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The assassination of Mohandas Gandhi

By JAMES MICHAELS
The assassination of Mohandas Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi, standing, with his arms around two female relatives, in New Delhi, India, ca. 1947. File Photo by Bert Brandt/Acme Newspictures/UPI

NEW DELHI, Jan. 30, 1948 (UP) -- Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated today by a Hindu extremist whose act plunged India into sorrow and fear.

Rioting broke out immediately in Bombay.

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The 78-year-old leader whose people had christened him the Great Soul of India died at 5:45 p.m. (7:15 a.m. EST) with his head cradled in the lap of his 16-year-old granddaughter, Mani.

Just half an hour before, a Hindu fanatic, Ram Naturam, had pumped three bullets from a revolver into Gandhi's frail body, emaciated by years of fasting and asceticism.

Gandhi was shot in the luxurious gardens of Birla House in the presence of one thousand of his followers, whom he was leading to the little summer pagoda where it was his habit to make his evening devotions.

Dressed as always in his homespun, sacklike dhoti, and leaning heavily on a staff of stout wood, Gandhi was only a few feet from the pagoda when the shots were fired.

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Gandhi crumpled instantly, putting his hand to his forehead in the Hindu gesture of forgiveness to his assassin. Three bullets penetrated his body at close range, one in the upper right thigh, one in the abdomen, and one in the chest.

He spoke no word before he died. A moment before he was shot he said - some witnesses believed he was speaking to the assassin - "You are late."

The assassin had been standing beside the garden path, his hands folded, palms together, before him in the Hindu gesture of greeting. But between his palms he had concealed a small-caliber revolver. After pumping three shots into Gandhi at a range of a few feet, he fired a fourth shot in an attempt at suicide, but the bullet merely creased his scalp.

The shots sounded like a string of firecrackers and it was a moment before Gandhi's devotees realized what had happened. Then they turned on the assassin savagely and would have torn him to bits had not police guards intervened with rifles and drawn bayonets. The assassin was hustled to safekeeping.

Gandhi quickly was borne back to Birla House and placed on a couch with his head in his granddaughter's lap. Within a few moments she spoke to the stricken throng, among them Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Premier of India: "Bapu (father) is finished."

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Then Mani rose and sat cross-legged beside the body of the man whose life was forfeit for the cause of peace and humanity. She began to chant the 2,000-year-old verses of the Bhagavath Gita, the Hindu scripture.

Over all India the word spread like wildfire. Minutes after the flash was received in Bombay rioting broke out, with Hindu extremists attacking Moslems. A panic-stricken Moslem woman echoed the thoughts of thousands with a cry: "God help us all!"

In Delhi itself, in the quick-gathering gloom of the night, the news set the people on the march.

They walked slowly down the avenues and out of the squalid bazaars, converging on Birla House. There by the thousands they stood weeping silently or moaning or wailing. Some sought to scale the high walls and catch one last glimpse of the Mahatma. Strong troop contingents strove to keep order.

Tonight in response to the insistent demand of the people, his body was shown to them.

The balcony window of the house opened and the body was borne outside. The people gasped and surged forward as it was placed on a chair, facing them. A brilliant spotlight blazed on the wrinkled, brown face. The eyes were closed, the face peaceful in repose. A white sheet covered the bloodstained loincloth.

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Within Birla House there was grief and mourning which at least for the moment fused the dissident sects of India - the Hindus, the Moslems, and the Sikhs - into a community of sorrow.

But there were grave fears, heightened by the savage outbreaks in Bombay, that without her saint to hold passions in check, all India might be whirled into strife.

Premier Nehru broadcast to the peoples of India tonight to proclaim a day of national mourning and to invoke in the name of the dead leader an appeal against strife and passion.

He told his listeners that Gandhi had said in the strongest terms that he wished his body to be cremated on the banks of the sacred river of India, the Ganges, where for countless generations the ashes of Indian bodies have been sifted after the burning ghats have done their work.

Still later Premier Nehru announced that Gandhi's body would be cremated at 11 a.m. tomorrow on the banks of the holy river Jumna, a tributary of the Ganges, which flows five miles from the bier on which the body rested tonight.

Mr. Nehru all but collapsed while addressing a throng outside Birla House. He was overcome by grief and the strain on his frail physique. While police supported him, he murmured:

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"Dear Bapu is no more. Let us not cry, but try to carry out the ideals he preached in his lifetime."

The crowds insisted they wished to see Gandhi's face once more. The Premier explained it had been intended to let the body lie in state for three or four days, but in deference to Gandhi's oft-expressed wish the cremation had been arranged at the earliest moment.

All roads to Birla House were jammed. As the night wore on the throng, silent but insistent, began to press back the police guard. Soon at least 200 Indians were over the walls of the mansion and trying to break through the last police line to the room where Gandhi's body leay.

There was no irreverence, but rather a determination to get a last glimpse of their prophet.

Persons close to him said Gandhi was given a spoonful of milk after he was shot, but was unable to swallow it.

Just before Gandhi left Birla House for the last time, he had talked with Sardar Patel, Deputy Prime Minister of India and the "iron man" of the All-India Congress.

Mr. Patel had planned to talk to the prayer platform with the Mahatma, but at the gate of the garden he was called back for a moment and Gandhi walked on alone.

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Messrs. Patel, Nehru and the other leaders of India wept openly in the great room where Gandhi lay - the room in which he lived his life of asceticism.

Then Earl Montbatten, first governor-general of the Indian dominion, arrived. Around the body they gathered in a circle while Mani chanted verse after verse from the Bhagavth Gita.

Just before he broke his 122-hour fast on Jan. 18, Gandhi had said, "I am not afraid to die and somehow I cannot believe that I will die this time."

Those words and his prediction on breaking the fast that he would live out his life span of 125 years were recalled again and again by the mourners around Birla House.

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