RATTAN’S RUMBLE: Indira Gandhi: From 1969 to her assassination in 1984

(October 31 marks the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of the then-prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. This piece has appeared before in The VOICE.)

 

THE first time I saw Indira Gandhi was at a press conference in New Delhi when I was a first-year student at Delhi University in 1969. My dad’s colleagues were then the number one and number two guys in Delhi Police and one of them, who was also head of security, took me along with him. As a teenager, I was just blown away by her dignified personality.

At that time I could never have imagined that I would actually be a cub reporter in her family’s newspaper – National Herald – in 1977 and would actually be told to accompany her as she toured some flood-hit areas of Delhi following torrential rains in July and August of that year.

That was, of course, pretty ironic. You see she had been kicked out by the electorate after the infamous 1975-1977 Emergency Rule and there were rumours that she was going to be arrested. Everyone took it for granted that she was history. The senior reporters in my newspaper thought it was below their dignity to go along with her – yes, the very same guys who were sucking up to her just a few months earlier.

But the editor had to send a reporter because her secretary had ordered the management to do so and no one seemed quite sure how much power she still wielded in her party. So I was told to cover the event with strict instructions not to ask her any questions. I had just been a couple of years in journalism and was terribly excited.

Rattan Mall (in the back taking down notes) with Indira Gandhi in 1977.

So there I was just next to her in an open jeep, taking notes in the rain for about two hours as the crowds milled around her, cheering wildly and chanting slogans in support of her.

It was all so surreal. The editor and the other journalists just couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. They even toned down my report. The photographer who accompanied me was so excited by it all that he presented me a photo of me with her in the jeep (see photo). For more than 13 years after that I was with prime ministers and bigwigs of every sort, including foreign dignitaries, in New Delhi but never bothered to keep any photographs – but this was the ONLY one that I have kept with my news report glued at the back.

When my report and the photos were published the next day in the newspaper, shock waves reverberated across the capital.

Could she really still have such charismatic power?

When we arrived back at her residence (which was totally deserted except for a lone police constable standing at the entrance!), I remember actually telling her, even as Sanjay Gandhi and his wife Maneka stood nearby, that people still admired her and she should go out on more visits. She said that she would. She then expected me to ask her questions, but I couldn’t tell her that I had been ordered by the editor not to do so! After a while, she got irritated and snapped: “You haven’t done your homework!” I am sure she would have died of shock if she had been told that I was the junior-most reporter.

When I told my newspaper guys about it, it became a joke for some time: “You haven’t done your homework!”

Sorry, but the guys who hadn’t done their homework were my spineless, opportunistic seniors – and that included the editor.

What happened after that is well-known history: Gandhi started visiting places and the mammoth crowds that turned out to greet her so unnerved the fractious coalition government of the time that they arrested her on some charges related to her Emergency rule. That only made her even more popular – and she was swept back into power in 1980 with a stunning majority. At the time I was a reporter with The Times of India.

 

FOR the next four years, I regularly covered events at her house – and her assassination came as a horrible shock to me. That morning of October 31, 1984, I was not assigned to cover any event at her house (I lived relatively close by) and went directly to my newspaper office, only to learn of the tragedy.

It’s been 33 years since then, but those events – Gandhi’s assassination and the horrendous massacre of innocent Sikhs by mobs incited by some Congress Party leaders in Delhi – remain indelibly etched in my mind.

I was also assigned to cover her funeral on November 3, 1984 – and I still keep the special press pass (see photo) that I was issued on the occasion to be at the cremation site near Raj Ghat (Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial).

I also keep a clipping of one of the stories I wrote then. It was a scoop and it’s titled:

“Sikhs in DAP [Delhi Armed Police] at PM house disarmed.”

Here is what I reported based on information I garnered from some police sources at the time:

 

NEW DELHI, November 1.

All Sikhs in Delhi Armed Police, who were posted at the Prime Minister’s residence, were disarmed and sent off in the wake of her assassination. But members of the elite Special Task Force have been left untouched.

The two assassins of Mrs. Indira Gandhi were highly motivated as the sequence of events pieced together by the intelligence agencies shows.

Sub-inspector Beant Singh of Delhi Police went on leave on October 19 and 20 when he spirited away his family which is believed to have either been smuggled abroad or sought refuge in some place of worship.

Yesterday, Beant Singh got his duty changed from the afternoon shift to the morning one and put himself on duty at the heavy iron gate between the compounds of 1, Safdarjung Road, and 1, Akbar Road known as the “link gate.”

When Mrs. Gandhi arrived at the gate, Beant Singh opened the gate and stood behind it. As she came forward, Beant Singh suddenly fired at her from his revolver. The shot hit Mrs. Gandhi on the upper part of her chest and she fell on her right side, saying, “Ye kya kar rahe ho” (What is this that you are doing)? Although he had five rounds in his revolver, he fired only one and then stood aside for the other assassin, Constable Satwant Singh, to move in.

Constable Satwant Singh then fired the entire magazine of his stengun into Mrs. Gandhi. Intelligence sources say that he fired about 25 rounds. Although normally there are supposed to be 34 rounds in the magazine, the Delhi Armed Police personnel keep only about 25 in their stenguns so that the spring of the mechanism stays in perfect order. These weapons are unloaded every two hours as the shifts of 60 to 70 constables change.

Guards on duty at the prime Minister’s house all told the intelligence that they heard one distinct shot and then a burst of the stengun.

After the firing, both Beant Singh and Satwant Singh threw down their weapons and the former calmly announced in Hindi, “Ham ne jo karna that kar diya, tumne jo karna hai karo” (We’ve done what we had do. You do what you want to).

While the stunned staff of the Prime Minister stood around, members of the elite Special Task Force of about 30 highly trained police inspectors directly under the Intelligence Bureau lifted Mrs. Gandhi and rushed her to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. Incidentally, it was a Sikh member of this group that took the initiative and carried Mrs. Gandhi.

Meanwhile, men of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who are trained in unarmed combat and are stationed within the compound for any emergency, rounded up the two assassins and took them to a room for temporary detention. Because of the complete lack of resistance offered by the two, the ITBP men were caught unawares when suddenly Beant Singh grabbed for the stengun hanging at the side of one of the ITBP men. As he clutched it firmly, the guard, who is an expert in judo, hit him in the groin. But as he kept struggling, the guard fired at him.

Even as this scuffle was going on, Satwant Singh, who had a kirpan, tried to attack the ITBP man. However, another guard saw him and shot at him. The two assassins were then rushed to hospital.

Intelligence sources point out that the sequence of events shows the high motivation of the assassins. Beant Singh fired just one round only to “inspire” his subordinate who had a stengun to move in. The two were aiming “only” for Mrs. Gandhi as they made no attempt whatsoever to harm anyone else there including (her special assistant) Mr. (R.K.) Dhawan.

Both the assassins threw down their weapons once they were convinced that they had “done their job” and even calmly announced so. However, their sudden attempt in the confinement room to grab the weapon remains baffling.

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