The tragedy struck on a bright, autumn morning, 31 years ago.
In the morning of October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was getting ready for a TV interview with British Actor and Television Presenter Peter Ustinov. In that evening, she was also to host a dinner in honor of Princess Anne of Britain, who was visiting India.
Prime Minister Gandhi wanted some changes to be made in the guest list for the evening dinner and instructed so to her long-time aide, R.K. Dhawan, who just noted them down.
Ms. Gandhi, wearing a light orange sari and black sandals, walked out of her official residence at 1, Safdarjung Road, towards her office at the adjoining 1, Akbar Road. Peter Ustinov was waiting there with his TV crew, to conduct and record the one hour television interview.
The next national election in India was to be held by mid January 1985. Rajiv Gandhi, her son was off on a political trip to West Bengal. He was there on a preparatory meet, related to the election.
Peter Ustinov had been with Indira Gandhi for last two days as she campaigned through Orissa.
Ms. Gandhi’s attendant, the Head Constable of Delhi Police, Narain Singh was holding an umbrella over her head, possibly shielding her make-up from the sun.
While walking across the lawn, she saw a servant carrying a tea set, to be placed in front of Ustinov and Gandhi during the interview. She told him to bring out fancier one instead.
Then she walked on the small cemented path of around 20 metres, surrounded by neem and oak trees, towards the gate separating the official residence and her office.
Standing at attention more than halfway along the path were two khaki-uniformed Sikh security men. One of them, Beant Singh was known to her as a body guard. She had known him for last ten years.
Not far from Beant Singh stood Satwant Singh, 21, who had been assigned to Mrs. Gandhi’s security, five months before.
She folded her hands to say Namaste to the guards.
Within seconds, Beant Singh drew a .38 revolver and fired three shots into her. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh pumped all 30 rounds from his Sten gun. It was over in a few seconds!
The time was 9.09 in the morning.
And then, the two Sikhs Bodyguards dropped their guns. When the other security guards seized them, Beant Singh said calmly, “I’ve done what I had to do. You do what you want to.”
R.S. Kulkarni, one of the members of a Special Investigation Team that probed the death, later wrote in a book that, 444 officers and men drawn from various security organisations worked in three shifts on the security of the Prime Minister’s house. Two of them had turned assassins.
It’s not known yet, why the two assassins were mysteriously shot at during interrogation inside an ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) booth at the Prime Minister’s house soon after they had dropped their weapons and surrendered!
While Beant Singh died on the spot, Satwant Singh, 21, survived and was taken to the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
Peter Ustinov and his crew, who had been waiting for the interview, rushed to the Prime Minister’s bungalow, hearing that she was shot.
“It was a scene of confusion,” he said later. “The security men were still running around, shaken and unbelieving. The security men kept us there for five hours. Polite, but they wanted to be sure we didn’t have something on film that they could use as evidence. Sadly, we did not.”
Dr Rajeev Sood, then the Head of Urology department of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, was in the Operation Theatre when a nurse informed him that Indira Gandhi had been shot and was being brought there.
“I was asked by our Head of the Department to receive her at the casualty. But to our surprise, the ITBP personnel brought in Beant Singh and Satwant Singh instead,” Dr Sood recalled.
According to him, Satwant Singh was on a stretcher, and reportedly said in Punjabi “Sherawalan Kaam Kar Ditta, Main Una Nu Maar Ditta!” (I have performed my valiant deed. I have killed her). Doctors later operated upon him and removed two bullets from his abdomen.
Beant Singh was dead by then.
Usually, all the VIP’s were taken to Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, for their treatments. But Indira Gandhi was taken to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) by then.
Reportedly, the driver of the Ambulance deployed at PM’s residence couldn’t be traced .So Dr R. Opeh, the Central Government Health Scheme Doctor on duty at the Prime Minister’s house, daughter- in- law Sonia Gandhi and the security personnel placed her in an official Ambassador car and took her to the AIIMS.
Nobody has a clear memory of what exactly happened at AIIMS , but one brief sentence is still in the collective memory of the staff on duty, then: “Madam has been shot.”
For a few confused moments no one realized just what was happening – until it dawned on them that the people who rushed in through the doors were the Prime Minister’s assistants, R.K. Dhawan and her daughter in law Sonia Gandhi. Senior Kashmiri politician and Indira Gandhi’s close aide M.L. Fotedar was also there.
The doctors who ushered in Mrs Gandhi into the casualty section, reportedly checked her eyes and found her pupils dilated and fixed! The doctor who felt for her pulse, found none and started cardiac massage immediately, to get the heart to start beating.
