India after Indira Gandhi

Ross Laver November 12 1984

India after Indira Gandhi

Ross Laver November 12 1984

Gandhi lying in state; her son, Rajiv Gandhi: 'we must face this tragic ordeal with fortitude, courage and wisdom'

A hand-drawn artillery carriage bore the body of the remarkable 20th-century woman known as “Mother India” through the streets of New Delhi. For three hours it rolled past weeping crowds which lined the avenues to catch a last glimpse of the slain leader. As loudspeakers relayed the chants of Hindu priests, the flag-draped body of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—assassinated last week at the hands of two of her own Sikh bodyguards—was borne on the shoulders of close relatives to the top of a two-tiered funeral pyre on the banks of the holy Jamuna River.

To the sound of two dozen buglers playing The Last Post, Gandhi’s 40-year-old son and political heir, Rajiv, walked seven times around the bier. Then he touched a flaming torch to the logs surrounding it. In the Hindu tradition, family members placed sandalwood logs on the fire and poured tin cups of clarified butter, known as ghee, onto the burning body. Brown smoke rose as India’s new prime minister stood in prayer, then stared, weeping, into the pyre. Said Indian President Zail Singh, himself a Sikh: “We have all lost one of the greatest leaders our country has ever produced.”

But even the tide of sorrow that swept the subcontinent in the wake of Gandhi’s cremation could not extinguish the flames of sectarian hatred that followed her death. Across the country there was an orgy of arson, looting and lynchings. By week’s end, the death toll had reached 1,000 as furious Hindus took revenge on members of India’s minority Sikh sect, whom they blamed for the murder of India’s third prime minister. Gandhi, who dominated Indian politics for 15 of the past 18 years, fell victim to the very men who had been entrusted with her personal safety. Militant Sikhs claimed that the killing was in retaliation for an assault by government troops last June on extremists occupying Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in the Punjabi city of Amritsar.

Historic: Senior officials of Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) Party were at first reluctant to name her soft-spoken and politically inexperienced son as her successor. Still, within hours of the assassination they agreed to shelve partisan concerns, perhaps calculating that Indians would rally around a new leader who bore the historic Gandhi name (page 28). But as foreign dignitaries, including Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov, gathered for the funeral, the overwhelming issue was whether the untested Rajiv Gandhi would have enough of his mother’s mettle to keep his country together.

Gandhi herself had seemed to prophesize her death only hours before the assassins’ bullets cut her down. At a campaign rally the previous night in Orissa state, the prime minister had confided to supporters: “I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”

The next morning Gandhi awoke to the sound of chirping parakeets in the leafy compound surrounding her official residence in one of New Delhi’s most elegant areas. In the lush gardens a short distance from the house, actor Peter Ustinov, a cameraman and a producer arrived at 8:30 and began setting up their equipment to interview the prime minister for an Irish television program sponsored by UNICEF. Said Ustinov: “The tea had already been set up, the mike was in place, and we were all ready. We told the press secretary, and he went to fetch her.” Then, dressed in an orange-colored cotton sari, a smiling Gandhi left her house and began strolling toward the television crew.

At that moment three pistol shots rang out, followed by a long burst from a submachine-gun. Gandhi’s press secretary, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, rushed toward the shooting and reached the scene in time to see her limp, bleeding body being dragged back into the house. Said Ustinov, unable to see the carnage from his position in the compound: “It all felt unreal. I mean, there was hardly any commotion. It sounded normal, at least on this side of the garden. But we had a feeling that on the other side of the garden something hideous was going on.” Then, he heard another burst of machine-gun fire as Indian security police pumped a fusillade of bullets at two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards. One of the men, identified later as Beant Singh, 40, a member of the prime minister’s special security force, slumped lifelessly to the ground.

Beant Singh’s alleged accomplice, Satwant Singh, 26, of the New Delhi armed police constabulary, was chased and captured by other guards. Surgeons later removed a damaged kidney from the constable and pronounced him out of danger. Ironically, the dead assassin had only returned to the bodyguard detail—at Gandhi’s personal request--two days earlier, after senior advisers had transferred him out of New Delhi as a security risk.

