Noteworthy News and Analysis from Around the World

In-Depth Coverage of Issues Concerning the Global Sikh Community Including Self-Determination, Democracy, Human Rights, Civil Liberties, Antiracism, Religion, and South Asian Geopolitics

Home | News Analysis Archive | Biographies | Book Reviews | Events | Photos | Links | About Us | Contact Us

Indira Gandhi: Death in the Garden


Time, Nov. 12, 1984

Photo: Indira Gandhi, Time, cover, November 12, 1984

Indira Gandhi's assassination sparks a fearful round of sectarian violence.

Namaste, in Hindi, means 'Greetings to you.' It is the traditional Indian salutation, accompanied by a crossing of hands before the face, as if the speaker were offering a prayer.

At 9:08 last Wednesday morning, Indira Gandhi folded her hands in front of her face, looked at the two guards standing along the path to her office and said, 'Namaste.' It was to be her last word. Within hours India would be plunged into one of its worst paroxysms of sectarian violence since partition in 1947. As the death toll passed the 1,000 mark, the dominant question was whether the country's new leader, Indira's inexperienced son Rajiv, could, over the long term, sustain the integrity of the ambitious political patchwork that against all odds binds 746 million ethnically and religiously diverse people.

The tragedy began on a bright, lovely autumn morning, with a light breeze blowing through the towering tamarind and margosa trees in the sprawling compound at 1 Safdarjang Road in New Delhi, the Prime Minister's official residence. There are two bungalows within the compound, one containing offices and various public rooms, the other serving as the Prime Minister's private quarters, where she lived with her son Rajiv, her daughter-in-law Sonia and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka. Rajiv was off on a political trip to the state of West Bengal, preparing the ruling Congress (I) Party for national elections that are due to be held by mid-January 1985. As Mrs. Gandhi's sole surviving son, Rajiv, 40, was also the heir apparent to the House of Nehru and the leadership of India. But at 66, Indira Gandhi was in fine health and ebullient spirits as she prepared to seek a fifth term as Prime Minister of the world's most populous democracy.

She was in a buoyant mood as she opened the door of her private bungalow, came down the steps and walked onto the winding gravel path toward the larger building. Following discreetly two to three yards behind her were five security men. The Prime Minister was on her way to meet British Actor-Director Peter Ustinov, who was waiting with a television crew to conduct an hourlong interview. He had been with her for two days as she campaigned through the state of Orissa in eastern India, and she had enjoyed the actor's droll wit. 'The one thing I find utterly boring,' she had said, 'are second-rate journalists. But when I meet one who is smart and well informed, I find I give a much better interview.'

Standing at attention more than halfway along the path were two khaki-uniformed security men wearing the traditional beards and turbans that identified them as Sikhs. One of them, Beant Singh, was a favorite of Mrs. Gandhi's: she had known him for ten years. Only two months earlier, when Mrs. Gandhi was asked if she could trust Sikh guards in the wake of her controversial decision to have the Indian army root out Sikh extremists at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, she had glanced at Beant Singh and said, 'When I have Sikhs like this around me, then I don't believe I have anything to fear.' When the director of the country's central intelligence organization suggested to Mrs. Gandhi in July that Sikhs be removed from her security staff, she had refused. 'How can we claim to be secular?' she had asked in a hastily scrawled note. Not far from Beant Singh stood Satwant Singh, 21, who had been assigned to Mrs. Gandhi's detail five months before.

The two men were no more than seven feet away as she greeted them. Beant Singh drew a .38 revolver and fired three shots into her abdomen. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh pumped all 30 rounds from his Sten automatic weapon into her crumpled body. At least seven bullets penetrated her abdomen, three her chest and one her heart. The Prime Minister was dead.

