gandhi Special. The police had not discounted sabotage, and clearly the Gandhi Special had been the target.

On 30 June, speaking at a public prayer meeting in Poona, Gandhi said, ‘By the grace of God, I have escaped from the jaws of death seven times. I have not hurt anybody nor do I consider anybody to be my enemy, I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life. Yesterday's attempt on my life failed. I will not die just yet, I aim to live till the age of 125.’

‘Pan tumhala tevdha jagu denar kon?!’ (But who will allow you to live that long?!) came Nathuram Godse’s mocking reply a few days later, at a public meeting organized by the Poona branch of the Hindu Mahasabha. This was mentioned after Gandhi’s murder, by people who were present at that meeting.

The Fifth Attempt, 20 January 1948, New Delhi

A bomb was exploded a few metres behind where Gandhi sat while conducting his evening prayer meeting at Birla House. Madanlal Pahwa was arrested from the crime scene immediately after he detonated the bomb. According to his confession, the bomb explosion was part of an attempt to murder Gandhi.

Apart from these recorded attempts on Gandhi's life, information is also available about other incidents. In one, Prabodhankar Thackre, father of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackerey and grandfather of the present chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackerey, is known to have warned Sanatani Hindus to stop their repeated attempts on Gandhi's life. He wrote about how his warning had stopped a planned attack on Gandhi's life when he was visiting Akola in Vidarbha.

On 30 January 1948, at 5:17 p.m., ten days after the last failed attempt, Nathuram Godse walked up to Gandhi, pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and pumped three bullets into Gandhi’s chest from point blank range. Finally, Godse succeeded in killing Mahatma Gandhi.

In writing this, I have referred to Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Tendulkar’s Mahatma, and Mahatmya Chi Akher (The End of the Mahatma), a book in Marathi by the late Jagan Phadnis.

Courtesy: Reproduced from the book, ‘Let’s Kill Gandhi’, chapter VI, with the kind permission of Tushar Gandhi, author of the book and great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.