Grief: By the time Gandhi’s bloodsoaked body was wheeled into an operating room at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences 20 minutes later, it was clear that she would not survive. Still, despite the absence of vital signs, a team of doctors worked for AV2 hours in an attempt to save her, removing at least seven bullets from her chest and abdomen and giving her continuous blood transfusions. Outside the hospital a grief-stricken crowd of about 10,000 gathered behind a five-foot-high steel fence in a noisy, tear-soaked vigil. A doctor finally announced her death shortly before 4:30 p.m.

Throughout the day Indian officials struggled vainly to avert the inevitable—a violent anti-Sikh backlash. Indeed, Prasad himself initially refused to confirm to reporters that Gandhi’s killers were followers of the Sikh faith. Rajiv Gandhi went on nationwide radio that night, shortly after being sworn in as prime minister in the Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the red-and-yellow sandstone presidential palace that was once the home of the British viceroy of India. Speaking in a calm monotone, Gandhi said: “The foremost need now is to maintain our balance. We can and must face this tragic ordeal with fortitude, courage and wisdom.”

New Delhi rioters: an orgy of arson, looting and lynchings in a capital that had suddenly become a city without order

But as reports of the assassination spread, it was obvious that India had crossed a dangerous new threshold in a long, tortuous history of strained relations between sectarian groups In the capital, mobs of Hindu youths roamed the streets, attacking cars and burning Sikh-owned shops and businesses. The rioters ignored a hastily imposed ban on the public assembly of more than five people. In all, at least 159 arson attacks were reported in New Delhi. Outbursts of communal violence also occurred in at least seven other Indian states.

In Calcutta police used nightsticks to disperse rioters who attacked and burned streetcars in an attempt to halt traffic. In Agartala, capital of the eastern state of Tripura, local administrators began evacuating Sikhs to nearby army camps to protect them from mob violence. Authorities also declared a state of alert in the northwestern state of Punjab, home of most of the country’s 14 million Sikhs and the site of several violent clashes recently as part of a continuing struggle for an independent Sikh state.

Violent: At dawn last Thursday columns of acrid smoke rose from the blackened shells of buildings and vehicles across New Delhi. Suddenly, the capital had become a city without order—and without most of its essential services. Banks closed, store owners lowered their shutters, and food, even bread, was unavailable. In the southern, working-class suburbs of Bhagwan Nacar, rival gangs of youths armed with stones and bottles swarmed over the flat roofs of earth-colored houses engaging in violent confrontations. One group of youths approached Maclean's European Bureau Chief David North and informed him that two Hindus and six Sikhs had been murdered. Then one of them added: “You are okay. You are our guest.”

At Connaught Circus, New Delhi’s commercial heart, the atmosphere was tense but less explosive. Still, in one row of shops three businesses—only one of which was Sikh-owned—fell to Hindu arsonists. Explained Nirwal Bannerjee, the middle-aged owner of a nearby record store: “An unruly mob was walking back from Teen Murti [the palatial former home of Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru] and they thought it was a good opportunity. They had nothing better to do. It is very sad.” Even in the quieter middle-class districts the roving gangs caused widespread destruction. In one instance, marauders smashed their way into a house rented by a Sikh family, forcing the occupants to seek shelter with neighbors. When the family returned, its possessions were strewn in the lane behind the home along with broken glass from windows and a back door.

At the Rekab Canj Temple, opposite India’s parliament buildings, a mob of 3,000 Hindus roasted two Sikhs alive, one of them a 14-year-old boy. Elsewhere, a mob at a train station in Madhya Pradesh state dragged 12 Sikh passengers from an express train and beat them to death with clubs and sticks. Police said six other Sikhs died in Gurgaon, just southwest of the capital, when they were pulled from cars or trapped on streets by rampaging groups. In New Delhi and five other cities—Indore, Patna, Rae Bareeille, Kanpur and Dehra Den—authorities called in the troops and ordered soldiers to shoot rioters and looters on sight. The violence did not stop even for Gandhi’s funeral. As world leaders gathered to pay tribute to her memory, seven people died when police fired on vigilantes in the capital.