A doctor inserted an endo-tracheal tube – a soft rubber tube through the mouth – to pump oxygen to her lungs, to keep the brain alive. And because she was bleeding profusely, he set up two intravenous lines for blood transfusion.
A senior doctor at AIIMS, on duty at the hour, after examined her, reportedly told Dhawan and Fotedar that there was very little hope of saving Ms Gandhi and that they must pursue whatever action they felt apt on the assumption that she was dead!
From the casualty wing , she was then shifted to Operation Theatre No. 2 on the 8th floor , where doctors tried hard to stop excessive bleeding. Immediately, she was linked to a heart-lung machine which started pumping and purifying blood into her body.
The team of doctors who was there included, the Cardio-Thoracic Surgeons Dr P. Venugopal, Dr Balaram and Dr A. Sampat Kumar.The General Surgeons Dr Dhawan and Dr M.M. Kapoor and the anaesthetist G.R. Gode.
After operating on her , the doctors found that the the liver had badly ruptured. There were perforations in the large intestine and multiple injuries in the small intestine too.
The hospital generally had stocks four bottles of Ms Gandhi’s rare blood group, O-Negative, But through that afternoon, doctors procured the supply from other hospitals and as reported administered 30 to 40 bottles of blood.
It was becoming clear to the doctors that Ms Gandhi was not responding to the treatment. Her pupils according to them, remained motionless and dilated throughout the operation and she never regained pulse.
Finally, at around 2.30 p.m. they were unable to find any hope , and declared her dead!
Nothing was transpired outside. Nothing clearly was declared officially. Rumors were moving around fast, all over the city.
After more than two hours of the incident, a First Information Report (FIR No. 241/84) was filed at the Tughlaq Road Police Station at 11.25am, based on the account of Head Constable Narain Singh who was accompanying her.
At ‘Doordarshan’,the only TV channel in those days, it was a normal day throughout…no special bulletin, nothing. Though the news department was informed about the developments and were asked to be ready for the news bulletin.
“But when I read out the bulletin at 8 pm, which was the first bulletin of the day, I did not announce that she was dead in as many words,” the popular newsreader of yesteryears’ Salma Sultan recalled.
“I said that there had been an assassination attempt on her and she was undergoing treatment. But all of us knew that she was no more. It was difficult for me to hide my expressions.”
By the time, BBC had announced the death of Ms. Gandhi.
Rajiv Gandhi was informed about the incident and he had to wait for some time for his helicopter at Kolaghat in Midnapur, West Bengal. The helicopter would take him to Calcutta airport and from where he could catch a flight to Delhi.
Pranab Mukherjee was accompanying him.
At around 1 pm, Rajiv Gandhi heard from someone that the BBC had announced her death.
BBC’s India correspondent Mark Tully was on leave. His assistant Satish Jacob somehow heard from a fellow Journalist that something serious had happened at Prime Minister’s residence, but what was it not clear.
In those days there were no mobile phones. After reaching office, Satish Jacob rang up Rajiv Gandhi’s aide Vincent George, from his office landline and then immediately rushed to AIIMS.
After speaking to some doctors at AIIMS and to R.K. Dhawan, Satish straight away booked a trunk call to BBC Headquarters in London and at around 10.45am he reported that there had been an attempt on Indira Gandhi’s life and she was battling for life in the hospital.
There was no news about it in All India Radio or Doordarshan.
At around 12 in the noon after talking to various sources, Satish Jacob filed the report that Ms Gandhi had died.
But it was important news, so BBC waited for some more time to get it confirmed from some other sources.
It was at 7.30 am GMT, 1 pm in India when BBC , the first news agency announced the death of India’s Prime Minister.
Officially, Indira Gandhi’s death was announced by the then AIIMS Medical Superintendent, Dr A.N Dr Safaya outside the AIIMS operation theatre, at 4pm.
She was dead “at around 2.23 pm or so”, he announced to a huge gathering of newspersons and Congress party workers gathered there.
As the crowds that had gathered at AIIMS began to move out after the announcement, the first reports of public violence against the Sikh community, started pouring in.
The first report of Sikhs had been targeted , came from the Kidwai Nagar, an area adjacent to AIIMS.
Professor Swaran Singh, who practices in the UK and teaches at Warwick Medical School now , was a young trainee surgeon then in Safdarjung hospital.
That day, when he walked into his hospital , the normally respectful clerk told him angrily : “Tum haramzadoon ney maar diya madam ko” (“You bastards have killed madam.”).
He couldn’t understand the change in his tone or the content of what he was saying. So, he turned to a nurse: “Did you hear that? He swore at me”. She calmly said: “Haven’t you heard? Indira Gandhi has been shot by her Sikh bodyguards. She is being brought to the AIIMS”.
