Skip to main content

Performing Peace: Gandhi's assassination as a critical moment in the consolidation of the Nehruvian state

  • YASMIN KHAN (a1)

The consolidation of the Nehruvian state's sovereignty after Independence is traced here as a contingent event which was tightly linked to the impact of Gandhi's assassination and the mourning rituals which followed his death in 1948. The Congress was able to use the funeral, mortuary rituals and distribution of Gandhi's ashes to assert the power of the state and to stake the Congress Party's right to sovereignty. This intersected with localized and religious expressions of grief. Gandhi's death therefore acted as a bridge, spatially and temporally linking the distant state with the Indian people and underscoring transitions to Independence during the process of postcolonial transition from 1947–1950.

Hide All

1 Versions of this paper have been presented at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Edinburgh, University of Southampton and at the ‘Everyday State in South Asia’ workshop in Leeds in September 2008; I am grateful for many useful questions, comments and suggestions. On theatricality and ritual in the Indian political arena, see Hansen, Thomas Blom, Wages of Violence. Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Masselos, Jim, The City in Action: Bombay Struggles for Power (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Roy, Srirupa, Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

2 The Times, 13 February, 1948. This figure was also used by the British High Commissioner in Delhi.

3 Jaffrelot, Christophe, ‘Opposing Gandhi: Hindu Nationalism and Political Violence’ in Vidal, D., Tarabout, G., and Meyer, E., (eds), Violence/Non-Violence. Some Hindu Perspectives (Delhi: Manohar-CSH, 2003), pp. 299324; Hardiman, David, Gandhi in his Time and Ours (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), pp. 185194; Noorani, A. G., Savarkar and Gandhi: The Godse Connection (Delhi: Leftword Books, 2002); Markovits, Claude, The UnGandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma (London: Anthem Press, 2004); Nandy, Ashis, ‘Final Encounter: the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi’ in At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 7099. Ashis Nandy's article locates Gandhi's assassination in its social and psychological context, unravelling the complex layers of interdependency between the assassin and the assassinated as mirror images of one another. Nandy stresses the fact that Gandhi's thought threatened to subvert all the foundations of Godse's own thinking, in his emphasis on de brahminsation, his understandings of Hinduism, and his re-evaluation of femininity and sexuality.

4 Nandy, ‘Final Encounter’, p. 89.

5 Opinion of domestic political situation, (IOR) L/PJ/8/794, First half February, 1948.

6 Quraishi, M. A., Indian Administration Pre and Post Independence: Memoirs of an ICS (Delhi: BR Publishing, 1985), pp. 164165. This moment of entangled anxiety and relief is also depicted in Salman Rushdies's Midnight's Children (London: Vintage, 1981), p. 142, when a packed cinema hall hears the news of Gandhi's death: ‘. . .and finally the radio gave us the name. NathuRam Godse. “Thank God”, Amina burst out, “it's not a Muslim name!” And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi's death had placed a new burden of age: “This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!”. Amina, however, was full of the light-headedness of relief, she was rushing dizzily up the long ladder of relief. . . “why not, after all? By being Godse he has saved our lives!”.’ Gandhi's death was also widely mourned in Pakistan. If Gandhi had been killed by a Muslim, the national and international outcomes could have been gravely different. On the impact of Gandhi's assassinations among Muslims see, Pandey, Gyanendra, Remembering Partition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 145.

7 Andersen, Walter and Damle, Shridhard, The Brotherhood in Saffron: the RSS and the Hindu Revivalism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 5152.

8 Nanda, B. R. (ed.), Selected Works of Govind Ballabh Pant (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993) Vol. 12, p. 44. Pant at a press conference, 15 December, 1948.

9 Graham, Bruce, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics: the origins and development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 12.

10 On the inner struggles of these organisations, see Andersen and Damle, Brotherhood in Saffron, Graham, Hindu Nationalism, Chapter 2, and Cristophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, Chapter 2.

11 All India Hindu Mahasabha papers, M-19 (1948), Statement of Bishan Chandra Seth, 1948.

12 Gould, William, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Jalal, Ayesha, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1950 (London: Routledge, 2000).

13 Pandey, Remembering Partition, p. 145.

14 Sahlins, Marshall, Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 291.

15 Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life(Originally published in 1912, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

16 Ben-Amos, Avner, Funerals, Politics and Memory in Modern France, 1789–1996 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Schwartz, Barry, ‘Mourning and the Making of a Sacred Symbol: Durkheim and the Lincoln AssassinationSocial Forces, Vol. 70, No. 2 (December 1991).