The two Sikhs then calmly dropped their guns. As other security guards seized them, Beant Singh said, 'I've done what I had to do. You do what you want to do.' They were then taken to a guardhouse, where Beant Singh suddenly lunged for the Sten gun of one of the loyal guards as Satwant Singh pulled a dagger from his turban. The guards shot them both. Beant Singh died almost instantly; Satwant Singh was critically wounded. Later he told doctors that he was a member of a conspiracy that included a high-ranking army officer, and that another of their targets was Rajiv Gandhi.

When she first heard the shots in the garden below, Rajiv's wife Sonia rushed frantically down a flight of stairs screaming, 'Mummy! Oh, my God, Mummy!' Already, guards were starting to pick up Mrs. Gandhi's body, her orange sari soaking in blood. Led by her longtime personal assistant, R.K. Dhawan, they carried her to her white, Indian-made Ambassador car. Sonia cradled Mrs. Gandhi's head in her lap as the auto sped off to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, a short distance away.

Ustinov and his crew, who had not been close enough to witness the shooting, rushed to the Prime Minister's bungalow. 'It was a scene of confusion,' he said. 'The security men were still running around, shaken and unbelieving. One minute there was gunfire, and afterward the birds in the trees were singing. The security men kept us there for five hours, polite all the time, but they wanted to be sure we didn't have something on film that they could use as evidence. Sadly, we did not.'

At the hospital, the Prime Minister's body was taken to the eighth-floor operating theater. There, despite the lack of any vital signs, a team of twelve doctors desperately tried to perform a miracle. After putting her on an artificial lung and a heart machine, they removed seven bullets; in the process, they gave her 88 bottles of type O Rh-negative blood. Cabinet ministers waited in the hospital conference room, some stunned and speechless, some weeping. 'They could not believe she was dead,' a young doctor said later. 'They would not accept that she was gone.' It was not until 1:45 p.m. that an Indian news service sent the bulletin: MRS. GANDHI IS DEAD.

It was typical of the proud, stubborn, courageous Indira Gandhi that she hated to wear a bulletproof vest and rarely agreed to do so. Certainly she was a fatalist. The night before her death, she had told a large, enthusiastic crowd in Orissa's capital city, Bhubaneswar, 'I am not interested in a long life. I am not afraid of these things. I don't mind if my life goes in the service of this nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.'

For two days after her death, her body lay in state at the Teen Murti House, the great mansion that had been Jawaharlal Nehru's residence during his years in power, while hundreds of thousands of her countrymen came to pay their respects. Early Saturday afternoon, her body was carried seven miles in a gun carriage to the banks of the Yamuna River, an area where Mahatma Gandhi as well as her father and her younger son Sanjay had also been cremated. A million Indians had lined the streets to see the procession, and millions more watched on television as her body was placed on a flower-covered pyre of sandalwood and brick, and set afire by her son Rajiv.

World reaction quickly centered on two themes: shock and horror at the murder of a woman who had led her country for 16 of the past 18 years, and concern over whether her son was properly equipped for the job that so quickly became his.

In Washington, President Reagan, who was awakened with news of the shooting soon after midnight, expressed his 'shock, revulsion and grief over the brutal assassination.' Secretary of State George Shultz was designated to lead the U.S. delegation to the funeral. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who spoke with Mrs. Gandhi regularly by telephone, declared, 'India has been robbed of a leader of incomparable courage, vision and humanity. For my part, I shall feel greatly the loss of a wise colleague and a personal friend.' Pope John Paul II said that her death provoked 'universal horror and dismay.' In Moscow, which has had consistently friendly relations with Mrs. Gandhi over the years, General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko praised her as 'a fiery fighter for peace' and 'a great friend of the Soviet Union.'

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur Hartman was sitting in Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's office when the news of Mrs. Gandhi's death arrived. Hartman remarked that the two superpowers should do what they could to keep the situation in India calm, and Gromyko agreed. Within hours, however, the Soviet news agency T.A.S.S. would imply that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was implicated in the assassination, a charge that Ronald Reagan later dismissed as 'a cheap shot.'

