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When Madras fell silent for Mahatma

The largest crowds turned up for his meetings, which, as in 1946, sat throughout his meeting, with no interpreter and not understanding a word.

When Madras fell silent for Mahatma
Mahatma Gandhi

CHENNAI: 75 years ago, at 5.17 pm on January 30, 1948, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was shot while walking to his prayer meeting on the lawn of Birla House, New Delhi.

The majority of Madras residents heard it via community radio stations put up in Chennai’s parks and beaches.

Madras fell silent and a sense of sorrow spread. The city spent a sleepless night as word of mouth spread.

The administration declared 13 days of extraordinary mourning in a statement published in the Fort St George Gazette. Early the next morning, the Tricolour in the Fort and the High Court were lowered to half-mast. The city was stunned by the sudden demise of a man it revered.

With 16 visits or more, Gandhi won the hearts of the citizens of Madras.

The largest crowds turned up for his meetings, which, as in 1946, sat throughout his meeting, with no interpreter and not understanding a word.


‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy Naicker

There was intense sorrow in the minds of the people and it led to a spate of proposals many of which were not kept when the memories waned.

The suggestion of rechristening Madras came from the town planning and improvement standing committee led by Parthasarathy.

The committee requested the mayor to place the suggestion to rename Madras as Gandhipattinam before the council.

The council didn’t hear of the proposal for no mention of it was seen in the press thereafter. ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy Naicker wrote letters to Nehru and Rajendra Prasad asking India to be named Gandhistan or Gandhi land.

EVR, once a devout follower of Gandhi and his principles (Gandhi visited his house in Erode at 2 am once) said that Gandhi needed to be ranked among the great as Buddha, Christ and Mohammed and so the memorial for him should be permanent in nature and extraordinary in character.


Gandhi mandapam

It was in 1952 that Kalki Krishnamurthy — the man who had translated Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments With Truth into Tamil and his Congress friends conceived a concrete memorial for the Mahatma.

Though there were many places directly connected with the Mahatma, they chose the Guindy forest for a verdant and peaceful memorial for the apostle of peace.

Getting a small chunk of the reserved forest was not an issue since the project had Rajaji’s blessings. Gandhi might not have approved of this small bit of forest given for his memorial.

The move led to an avalanche of requests for their share of the jungle and other memorials and the Madras IIT soon swallowed most of the forest.

Gandhi mandapam, built with public contributions, was where the architects planned a tall stupa. However, it was decided to build a circular mandapam suited for prayer meetings, preceded by a traditional south-Indian temple gopuram at the entrance.


Shops lowered their shutters and when a country liquor shop was kept open presumably for people to drown their sorrows in Washermanpet, Congress volunteers thronged the site and convinced the management to close it down.

Mobile patrols were on rounds, but still, trams were damaged by stone pelting near Stanley Medical College.

There was spontaneous charka spinning on hearing the assassination for it was the favourite pastime of the Mahatma.

Thakkar Baba Vidyalaya in T Nagar had a non-stop spinning day. Kotha- mangalam Subbu and MS Subbulakshmi sang at the end of the function on the day of the funeral.

Many people died of shock. Some committed suicide in the grief. Gandhi’s nephew JK Gandhi, a resident of Madras, had been invited by the premier to participate in the immersion ceremony as he was family.

But the day before, though hale and healthy, he collapsed in a heart attack near the Mambalam bus stand.

Incidentally, when entire streets became empty during the immersion ceremony quite a few houses were attacked by robbers taking advantage of the lowering of guard.


In the face of public anger, the RSS voluntarily announced the suspension of all its activities in Madras.

V Rajagopalachari, advocate and the president of Madras province, RSS made the announcement. But on February 4 the state governments all over India banned RSS and Madras complied with it in the Presidency.

A gazette extraordinary issued by the Madras government stated that “RSS constituted a danger to public peace and the Governor had declared it unlawful”.

Several lathis and printed literature were seized. The Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act was used to conduct searches and make arrests.

V Rajagopalachari himself was arrested and later released when he gave an undertaking that he had disassociated himself from the organisation.


C Rajagopalachari, also known as Rajaji, by then the Governor of West Bengal, would pay a tribute to the man who had called him his conscience.

“Let the tragedy that was enacted in Delhi give the people of India the tune, reason, rhyme and melody for the history of their future. I pray that the history of India might be written with the rhythm and tune of the grief that Bharat Mata had felt when Mahatma Gandhi fell.”

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan would say “Mahatma Gandhi, the lonely symbol of the vanishing past, is no more. We have killed his body but the light in him, which is from the divine flame of Truth and Love, cannot be put out.” Kalki Krishnamurthy in an editorial in his Kalki magazine would ask “has truth itself been assassinated?”


Most of the others from Madras presidency were glued to the public radio sets. Much of the public saw the funeral procession a week later when the filmed funeral was shown in many theatres across the Presidency.

The funeral scenes were made as a film by Pakshiraja Studios, then a leading film studio and shown in theatres.

Crowds thronged the venues and most of the collections were donated to favourite charities of the Mahatma.


GA Natesan, the editor of Indian Review was the first host of Gandhi when he visited Madras in 1915.

Gandhi and Kasturba stayed with him in George Town for a fortnight. However, Natesan differed from Gandhi later when he became a liberal who believed that freedom was a must but needed to be obtained only by negotiation on friendly terms.