17 ‘Mourning may be used’, write Rebecca Saunders and Kamran Aghaie ‘for hegemonic or counter hegemonic, oppressive or emancipatory, purposes; processes of mourning contain a formidable cache of loose power, ideologically useful affect, and empty signifiers that numerous entities—religious, political, social, economic—have not failed to put to use’. Saunders, Rebecca and Aghaie, Kamran, ‘Introduction: Mourning and MemoryComparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 25 No. 1 (2005), p. 22. See also, Kearl, Michael C., Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Wilson, Liz (ed.), The Living and the Dead: Social dimensions of death in South Asian religions (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003); and Metcalf, Peter and Huntington, Richard, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

18 The affliction of South Asian dynasties such as the Bhuttos and Nehru-Gandhis by assassination deserves further critical investigation and analysis.

19 Zoller, Claus Peter and Schombucher, Elisabeth (eds), Ways of Dying: Death and its Meanings in South Asia (Manohar, 1999), Blackburn, Stuart H., ‘Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism’, History of Religions, Vol. 24, No. 3 (February, 1985), pp. 255274.

20 For valuable discussions of contested sovereignty in the postcolonial context see Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Hansen, Thomas Blom and Steputtat, Finn (eds), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Biersteker, Thomas J. and Weber, Cynthia (eds), State Sovereignty as Social Construct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

21 The phrase is from Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 31.

22 See discussions in this Special Issue. Also, Hansen, Thomas Blom and Steputtat, Finn (eds), States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Hansen, Thomas Blom and Steputtat, Finn (eds), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Partha Chatterjee ‘Sovereign Violence and the Domain of the Political’ in Hansen and Steputtat (eds), Sovereign Bodies, p. 85.

23 Khan, Yasmin, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (London: Yale University Press, 2007). Srirupa Roy identifies the same dates, describing this as the ‘long transition’ from colonial rule, Beyond Belief, pp. 25–26, 70. See also Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Majumdar, Rochona and Sartori, Andrew (eds), From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007). Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar emphasizes the protracted and constructed nature of the Pakistani and Indian states during the processes accompanying Partition, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

24 Birla house was at 5 Albuquerque Road, renamed after the date of Gandhi's death as Tees January Marg.

25 Modern state funerals in Britain were a Victorian innovation. When the Nawab of Oudh was deposed in 1856, the exiled Queen Mother travelled to Europe. She died in Paris and was given a French state funeral as a diplomatic snub to Britain. Controversies continue about the political implications of state funerals in South Asia; consider the debates about Mother Theresa's televised state funeral in 1998.

26 In understanding this, Thomas Blom Hansen offers a useful analytical framework. He examines the ‘myth of the state’ in India, in other words, the multiple ways in which the state is understood and perceived. He argues that the Indian state is typically imagined in a dual way; on one side there is the ‘profane’ aspect of the state, which encompasses the self-interest, brutality and banality in the humdrum of everyday administration. Corruption, violence and inefficiency would all be included in this category. On the other side stands the ‘sublime’ aspects of the mysterious and powerful state, which is known through ‘its hidden resources, designs and immense power, and the higher forms of rationality or even justice believed to prevail there’. Ordinary Indians look to the state as the arbiter of legitimate claims and the provider of law and order, even if on many occasions it fails in this role. It is therefore essential that this myth of the state is upheld. Hansen, T. Blom, ‘Governance and Myths of State in Mumbai’ in, Fuller, Chris J. and Beneii, Veronique (eds), The Everyday State and Society in Modern India (London: Hurst, 2001), pp. 3438.

27 Gadihoke, Sabeena, ‘Uncovering Histories: Homai Vyarawalla and chronicling the nation’ in Homage to Mahatma Gandhi (Unpublished paper, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi). The appropriation and use of All India Radio by the Congress was another important way to extend imagined sovereignty in 1947–1948—a medium with national reach but tightly controlled and closed to political leaders until independence. After independence Congress made regular use of the medium to convey national messages. See Pinkerton, Alasdair, ‘Radio and the Raj: broadcasting in British India (1920–1940)’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society ISSN 1356–1863, Volume 18.2, 2008, pp. 167191.

28 Gauba, K. L., The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Jaico, 1969), p. 160. These colonial continuities in ritual planning have been remarked upon in other contexts; the assumption of pre-colonial motifs and rituals by the British in colonial darbars and, in the post-1947 years, the postcolonial state's appropriation of restyled imperial ritual for events like Republic Day. Cohn, Bernard, An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996); Masselos, Jim, ‘India's Republic Day: The Other 26 January’, South Asia Vol. 19 (special issue) (1996), pp. 183203; Roy, Beyond Belief, pp. 66–105.

29 The disciplining of crowds took on new dimensions now that the Congress was the party of sovereign power, raising critical questions about the legitimacy of crowd action. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘In the name of politics: Sovereignty, Democracy and the Multitude in India’ Economic and Political Weekly, 23 July, 2005.