Like the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, who was not related to her, Indira Gandhi died in a tranquil New Delhi garden, a victim of her country's turbulent politics.

Mahatma Gandhi was killed in 1948 by a Hindu fanatic enraged by concessions made to the Muslims and by the partition of India and Pakistan. Mrs. Gandhi's murderers were Sikhs, whose religious community of 15 million represents only about 2% of India's population but holds a disproportionately important place in the country's life. For the past two years, a Sikh rebellion has been smoldering in Punjab, their homeland on the Pakistani border. Last June, after failing to quell the Sikh agitation for greater autonomy and put an end to an extremist movement calling for an independent Sikh nation, Mrs. Gandhi had sent the army into Punjab and into the most sacred of all Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple, which Sikh fanatics had turned into a sort of holy fortress. At least 600 people, including radical leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, 37, were killed in the ensuing battle. Mrs. Gandhi's move was a bold step, and she probably paid for it with her life.

Last week, even as India went into mourning, Sikh communities both in Punjab and overseas made the mistake of rejoicing openly at Mrs. Gandhi's demise. The Sikhs were understandably angry over the storming of the Golden Temple and the continuing presence of troops in Punjab, though it is not easy to see how the central government might otherwise have dealt with an insurrection that was getting out of hand. But in the incendiary atmosphere that followed the assassination last week, the Sikh leaders should have known that such talk could have dangerous consequences.

As news of the Prime Minister's death began to spread through New Delhi, there were screams, weeping and tearing of hair, but mostly the kind of stoic acceptance that Indians tend to show in times of sorrow and pain.

'She's gone,' they told one another, rarely using her name, because in India, 'she' meant Indira. All around Connaught Place, the capital's commercial center, there was the sound of steel shutters slamming down as shop after shop closed for twelve days of mourning. By late afternoon, New Delhi had become a ghostly city of empty streets. Flags were lowered to half-staff. On television, prayers were offered by priests and holy men representing India's main religions and sects. Patrols were quietly posted around the darkened Sikh temples to protect them from attack. From Amritsar, the five Sikh high priests at the Golden Temple expressed their 'shock' and 'deep grief' over the assassination. In the hours that followed, the calm gave way to fights and rioting between Sikhs and Hindus all across India.

Rajiv Gandhi had been driving toward the last meeting of his campaign tour in West Bengal when a police Jeep intercepted his Mercedes to deliver a message: 'There's been an accident in the house. Return immediately to Delhi.' Instantly, Rajiv told his aides to rush to the nearest airport. At 12:30 p.m., while Rajiv waited for a helicopter to take him to Calcutta, he switched on his transistor radio to hear the B.B.C. relay the news that his mother was in critical condition. Some of the Congressmen in his party burst into tears, but Rajiv told them, 'Don't worry. She's tough.'

Scarcely five hours after the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi arrived from Calcutta aboard a special airliner that had been sent to fetch him. Only then did he learn that his mother was dead. The security protecting him as he stepped down from the aircraft was unprecedented in the country's history. Sharpshooters were positioned all along the route to the hospital. He was greeted there by sobbing Cabinet ministers, but he remained outwardly cool.

Only recently he had said that he did not expect to take over his mother's role for 'a long, long while.' He had added, 'I am happy to stand in her shadow and help to get her re-elected to another term, and still another after that.' Suddenly, however, all his reckonings had changed. That evening, less than twelve hours after Indira's death, the elders of the Congress (I) Party chose Rajiv Gandhi as their new leader. As under the British parliamentary system, he thereby automatically became India's seventh Prime Minister. He is the third member of the House of Nehru, which has run India for 33 of its 37 years of independence, to hold that office.

