The courts and the Gandhi murder case: What happened on January 30? CJP analyses the historical judgements by the trial courts and the high courts

30, Jan 2024 | Tanya Arora

“He had barely covered six or seven steps when a person whose name I learnt later as Narayan Vinayak Godse, resident of Poona, stepped closer and fired three shots from a pistol at the Mahatma from barely 2 / 3 feet distance which hit the Mahatma in his stomach and chest and blood started flowing. Mahatma ji fell backwards, uttering “Raam – Raam“. The assailant was apprehended on the spot with the weapon.”

Nand Lal Mehta, F.I.R. filed in the Gandhi murder case

Case- Rex v. Nathuram Vinayak Godse and Others

It was on January 30, 1948, almost 76 years ago, that our beloved Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. Godse had put three bullets into Gandhi’s chest. The trial and appeal of Godse’s case, also known as the Mahatma Gandhi Murder case, was concluded within 2 years of his assassination. A total of twelve were chargesheeted for the charges of conspiracy (under section 120B of the Indian Penal Code) and murder (under Section 302 of the IPC) of Gandhiji. 

While Nathuram Godse, the assassin from the Hindu Mahasabha previously with the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Narayan Apte were given death sentences after being held guilty of murder—the bench observing his actions to be both “deliberate and calculated,” —investigation into the conspiracy angle in the attack on the Mahatma was sharply criticised and Vikram Damodar Savarkar was let off on count of lack of evidence. Four of the accused, namely Vishnu Karkare, Madanlal Pahwa, Shankar Kistayya, Gopal Godse, were given life sentence. The remaining Dattatraya Parchure was given a sentence of seven years of imprisonment.  In fact the judgement observes that the assassination may have been avoided had previous attacks on Gandhi and statements of Madanlal Pahwa and Dr JC Jain been delved into.

Out of these twelve, nine were tried, namely Godse, Narayan Apte, Vishnu Karkare, Digambar Badge, Madanlal Pahwa, Shankar Kistayya, Gopal Godse, Vinayak Savarkar and Dattatreya Parchure. The remaining three accused, namely Gandadhar Dandwate, Gangadhar Jadhav and Suryadeo Sharma, were declared absconding. It is essential to note that Accused Digambar Badge had turned approver in the said case and was granted pardon later in June, 1948.

The build-up to the killing- the explosion, the misdirected anger, the murder of the father of the nation

Ten days prior to the murder of Gandhiji, on the evening of January 20, 1948, an explosion had taken place near the compound wall of Birla House, New Delhi. Birla House was where Gandhiji had been staying, holding his prayer meetings on the lawns. Since these were the days following the partition of India with Pakistan being carved out, the atmosphere in Delhi and other parts of the country was tensed and charged. Gandhiji, along with many leaders of the Indian National Congress, had been raising calls for non-violence, urging for the citizens to maintain Hindu-Muslim unity and uphold the values of secularism. 

Since India had chosen to remain a secular nation, many were enraged with Gandhiji. Police were posted at Birla House to protect him from any possible assault. At first, it was believed that the explosion of January 20, was not aimed at Gandhi as it had taken place almost a hundred and fifty feet away from the dais where he sat. However, it was during intestigation that the police had revealed that the explosion was a part of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi off. Notably, Madanlal Pahwa had been apprehended on spot on the day. 

Even when the police had gotten information that Madanlal had other accomplices in the plot and that the plan did not work and that his co-conspirators had fled, the police was unable to apprehend the others. The Government had also reinforced the police force and tightened the security measures at Birla House.

At 5 pm on the evening of January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot point-blank by Godse as he was on his way to the dais for the prayer meeting, which he had continued with even after the explosion attack. After firing the three bullets, Godse had raised his hand with the gun and had been caught red-handed by the police. It is essential to highlight here that Godse was one of those involved with the explosion and the police had been looking for him. 

For the case, the Investigations were confined mainly to Bombay, Delhi and Gwalior. Though Gandhi was shot in Delhi, the plot was hatched in the erstwhile Bombay Province. 

