January 30, Martyrs’ Day, is gradually losing significance just like some of the other days related to our freedom struggle. There was a time in the ’50s and ’60s when we truly mourned the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. It not only seemed monstrous, but it foreboded a kind of evil, also that despite all the talk about non-violent struggle, violence was in our blood. It created not only shock and sorrow but also fear about India’s future, her civilisation and ethic, and her fame for a non-violent freedom struggle.
The day that shocked India
I was 15 years old when it happened. We were living in Gwalior, as my father, M. A. Sreenivasan, was the Dewan. On the evening of January 30, 1948, his personal secretary rushed into our house and said: “Please stay indoors. We are putting the house under security.” My mother asked: “What is happening?” He said: “Gandhi has been shot and a Hindu nationalist has shot him. We fear that they may attack this house also as Dewan Sahib has been against their communally motivated activities.”
Communal hatred and violence fuelled by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, powerful organisations whose anti-Muslim and anti-Gandhi stand had won them considerable popular support, was a common feature in Gwalior. It was well known that these organisations had the sympathy and support of some of the rulers in that region. These groups hated Gandhi’s concern and support for Muslims. When my father reconstituted the Gwalior cabinet in 1946 and did not include their representatives, among the banners festooning the streets of Gwalior there were two that said: ‘ Nehru ke agent Sreenivasan ko nikal do (Sack Nehru’s agent Sreenivasan)’, and ‘ Shanti ke poojari Sreenivasan ko hata do (Remove peacenik Sreenivasan)’. Hence the fear that our house would be targeted.
In his memoir Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me , written in 1991 and published by Ravi Dayal, my father recalls a visit by Dr. D.S. Parchure, a medical practitioner and a prominent leader of the RSS who came with Narayan Apte (a conspirator who was later hanged) to express his anger against the exclusion of RSS from the cabinet. “You are not a Hindu,” his voice rose in anger, “You are an agent of Jinnah”, “You are a betrayer of Hinduism, you and your Gandhi”, “We shall finish you both. We have hand grenades.”
Gandhiji had sent for my father, and the appointment was on January 29, 1948 at 2.30 p.m. at Birla House in New Delhi. My father had been an effective negotiator, as the convener of the Chamber of Princes. The negotiations were to persuade and nudge the princes to join the Republic of India.
When he returned, like most of sane India he was distraught. In his memoir he remembers his conversation:
Gandhiji asked me, ‘Did you see a group of people in front of the house?’
‘Those poor people are from Bannu. They have come all the way to see me. One of them was quite angry with me today. He told me, “Gandhi, you should die”. I said I will not die until my inner voice says I should. And do you know, Sreenivasan, what he said?’
Gandhiji raised his hand in a characteristic gesture and said, ‘He said, “My inner voice says you should die!”’
I was aghast.
‘I pity them,’ he continued. ‘I am sorry for them. Would you not be angry if your house had been burnt and looted, your women beaten up or violated in your presence?’ he asked. ‘They think I am responsible,’ he continued calmly; ‘I am full of sympathy for them. I can well understand their being so angry.’
How could I have known that, on the very day I was motoring to Delhi to meet Gandhiji, Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were in Parchure’s house in Gwalior on a secret quest, and that they had travelled by that evening’s train to Delhi, carrying with them the pistol and the bullets that killed the Mahatma — as the police found later?
A day of reflection
It is time now for India not to remember this day only as Martyrs’ Day but as a day to reflect on the spirit of the freedom movement. There should be much more discussion, public meetings, a kind of eventful day that enables the new generation to recall what was the politics, and who were those who rebelled against it at that time, and what have we landed in by forgetting those histories. Just as we have endless panels on the bickering by political parties or the fallibility of gigantic corporates, we should have discussions on January 30 invoking the history of the freedom struggle. A two-minute silence on the day and naming the road on which Birla House is located Tees January Marg are not enough.
Devaki Jain is a feminist writer and economist.