IN A BRIGHT-YELLOW COTTON SARI with a black-and-white border, feet clad in a pair of simple black slippers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walked into the pleasant Delhi morning. She walked, as was her wont, briskly along the pathway from her residence to the neighbouring bungalow, where Peter Ustinov, the Academy Award-winning actor and columnist, was waiting to interview her. She was running late by 30 minutes.
As she crossed the wicket gate between the two compounds, at 9.20 am, Sub-inspector Beant Singh, who had been guarding her for almost a decade, turned and shot her. When she collapsed to the ground after taking three bullets, Satwant Singh, a 21-year-old who had been with the prime minister’s security detail for just ten months, fired 30 rounds at her. The two men dropped their guns, and one of them reportedly shouted, “I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do.” The two Sikh bodyguards were taking revenge on Gandhi for ordering the Indian Army into the Golden Temple, the highest temporal seat of their religion, to flush out armed Sikh separatists in the summer of that year, 1984.
Rajendra Kumar Dhawan was only a couple of feet from Gandhi as she took those bullets, but not one of them grazed him. That was Dhawan’s default position in contemporary India: a few steps removed from history. He was near enough to his boss to hear what she whispered, watch for her signals, keep away intruders and take down dictation. He was near enough to witness at close quarters India’s struggles to evolve as a democratic nation, with all its intrigues, drama and violence. He also became the single point of contact between Gandhi and most people, including her ministers.