The trial of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi-

The trial of the said case had been held in the Special Court of Red Fort, Delhi in the court of Special Judge Atma Charan, ICS. The said special court had been constituted on May 4, 1948 under Sections 10 and 11 of the Bombay Public Security Measures Act, 1947. After the chargesheet was submitted and the charges were read out to the accused, the accused had pled not guilty and the trial had ensued.  The prosecution had been led by the then advocate general of Bombay, C.K. Daphtary. It is essential to note that while Godse was initially represented by advocate V.V. Oak, he had later on applied to argue the case himself, who which he was given permission. 

The prosecution: The prosecution’s evidence in the aforementioned case began on June 24, 1948, and continued until November 6, 1948. In addition to calling 149 witnesses for examination, the prosecution also filed 404 documentary evidence and 80 material exhibits. The recording of the statements of the accused commenced on November 8, 1948 and carried on till November 22, 1948. Documentary exhibits totalling 119 were brought on record. It is pertinent to note that Morarji Desai, the then home minister of the Bombay was one of the witnesses examined by the prosecution. His evidence had been used by the prosecution to establish a fact in relation to the explosion which had taken place at Birla House at the behest of Madanlal Pahwa and others.

The defendants: Interestingly enough, accused Godse had declined to adduce evidence in his defence. Rather, in his ninety-two page long written statement, which he had gotten the chance to read out loud, Godse took full ownership of the heinous act committed and denied the involvement of any other accused in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi. His statement was more of an ideological assault on the principles and values of Gandhi rather than a statement of defence, which was surprisingly allowed to be read in an open court for nine hours. 

In regards to the other accused, some of the accused pleaded alibi. Kistayya, in his written statement, had stated that the acts committed by him were at the bidding of Badge. Notable, while Kistayya had taken the responsibility for transporting revolvers and bombs from place to place, he had later retracted his statement. In his statement, Savarkar had denied the charges against him in totality and had contended that he had no control over the acts of Godse and Apte. 

The judgment: The judgment in this historical case, delivered on February 10, 1949, ran into 111 pages. The said judgment had been divided into a total of 27 chapters which cover the role played by each of the accused, the incidents as they took place, the evidence and written statements submitted and the offences made out. 

In the portion of offences made out and the sentencing, the bench of special judge Charan that based on the evidence provided, illegal acts of conspiracy and murder were committed by the accused. Through the judgment, the bench convicted seven of the accused while acquitting one, namely Savarkar. The said seven were held guilty of transporting arms without license, abetting each other of the commission of the offences described above and kept possession of arms without license. In reference to the January 20 explosion, the seven were held guilty of possessing explosive substances and abetting each other to commit the offending acts. 

The judgment clearly holds Nathuram Godse to be guilty of intentionally and knowingly cause the death of Mahatma Gandhi, an offense that will within the ambit of Section 302 of the IPC and constitutes murder. In the judgment, the bench observed that “the act of Nathuram V Godse in committing the murder of Mahatma Gandhi was a deliberate and calculated one. No extenuating circumstances have been pointed out nor could have been pointed out in his behalf. With this, the court gave accused Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte death sentences. Four of the accused, namely Vishnu Karkare, Madanlal Pahwa, Shankar Kistayya, Gopal Godse, were given life sentence. The remaining Dattatraya Parchure was given a sentence of seven years of imprisonment. While acquitting Savarkar, judge Charan had noted in the judgement that the case against him by the prosecution had only depended on the evidence supplied by the approver Badge, and depending on the same alone for the conviction would not be in the sake of justice.

Towards the end of the judgment, special judge Charan also highlighted the “slackness of the Police in the investigation of the case” during the period of the ten day between the explosion at the Birla House and the shooting of Gandhi. As per the judgment, passing strictures against the casual conduct shown by the police in investigating the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, “the police had miserably failed to derive any advantage from the statements [of Madanlal Pahwa and Dr. JC Jain]. Had the slightest keenness been shown in the investigation of the case at that stage, the tragedy would probably have been averted.”

The complete judgment can be read here:


The appeal in the East Punjab High Court at Shimla:

A period of 15 days had been provided to those convicted to file the appeal against the judgment in the Punjab High Court. All the seven accused had moved the appeals. In the High Court too, Godse had sought permission to argue on his behalf and had been granted the same. Significantly, keeping up with the “heroic” image that Godse saw himself as, in his Godse had not appealed against his death sentence and had only appealed against the conviction of criminal conspiracy under Section 120 B and other charges. 

