Letter: Rush to stage Gandhi's funeral

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The Independent Online
Sir: I was interested to read in John Walsh's interview (29 March) what the five-year-old Gita Mehta remembered of Gandhi's funeral and how it compared with his funeral as portrayed in the film Gandhi.

My uncle, Sir Thomas Elmhirst, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force at the time, wrote an account of the somewhat ad hoc funeral arrangements in his recollections (privately published by his son Roger).

He had returned from a morning game of golf with his wife to find Air Commodore Mukerjee waiting to tell him that Gandhi had been shot dead in a nearby garden. He noted with some relief that the assassin was not a Muslim. An hour later my uncle was informed that Pandit Nehru and his cabinet had decreed that Gandhi's funeral was to be a "state funeral". It was to take place the following day and to be organised by the three Chiefs of Staff (of whom my uncle was chairman). A million people were expected to turn up.

In his own words, "There was no time to be lost. I telephoned the other members of the committee, Lieutenant-General Roy Bucher and Vice-Admiral Ted Parry, who both came to my bungalow at once. I provided pens and paper (and whiskey and soda). We were joined by Defence Secretary H M Patel and got to work."

Roy Bucher was unable to spare any soldiers to guard the route, Ted Parry had two or three dozen sailors, which left about a thousand clerks, mechanics and signalmen from the Air Force, (men unaccustomed to ceremonial or guard duties) to guard the pyre.

All three thought that a gun carriage would be unsuitable. Roy Bucher suggested a four-wheel cart. My uncle thought that sailors should haul it and Ted Parry agreed (perhaps this was later changed to the lorry which Ms Mehta saw). There was a five-mile route with no hope of any servicemen to line it. That was left to the police.

My uncle and his committee were not responsible for the pyre itself. Having decided that Englishmen would be out of place at the pyre, they arranged to pay their last respects as the procession began. The following morning, however, he received a telephone call to say that Lord Mountbatten and his family would be attending the burning ceremony and that the Chiefs of Staff would also be expected to be there. All three protested, saying that it would be inappropriate to do so, but they were overruled by the Governor General (Mountbatten), whose word was law.

I wonder how much time Sir Richard Attenborough had to arrange the film version!

PAUL ELMHIRST

Stillingfleet,

North Yorkshire

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