As celebrations for Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary pick up pace across the country, centenarian and former PTI journalist Walter Alfred remembers clearly his role in covering the assassination of the Father of the Nation.
Alfred, who celebrated his 100th birthday last month, was posted in Nagpur at the time. He was in office that fateful evening when Nathuram Godse pumped three bullets into Gandhi in Delhi’s Birla House, now Gandhi Smriti.
“January 30, 1948 was a lean day for all of us. I might have filed a few news stories till evening. The office phone rang around 6.30-7 pm and that’s when I got to know about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Alfred, who now lives in Mira Road near Mumbai, recalled.
His colleague Ponkshe from Mumbai was at the other end, informing him about the fatal attack on the Mahatma while he was his way for his evening prayers. Alfred said he did not lose his composure.
“I immediately started typing the initial copies based on the briefing by Ponkshe. There were two peons in the office who rushed with the copies to our six local subscribers, including an English daily, as there was no teleprinter then.”
“It was a test of my accuracy and brevity as I had to answer every call regarding Gandhiji’s assassination, note down updates, make a copy of it for the six subscribers and send peons to deliver it, Alfred said. There was little time for emotions that day, Alfred said.
Asked if the news of the assassination rekindled memories of his previous meetings with Gandhi, he said, “I had no time for such memories. I was focused only on noting down telephonic briefings and making a copy out of it, including details of the arrest of Nathuram Godse and his alleged RSS connection.
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The following day, Alfred went to the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Nagpur. “I went to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur the next day and was surprised to find that there was some joy on the faces of people there. They could not hide their feelings, he said.
“They did not like Gandhi and Nehru but I had never imagined they would react in such a way,” he said. The office in Nagpur was just being set up and equipment like teleprinters had yet to be bought.
PTI was registered in 1947 and started functioning in 1949. It took over operations of the Associated Press of India from Reuters after India’s independence in 1947.
Alfred also remembers attending meetings addressed by Gandhi, including the one at Gowalia Tank in Mumbai where he gave the call of Quit India to the British. “To my surprise, the news agency’s temporary desk to key in and transmit the stories was set up very close to the stage and there were 12 reporters and sub-editors working on the stories.
“I remember every story of that event transmitted by Reuters had 12 initials of the journalists involved, he said.