Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the spiritual leader known as the “Great Soul of India” and champion of the Indian movement for independence, was assassinated on January 30, 1948, at the age of 78. Gunned down in New Delhi during a prayer vigil by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s civil disobedience tactics went on to inspire civil rights leaders worldwide.
For some 50 years, Gandhi, born on October 2, 1869, and called “Mahatma” (“great-souled” in Sanskrit), fought for India’s independence from Britain, practicing civil disobedience and peaceful protests that included fasting, boycotts and marches.
He was an adherent of satyagraha ("truth-force"), a passive political resistance he defined as "a weapon of the strongest and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form." Arrested and imprisoned multiple times for his efforts, Gandhi hailed Britain’s 1947 division of India into two independent nations, India and Pakistan. But the partition soon led to a violent religious war between Hindus and Muslims and caused the displacement of more than 15 million people, along with approximately 2 million deaths.
Assassination and Trial
Imploring peace between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi traveled to New Delhi, participating in fasting vigils and prayer meetings. It was there that Godse shot the leader three times in the abdomen and chest at point-blank range as Gandhi’s granddaughters, often referred to as his “walking sticks,” stood at his side. He was pronounced dead soon after.
According to the Gandhi Research Foundation, a crowd of several hundred, including an estimated 20 plain-clothes policemen, had gathered to join the leader in prayer.
"As the third shot was fired Gandhi was still standing, his palms still joined. He was heard to gasp, ‘He Ram, He Ram’ (‘Oh God, Oh God’),” the foundation writes. “Then he slowly sank to the ground, palms joined still, possibly in a final ultimate act of ahimsa. Smoke filled the air. Confusion and panic reigned. The Mahatma was slumped on the ground, his head resting in the laps of both girls. His face turned pale, his white shawl of Australian wool was turning crimson with blood. Within seconds Mahatma Gandhi was dead. It was 5:17 p.m."
Godse was quickly captured by the crowd and arrested. “For the present, I only want to say that I am not at all sorry for what I have done; the rest I will explain in court,” Godse told a reporter. Ten days earlier, Godse, his brother, Gopal Godse and other conspirators had attempted to assassinate Gandhi in a bombing attack.
At trial, Godse took more than five hours to read a 30,000-word statement and confession, calling the murder "wholly and exclusively political" and declaring that “Gandhi “proved to be the Father of Pakistan” and was responsible for the suffering of the Hindu people. "Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence." He claimed he acted alone.
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Born May 19, 1910, to a postal worker father and a homemaker mother, Godse was a high school dropout who found work as a carpenter, tailor and fruit vendor.
Godse became a follower of "Hindutva," a right-wing fundamentalist political ideology espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fundamentalist Hindu nationalist party. He later joined the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party, and, with Narayan Dattatraya Apte, founded the Marathi propaganda newspaper Agrani, later named Hindu Rashtra, serving as editor.
Godse, at age 39, and Apte received death sentences and were hanged on November 15, 1949, at Ambala prison. The six others standing trial were sentenced to life in prison.
Gopal Godse later reiterated his brother’s words, saying Gandhi’s nonviolence movement was “part of a plot to allow Hindus to be slaughtered by Muslims.”
News of Gandhi’s murder spread quickly in India, and violent riots quickly broke out in Bombay. In a radio broadcast held the night of the assassination, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared a national day of mourning, also announcing a cremation ceremony that would take place the next day, January 31, 1948, on the banks of the sacred Jumna River.
"Gandhi had gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere,” Nehru said. “... The father of our nation is no more—no longer will we run to him for advice and solace. ... Our light has gone out, but the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. For a thousand years that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it ... Oh, that this has happened to us! There was so much more to do."
Newspapers across the globe carried the shocking news of Gandhi's murder and leaders worldwide expressed their sadness.
"Gandhi was a great Indian nationalist but at the same time he was a leader of international stature. His teachings and his actions have left a deep impression on millions of people. He was and is revered by the people of India, and his influence was felt not only in affairs of government but also in the realm of the spirit," U.S. President Harry S. Truman said in a statement. "... I know that not only the people of India but also all peoples will be inspired by his sacrifice to work with increased vigor toward the brotherhood and peace which the Mahatma symbolized."
Gandhi’s death left India at a crossroads, The New York Times wrote. “Mingled with the sadness in this capital tonight was an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty, for now the strongest influence for peace in India that this generation has known is gone.”
‘The assassination of Mohandas Gandhi,’ UPI.
‘‘Jan. 30, 1948 | Mahatma Gandhi Assassinated,” The New York Times Learning Network.
“Nathuram Godse: The mystery surrounding Mahatma Gandhi's killer,” BBC.
“Mohandas K. Gandhi: The Indian Leader at Home and Abroad,” The New York Times.
"The last hours of Mahatma Gandhi," Gandhi Research Foundation.