Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle

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Conversation with Mark Tully

Note to Readers

Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi’s last battle, was not a battle against the Sikhs, a community Mrs Gandhi always regarded with great affection. It was a battle in which infantry, armour and artillery were used against a small group of Sikhs who had fortified the Golden Temple complex and used it as a base from which to defy the authority of the Indian government. The tragedy is that many Sikhs do not accept this definition. They maintain that it was indeed a battle against their community. Satish Jacob and I followed the events which led up to the army action in the Golden Temple very closely, reporting every twist and turn for the BBC’s External Services, which have a vast audience in India itself, and for BBC radio and television.

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We started work on this book before Mrs Gandhi’s assassination because we were convinced that ‘Operation Blue Star’ would have the gravest consequences for the unity of India if it was not recognized that the Sikh leadership was as much responsible as the government for that disaster. The tragedy of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination proved us right. She was killed because some Sikhs were convinced that she had deliberately and unjustifiably waged war on their most sacred shrine. The danger of the alienation of a large section of the Sikh community was magnified by the government’s failure to control the violence unleashed against Sikhs after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. We therefore felt there was all the more need to tell the story of Bhindranwale and the mistakes which led up to the disaster in the Golden Temple.

If this book leads to a greater understanding among Sikhs and Hindus of the forces that were at work

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it will surely strengthen the hope of reconciliation. We have tried to show that neither side wanted that final confrontation.

When it came to telling the story, Satish and I faced a problem. We had worked so closely together that it was unthinkable that Mark Tully or Satish Jacob alone should tell the story. At the same time we soon found that two people cannot actually write a book. The Indian governments decision to ban all foreigners from Punjab provided us with a satisfactory division of labour. We decided that Satish, being an Indian citizen, should spend his time in Punjab talking to army officers, Sikhs and others who had been eyewitnesses of Operation Blue Star and the events which followed, while I got on with the writing. That is why I have written in the first person. The work itself is in every sense a joint work, from the original outline to the final corrections. At every stage I have been dependent on Satish Jacob for facts and interpretation.

We are both deeply indebted to Gillian Wright for her many invaluable contributions and suggestions. She did much of the historical research, saw the book through the publishers while we were in Delhi, and compiled the Index. We also wish to thank the many Indian journalists who unselfishly shared their information. We are particularly grateful to Harbir Singh Bhanwer, Sanjeev Gaur, Raju Santhanam, Tavleen Singh, Rahul Bedi and D.K. Vashisht. Five of our friends read the manuscript and prevented us from falling into many traps. They were Ian Jack of The Sunday Times, Viqar Ahmad of the BBC External Services, Abdul Gafoor Noorani, lawyer and journalist of Bombay, Sant Bux Singh, politician and philosopher, and the Sikh historian and head of the Guru Nanak Foundation, Mohinder Singh. Of course, they bear no responsibility for the views expressed in the book.

Satish and I hope that this book will not be seen as perversely critical. It is an honest attempt to relate, before memories dim and the actors in the drama scatter, an important chapter in the history of a country we both love deeply.

Delhi ,August 1985 ,MARK TULLY.

The Assassination of a Prime Minister

At 9·15 on the morning of 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi, the woman who had dominated Indian politics for nearly twenty years, stepped out of the side door of her bungalow to cross the compound to her office. Throughout her premiership she had lived at 1, Safdarjang Road, a simple, white, colonial-style bungalow built by the British as one of many homes for their administrators when they moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. There was nothing vulgar, garish or ostentatious about the Prime Minister’s house. In sharp contrast to many heads of government, good taste was the hallmark of Mrs Gandhi’s lifestyle. Although she controlled vast political funds, she lived a very simple home life with her son Rajiv, his Italian wife Sonia, and their two children.

The Prime Minister always chose her saris with great care. That morning, she was wearing saffron because it showed up well on television. She was on her way to a television interview with Peter Ustinov, the playwright, actor and humorist. Ironically, in Sikhism, saffron is the colour of martyrdom. Mrs Gandhi did have her vanity. She was very conscious of her status as a world leader, and enjoyed it hugely. Although a bitter critic of the Western media, she responded to visiting celebrities’ requests for interviews with remarkable alacrity. Most days the Prime Minister started her public engagements with a darshan, or audience, at which selected groups, often very poor and from remote parts of India, were taken into the compound of 1, Safdarjang Road, to meet her ‘informally’. No darshan had been arranged for 31 October. Mrs Gandhi had returned the night before, cutting short a tour of Orissa. In her last public speech, made on that tour, Mrs Gandhi appeared to foresee her own death. She said, ‘I do not worry whether I live or not. As long as there is any breath in me, I will go on serving you. When I die, every single drop of my blood will give strength to India and sustain united India.’ Mrs Gandhi had come back early because her grandchildren had been involved in a car accident in Delhi. The whole of her family had been receiving threatening letters from Sikhs enraged by the army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar and Mrs Gandhi feared the accident might have been an attempt on her grandchildren’s lives. The compounds of Mrs Gandhi’s home and her office were separated by a fence with a wicket-gate. As the Prime Minister, accompanied as usual by her personal assistant, R.K. Dhawan, approached that gate, she smiled at Beant Singh, the Sikh sub-inspector of police on duty there. As she did so he drew his revolver and fired at her. She fell to the ground and Constable Satwant Singh, the Sikh on duty on the other side of the gate, emptied his sten gun into her body. Many of his bullets missed and ricocheted off the concrete path. Mrs Gandhi had deliberately decimated the leadership of her own party. She had brooked no rival, and so there was no member of her Cabinet with the stature to see India through the dangerous and uncertain days ahead. The only hope of main- taining stability was the charisma of the Nehru/Gandhi family, and Rajiv, although he held no post in the government, was heir to that dynasty.The evening after Mrs Gandhi died, anti-Sikh riots broke out along the main road leading to AIIMS. The next day, India seemed to be going up in flames. Almost the only state which was not affected by the communal frenzy was the Sikhs’ homeland, Punjab. There Hindus waited anxiously for the Sikhs to take their revenge, but extensive deployment of the army and the responsible behaviour of many Sikh leaders prevented the backlash.

