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The Assassination of Indira Gandhi: An Excerpt from ‘India: The Crucial Years’

On the morning of 31 October 1984, I left for Along in Siang district by helicopter. After landing there an hour later, I proceeded to Basar by road. Basar had an agricultural research centre, where there was a function requiring my presence. A little before 1 p.m., I returned to the rest house after the function and received a wireless message from my private secretary in Itanagar that Mrs Gandhi’s security guards had shot her. As is well known, her assassination was the culmination of the political muddle in Punjab of the preceding few years.

The Congress had come to power in the state, with Darbara Singh as chief minister, in 1980. There was debilitating rivalry between him and Giani Zail Singh, the Union home minister. Darbara Singh maintained links with some Akali elements. A minister in the Akali cabinet in Punjab during the Janata regime, who was later thrown out by the Akalis themselves, had managed to receive Darbara Singh’s patronage and was given financial assistance by way of contracts.

Darbara Singh was also in direct touch with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, an orthodox religious leader and advocate of Sikh freedom, through a highly placed contact. When the World Sikh Convention was held in Amritsar in July 1981, Bhindranwale was sent word not to attend the convention as that would put Darbara Singh in an awkward position. More than anything else, there was reliable information that Darbara Singh had quietly worked out an understanding with Bhindranwale that he and his men should cause no harm to Darbara Singh and his family members in return for adequate protection for Bhindranwale and his gang.

In my note dated 1 September 1981 as DIB, I had suggested to the prime minister that she might look into the links and activities of Darbara Singh vis-à-vis the Akali politicians and extremists to see whether they were consistent with national interests.

If Darbara Singh had links with Bhindranwale through his own men in Punjab, Gianiji did not lag behind. Santokh Singh, president of the Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, had become close to Mrs Gandhi during the days of the Janata government. Later, he became the boss of Sikh politics in Delhi. Gianiji had cleverly worked out Mrs Gandhi’s blessings for Santokh Singh in his activities, including maintaining links with Bhindranwale.

In September 1981, Bhindranwale was accused of instigating the murder of Congress leader Jagat Narain. But thanks to his ties with Darbara Singh, he was allowed to drive through the entire state and reach Mehta Chowk, about 40 km east of Amritsar, when he was to be arrested on 20 September. The issue of an arrest warrant for him was even broadcast on radio. The police officers who were to arrest him had instructions to let him reach Mehta Chowk Gurdwara safely.

In my note of 9 October 1981, I cautioned the prime minister about loose talk in the Akali leadership that the Centre was using Bhindranwale to cut Gurcharan Singh Tohra, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, president of the Akali Dal, down to size through the intermediary role of Santokh Singh. I said that Bhindranwale should be left alone to be tackled by the Akalis themselves, and that he would find his own level in about six months. I added that encouragement from outside would only help enhance his aura of glory.

In September 1981, Sant Longowal sent a list of forty-five demands to the PM to address the grievances of Sikhs. When the Akali demands came up for discussion at various levels at the Centre, I cautioned the PM that while the negotiations were on with the Akalis, it would be essential to ensure that there was no sabotage or misinterpretation in any quarter, and that the spokesmen should be specified and designated while unauthorized people should be kept out and not allowed to meddle in the matter. I was clearly hinting that Darbara Singh and Gianiji should be restrained and not allowed to bring in their personal politics and thereby sabotage the negotiations.

While Bhindranwale was held in custody, sporadic fights erupted in areas where his accomplices had gathered. He was released on bail on 15 October, Gianiji announcing in Parliament that there was no evidence against him. He left prison as a hero. Early 1982 onwards, Bhindranwale started sending feelers to the PM and Rajiv Gandhi, who had got involved in politics following Sanjay Gandhi’s death in 1980, asking to be invited for negotiations on Punjab affairs. A Punjab MP, who later became a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and subsequently a minister at the Centre, advocated a meeting between Bhindranwale and the PM.

In a note dated 9 March 1982, I warned that any such opportunity afforded to Bhindranwale might prove disastrous. A link-up with him was advocated by some Congressmen as they thought it would help split the Akali leadership.