In many parts of the country, Sikh businessmen in their distinctive beards and turbans kept their shops closed rather than risk inciting religious hatred. And in some areas, Sikhs armed with swords, spears and axes formed makeshift patrols. Said Mahinder Singh, owner of an electrical goods store in Bombay, a city of eight million people renowned for its tolerance among religious groups: “Our fear is that we will be made scapegoats.”

Rajiv Gandhi at mother’s pyre: faced with mounting chaos, the new prime minister moved swiftly to try to assert his control

Still, other observers said that the rioting and violence, although widespread, had little popular support. Instead, they contended, the outbursts were probably the work of small bands of thugs, called goondas in Hindustani, who turn up wherever there is unrest in India. Said Kushwant Singh, a Sikh historian: “Looting is good fun. A Hindu businessman points out the target, and a Sikh rival is put out of business.” Nevertheless, both Washington and London issued travel advisories to tourists planning to travel to India. As well, Britain’s Princess Anne agreed to cut short her visit to the country as president of the Save the Children Fund after the Indian government warned her that it could not guarantee her security. And U.S. Embassy officials in New Delhi also warned their nationals to stay indoors and avoid crowds.

Madness: Faced with mounting chaos, the new prime minister moved swiftly to attempt to assert his control. In one of his first acts as leader, Gandhi ordered dozens of the country’s top ministers and state politicians who had converged on the capital for his mother’s funeral to return to their regions and try to halt the fighting. He also joined with 15 opposition leaders in issuing an appeal to their countrymen “to exert themselves to the utmost to restore sanity and harmony.” Describing the Sikh community as an “inseparable part” of India, the statement added: “To subject Sikhs as a whole to violence and indignity for what a few misguided persons have done, however heinous their crime, is most irrational and unbecoming of our heritage of tolerance. This madness must stop.” Later, on television, Gandhi called the violence a slur on his mother’s memory and he added that it would destroy India if allowed to continue unchecked.

Before Saturday’s funeral Gandhi conducted an early-morning tour of riot-stricken neighborhoods, personally advising armed gangs to lay down their weapons. But some critics accused him of not acting promptly enough to quell the violence. Opposition politicians issued a statement warning that if the new leader did not summon the army at once, “India as a nation might sink into oblivion.”

Meanwhile, a succession of unconfirmed news reports about Indira Gandhi’s assassination heightened the general alarm. In a front-page article, The Statesman of New Delhi reported that Satwant Singh had confessed to his doctors that he had taken a vow in a New Delhi Sikh shrine to carry out the assassination. Other Sikhs, he said, had pledged to murder Rajiv Gandhi and the Indian state president, Zail Singh, a Sikh moderate. Said the newspaper: “The most disconcerting aspect of Satwant Singh’s story is that the entire operation was being masterminded by a serving senior army officer with the rank of major-general based in Chandigarh,” the Punjab state capital.

As well, an anonymous caller told a news agency that a Sikh organization known as the Dashmesh Regiment planned to kill foreign leaders attending Gandhi’s funeral. Among those on the death list were dignitaries from the Soviet Union, Vietnam and the Palestine Liberation Organization—each of which, the caller said, were critical of Sikh demands for an independent homeland. And in London the exiled head of the secessionist Sikh republic predicted that Rajiv Gandhi would also die. “I am not instigating people,” said Jagjit Singh Chauhan, “I am simply telling you a historical fact.”

Mourners: Earlier, thousands of Indians had flocked to Teen Murti, where Gandhi’s bullet-ridden body lay in state. The casket, strewn with white flowers, sat on a wooden platform draped in white cloth and angled so that mourners could see her face as they filed quickly past. Beside the platform a choir of men and women sat on the marble floor chanting prayers and singing Hindu hymns. But outside there was more chaos, as hundreds of young men anxious to get a glimpse of the body fought with police armed with tear gas.

Sikh at Golden Temple: furious Hindus took revenge on members of the minority sect

For many Indians the turbulence and uncertainty that engulfed their country last week were sharp reminders of Indira Gandhi’s own stormy political career. Born in Allahabad on Nov. 19, 1917, into a wealthy, highly westernized Hindu family, she grew up surrounded by politics. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a brilliant lawyer and philosopher who joined the Congress movement led by Mohandas K. Gandhi (no relation to Indira) for Indian independence. As a result, the Nehru household became a launching pad for Indian independence, and both of her parents served successive terms in jail (page 30 ). For the child, it was a lonely and often difficult life. Recalled Gandhi many years later: ‘T have no recollection of games, children’s parties or playing with other children. My favorite occupation was to deliver thunderous speeches to the servants, standing on a high table. All my games were political games—I was, like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.”