After shooting the Prime Minister he had been appointed to guard, Beant Singh hung his walkie-talkie on the fence, lifted his hands above his head and said, ‘I have done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do.’ He had taken revenge for the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the shrine which stands at the heart of Sikhism.

The two bodyguards were bundled into the police post in the office compound where an altercation started with the commandos from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police who provided the outer security ring for the Prime Minister’s house. Beant Singh was shot dead and Satwant Singh was seriously wounded. Ironically, Beant Singh was a Mazhabi Sikh, a descendant of untouchables who had been convened to Sikhism and were despised by the dominant caste of that religion.

There were no ambulance, no blood supplies and no special medical team on standby; so Dhawan and Mrs Gandhi’s Italian daughter-in-law, Sonia, had to put the Prime Minister into an Indian-made Ambassador car for the three-mile drive to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). There she was received by panic-stricken junior doctors. When their seniors arrived Mrs Gandhi was put on heart/lung bypass machinery, and blood was pumped into her. The doctors did not declare her dead until 2.20 in the afternoon, but she was in fact clinically dead when she arrived at the hospital. The superintendent of AIIMS later said that more than twenty bullet wounds had been found in her body. They punctured her liver, kidney and arm, and some arteries and veins on the right-hand side of her body. The government-controlled All India Radio did not receive permission to announce the death until 6 in the evening, five hours after millions of Indians had learnt from local news agencies and the External Services of the BBC that their Prime Minister had been shot dead.

One of those who listened to the BBC for news of the Prime Minister’s assassination was her only surviving son, Rajiv. On 31 October he was campaigning for the Congress (Indira) Party in the Hooghly Delta below Calcutta. A police patrol stopped his cavalcade and told him that he must return to Delhi immediately because something very serious had happened. Rajiv Gandhi drove to a helipad from where he flew to the Calcutta airport. There, he tuned in to the 12.30 bulletin of the BBC’s World Service to hear Satish Jacob reopen that Mrs Gandhi’s condition was grave. A few minutes later Satish Jacob confirmed to London that the Prime Minister had died. Rajiv Gandhi flew from Calcutta to Delhi where he was met by, among others, his close friend Amitabh Bachchan, the top-ranking Bombay film star.

According to the film star, Rajiv Gandhi’s first concern on landing at Delhi airport was for his own family. ‘First of all he wanted to know whether his wife and children were all right. Then he tried to find out something about the security. From the airport we drove straight to the hospital where his mother had been taken. When he reached the gates of the hospital and could not get through the vast crowd he turned to me and asked me about my illness. “How are you?” he asked. “When I was in Calcutta I met someone who said he had a cure for your illness. I want you to meet him. I will tell you about him.” It is a marvellous thing that he was able to think about the person next to him, about his friend, in spite of everything that had happened to him. His spirit was unbowed and he could still think about his friend.’

There was a report that Rajiv Gandhi did in fact break down when he first heard that his mother had died. He denies this. ‘Let me say that some newspapers or magazines reported that when I heard the news I went to the loo and had a bawl. That’s all rubbish. I was fairly upset but that is not the way I give expression to my emotions… I was sitting in the cockpit with the pilots actually when they took off; it was an Indian Airlines plane. When I heard this (that Mrs Gandhi had passed away), I came back and told Dikshit Ji [Uma Shankar Dikshit, present Governor of West Bengal] and others. And I just sat down one seat apart.

Mrs Gandhi was the first Indian Prime Minister to be assassinated but the third to die in office. When her father, Pandit Nehru, and his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died, a senior minister was sworn in as interim Prime Minister until the Congress Party could elect a new leader. This time, senior Congress’ leaders, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who had been campaigning with Rajiv Gandhi that day, decided that the succession must be assured immediately. So the 39-year-old former airline pilot, who had been involved in politics for only four years, was sworn in that evening in the Darbar Hall of the Presidential Palace by the Sikh President of India, Giani Zail Singh. Although opposition leaders criticized this breach of custom, it proved to be a very wise decision.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ 8129109174
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Rupa (30 April 2006)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 261 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9788129109170
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8129109170
Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 330 g
Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 21.59 x 13.97 x 1.47 cm
Net Quantity ‏ : ‎ 1.00 count

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