Mohandas Gandhi was on his way to his daily prayer meeting in New Delhi when an assassin shot him on January 30, 1948. The 78-year-old activist was known around the world for leading India’s independence movement against the British Empire. His death came less than a year after India finally won its independence, leaving the country “stunned and bewildered,” as The New York Times put it, as to how it would navigate its new nationhood without him.
To many Indians, he was “Mahatma Gandhi” or simply “the Mahatma,” meaning “great soul.” Yet he wasn’t universally beloved. His assassin, 36-year-old Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu extremist angry at Gandhi, a fellow Hindu, for advocating unity between India’s Hindus and Muslims. Just 10 days before his assassination, a Hindu refugee from Pakistan named Madanlal Pahwa set off a bomb at one of Gandhi’s prayer meetings.
Gandhi was born in 1869 during the British Raj that governed most of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He spent most of his 20s and 30s as a lawyer and civil rights activist in South Africa, fighting the white government’s discrimination against Indians. It was there that he first began practicing the nonviolent civil disobedience that would later influence Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After moving back to India in 1914, Gandhi fought against the British Raj and the Indian caste system that classified some people as “untouchables.”
The night Gandhi was shot, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru broadcast to the nation that Gandhi was dead and would be cremated the next morning. In New Delhi “the crowds insisted they wished to see Gandhi's face once more… All roads to Birla House were jammed,” reported United Press International that evening.
“As the night wore on the throng, silent but insistent, began to press back the police guard,” UPI continued. “Soon at least 200 Indians were over the walls of the mansion and trying to break through the last police line to the room where Gandhi's body lay.”