Mrs. Gandhi's dynastic ambitions for her son were thus fulfilled with astonishing ease. President Zail Singh, a Sikh, swore in Rajiv as the head of a small, five-member Cabinet with the full support of the Congress (I) Party. Mrs. Gandhi had been grooming Rajiv for leadership ever since the death four years ago of her younger son Sanjay. At that time, Rajiv, who had been a pilot for Indian Airlines, the country's domestic carrier, reluctantly took on the task of becoming his mother's heir apparent. Even before he returned to New Delhi, party leaders, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, had signed a formal resolution endorsing his candidacy for the Prime Minister's job. All wanted to avoid an open fight among the party's various factions, which include Rajiv's followers as well as those of his late brother. In the interest of party harmony, Rajiv's quick victory became inevitable.

On the evening he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi called on his countrymen to exercise 'maximum restraint,' and that night they appeared to be following his advice. But by Thursday night, fires of vengeance were burning everywhere. While police looked the other way, vigilante bands attacked Sikhs, burned their beards, destroyed their homes or shops, then moved on to look for more.

'You know how I feel,' said a Hindu armed with an iron stave on a Delhi street. 'I want to kill Sikhs. I want to see Sikh blood on the streets.' Whole blocks of Sikh dwellings were gutted. In one slum area of the capital, a Hindu mob was reported to have slaughtered 94 Sikhs with knives and iron bars. Said a civil servant: 'The backlash is terrible. It reminds me of the days of partition.' Indeed, the trains arriving in Delhi last week with the battered bodies of murdered Sikhs were reminiscent of the 'trains of death' that rolled through Punjab in those fearful times. Finally, the government canceled train service between Delhi and the north after learning that 56 bodies had been found aboard trains arriving in the capital. Hundreds of frightened Sikhs took refuge in the Delhi railway terminal, unable to take trains home and afraid even to leave the building. By week's end the nationwide death toll had passed 1,000.

If Rajiv's first challenge was the aftershock of his mother's murder, the second was the need to avoid a sudden flare-up between India and Pakistan. In recent weeks Mrs. Gandhi had said repeatedly that she feared an attack by Pakistan, supplied with U.S. arms. She also accused Pakistan of supporting Sikh extremists with arms, money and training. Only a few days before her death, Indian paramilitary forces had arrested inside Punjab what they claimed was a Sikh 'hit team' charged with assassinating Mrs. Gandhi. According to the Indians, the terrorists were armed with automatic weapons, silencers, money and passports provided by the Pakistani intelligence service. Pakistan had dismissed the charges as 'flagrantly absurd.'

As a first step toward dealing with the situation, Rajiv Gandhi talked with Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq Thursday evening. At the news of Mrs. Gandhi's death, Zia had expressed his 'horror' and declared a period of national mourning. On the telephone, Zia told the new Prime Minister: 'Pakistan is offering its every assurance that we are not only bereaved but we have no intention or design to make your role as Prime Minister difficult. We want peace. Here and now I assure you that Pakistan's hand is open and offered in friendship and good will.' Rajiv replied, 'Mr. President, my profound thanks, and my genuine heartfelt assurances that India wishes to resume talks with your country for a solid, lasting, peaceful relationship between our two countries, which share so much in common.' Later they agreed that Zia should make a brief trip to New Delhi on the weekend.

But for Rajiv Gandhi the immediate crisis is at home. After spending his life in the shadow of his grandfather, his mother and even his late brother, he is suddenly responsible for holding his tormented country together. He spoke with uncharacteristic force after he was sworn in, as he told the nation, 'Nothing would hurt the soul of our beloved Indira Gandhi more than the occurrence of violence in any part of the country. It is of prime importance at this moment that every step we take be in the correct direction.' But already he must have known that even as the storming of the Golden Temple had produced a wave of Sikh anger that had led to the assassination, so the murder of his mother would precipitate a terrible reaction in Hindu India.

By all accounts, Rajiv was one member of the house of Nehru who never lusted for political power. Born in 1944, he was Indira's first son. After attending the well-known Doon School in the hills to the north of New Delhi, Rajiv studied mechanical engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge. Back in India, he became a commercial pilot and joined Indian Airlines, where he flew Boeing 737s and other aircraft for 14 years.