The appeals filed by the convicts were heard swiftly, with the hearings taking place in the month of May and June and the verdict being pronounced by the end of June. By a judgment dated June 21, 1949, the three-judge bench of the High Court comprising Justices Bhandari, Achhru Ram and Khosla had upheld the conviction for five of the accused persons and acquitted two of the accused persons, namely Shankar Kistaiya and Dr. Parchure. The sentences granted by the trial court to accused Vishnu Karkare, Gopal Godse and Madanlal Pahwa were confirmed. In addition to this, the Judges had also confirmed the death sentence of Narayan Apte.

The judgment ran to a total of 561 pages. Justice Achhru Ram’s 360 paged judgment formed the main part, accompanied by Justice Bhandari’s long concurring judgment. A one paragraph judgment was also written by Justice Khosla through which he had simply disagreed with the recommendation of the Justice Achhru Ram to commute the sentence of Pahwa.

The judgment of Justice Acchru Ram contained the sequential history of India and of Gandhi since 1914, which contained the principles of togetherness and non-violence of Gandhi and the objections that “Hindu nationalists” had against him. The judgment recounts the various meetings that took place between the accused at different points of time to conspire to kill Gandhi, the preparation in furtherance of the conspiracy, the arms and the attempts. A major chunk of the judgment traces the events that took place in the month of January 1948. In the later part of the judgment, the court weighs the statements and evidence provided by approver Badge in the case along with the other witnesses and corroborators. In the operative part of the judgment, Justice Ram accepted the appeals filed by accused Kistayya and Parchure and acquitted them from the charges filed against them. On the other hand, Justice Ram dismissed the appeals filed by Godse and four others, namely Apte, Gopal Godse, Pahwa and Karkare, and upheld their convictions. It is important to note that Justice Ram recommended commutation of sentence for accused Gopal Godse as well as Pahwa in view of their young age and them being in “bloom of their lives”. Rather, in regards to the role played by Gopal Godse and Pahwa, Justice Ram stated that the two seemed to have acted under the influence of the other “stronger and determined persons”.

Towards the end of the said judgement, Justice Ram specifically pointed towards the comments made by Special Judge in the trial court judgement against the police. Observing the said strictures passed by the trial judge against the Delhi Police to not be justified, Justice Ram deemed the same to be uncalled for. 

The reasons behind the Justice Bhandari authoring a nearly 100-paged concurring judgment remained unclear. Through his judgment, Justice Bhandari also acquitted the two accused Parchure and Kistayya on the ground that there was insufficient evidence while convicting Godse and four others. Similar to Justice Ram, Justice Bhandari also suggested commuting the sentences of Gopal Godse as well as Pahwa for commutation of sentence in regards to their young age. 

Similar to Justice Ram, Justice Bhandari too found the remarks made by the special judge against the Delhi Police to be unjustified, observing that it would have been impossible for any police officer, however capable and efficient he might have been, to have prevented Nathuram from committing the crime on which he had set his heart.

In the one paragraph authored by Justice Khosla, the acquittal granted to two accused as well as the conviction of the remaining five accused was concurred with. However, Justice Khosla disassociated himself from the recommendations made the other two members of the High Court bench in favour of the commutation of sentence of accused Pahwa in view of the prominent part played by him in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi. In his judgment, Justice Khosla wrote that “The fact that the place of January 20 miscarried does not, in my opinion, extenuate Pahwa’s guilt.”

The complete judgment can be read here:


The last avenue for appeal- the Privy Council

There remained only one possible course of action- to file appeals in the Privy Councils. All five of the individuals who were found guilty and convicted by the high court—Nathuram Godse, Apte, Karkare, Pahwa, and Gopal Godse—filed a special leave petition to appeal to the privy council. John McGaw represented the appellants. Members of the privy council’s judicial committee included Sir John Beaumont, Sir Lionel Leach, Lord Greene, Lord Simonds, and Lord Radcliffe. 

Upon considering McGaw’s arguments, the Privy Council decided not to grant special leave to appeal, citing no need for the Crown to respond. Following this, the governor general in council also denied the mercy pleas filed by Apte and Nathuram Godse. It is to be noted that Godse had not himself filed the mercy pleas, rather his family had on his behalf. Till the end, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a Hindu Mahasabhaite, was not ashamed of having killed Mahatma Gandi, the father of the nation. 

Godse and Apte were hanged in Ambala jail on November 15, 1949.

