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After Nathuram Godse was sentenced to death for the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Godse’s family members had appealed before the privy council in London and had also sought mercy from the then governor-general.
This is among the lesser-known facts related to Godse’s trial for Gandhi’s murder, said lawyer Rajan Jayakar, who studied the original records of the trial while curating an exhibition to mark the Supreme Court of India’s golden jubilee in 2000.
“I had written to the then Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court to send the papers to Delhi. The voluminous record arrived in seven-eight wooden boxes,” said Jayakar.
Now, 66 years after the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, Jayakar, a conservationist of legal heritage based in Mumbai, said there were a number of aspects of the trial that remain lesser known.
Godse had himself never sought clemency but members of his family had probably kept him in the dark about their subsequent appeals for mercy, said Jayakar. The P&H High Court had, on June 21, 1949, confirmed Godse’s death sentence in a 315-page judgment.
Jayakar explained, “The privy council was part of the British Parliament. While appeals from England were heard by the House of Lords, those from British colonies were heard by the judicial commission of the privy council.”
Jayakar said that on October 26, 1949, the privy council did not grant leave (permission to file the petition) to the families of the accused, including Godse, who had filed the SLP.
“They had refused to grant leave on the ground that even if they did admit the petition, it would not have been decided before January 26, 1950 when the Indian Supreme Court was to be born.” Once the Supreme Court of India came into existence, the jurisdiction to hear the SLP would lie with it.
The day the privy council turned down the petition of the families, the death warrants against Godse and Narayan Apte were issued and November 15, 1949 was set as the date for the execution.
The families of Godse and Apte filed a mercy petition with the then Governor-general C Gopalachari on November 5, 1949. But on November 7, 1949, he dismissed the petition, declining to interfere in the matter. Godse and Apte were hanged in the Ambala prison,” said Jayakar.
Justice GD Khosla described the process in Murder of the Mahatma [PDF], his 1965 account of the trial,
“An appeal in a murder case is, according to High Court Rules and Orders, heard by a Division Bench consisting of two judges, but owing to the unique position which the deceased had occupied, the complexity and volume of the evidence which would have to be considered and appraised and the unprecedented interest aroused by the case, the Chief Justice decided to constitute a bench of three judges to hear the appeal by Godse and his accomplices. The judges were Mr. Justice Bhandari, Mr. Justice Achhruram and myself. We decided that as a special measure we should resume the old practice of wearing wigs, and that on our entry into the court-room we should, as in the olden days, be preceded by our liveried ushers carrying silver-mounted staffs.”
The first hearing was held on May 2, 1949. Godse declined a lawyer and fought his own case. Khosla wrote:
“His small defiant figure with flashing eyes and close-cropped hair offered a remarkable and immediately noticeable contrast to the long row of placid and prosperous-looking lawyers who represented his accomplices. The plea of poverty on which Godse had based his request to be present in person was only an excuse, and the real reason behind the maneuver was a morbid desire to watch the process of his disintegration at first hand and also to exhibit himself as a fearless patriot and a passionate protagonist of Hindu ideology. He had remained completely unrepentant of his atrocious crime, and whether out of a deep conviction in his beliefs or merely in order to make a last public apology, he had sought this opportunity of displaying his talents before he dissolved into oblivion.”
Two of the accused, Dattratreya Parchure and Shankar Kistayya, were acquitted during the appeal, while the conviction and sentence of the remaining five appellants were confirmed. Godse and Apte were hanged in Ambala Jail on November 15, 1949.
“Three accused, Gangadhar Dandawate, Gangadhar Jadhav and Suryadev Sharma were not traced and declared absconders. Till date nobody knows what happened to them,” said Jayakar.