It is not known if Gandhi ever met him during his other visits, but the two seemed to have had a constant correspondence.

On the death of Gandhi, there was heavy pressure on Natesan to publish the letters between the two. 76-year-old Natesan released his entire correspondence to the newspapers of Madras in response to the request.

Unfortunately, Natesan himself would follow Gandhi to the grave in another two months.


Kavi Yogi Maharishi Shuddhananda Bharati

Kavi Yogi Maharishi Shuddhananda Bharati was an Indian philosopher and poet.

Roused from a decade of silence that he maintained as a vow by Gandhi’s death, the yogi wrote a poem in English mourning the death.

We take the vow of unity

Before thy soul today

Prophet of one humanity

Thy commands we obey

The love that animated thee

Shall throb our spirit

Oh flame of God that makes us free

To save thee make us fit

Is there a heart that cradles not

Thy stainless sacrifice

Can the crew forget its pilot

And art its masterpiece

To finish thy work come again

Soul of humanity

Bless this soil of thy blood stain

With God-like liberty


On February 12, when almost a fortnight had passed since the assassination, the urn was placed on a floral mount in a special chariot so it could be clearly seen by members of the public who had gathered in tens of thousands.

The solemn procession led to the Marina beach. The chariot was drawn by 200 women volunteers from the Congress Seva Dal dressed in green and white.

The Army, Navy and Air Force cadets, police, Scouts and Guides and Congress volunteers were followed by the public.

Many held aloft his picture and some carried national flags at half-mast. Bhajans resounded from all parts of the procession.

An elephant arranged by the Andhra Sarihaddu Sangam was the highlight of the procession. It had the imprint of the Mahatma’s feet framed in glass on its back.

The procession marched through Mount Road turned at the Round Tana and went through Wallajah Road to the beach.


Madras saw one of its largest gatherings when more than a lakh people assembled on the sands of the Marina opposite the police headquarters (where the Gandhi statue now stands).

The Governor and his wife, and the entire cabinet of the Madras Presidency (some of them fasting that whole day) led the ceremony.

When the immersion was over tens of thousands took a sea bath and many shaved their heads as is the custom when a father was lost.

The ceremony was performed by Hindu rites with verses recited from the Bhagavad Gita though lines from Zend Avesta (the Parsi holy book), the Guru Granth Sahib, Quran, and the Sermon on the Mount in Tamil from the Bible accompanied it.

The ashes were divided into five parts and kept in five urns. Other than the Marina, they were destined to be dissolved in the holy waters of Kaveri, Kanniyakumari and Rameshwaram and Bezwada (Vijayawada).

The five urns, the government promised, would go to the Madras museum in future as exhibits. However, there are no traces of them now.


A mbujammal, born into a wealthy lawyers’ family, got so impressed by the austerity and humble nature of Gandhi that it changed her life.

She donated her jewels to Harijan Welfare Fund, and for the rest of her life wore khadi sarees and went to jail twice.

To support the suffering masses, she set up Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam in Alwarpet in 1948. The Nilayam gave milk for babies, medicines for the sick and gruel for the hungry.

Knowing her devotion, a small portion of Gandhi’s ashes were given to her, perhaps the only part which was not immersed in the holy waters.

Ambujammal rightly kept it within a tulsi madam, a pedestal and a pot which holds the sacred Ocimum plant. It is perhaps the only place where the ashes remain in Madras.


A Deccan Airways flight flying Governor Nye and his wife (even after Independence the first Governor of the province was a British man) brought the urn containing the ashes.

The Governor wore a black armband as a sign of mourning. The premier, as the chief minister was then called, received it at the airport. The urn was wrapped in khadi which had the word Ram printed.

Garlanded with a strip of khadar threads, a Congressman reverently carried the urn on his head to the premier’s car, which travelled to the banqueting hall. It was then kept in a glass case (donated by Bapalal & Co, jewellers) to be viewed by the public.


On the day of the funeral, the city was shut down in a hartal. The normally bustling Mount Road appeared to be desolate.

The Railways decided that trains would not run between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., leaving passengers stranded at terminals with concerned expressions until the scheduled departure time of 6 p.m. There was a wave of cancellations due to genuine grief.

The Agri Horticultural Society’s flower display and a veterinary conference were both cancelled in the city.

Many wedding festivities, including one in the Advocate General’s family, were cancelled, with newspaper advertisements announcing the cancellation.

The Thiagaraja Aradhana, the biggest event of the Carnatic fraternity was cancelled halfway through with musicians stuck in Thiruvaiyaru unable to get back. However, many amongst them noted Gandhi had died on the 101st anniversary of the saint and that Ram was the favourite word they frequently uttered.


Lord Mountbatten had been in Madras for over three days and the Governor-General had left only that fateful morning.

Lady Edwina Mountbatten had numerous events scheduled for the day next — January 31 — but cancelled them and left by her private aeroplane to Delhi from the St Thomas Mount aerodrome.

The Governor of the Presidency Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Edward Nye flew in a special aircraft to attend.

Dr RM Alagappa Chettiar, who had become extremely close with the Mahatma during his last visit in 1946 possessed his own Jupiter airline.

Chettiar flew to Delhi to witness the funeral. He would even give a speech describing the happenings at an event held at Lady MCTM School.

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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