A plan was worked out to arrest Bhindranwale in May 1982 when he was on a visit to Mumbai. The Punjab police had made out a case over his rabid pronouncements and taken out an arrest warrant against him. This was flown through a special messenger to Delhi and onwards to Mumbai. Meanwhile, a special cell was created in the home ministry on 1 May 1982 under my supervision as DIB.

The idea was to arrest Bhindranwale on his way by road from Mumbai to Mehta Chowk, somewhere between Nashik in Maharashtra and the Madhya Pradesh border. The Special Frontier Force (SFF) was brought in since it had special weaponry and it was anticipated that Bhindranwale would not meekly give in but open fire against the police. However, information on the issue of an arrest warrant against him reached him in Mumbai, and he boldly challenged the Punjab police to come and get him.

On 4 May 1982, I met Home Minister Gianiji, Home Secretary T.N. Chaturvedi, Cabinet Secretary C.R. Krishnaswamy Rao and Principal Secretary to the PM Dr P.C. Alexander, and told them that the plan to apprehend Bhindranwale on his return trip might become infructuous since he was already aware of the issue of the arrest warrant and the arrival of Punjab police officers in Mumbai. It was agreed at all levels that his arrest should be made in Mumbai itself, on his way from the gurdwara where he was staying to another where he was slated to appear the next day.

Gianiji was to go to the PM to get her formal approval. Soon after, Alexander sent for me and N.F. Suntook of R&AW and discussed the danger of civilian causalities in the event of a shootout between the SFF and Bhindranwale’s armed followers. While I said that the risk was there and had to be taken, Alexander said that civilian causalities in a shootout with Bhindranwale’s men might create an adverse situation and lead to criticism. He then directed that the plan to arrest him in Mumbai should be given up and the original plan to arrest him during his return trip by car a few days later should stand.

I was not sure if this was Alexander’s personal opinion or a decision taken by the PM after Gianiji met her, and whether the civilian casualty angle was Gianiji’s or Mrs Gandhi’s.

However, Bhindranwale was not prepared to oblige the Centre and its plans. He quietly travelled in one of the numerous trucks plying between Maharashtra and Punjab round the clock and surfaced at Mehta Chowk on 9 May.

There was consternation all around, accompanied by a witch-hunt. Full details of the IB staff posted to watch where Bhindranwale was staying were asked for, and I was told to initiate proceedings against the officers concerned. I had to point out that it was not correct to penalize the IB staff as these were insuperable difficulties in maintaining an effective watch over Bhindranwale. Alexander agreed with me and cancelled the instructions about taking punitive action.

A story surfaced soon after that it was Gianiji who had tipped off Bhindranwale in Mumbai and asked him to escape. Darbara Singh and some of his friends in the AICC and the PM’s house were quite sure of this. However, this was at best only a speculation.

After Gianiji moved to the Rashtrapati Bhavan from the home ministry in July 1982, one would have thought that the feud between him and Darbara Singh would taper off. Instead, it acquired a new edge, with more rumours and allegations. On 17 October 1982, an aide to the PM asked me to verify the report that Gianiji had sent word to Akali leaders not to suspend their civil disobedience campaign till Darbara Singh was thrown out. When I asked for some specific details, he said that I might come to his room and talk to the person concerned. I found a well-known senior official from the ministry of external affairs sitting there. According to him, the information was given to him by a close relative serving in Punjab. A couple of responsible officers were sent to contact this relative and his informants, and it was found that it was nothing more than a rumour.

I once put forth to Mrs Gandhi the idea of an Akali-Congress coalition government in Punjab as the only way to bring about lasting peace there. I first made this suggestion at a core group meeting held in the cabinet secretary’s room on 10 May 1982. In July 1982, Gianiji was elected president, and the home ministry was tentatively assigned to R. Venkataraman, the defence minister. Later, P.C. Sethi was appointed home minister on 2 September 1982, but by then the Punjab affairs had been effectively taken out of the home ministry’s jurisdiction and were being dealt with by the PM’s office. The cabinet secretary and the home secretary were associated, but substantial discussions took place at 1, Akbar Road, the official wing of the PM’s house, and sometimes at the residence of P.C. Alexander.

