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India and Indira: 25 years after a PM's assassination

India and Indira: 25 years after a PM's assassination

Country judges the legacy of arguably its most powerful premier.

New Delhi: It was a moment in time; it shook India and stunned the world. As Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walked briskly up to the picket gate dividing her home from her office that fateful Wednesday morning 25 years ago, a hail of gunfire from two of her bodyguards sent her crumpling to the ground in a blood-soaked heap.

Her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, still in her nightdress, ran out to the garden as R K Dhawan, Gandhi's additional private secretary and shadow of many years, scrambled to help the 66-year-old leader.

But 31 bullets fired into a frail body gave her little chance. Although she was packed off in an Ambassador car in Sonia Gandhi's lap to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), doctors at the operating theatre knew it was a battle they could not win.

Although a police officer who wheeled her in said she was already dead, officially her death was announced several hours later as the Indian establishment tried to come to terms with losing the woman who had ruled for 15 years in two stints, two years less than her father and first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's unbroken 17 years.

Gandhi had been on her way to give an interview to British playwright and actor Peter Ustinov, who was waiting with his crew in the garden of neighbouring 1, Akbar Road, for the appointed time of 9.30 a.m. The silence of the morning was broken by the death rattle of bullets that sent flocks of birds scurrying into the sky, its echoes reverberating in Delhi's leafy and tranquil Lutyens' Zone and elsewhere in the days following that Oct 31, 1984.

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, the two bodyguards, surrendered after emptying their magazines into her. The two were taken away to the guardhouse, where Beant was shot dead by other guards when he tried to escape. Satwant Singh was hanged to death five years later in 1989.

Her death--in apparent reprisal for the Indian Army's assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984 to confront heavily armed Sikh extremists--left a political vacuum in the capital. Elder son Rajiv Gandhi, her presumptive successor, was away in Kolkata. So was Pranab Mukherjee, No. 2 man in the cabinet even then. President Zail Singh was away on a visit to Yemen. They all tried to rush back to the capital to deal with a situation.

Rajiv Gandhi was persuaded, first by cousin and political aide Arun Nehru and then by Zail Singh, to step into the void and was sworn in as India's prime minister that evening. But by that time violence had already broken around AIIMS and there were reports of Sikhs being targeted in retaliation as extremist Sikh groups abroad hailed her killing.


Gandhi's body was brought in a gun carriage through deserted roads on the morning of November 1 to her father's sprawling Teen Murti Road residence and site of the Nehru Museum. Long queues of supporters and opponents filed past her body, while the world mourned the passing of a leader who was equally revered as she was despised.

Riots had erupted in several parts of the city overnight as organised mobs, alleged to be led by Congress party leaders, picked out Sikhs, assaulted them, snipped their locks, vandalised their property, torched their homes and began an orgy of lynching the like of which had not been witnessed since the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947.

For the next three days, as the country mourned, Delhi burned with the anti-Sikh violence spreading to Kanpur, Meerut and Ramgarh, where the Sikh Regimental Centre was based.

Working class neighbourhoods like Trilokpuri, Tilak Nagar, Seemapuri, that were exemplars of close-knit community living, overnight became monuments to hatred. Entire Sikh neighbourhoods went up in flames, their male members dragged out and burnt alive as vendetta-hungry mobs cheered. Even Sikh homes in affluent south Delhi were targeted and their homes razed. Some were even dragged out of buses and trains as they tried to flee the city.

The madness went unchecked for three days before a shell-shocked and paralysed administration called in the Army on the evening of November 3. By that time, at least 3,000 Sikhs had been killed, thousands injured and brutalised and a community's collective psyche left so badly scarred that it has not healed even after a generation.

A few days later Rajiv Gandhi, at a massive memorial rally for his slain mother at India Gate, sought to extenuate the violence by saying: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes."

A quarter century later, Mrs Gandhi's legacy endures.

Her Italian-born daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, who now leads the ruling Congress, is often compared to her for her style and tight control over the party.


Indira Gandhi's policy of bank nationalisation, which heralded a state control over the country's fiscal policies and public enterprise, has been hailed as far-sighted and instrumental in preventing Indian banks from going the way of Western banks that collapsed in the wake of last year's economic meltdown.

Her muscular foreign policy, which led to the division of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, is still held out as an example of Indian hard power that critics say has been a tough act to follow by successive governments.

But, as her critics say, the imposition of emergency in June 1975 blotted her democratic credentials. Though she lifted emergency 19 months later and called for elections, which she lost, her image took a heavy beating and she never really recovered.

She returned to power in 1980. And, after younger son Sanjay Gandhi's death in an aircrash in June that year, she became a pale shadow of her former self.

She briefly basked in her reputation as a global statesperson when her government hosted both the Non- Aligned Movement Summit and the Commonwealth Summit in 1983. The following years, she bungled badly when she ordered the army into the Vatican of the Sikhs -- and paid with her life four months later.

(Tarun Basu, the writer of this article, covered the events surrounding the assassination and its aftermath. He can be contacted at tarun.basu@ians.in)

first published:October 29, 2009, 14:28 IST