The 1984 Massacre: How Senior Leaders from the Congress Sanctioned the Organised Violence That Followed Indira Gandhi’s Death

30 October 2015
Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and confidante Arun Nehru (left) with the Indian president Giani Zail Singh outside AIIMS on 31 October 1984.
ASHOK VAHIE
Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and confidante Arun Nehru (left) with the Indian president Giani Zail Singh outside AIIMS on 31 October 1984.
ASHOK VAHIE

On this day, a little over three decades ago, Indira Gandhi—then the prime minister of India—was shot dead by two Sikh jawans who were a part of her security arrangement. In this excerpt from his story Sins of Commission, which was published in our October 2014 issue, Hartosh Singh Bal examines the modus operandi through which violence against the Sikh community was organised in the aftermath of Gandhi’s death, and traces it back to senior leaders from the government at that time.

On Wednesday, 31 October 1984, shortly after 9 AM, Indira Gandhi stepped out of her house at 1 Safdarjung Road to walk to her office in an adjacent bungalow, where Peter Ustinov was waiting with a television crew to interview her. A head constable was to heel, holding aloft an umbrella to protect Gandhi from the sun. Another policeman, her personal attendant, and her personal secretary, RK Dhawan, followed.

The gate separating the bungalows was manned by two Sikh jawans, who had coordinated to be on the same shift. A week earlier, both men had partaken of amrit, in a Sikh ceremony usually reserved for the most faithful. Their fervour was a direct consequence of Operation Bluestar. At least seven hundred people were killed; according to conservative estimates, roughly 350 were civilians, unwitting targets of an ill-conceived operation. By the end of the assault, on 6 June, the Akal Takht, one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, was a smoking ruin. Even Sikhs who had been critical of Bhindranwale were aghast at the army action.

As Gandhi approached the gate, Beant and Satwant opened fire—five shots from Beant’s revolver, 25 from Satwant’s carbine. As soon as she fell to the ground, both men dropped their weapons, and were taken into custody. Gandhi was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she was declared dead later that day.

In its summary of that day’s violence, the Nanavati commission wrote that the “first sign of such public resentment resulting in an angry outburst in Delhi” came around 2.30 pm, “when the public suspected that Smt. Indira Gandhi had succumbed to her injuries and started assaulting passersby Sikhs.” Further violence was noted around 5 pm, “when the cars in the entourage of President Giani Zail Singh were stoned at AIIMS.” At 6 pm, Gandhi’s death was announced on All India Radio. Soon after, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

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