Plea for re-investigation into Gandhi Murder Case dismissed by the Supreme Court

The saga of courts and the Gandhi murder case did not end with the Privy Council. In the year of 2017, a Special Leave Petition was moved in Supreme Court by Pankaj Phadnis urging for the reopening of the criminal investigation of Gandhi’s assassination. In his plea, the petitioner had suggested that there was a foreign conspiracy involving ‘Force 136’ and presence of a second assassin as well as a ‘fourth bullet’ fired at the Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Through the plea, it had also been alleged that “adverse, unfounded” remarks were made by the Kanpur Commission in 1969 against Savarkar and therefore, it was pleaded to setup a commission to review the same and find out the conspiracy behind the incident. 

In the judgment passed by the Supreme Court bench comprising former Justices S A Bobde and L Nageswara, the Court refused to enter into the arena of reviewing the correctness and fairness of the findings of the report. 

As per a report in the LiveLaw, the bench had observed “You said people have the right to know about what happened. But it appears that people already know about it. You are creating suspicion in the minds of the people. The fact is that the people who committed assassination have been identified and hanged. It (the incident) is too late in the day. We are not going to reopen or correct it.”

With regards to the arguments raised in regards to the “unfairness” shown by the Commission to Savarkar, the bench held “The submission of the petitioner that Shri Savarkar has been held guilty for the murder of Gandhiji is misplaced.” (Para 7)

In the judgment, the bench further stated, “We are, however, not inclined to enter into the correctness or fairness of the findings in this report. That would be another exercise in futility and would none the less pan new fires of controversy. This Court must at all cost be vary of such contentious issues and must not allow its jurisdiction to be invoked for such purposes.” (Para 8)

Dismissing the PIL moved, the bench stated “We consider the petitioner’s attempt to reopen this controversy as an exercise in futility.” (Para 9)

The complete judgment can be read here:


Three bullets, one freedom fighter, one aggrieved supremacist

The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse has been etched into the collective memory of every citizen of India, every follower of the Gandhian principles of non-violence, tolerance and togetherness. It has been evident from the brief overview of the judgments by the Courts in the Gandhi Murder case that his assassination was not a spontaneous reaction, but an elaborate conspiracy by certain Hindu supremacists to hamper his message of peace. 

In January of 1948, only two weeks prior to his assassination, Gandhi had sat on a fast at Birla House, stating that he will only end his protest when an atmosphere of Hindu-Muslim amity and harmony returns to Delhi. These were days when the newly partitioned India had been under the grips of violence and certain “anti-national elements” want the nation to be a Hindu nation. Three days prior to the killing of Gandhi, a Hindu Mahasabha Delhi meeting had demanded that Gandhi and his “anti-Hindu forces” should go to Pakistan. 

The cracks in the Hindu-Muslim unity and secularism had become evident the day our beloved Gandhi had died. 

It is also crucial to highlight here that the Courts had acquitted Savarkar from having played any role in the assassination of Gandhi due to “lack of evidence”. Savarkar, under whose guidance the Hindu Mahasabha worked, threw Godse and Apte under the bus to save himself and the two, who believed to have been working for a greater purpose, had happily refused any involvement of Savarkar. Many articles have been written about the “cowardly” attitude of Savarkar during the trials of the Gandhi murder case. In an article by the Wire, it was written that “During the trial, Savarkar did not even turn his head towards.. Nathuram.. much less speak with him (Godse).” Many have also alleged that the contentious speech delivered by Godse in the trial court for his defence, in which he has revered the falsifying and divisive ideologies of Savarkar, was written by Savarkar himself. 

Today, the current ruling regime, who had backed the demand of the Hindu Mahasabha to install Godse statues in temples across the country in the year 2015, have been on the mission to cleansing and easing Savarkar in our minds and lives by distorting history. The partisan and supremacist ideology of Savarkar, who some regard as a Hindutva Hero, into the Indian pantheon and re-shaping India into Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation). 

As we observe a two-minute silence today to show our respect for the man whose ideologies and path of non-violence led us to attain freedom and independence for our country, it is also necessary that we learn from our past. Neither Gandhi nor those convicted are alive today. What remains are their ideologies. Gandhiji- who stood for the rights of the oppressed and believed in unity or Savarkar and Godse- who believed in violence, otherisation and oppression. It is our choice to choose our paths. 


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