“ I rushed to AIIMS, which was already seething with a mass of humanity. People spoke in hushed whispers, the crowd swarmed anxiously, senior government figures arrived with blaring alarms, police and security guards were everywhere. There was an ominous foreboding in the humid air”.
“A colleague approached me and whispered: “It is not safe for Sikhs here . Please go away”.
The gates were blocked with teeming crowds. As I squeezed my way through, someone shouted at me “you bastards” and a blow fell on my neck. My turban came off. Clutching my turban and crouching, I forced my way through, as more blows rained down upon my back. I managed to stumble into an auto-rickshaw, beseeching the driver to take me away”.
The killings started late that evening. National television ‘Doordarshan’ had a continuous broadcast of footage of Indira Gandhi’s body, surrounded by crowds. The crowd was shouting menacingly, “Khoon ka badla khoon” (“Seek blood for blood”).
And the noise went on , repeated over and over again publicly and unswervingly heard by the nation.
Two police officers, from my local police station, went around our colony with a megaphone: “Don’t drink water. The Sikhs have poisoned it.”
Swaran Singh and his entire family fled their house by the night and with much difficulty, reached a rescue camp, only to hear horrible narratives from the survivors.
Lok Sabha Secretary General Subhash Kashyap was in Calcutta then attending the All India Presiding Officers’ Conference. When he came to know of the mishap, he headed for the airport, led by the then Speaker of Lok Sabha, Balram Jakhar, who was also attending the meeting.
In an emergency, the scheduled regular flight from Calcutta had been cancelled and the Boeing 737 was going to fly Rajiv Gandhi and others to Delhi.
When Rajiv Gandhi reached the technical area of Palam Airport in Delhi, in the afternoon , it was sure that would take over as Prime Minister of India. But there was one possible difficulty. Whether President Zail Singh would administer the oath of office to Rajiv Gandhi! The President was out of the country, on an official tour to Yemen.
As an alternative, Kashyap pointed out that the Vice-President could administer the oath as per the Constitution.
Gandhi was taken from the airport directly to the AIIMS. He met P.C. Alexander, Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary there.
Congress Parliamentary Party met immediately and nominated Rajiv Gandhi as the next Prime Minister.
He was sworn in as the Prime Minister around 6.30pm by the President Singh , who had rushed back from Yemen that evening.
For two days after her death, her body lay in state at the Teen Murti Bhavan. The national Television showed her round the clock.
The World reaction was utter shock and sheer disbelief.
The U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur Hartman was sitting in Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s office when the news of Ms Gandhi’s death arrived. Hartman told the Russians, that the two superpowers should do what they could, to keep the situation in India calm. Gromyko agreed.
However, within hours, the Soviet news agency TASS implied that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-CIA was involved in the assassination, a charge that US vehemently denied.
‘Pravda’, the official newspaper of Soviet Communist Party, ran a detailed commentary entitled ”Terrorism – the Politics of Washington” alongside Gandhi’s obituary. Pravda claimed the CIA had been involved in ”recent bloody incidents” in Punjab state of India, the stronghold of Sikh separatist movement.
Soviet television has run reports from India, along with commentary similarly linking the US with the assassination!
Indira Gandhi was one of Moscow’s closest allies in the Non Aligned Movement. India has also been one of the Soviet Union’s best customers for Defence purchases, buying more than US $10 billion worth from 1954 through 1983.
In the streets of Delhi, the unkindliest things were happening.
“I had never seen such riots in my life. They were worse than the Partition riots,” commented retired police officer Ved Marwah, who became the Additional Commissioner of Delhi Police during the time and investigated a the cause of the riots, thereafter.
Never before since the bloodiest days of Partition one had seen so much mayhem, arson and vandalism. In the heart of the civilised world! And it continued unabated for the next four days.
Sikhs had become the enemy in their own country and their own countrymen were seeking for their blood!
Unknown to many ,but eyewitnesses had vouched , huge mobs had been gathered by the senior members of the ruling Congress party. Electoral lists were allegedly distributed so that Sikh households could be identified.
The mobs, already suffused with anger, were plied with alcohol, cash distributed, and given canisters of kerosene oil. The mob would then surround a Sikh house and shout for all the males to come out. The men would then had beaten mercilessly before being doused with kerosene and set on fire, as the women and children horridly and helplessly watched. There were molestations , there was looting but the primary aim of the mob was bloodlust: “Khoon ka badla khoon”!
Police simply looked the other way. Those who bound by their duty tried to control the rioting mob were told by their superiors, that they would simply obey what their political higher ups would instruct.
In Delhi and NCR alone, according to an estimate, the death toll was around 5,000!
By Deep Basu
Images are author’s self-contribution.