In the previous half of this article, I have roughly covered the events that gradually led up to the assassination of one of the most respected, feared and venerated leaders of modern India. Hence, in this half of the article, I will be delving into the details about the actual occurrence on the fateful day of October 31, 1984.
It is not uncommon for some critics and writers to describe Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a cool, arrogant and sometimes impatient leader who thought that she was invincible towards any possible assaults against her. It is thus no wonder that she frequently disliked stringent security measures meant for her personal protection – measures that she sometimes found unnecessary, impractical and excessive. Nonetheless, it was perhaps due to such a take that she had regarding her security that eventually led to the unfortunate incident of October 31. (Please note, however, that I am not voicing my personal opinion of her here, but rather I am merely echoing perspectives from other sources.)
A younger Indira Gandhi (centre) accompanying her father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (right), on a state visit to China in 1954. Accompanying them is the then Premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai (1898 - 1976)
Standard practice adhered to by many security agencies worldwide outlines that by no means should an officer be appointed as a bodyguard to the head of government of a country if the officer in question belongs to a particular community that is sharply opposed to the government. For example, Afro-Americans in the past were frequently opposed to the largely White-dominated Government of the United States on the grounds of various racist issues and discriminatory practices. As a result, no Afro-Americans were assigned as bodyguards to the President of the USA in the past as per standard practice, in order to ensure his personal security. Likewise, applying the same rule in Indira Gandhi’s context, no Sikh bodyguards should be assigned to her in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star.
Indeed, such a move was implemented immediately after Operation Blue Star under the orders of Gandhi’s senior advisers. Her Sikh bodyguards were gradually transferred to other duties that do not require close contact with her. Nonetheless, when this matter came to her knowledge, Gandhi was dissatisfied and claimed that such a move was “not secular,” or in other words, not in line with India’s claim of being a secular state. Because of this, Sikh security personnel who had been transferred away were gradually posted back to their original positions, but under one condition – that whenever a Sikh personnel was on duty in close proximity to her, he must be accompanied by at least one other non-Sikh personnel.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi taking a stroll with President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) during a state visit in Washington in 1982
Other security measures implemented were the usage of bulletproof cars, stringent checks on all materials sent to her official residence, usage of a bulletproof vest and having an ambulance as part of Gandhi’s convoy as well as outside her residence at all times. She did not object much to the former two measures. With regards to the wearing of a bulletproof vest, however, she was more adamant and refused to wear it often, complaining that she sweated a lot in it. As for the ambulance, she was irked by the idea of seeing an ambulance in her convoy and outside her residence at all times, demanding that it be removed. Nevertheless, upon the insistence of her senior advisers, the move remained, but arrangements were made in such a way that the ambulance would not be stationed in a position visible to Gandhi.
Despite all these best efforts, the assassination of the Prime Minister was bound to occur, ironically, in what was said to be the most protected place in the whole of India – 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi, the Prime Minister’s official residence.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Mohammad Yunus Saleem (1912 - 2004), former Governor of the Indian state of Bihar
It was a fine and breezy autumn morning in the lovely garden lined with towering trees within the compound of 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi. Within the compound stood two buildings: one contained several offices, meeting rooms and banquet halls where the Prime Minister had her office and frequently met dignitaries; the other served as her personal residence where she lived with her family consisting of her son Rajiv, her daughter-in-law Sonia, and her two grandchildren Rahul and Priyanka. In the former, a television crew was busy setting up filming props at that time in preparation for an interview with Indira Gandhi conducted by the renowned British actor-director Peter Ustinov. It was to be an hour-long interview with the Prime Minister after she came back from an election campaign in the eastern state of Orissa.
Indira Gandhi with her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi and her two grandchildren, Rahul and Priyanka
At about 9.08 a.m., Gandhi, clad in a bright orange sari that was destined to turn scarlet in just a few seconds time, descended the stairs from the front door of her residence and stepped onto the pathway that led through the gardens of the compound and ultimately to the other building. Being in high spirits for her interview with a famous actor who has endlessly entertained her for the past two days of her campaigning stint in Orissa, she walked along the pathway with four others following shortly behind her: Constable Narain Singh, one of her bodyguards; Rajinder Kumar Dhawan (R.K. Dhawan), her trusted aide and personal secretary; G. Parthasarthi, her adviser on foreign affairs; and Nathu Ram, her faithful valet.
As Gandhi approached the wicket gate on her way to the other building, she saw two of her supposedly faithful Sikh bodyguards whom she had trusted, Sub-Inspector Beant Singh Brar (1959 – 1984) and Constable Satwant Singh (1962 – 1989). Now, it is customary for Indians to greet one another by bringing their hands together as if in prayer and saying ‘Namaste’, which means ‘Greetings to you’ in Hindi. It was thus in such a manner that the Prime Minister greeted her two Sikh bodyguards, not having the slightest inkling that that would indeed be her last word and action.
