Tuesday, February 05, 2019

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi



By Shevlin Sebastian

At 9.10 a.m. on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi stepped on the narrow path connecting her home, at 1 Safdarjang Enclave to her office at 1 Akbar Road. Just behind her holding a black umbrella was Constable Narayan Singh. And just behind him was Indira’s personal assistant RK Dhawan.

The Prime Minister, dressed in a saffron saree with a black border, was hurrying as she was late for an interview by Hollywood actor Peter Ustinov for a documentary on her for Irish television. She had also planned meetings with James Callaghan, the former prime minister of Britain as well as an official dinner for British Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Indira turned to Dhawan and asked him a question just as she approached the wicker gate that connected the two houses.   

On the right was her personal guard of ten years Sub Inspector Beant Singh. He had a .38 revolver. Interestingly, he was not in uniform. The one who was in uniform was Satwant Singh, who was standing on the opposite side and had a Sten machine gun.

Beant pulled out his revolver. Indra looked shocked and said, “What are you doing?” In reply, Beant fired three rounds at the Prime Minister’s abdomen. Satwant looked shocked. Beant shouted, “Fire.”

For a moment, Sawant was frozen. Then he shook his head and shot 30 bullets at Indira.

Indira collapsed on the ground and a line of crimson blood began to flow on the ground. It all happened in the span of a few moments. One bullet just missed Dhawan as he instinctively ducked.

Both the shooters threw their weapons on the floor. Then Beant said, "I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do."

In the next few minutes, Indo Tibetan Border Force officers Tarsem Singh Jamwal and Ram Saran manhandled Beant and then shot him dead. Satwant was arrested.       

In the meantime, Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia rushed out saying, “Mummy, mummy.” Indira was put into a white Ambassador car. And she was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital four kilometres away. In the car, apart from the driver and Indira, whose head was cradled in Sonia’s lap, there was Dhawan, and political secretary ML Fotedar in the front seat.

By this time, Indira had lost a lot of blood. So, the doctors used 80 bottles of blood but it was an uphill battle. Finally, at 2.23 p.m., they declared her dead. But the nation came to know, with absolute certainty, only when the news was read out on Doordarshan hours later.

It would seem Indira had an inkling of what was going to happen. A day earlier, during an election rally at Bhubaneshwar, she had said, “I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow. Nobody knows how many attempts have been made to shoot me, lathis have been used to beat me. In Bhubaneswar itself, a brickbat hit me. They have attacked me in every possible manner. I do not care whether I live or die. I proud that I have spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”

When she returned to Delhi on the night of October 30, she could not sleep. Later Sonia said that Indira Gandhi was awake till 4 a.m. That was when she got up to look for her medicines which she took for her asthma.

Meanwhile, on October 31, Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning in Contai, West Bengal. When he heard the news of his mother being shot, he was driven to Kolaghat (81 kms away) and boarded a helicopter, which was arranged by Cabinet Minister ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury. He reached Kolkata at noon.

At 1 p.m. he was whisked off to Delhi in an Indian Airlines plane. Although by this time, he knew that his mother had passed away.

The background

Of course, there was a history behind the dastardly act. And it could be summarised with one name: Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Bhindranwale was the leader of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh orthodox religious group. He was opposed to the Nirankaris, who believed in a formless God – Nirankar, which can be reached with the help of a guru. Sikhism, on the other hand, focused on the Guru Granth Sahib, the religion's Holy Book, which is considered to be a living guru. Jarnail ordered an armed group to go to a Nirankari function at Amritsar on April 13, 1978, saying that they should be cut to pieces. In the riots between these two groups, 13 Sikhs and three Nirankaris were killed.

Many pundits said that this was the start of militancy in Punjab. During this time, the Congress Party supported Bhindranwale because they wanted to weaken their chief rival, the Akali Dal.

In 1982, Bhindranwale launched a campaign for an autonomous state for Sikhs, to be called Khalistan. In June, 1983, to evade arrest, he took refuge along with his military cadres at the Akal Takht Shrine, the highest spiritual and temporal seat of the Sikhs in Amritsar and directed militant activities from there.  

Things were going out of control. So, in June 1984, in order to bring normalcy to Punjab, Indira gave the go-ahead to the Army to launch Operation Bluestar, to flush out Bhindranwale and his armed outfit

But the army was taken aback when the militants used rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The Army had no option but to use heavy artillery as well as tanks to counter the attacks from the heavily fortified Akal Takht. After a 24-hour fight, the army wrested control. In the process, Bhindranwale was killed, among many others, and several buildings were damaged.

The Sikh public reacted with anger, They felt it was an assault on their religion. Many Sikh Army soldiers deserted their units. Sikhs also resigned from government jobs and returned national awards. And the anger reached its culmination when, a few months later, Indira was assassinated…

(The Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India)

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