30 The Pioneer, 2 February, 1948. The Pioneer, a Lucknow-based English language paper, contained particularly detailed reports on the funeral and its aftermath in 1948.

31 Ibid., 31 January, 1948.

32 Ibid., 2 February, 1948.

33 Ibid., 2 February, 1948.

34 Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, All India Congress Committee papers G-8 Part 2 (1947) [Hereafter AICC], Bhagwan Das Halna to Nehru 19 March, 1948. In his reply on 9 April, the Congress secretary, Sadiq Ali, acknowledged, ‘We are aware of the widespread feeling in the matter you have raised in your letter. The matter is receiving our serious consideration.’

35 The Pioneer, 9 February, 1948, Telegram to Nehru.

36 Ibid., 11 February, 1948.

37 Ibid., 11 February, 1948.

38 See for example, Agarwala, N. N., India's Saviour Crucified: A challenge for us to think and act (Agra: Shiva Publication, 1948).

39 Parry, Jonathan, Death in Banaras (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 161162.

40 Gopal, Sarvepalli, (ed.), Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru [hereafter SWJN] (New Delhi, Oxford University Press) 2nd series, 5, pp. 63, 65. Speech at Jullundur, 24 February, 1948.

41 There were also parallels here with the death of princely rulers, such as the death of Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1947 and Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur in 1952. These deaths were similarly not simply family matters but demanded widespread and overt public mourning over two weeks in which members of all communities participated by paying their respects, often by visiting the royal palace, many also shaving their heads. See Balzani, Marzia, Modern Indian Kingship: Tradition, Legitimacy and Power in Jodhpur (Oxford: James Currey, 2003), p. 45.

42 There are echoes of President Lincoln's funeral in 1865 which utilized a very long and public train journey through America and acted to cohere a divided public at a critical moment. See Barry Schwartz, ‘Mourning and the Making of a Sacred Symbol’.

43 Shahid Amin, for instance, has stressed the importance of train carriages and train stoppages during Gandhian campaigns of the early 1920s. Amin, Shahid, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992 (Delhi: Penguin edition, 2006), p. 189.

44 One, printed in a pamphlet, to be completed by the reader, read as follows: ‘I, rudely shaken to my very foundations by the sudden and unexpected demise of Bapuji, the Father of Our Nation, hereby pledge that I shall do everything possible, by action and thought, to see his cause succeed. I will see—| a) That communalism is eradicated from every walk of our life | b) That untouchability is liquidated once and for all, and | c) That Social and Economic Democracy is brought into reality, that being the latest mission which Gandhiji laid down in the Harijan. | I am affixing my signature to this pledge, after full realisation of the difficulties involved as also the significance of this mission. Babuji Zindabad, Jai Hind.’ (Agarwala, India's Saviour Crucified, unpaginated.)

45 Trivedi, Lisa, Clothing Gandhi's Nation: Homespun and Modern India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 102108.

46 On cartography and the visualization of space in modern India see Ramaswamy, Sumathi (ed.) Beyond Appearances: Visual Practices and Ideologies in Modern India (Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003).

47 The Pioneer, 9 February, 1948.

48 ‘Father of the nation laid to rest: the afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi’. The Independent, Thursday, 31 January, 2008.

49 The Pioneer, 9 February, 1948.

50 Film footage of the regional ceremonies reinforces this point and suggests the ways in which state officials were involved, the scale of crowd participation and the different ceremonial procedures accompanying the immersion of the ashes into the waters. See Babuji's Demise available at [accessed 27 September 2010]. This film shows the immersion of Gandhi's ashes, processions, crowds and ceremonies at Allahabad, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Kanya Kumari, Travancore, Cochin, Ahmedabad, Kandla and Nasik.

51 Choudhary, Valmiki (ed.), Dr. Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents (Allied Publishers, 1984–1995), vol. 8, p. 58. Note from Nehru on proposed national memorial for Gandhi.

52 SWJN, 2nd series, Vol. 6, pp. x. Letter to Pant, 18 June, 1948.

53 SWJN, 2nd series, Vol. 5, pp. 45–46. Undated note accepted by the cabinet on 3 February, 1948.

54 SWJN, 2nd series, Vol. 5, p. 66. Statement to the press, 25 February, 1948.

55 SWJN, 2nd series, Vol. 5, p. 66. Statement to the press, 25 February, 1948.

56 Times of India, 5 February, 1948.

57 SWJN, 2nd series, Vol. 5, p. 48. Written on 5 February and published in Harijan, 15 February, 1948. This also poses questions about the political culture of assassination in South Asia more generally, which could be explored further in relation to members of the Bhutto and Nehru-Gandhi dynasties.

58 Gottschalk, Peter, ‘A Mahatma for Mourners and Militants: the social memories of Mohandas Gandhi in Arampur’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2005), p. 56.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed