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6-min read

Kiss for Grandkids, Prep for Dinner With a Princess: Indira Gandhi’s Final Moments Before 36 Gunshots

Days before her assassination, prime minister Indira Gandhi had been advised to wear a bulletproof vest and dismiss her Sikh security guards, but she refused.

Rasheed Kidwai | @rasheedkidwai

Updated:October 31, 2019, 10:54 AM IST
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Kiss for Grandkids, Prep for Dinner With a Princess: Indira Gandhi’s Final Moments Before 36 Gunshots
File photo of Indira Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi had just finished washing hair when she heard the gunshots. Initially, she could not identify the sound. It sounded like someone had burst Diwali crackers at a very short distance, but was peculiarly different.

She then began sprinting, screaming and crying “mummy, mummy”. Still wearing a gown, Sonia cradled Indira Gandhi’s head on her lap as the white Ambassador car raced the 3km distance to Delhi’s premier All India Medical Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Indira was perhaps dead on arrival, but doctors laboured for hours to revive her, giving her uninterrupted blood transfusions.

On the morning of October 31, 1984, Indira kissed her grandchildren goodbye before they left for school. Priyanka noticed that her grandmother held her longer than usual. Indira then moved to Rahul who was barely 14. The grandmother used to talk to them about subjects that she often avoided discussing with son Rajiv or daughter-in-law Sonia.

She had asked young Rahul to "take charge" and not cry in the event of her death. This was not the first time Indira had spoken about death to Rahul. A few days earlier, she had spoken to him about funeral arrangements, telling him that she had lived her life.

Indira had written in October 1984 that if she dies a violent death, the violence would be in the thought of the assassin, not in her death. “For no hate is dark enough to overshadow the extent of my love for the people and my country, no force is strong enough to divert me from that purpose and my endeavor to take this country forward,” she wrote.

That fateful day, Indira began her official engagements with an interview to Peter Ustinov. The cameras were in place when Indira began walking, sporting a bright saffron saree at 9:12 am. As she crossed the wicket gate between 1 Safdarjung Road, her home, to 1 Akbar Road, her office, she acknowledged the greetings of a turbaned security guard.

As she smiled back, Indira saw him training his gun on her. Narain Singh, who was holding an umbrella over Indira, shouted for help. But before the guards of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) could reach the spot, assassins Beant Singh and Satwant Singh had pumped 36 bullets into the prime minister.

Indira had been advised to wear a bulletproof vest and dismiss her Sikh security guards, but she refused. She felt it unnecessary to wear a heavy bulletproof jacket at home and hated the idea of discriminating against her security guards.

In fact, a few weeks before, Indira had rather proudly pointed at Beant Singh saying, “When I have Sikhs like him around me, I do not have to fear about anything.”

After her assassination, many wondered why the question of retaining or dismissing Sikh security guards was referred to her. After all, A VVIP is never involved in the arrangements concerning their own security.

Indira, however, had obsessive fear of harm befalling her family. PC Alexander, who served as her secretary, recalls, “From June 1984, she lived with a dreadful thought. She kept repeating that there was a plot to kidnap the children. Nothing I said could allay her fears.”

When Arun Nehru arrived at AIIMS, he saw a hysterical Sonia fearing for the lives of Rahul and Priyanka. She kept telling him that Indira had feared a repeat of what happened to Bangladeshi leader Mujib-ur-Rahman, three generations of whose family, except for daughter Hasina, was wiped out.

When Arun Nehru reached the Gandhis’ Safdarjung Road residence, he was stunned to see that not a single security guard was there to protect young Rahul and Priyanka. Someone had brought them home from school. Arun Nehru then took them to the Gulmohar Park residence of Teji Bachchan (actor Amitabh Bachchan’s mother) for safety.

When Indira’s body was in state at Teen Murti House, crowds waiting outside for a last chance to see her mortal remains chanted ‘khoon ka badla khoon’ (blood for blood). Delhi, which had seen the worst of massacres during Nadir Shah’s invasion, saw blood everywhere. Within three days, more than 2,500 people were killed; many of them burnt alive.

An investigation into Indira Gandhi’s assassination followed. Her close aide RK Dhawan came under the scanner when a commission of inquiry, led by Retired Justice Thakkar, recommended that the "central government should seriously consider the question of appropriate agencies to investigate the matter as regards the involvement of RK Dhawan, the then special assistant to the former prime minister".

Dhawan had joined Indira’s staff in 1962 and stayed with her till the end. Many people came and went, including the likes of PN Haksar, PN Dhar and RN Kao, but Dhawan stayed on.

Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress decided to relegate the Thakkar report to the archives. Dhawan was given a clean chit. On his part, Dhawan, who died this year, denied the allegation vehemently and kept insisting his shirt was dyed with Indira’s blood.

Few years later, Dhawan narrated the entire sequence of events that unfolded on October 31, 1984. Since Indira had returned from a trip to Bhubaneswar the previous night, Dhawan had suggested that the morning durbar be cancelled and that she rest for some time. But Indira insisted on keeping her appointment with Peter Ustinov, as he had already recorded a part of the film during her Orissa tour. When Dhawan reached her home at 8 am, Indira demanded a good hairdresser. Her attendant, Nathu Ram, got her one.

When Dhawan approached her, Indira was getting her hair styled. She was apparently very particular about personal aesthetics; so much so that Dhawan would often indicate to her by placing his hand on his hair if a hair was out of place. Indira had planned a dinner for Britain’s Princess Anne that evening at her residence. She instructed Dhawan on a few specifics about the guest list. “I still have the page on which I took her last orders,” recalled Dhawan.

By 9 am, she was ready and started walking towards the wicket gate connecting 1 Safdarjung Road with 1 Akbar Road. As usual, Dhawan was walking a few steps behind her. She was such a brisk walker that it was sometimes tough keeping pace with her. As they walked, a waiter passed her with cups and saucers on a tray. She stopped and asked the waiter to show her the cups and asked him where he was taking them. The waiter said Ustinov had asked for a full tea set to be placed before her during the interview. She immediately dismissed the tea set and instructed him to go back and get the special ones.

As soon as she reached the wicket gate, she folded her hands in ‘Namaste’ for the guards. Dhawan said he saw Beant Singh raise his pistol and shoot at her. She spun around and fell on the ground. Even as she fell, Satwant Singh started firing his Sten gun at her fallen body. She was not even standing when Satwant fired at her, such was the brutality.

In the melee that ensued, there was no ambulance to take Indira to hospital. She was put in an Ambassador by Sonia Gandhi.

(The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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