The perils of trusting the wrong person - or how to assassinate a Prime Minister

No. 1 Safdarjung Road, New Delhi, was the official residence of the Prime Minister of India. At about 9-08 am, on 31-10-1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, strolled out of her residence to grant an interview with the British actor/director Peter Ustinov. She never completed her walk or gave the interview. When she reached the gates of her compound, two of her armed bodyguards opened fire on her, killing her immediately. Both of them were Sikhs, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, and they wanted vengeance for her ordering the army to expel Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar on 5 June 1984.

How did it come about that a Prime Minister who ruled over a nation of some 746 million people could make the fundamental mistake of trusting the wrong persons to be her bodyguards?






The Prime Minister’s daughter

She was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, the only child of Kamala and Jawaharlal Nehru. Her father, Nehru, was the Prime Minister of India from independence in 1947 until 1964. When she followed him on official functions, she stayed a few paces behind him, deferential yet ready to give assistance when required. Initially, she had no political ambitions at all. When Nehru died on 27 May 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him as Prime Minister for a mere two years. Indira Gandhi was made the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. During that period, many Indians were illiterate so they depended on the radio and television for information and entertainment. So her post allowed her to play an important role and made her the fourth senior Cabinet Minister.

The reluctant Prime Minister

When Shastri died of a heart attack on 11 January 1966, the numerous contenders for power could not agree on a successor. They wanted a figurehead who was acceptable to the masses but someone whom they could manipulate behind the scenes. As she was Nehru’s daughter, the faction led by Kamaraj agreed to let her rule although the faction led by Morarji Desai did not agree. However, she proved to be a tough and capable leader. Her faction won 355 votes while Desai won 169 votes in the Lok Sabha or House of the People. In order to unite the country, she offered Desai the Deputy Prime Minister post and later the Finance Minister post. She nationalized the Indian banks, a move that was unpopular. When Desai continued to oppose her, she dismissed him. During her tenure, she would appoint and dismiss ministers at her will. Her political allies who thought she would be easy to manipulate found out too late that it was not so easy to control her. She led the Indian National Congress Party to their fourth victory and became Prime Minister from 1966 until 1977.

The problem caused by some 10 million Bangladesh refugees led to the outbreak of the third India-Pakistan war from 20 December 1971 to 27 December 1971. President Nixon fumed and sent vessels of the US Seventh Fleet off the coast of then East Pakistan to show that the US meant business. At 8.05 am on 18 May 1974, India detonated her first nuclear bomb at Pokhran, Rajasthan, to show that she meant business. But that would be in the future. In the meantime, Indira Gandhi's response was to turn to the Soviet Union for military assistance. India won the brief war which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Her popularity was at a peak. However, during the oil price crisis of 1973, the opposition parties campaigned against her on grounds of corruption and inflation. To make matters worse, there were crop failures in 1972 and 1973.

Defeat and comeback

On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad High Court found her guilty of corrupt election practices. Her response on 25 June 1975 was to issue a State of Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution. During this period, some 110,000 political activists were jailed. In 1977, the elections were due and her party suffered a crushing defeat, winning only 153 seats in the Lok Sabha. However, the elected Janata government led by Desai could not seem to get their act together against her because it was driven by rival factions. Desai became the Prime Minister from 1977 to 1979.

During the next elections in 1980, she campaigned on the grounds that she could provide a government that worked. Her party made a successful comeback by winning 351 seats. During what would turn out to be her final term, she centralized powers and did not tolerate dissent within Congress. When Congress was defeated in Andhra Pardesh and Karnataka, Gandhi tried to consolidate her support among the Hindu community.


Operation Blue Star: The beginning of her end

It was during this period that seven states tried to separate or secede from the central government. Some of these states were Assam and Punjab. The city of Amritsar was located in the Sikh dominated state of Punjab. The Sikh population was only about 15 million or a mere 2% of the total population. But the actions of some of them would eventually change the course of history.

In Amritsar, there is the Golden Temple. The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak (1469-1530) was said to have lived and meditated in this temple. During that time, the temple was located in a small lake surrounded by forests so it was a conducive place for retreat and meditation. The Golden Temple was also the place where the Sikh sacred scripture known as Adi Grantha was kept. The temple was initially known as the Temple of God or Hari Mandir before it became commonly known as the Golden Temple.

In 1984, the Sikhs used Amritsar as a base from which to campaign for separation. Gandhi refused to negotiate with the moderate faction Akali Dai, the Sikh political party in Punjab. This resulted in the rise to prominence of the more extremist faction led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who demanded a separate state of Khalistan.

When Indira conferred with Lt General Sinha, the vice chief of the army, he did not agree to her proposal to attack the Golden Temple to dislodge the separatists. However, she remained firm and Major General Kuldip Singh Brar led an operation against the Golden Temple on the night of 5 June until 6 June 1984. The sortie was successful and the separatist leader Sant Bhindranwale was killed. However, some 1,000 people were also killed, including many civilians. Inevitably, parts of the Golden Temple were damaged, including the Akal Takht portion where some separatists had entrenched themselves. In the aftermath, many Sikhs resigned from the government service and some even returned the awards given by the government.