Loyalty: As a young woman, Gandhi was distinguished chiefly by her shyness and loyalty to her father. One of the few exceptions was her 1942 marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a newspaperman whose adherence to a different religion, Parsi, meant, she said, that “the whole of India was against us.” The young couple had two children—Rajiv, born in 1944, and the late Sanjay, born in 1946—but husband and wife lived apart after 1947, when Indira decided to join her father after he became the first prime minister of the new nation. For the next 17 years she served as Nehru’s official hostess and companion, accompanying him on tours abroad and gaining a firsthand apprenticeship in the crucible of Indian politics.

The first indications that she was no longer willing to live in her father’s shadow emerged in 1959, when she became Congress Party president. Immediately displaying a ruthlessness that later became her trademark, Gandhi helped to plan the overthrow of a democratically elected Communist government in the southern state of Kerala. Even so, when her father died of a stroke in 1964, many party members considered her too inexperienced to assume the leadership, and instead they made her the information minister in the new government of Prime Minister Lai Bahadur Shastri.

When Shastri died in 1966, it was Gandhi’s reputation as a weak and malleable functionary that led the party organization to appoint her as India’s third prime minister. That assumption was proved wrong three years later during a fierce power struggle over the largely ceremonial post of Indian president. With the help of most of the party’s rank and file, Gandhi’s candidate won a narrow victory over the man backed by her political elders. Meanwhile, the internal fighting had split the party into two factions—a conservative group led by Moraji Desai and a younger socialist faction dominated by Gandhi. In a shrewd move designed to win mass support, Gandhi simultaneously nationalized the banks and abolished princely privileges. At the same time, she cracked down on Marxist activists in order to reassure the middle classes and the business community. After that, her leadership was never seriously challenged.

But even her victories could not shield her from growing popular discontent. Isolated from public opinion and incapable of solving the country’s economic problems, Gandhi came under a series of attacks which occurred almost daily for alleged corruption and abuse of power. In 1975 she finally moved to end the unrest. Acting under a law passed during British rule, she proclaimed a state of emergency, jailing thousands of political opponents and imposing strict censorship on the press. Declared Gandhi: “Sometimes bitter medicine has to be administered to a patient only to cure him.” Two years later, however, it was Gandhi herself who had to swallow a bitter draught when Indian voters swept her out of office in favor of Desai’s Janata Party.

Crises: Throughout the late 1970s Gandhi faced a succession of charges for alleged corruption, each time defiantly denying any wrongdoing. Gradually, however, Janata itself lost popularity, because of its failure to resolve India’s economic crises, and in 1979 Desai resigned. In the next elections, held in January, 1980, Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party—the I stands for Indira—won with 351 seats out of 542 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

In the last years of her life Gandhi moved singlemindedly to cement her authority in a number of rebellious states (page 37 ). But in what analysts considered to be her greatest challenge—the demand by Sikh extremists in the Punjab for autonomy—her reluctance to come to terms with the moderate Sikh party, the Akali Dal, only advanced the cause of the secessionist radicals. Last June’s government raid on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar was politically popular. But together with the 600 dead, it left a deep reservoir of bitterness that culminated in her assassination.

Indeed, the argument that India’s Sikhs need a separate homeland to shield themselves from the majority Hindus is likely to receive added impetus from last week’s bloody outbursts. One Sikh in Delhi said that virtually none of his coreligionists outside the Punjab had originally supported an independent Sikh state. But he added, “If this killing goes on, we are left with no alternative.”

Now, the weight of India’s problems falls to Rajiv Gandhi. The reluctant politician faces an awesome challenge: to prevent a nation of 730 million people from tearing itself apart. Certainly, his mother was convinced that the Gandhi dynasty would lend stability to India and help to ensure its survival. With her son in place, her theory will be put to its ultimate test. 

-with David North in New Delhi