Flying was his great love, and during those years he was spared the need to train for high political office because of the ambition of his younger brother Sanjay. Arrogant and impatient, Sanjay had an undeniable knack for getting things done; he started an automobile factory, though the plant never got much beyond the prototype stage. He helped run the country during the 1975-77 state of emergency, which his mother had declared in order to control civil unrest and to strengthen her own political position, but was blamed for some of the emergency's worst excesses. Nevertheless, from about 1975 Indira was clearly grooming Sanjay as her successor. Neither mother nor son ever said explicitly that only a Nehru was capable of ruling India, but both obviously believed, with their Brahman sense of entitlement, that a Nehru could simply do it better.

Although Rajiv and Sanjay and their families lived together under their mother's roof, there was occasional friction between the two dissimilar brothers. Once, when a Western friend asked Rajiv why he did not simply move elsewhere, he seemed startled and replied, 'I could never have done that to Mummy.' Later on, after Mrs. Gandhi was returned to office from her post-emergency defeat, Rajiv is said to have taken a dim view of the oldtime politicians who were again fawning over his mother and his brother. 'All the old gang is back,' he once remarked with a touch of irony.

When the reckless Sanjay died in the crash of his stunt plane on a hot summer day four years ago, Rajiv became the crown prince. He quit his pilot's job, entered politics, and soon won his brother's parliamentary seat. Named a general secretary of the Congress (I) Party in February 1983, he made a reputation for himself as a quiet-spoken reformer determined to bring new life and leadership to a largely corrupt and ineffectual machine, leading some Indians to refer to him as Mr. Clean.

Equally important, he served as trustworthy counsel to his lonely and relatively isolated mother.

Gradually Rajiv became the most powerful of the party's seven general secretaries, making crucial decisions on his own. He fired the chief ministers of states and local party leaders whom he considered incompetent. He organized a mass campaign to build up a party cadre for the coming parliamentary elections. Sometimes Rajiv's efforts misfired. Many Indians believe he was responsible for the central government's efforts to strengthen its control over the southern state of Andhra Pradesh by getting rid of Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao, who belonged to an opposition party. But Rama Rao turned out to be stronger than the Congress (I) realized, and the state governor, a Gandhi loyalist, was forced to reinstate him. Whether Rajiv also counseled his mother to order the assault on the Golden Temple last June is not known, but it is considered unlikely that she would have taken such a step without his approval.

Even after four years in politics, Rajiv remains uncomfortable before large, unruly crowds. He disdains the sycophancy of public life in India. When told that he was to ride in a gilded chariot to a party conference in Calcutta last December, he refused and went by automobile instead.

On a trip to his parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, Rajiv winced as old women fell to the ground at his feet and ragged, barefoot young men chanted, 'You are the hope of India - Rajiv, Rajiv, Rajiv!'

He is also uneasy about talk of his role in a Nehru dynasty. 'I don't see it like that at all,' he once said. 'There's a very big challenge before us today: how to get India into the 20th century.' He speaks of the need to eliminate the vestiges of colonialism and the country's age-old social inequities. 'We must get the poor and the weak of India out of their rut, out of the morass they are stuck in,' he said recently. Most political experts see him as a pragmatist, like his late brother, who favors a somewhat larger place for private enterprise within socialist India than did his mother.

Not long ago, Rajiv was asked whether he missed the life of a pilot. 'I sometimes get into the cockpit all alone and close the door,' he replied. 'Even if I cannot fly, at least I can temporarily shut myself off from the outside world.' Can such a man long rule a nation so vast and complex? The question was being asked last week by India's friends and enemies alike. Referring to the murder of Mrs. Gandhi, a British Cabinet member said flatly, 'It is a great tragedy that could lead to the breakup of the Indian nation.' At the moment the separatist pressure is coming from Punjab; at other times it has been centered in Assam to the northeast, in Jammu and Kashmir to the north, and elsewhere.

