It was intended to be a memorable birthday celebration. A week earlier, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been hailed as the architect of landmark peace accords with two violence-torn states. He had also been the catalyst for Indian-mediated talks aimed at ending the six-year civil war in nearby Sri Lanka. But as Gandhi turned 41 last week, instead of celebration there was mourning. In two spasms of sudden violence, the bright promise of the Indian leader’s first 10 months in office was shattered.
Talks between the Sri Lankan government and militant Tamil separatists broke down amid reports of civilian massacres by Sri Lankan troops. Three days later, on Gandhi’s birthday, Sikh terrorists in India’s northern state of Punjab assassinated Harchand Singh Longowal, the moderate Sikh leader, as he sat praying. His death effectively destroyed a month-old agreement to repair relations between New Delhi and Sikhs seeking independence in the Punjab. Despite the setbacks, Gandhi vowed “to fight terrorism with all our might.” But the spirit of confrontation that marked the 15-year reign of his mother and predecessor, the late Indira Gandhi, had once again been resurrected.
The assassination of Longowal, 57, was particularly critical. Alone among Sikh politicians, the paunchy, whitebearded bachelor had signed the July 24 agreement. It called for new elections to state and national office and a devolution of power from the central government to the Punjab, where Sikhs consti-
tute a 61-per-cent majority. Longowal had advised Gandhi to hold the elections next year. His reason: he needed time to consolidate support from the Akali Dal, the main Sikh political party, and to cool the passions of Sikh extremists demanding immediate independence.
But Gandhi, anxious to sustain the momentum of reconciliation, ordered the elections for Sept. 22. Three days later, three young Sikhs opened fire on Longowal as he read from a Sikh holy book at a temple in his home district of Sangrur, 225 km northwest of New Delhi. Two gunmen were seized by bodyguards; a third escaped. Still, Gandhi insisted that the elections would be held almost on schedule, on Sept. 25. To do otherwise, observers said, would allow extremists to dictate government policy in Punjab.
Meanwhile, as a two-month-long truce between Tamil guerrillas and Sinhalese troops collapsed, chances of restarting the peace negotiations—being held in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—seemed slight. Indeed, several Tamil factions refused to talk until Prime Minister Junius Jayawardene improved his offer of limited autonomy for the island’s Tamil provinces.
At week’s end, facing an escalation of ethnic strife to the north and south, a determined Gandhi declared: “We must not allow ourselves to be deflected from the path and brotherhood which Longowal followed.” The extremist minorities will likely determine whether his plea will be answered.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.