It wasn’t a greeting that she got back in return. Without any warning, Beant Singh swiftly drew his .38 side-arm revolver and fired three shots into her abdomen, which immediately caused her to collapse on the spot. Satwant Singh then aimed his Sten gun at her body and emptied his entire magazine of 30 bullets, thus critically wounding her, if not instantly killing her there and then. The sound of bullets rang through the whole residence and plunged everyone into an utter state of commotion.
After the assassination was done, both guards dropped their guns and raised their hands in surrender, as other security guards rushed to the scene of the incident and apprehended them. As the two assassins were taken to a guardhouse, Beant Singh said, “I’ve done what I had to do. You do what you want to do.” They were thus brought into the guardhouse when Beant Singh suddenly broke loose and attempted to snatch the Sten gun of one of the other guards, while Satwant Singh pulled out a dagger from within his turban. In an instant, the other guards shot the both of them, killing Beant Singh on the spot and critically wounding Satwant Singh.
Artist's impression of the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards
Without wasting any time, R.K. Dhawan took control of the entire situation and ordered the guards to carry the Prime Minister’s body into her limousine. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who had earlier heard the gunshots, rushed out of the residence and screamed hysterically over the sight of her mother-in-law’s blood-soaked body. Sonia then rushed into the limousine before it took off as fast as it could to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital.
Upon arrival in the hospital, the Prime Minister was rushed immediately to the operating theatre, where the best surgeons were brought in without delay to do all they could in order to revive her. During her arrival in the hospital, no vital signs could be detected upon her anymore, but the doctors nonetheless did not give up hope. During the course of the surgery, at least seven bullets were removed from her abdomen, three from her chest and one from her heart. The entire surgery required 88 bottles of type O Rh-negative blood, much of which was brought in from the Red Cross Society. She was put on a heart-lung bypass machine at around 10.30 a.m. in order to keep her alive clinically. However, when all hope was finally lost, she was removed from the machine at about 2.20 p.m., after which the doctors at AIIMS reluctantly prepared and signed her death certificate.
The exact site in the compound of 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi, where the assassination took place
Indira Gandhi's blood-stained sari and her belongings at the time of her assassination, preserved in the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, New Delhi
Indira Gandhi’s body was laid for two days after her assassination in the Teen Murti Bhavan, the former official residence of her late father Jawaharlal Nehru. Hundreds of thousands of people, ranging from government officials and foreign dignitaries to ordinary citizens, came to pay their last respects to the venerated late Prime Minister of India. Her body was then transferred to Raj Ghat (Hindi: राज घाट) by the banks of the Yamuna River (Hindi: यमुना नदी, Yamunā Nadī), where the cremation took place, being live-televised by many domestic and international stations.
Cremation rites for Indira Gandhi at Raj Ghat, observed by her close family members
Satwant Singh, who was earlier shot by the other bodyguards after attempting to hurt them with a dagger that he pulled out from his turban, was critically injured in the process and was subsequently transferred to the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital for immediate treatment. He survived, and after recovery was immediately arrested and interrogated. Through the interrogations, Satwant revealed that another conspirator by the name of Kehar Singh was involved and that Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi was also another target for assassination. Both Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh were then sentenced to death by hanging, where the punishment was carried out on January 6, 1989 in Tihar Jail, Delhi.
No doubt, the death of his mother meant that Rajiv Gandhi had to take over his mother’s place under immense pressure from all sides. Rajiv received unanimous support from leaders of the Indian National Congress, including President Zail Singh himself. In the general election that was held in the same year after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Indian National Congress won a landslide majority, thus giving Rajiv firm control over the government.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with President Zail Singh holding the Cricket World Cup won by India in 1983
Additionally, revamps were also made in the interest of the security of future Prime Ministers of India in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Before her assassination, personal protection for the Indian Prime Ministers was under the purview of the Special Security District of the Delhi Police. In light of the assassination, however, immediate steps were taken to strengthen protection for the Indian Prime Ministers, which culminated in the establishment of the Special Protection Group in 1985. This protection agency is responsible for the protection of not only the Prime Ministers of India, but also other high-ranking officials and their immediate families. Members of the Special Protection Group are required to undergo training similar to that conducted by the United States Secret Service, the agency responsible for the protection of the President of the United States.
Members of the Special Protection Group acting as bodyguards to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
The immediate aftermath of the assassination
“Khoon ka badla khoon, khoon ka badla khoon. Indira Gandhi amar rahe!”
(“Seek blood for blood, seek blood for blood, long live Indira Gandhi!”)
“Jab tak sooraj chand rahega, Indira tera naam rahega, Indira Gandhi amar rahe!”
(“Indira’s name will live as long as the sun and moon live. Long live Indira Gandhi!”)
“Bharat Mata ki jai, bolo Bharat Mata ki jai, Indira Gandhi amar rahe!”
(“Salute Mother India, salute Mother India, long live Indira Gandhi!”)
At about 1.45 p.m. of the day of assassination itself, an Indian news agency sent out breaking news that stated such, “MRS GANDHI IS DEAD.” Indeed, just a few hours later, the Hindi chants that you have just read above rang through almost every street and corner of Delhi and some regions of north India, as angry mobs paraded through the streets and swore vengeance against Sikhs. The assassination of Indira Gandhi thus sparked off what was bound to be one of the worst religious riots in the history of modern India.
