31st October 1984: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated

“I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow . . . I do not care whether I live or die . . . I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spent the whole of my life in the service of my people . . . I shall continue to serve till my last breath and when I die, every drop of my blood will strengthen India and keep a united India alive.” 

It was almost as if she knew that the end was near. Just a day after she said these words at a speech in Orissa (now Odisha), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was dead, shot and killed by her own Sikh bodyguards. The October 31, 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi was one of the most traumatic events in India’s recent history, as she had dominated the country’s politics, and often its imagination, for nearly two decades. The anti-Sikh riots that followed her death only added to the bleakness that enveloped large parts of North India in the winter of 1984.

The writer V.S. Naipaul summed up the pessimism in an article in The New York Times, days after Gandhi’s death: “It would be foolhardy to make prophecies about India now. Indira Gandhi gave it stability; a strength at the centre. Without her, that ceases to exist.” In the end, though the prophets of doom were proved wrong about India, 1984 continues to be remembered as one of the worst years in independent India’s history (it was also the year of the infamous Bhopal gas leak).

To put the upheaval in Punjab into some sort of context, one needs to go back to the events of the earlier decade. In 1977, a coalition led by the Sikh political outfit, Akali Dal, came into power in Punjab. Later, in order to get her party, the Congress, back into reckoning in Punjab, a state with a Sikh majority, Gandhi, along with her son Sanjay and home minister Zail Singh, decided to promote Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a radical Sikh preacher. The move would spectacularly backfire.

Bhindranwale’s popularity grew in parts of Punjab, particularly in certain rural pockets, and he gathered around him a cadre of committed followers. In 1979, more than a dozen people were killed in a sectarian clash involving Nirankaris and Bhindranwale’s supporters. Things would only get bloodier after this. In its April 30, 1983 cover story on rising extremism in Punjab, India Today magazine reported: “Violence on an unprecedented scale has gripped the state. Acts of terrorism, bomb blasts, murder and lootings have become a daily routine. The increased militancy [. . .] could prove to be [. . .] the beginning of a long and bitter battle.”

In July 1982, Bhindranwale campaigned to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which called for greater autonomy for Punjab. The demand for Khalistan, a separate Sikh state, began to be heard more frequently.

In 1983, Bhindranwale and his supporters made the holiest Sikh shrine, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, their base camp and started piling up weapons. Despite repeated talks with the government, they refused to budge out of the temple. The Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, finally, in perhaps her most controversial decision after imposing the Emergency in 1975, ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple, in what was known as Operation Blue Star. Bhindranwale and many of his supporters were killed and the shrine extensively damaged in the operation, on June 6, 1984. The casualties among security forces and civilians also ran into hundreds. Many Sikhs, even those critical of Bhindranwale, were shocked to see their sacred place reduced to ruins. Gandhi’s government, on the other hand, believed that Bhindranwale’s armed take-over of the shrine had left the Indian state with few options.

Militant Sikh groups and some of Bhindranwale’s devotees were now determined to target the Prime Minister. In the end, the revenge would be carried out by those entrusted to protect her.

In her well-researched biography of Gandhi, Indira: The life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, Katherine Frank revisits the morning of October 31, 1984, when the prime minister stepped out of her house.

“At the far end of the bougainvillaea-bordered path, Indira saw her bodyguard, Beant Singh, standing at the wicket gate . . . Not far away [. . .] was a young, new constable named Satwant Singh who had not yet seen Indira at close range. [She] broke off [her] conversation (with her aide R.K. Dhawan) to acknowledge her bodyguards, holding her hands up to them, prayer-like, in the namaste greeting.”

Beant Singh responded by pointing his revolver at Gandhi. She reportedly said, “What are you doing?” In the next few seconds, before anyone else could react, Beant and Satwant, who held an automatic Sten gun, shot her more than 25 times. Gandhi was rushed to Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, but the wounds were too many and too serious. She was declared dead in the afternoon.   

The assassination would have enormous consequences -- from the shameful anti-Sikh riots in its immediate aftermath to the explosive growth of militancy in Punjab. But for many Indians, just the absence of Indira Gandhi was hard to imagine. As India Today put it then: “She was a giant among pygmies . . . [There was] [s]hock, disbelief, anger [after her assassination]. But at the end was a terrible silence, as the sheer enormity of the tragedy gradually dawned.”

Also on this day:

1875 — Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister and a founding father of the Indian Republic, was born

1895 — C.N. Nayudu, first Indian cricket Test captain, was born

1943 — Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala, was born

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