If Rajiv can preserve the country's unity and prevent undue bloodshed over the next year, his future as Indira's successor will probably be assured. If he fails, and the union begins to crumble, the likeliest eventuality would be a military takeover. Since independence, India's generals have prided themselves on their respect for democracy in the British tradition, looking askance at their politicized counterparts in Pakistan. But if the alternative were to be the disintegration of the republic, they would probably not hesitate to act.

That prospect, however, may be remote. In its 37 years of independence, India has become largely self-sufficient in food production, made great strides toward industrialization, and generally retained the strength of its democratic institutions. Under Indira Gandhi it became the sixth nation to explode a nuclear device and one of the first to launch its own space satellite. Yet India has at the same time remained a nation mired in the bullock-cart age, whose exploding population is expected to reach the billion mark by the end of the century.

As the current chairman of the non-aligned movement, which her father helped found in the early '60s, Mrs. Gandhi was trying to overcome its Cuban and pro-Soviet dominance and restore it to its original position as a group of nations committed to neither the West nor the Soviet bloc.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Gandhi's India was a little too friendly to the Soviet Union for Washington's taste. She signed a friendship treaty with Moscow and became a regular buyer of Soviet arms, while the U.S. lined up behind Pakistan. New Delhi was annoyed by Washington's opposition to India's nuclear program, and relations hit an alltime low when the Nixon Administration openly 'tilted' toward Islamabad during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Mrs. Gandhi refused to condemn outright, the U.S. began to supply Pakistan with heavy arms aid. Some U.S. officials predicted last week that relations between the two countries, already on the mend, might improve under Rajiv. And so they may. But they will still be restricted by the fact that the U.S. is committed to providing Pakistan with $3.5 billion in American arms.

Pakistan does not pose the threat to India's security that it did before the 1971 war. But war jitters still break out sporadically. Furthermore, the Pakistanis are reportedly well along on their efforts to produce their own nuclear weapon. Echoing his mother's anger, Rajiv Gandhi said a few weeks ago that he expected war between India and Pakistan before the end of the year. He could do much to avert the threat of such a war by allowing a resumption of the talks with Pakistan that India called off in July.

Still, Rajiv's most immediate priority is to negotiate some sort of truce with the Sikh community and to end the bloodshed that is ravaging the country. Mrs. Gandhi contributed to the rise of Sikh extremism by refusing to compromise with the moderate faction of the Akali Dal, the Sikh political party, thereby enabling the fanatical Sant Bhindranwale to rise in the esteem of Sikh militants. Rajiv will have to find a way to seek a reconciliation at a time when emotions are inflamed on every side. One step toward solving this and other conflicts would be to permit a greater degree of autonomy for India's states and territories.

Rajiv has one sure advantage: he begins with the sympathy of the Indian people. Indira Gandhi, who had been a shy young woman, was never really trained to succeed her powerful parent, any more than Rajiv was. But in time she became a world figure who could still communicate with her people. One journalist who accompanied her on a trip a few years ago remembers how Mrs. Gandhi, when she visited a group of Harijan (untouchable) women who had been raped by men of a higher caste, sat down on the ground and listened to their stories. But she could be caustic and ruthless in dealing with party politicians. She once declared, 'Some people say my father was like the banyan tree, that nothing could grow in his shadow. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was like the sun. He allowed everything to grow, including - let us be honest - the weeds.' Even before succeeding his mother, Rajiv had set out to uproot some of these weeds, or their progeny.

Five days before her death, Indira Gandhi was talking with a foreign visitor about the problems of her country. She did not mention the Sikh problem by name, but she spoke of the need for India to 'transcend its demons' and fight off the fanaticism on every side. On Saturday afternoon, her own demons vanquished at last, she was cremated and thereby freed, according to Hindu belief, to proceed with the inevitable process of reincarnation.