Front cover of The Times of India bearing the dreadful news of Indira Gandhi's assassination
The anti-Sikh riots that followed after the assassination resulted in the ruthless massacre of thousands of Sikh men, women and children. Killings abound throughout Delhi through a variety of merciless means. Trains and buses were forcefully stopped while Sikhs were forced out of them to be beaten to death with iron rods. Sikhs were gathered in public squares and streets, where they were garlanded with kerosene-soaked tyres before being set ablaze alive in pomp and ceremony. Angry mobs raided Sikh-owned shops, factories, property and homes, where they were plundered and their occupants dragged out to be butchered. Sikh women and daughters were raped right before the eyes of their husbands, fathers, sons and elders before the whole families were killed with knives, iron rods or fire. Gurdwaras were burnt to the ground, with carpets, furniture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji (Punjabi: ਸ਼੍ਰੀ ਗੁਰੂ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਸਾਹਿਬ ਜੀ ) (the holy book of Sikhism) as well as the elderly priests in charge heaped together to be made into a bonfire. Furious thugs forcefully unwound the turbans of Sikh men and used them to choke their wearers to death.
Artist's impression of the cruelty against Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, with a Sikh man being garlanded with a kerosene-soaked tyre while being set ablaze in front of a cheering crowd
Business establishments owned by Sikhs being burnt down by angry mobs in the anti-Sikh riots
No doubt, words simply cannot describe how terrible the situation was throughout Delhi after the assassination. Each time a Sikh was spotted, the angry mobs would rejoice and rush against each other for the “golden opportunity” to grab the honour of killing the Sikh. Dead bodies of Sikhs were piled up in squares and streets, where ceremonies were held as the killers danced around the bodies, shouting “Indira Gandhi zindabad!” (“Long live Indira Gandhi!”) A Sikh writer in Delhi once described his experiences vividly:
“I awaited my turn. I felt like a partridge in a partridge shoot waiting to be flushed out of the cover and shot on the wing. For the first time I realized what Jews must have felt like in Nazi Germany…. “Get out of your place,” was the repetitive advice (to the writer by his well-wishers.) But go where and how? They were killing Sikhs in trains, buses, taxis, scooters. The killings assumed the proportion of genocide of the Sikh community.”
(Khushwant Singh, eminent Sikh journalist and writer of ‘My Bleeding Punjab’)
Angry anti-Sikh mobs stopping buses and beating Sikh passengers to death with iron rods
Even President Zail Singh, himself a Sikh, was not spared from the overwhelming anger that consumed the whole country. While on his way to the AIIMS hospital after receiving news about Indira Gandhi’s death, his motorcade (convoy of cars that accompanied his presidential car) was heavily stoned and battered by angry mobs shouting “Sardar gaddar hai!” (“Sikhs are traitors!”) and “Giani murdabad!” (“Down with Giani (Zail Singh)!”). The President remained unscathed, but three cars in his motorcade were badly damaged.
Zail Singh (1916 - 1994), former President of India
It was painful enough for the Sikh community, especially in Delhi, to live through the four days of absolute misery, with death lurking around the corner waiting to pounce at them any time without forewarning. To add to the pain and grief, later reports and eyewitness accounts stated that many of the assaults against the Sikh communities were largely perpetrated by leading members of the Indian National Congress. Weapons, kerosene and financial rewards were supplied in large amounts by those leading members, some of whom were Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers. Furthermore, rallies were held in public locations, where those Congress leaders would incite hatred amongst the masses and subsequently announce financial rewards for each slaughtered Sikh. Additionally, the police force did little to stop the violence against Sikhs, but instead participated in them as well. To make matters worse, Sikhs could hardly escape their bloody fate, as many Congress party officials reportedly released voter lists and school registration forms to make it easier for Sikhs to be tracked down.
Doubtless to say, endless wailings accompanied by malicious laughter could be heard everywhere throughout the territory of the Indian capital and many other parts of India. Hardly any main street or public square in Delhi could be seen without blood being splattered on the ground. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984, which lasted for roughly four days, was undoubtedly one of the blackest moments in the history of India and especially in the history of the Sikh religion. In fact, in 2009, the Delhi High Court stated in a verdict on a case related to the riots:
“Though we boast of being the world’s largest democracy and the Delhi being its national capital, the sheer mention of the incidents of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by the Delhi Police and state machinery in particular makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of world polity.”
Indira Gandhi featured on the front cover of Time magazine
In relation to the infamous assassination of Indira Gandhi, the great woman and Prime Minister commonly hailed as Mother India, one would frequently recall the words that she had ironically said in a political rally while campaigning in Bhubaneswar (Oriya: ଭୁବନେଶ୍ବର), Orissa (Oriya: ଓଡି଼ଶା) just the night before her death:
“If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”
And indeed, it did.