The situation in Punjab was becoming more and more explosive, with Longowal giving a call to ex-servicemen to assemble in Amritsar on 23 December. Bhindranwale’s attempts to sabotage the Asian Games in Delhi that month was backed by Longowal himself in a bid to internationalize the issue in the presence of foreigners. It was feared that a civil war-like situation was emerging. The Akali negotiating team weighed heavily in favour of extremists, and Bhindranwale was also its co-opted member. I wanted to get a correct assessment of the situation and hence worked out a meeting with a senior functionary of the Akali Dal. I asked him to clarify what direction the Akali Dal was taking.

The functionary replied that they saw no alternative except to intensify the agitation as the Centre would not otherwise bother about the Akalis. He conceded that they wanted to force the Centre’s hand and get the government to negotiate seriously with the Akalis. He went on to say that Darbara Singh would not be able to provide peace and normalcy and he should therefore go, that the chief minister of Punjab should be from the Akali Dal and that they were prepared to have a coalition government with the Congress.

He was asked to clarify why the Congress should direct its own chief minister to resign and opt for a coalition with an Akali chief minister. He replied that if Mrs Gandhi could ask its chief minister in Kashmir, Syed Mir Qasim, to step down and reach an accord with Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference a decade ago for bringing about peace in that state, it could be done in Punjab as well. In a coalition government in Punjab led by an Akali chief minister, Bhindranwale would be made a political non-entity in no time.

The Akali functionary went on to say that Sikh leaders in the Congress, including Gianiji, Darbara Singh and Buta Singh, Union minister of parliamentary affairs, were all responsible for the present situation in Punjab. He added that if a commission was appointed to look into the various allegations, it would be proved that Gianiji was encouraging extremists, including Bhindranwale. He strongly advised that the three Sikh leaders of the Congress should be kept out of negotiations, and the negotiating team should be led by either Swaran Singh, another senior leader, or Rajiv Gandhi.

The details of discussions with the Akali Dal functionary were narrated in a four-page note and given to the prime minister the next day. She questioned me closely and asked me how sincere the functionary was. I told her that my impression was that he was serious and appeared sincere in his suggestion that a coalition government, with an Akali Dal chief minister, would succeed in bringing peace to Punjab. I cautioned her against mentioning any of this to Gianiji or Darbara Singh and said that she should take an independent view on the Akali spokesman’s plea.

Unfortunately, Mrs Gandhi did not react favourably. I strongly feel that if a settlement had taken place with the Akalis on the lines of the proposal of the functionary, the history of Punjab and India would have been different.

The intensity of the agitation in Punjab increased. On 11 October 1982, the Akalis brought the agitation to Delhi. A serious riot took place near Parliament House, resulting in police firing and four deaths. After the ex-servicemen’s convention called by the Akalis at Amritsar on 23 December, Major General Subeg Singh (retd) became the principal organizer of the ex-servicemen, and training programmes were organized at select places.

On 4 April 1983, the Akalis blocked roads in two towns of Punjab. This led to clashes between the CRPF and Akali activists, resulting in eleven deaths. A call was given for raising a one lakh-strong volunteer force and a do-or-die oath was to be taken at the Akal Takht, located in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, on 14 April, the day of Baisakhi, which holds special significance for Sikhs. Longowal himself came out with a statement that the deaths of 4 April would be avenged. On the night of 6 April, an armoury in Ferozepur was raided by Akali extremists, and fourteen sten-guns and twenty-eight rifles were taken away. On 23 April, the Punjab DIG, A.S. Atwal, was shot dead as he left the Golden Temple. The following day, Longowal confirmed the involvement of Bhindranwale in the murder.

The steady escalation of violence, highlighted by the massacre of six Hindu bus passengers in October 1983, led to the imposition of President’s Rule and the exit of Chief Minister Darbara Singh. Thereafter Punjab became the direct responsibility of the Centre – which in fact meant the prime minister, a few officials like the principal secretary to the PM, Rajiv Gandhi, the cabinet secretary and the home secretary, assisted by their deputies. The prime minister would not reveal her mind but would hear out everyone.

At this stage, Arun Singh, minister of state for defence in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, and K. Sankaran Nair of R&AW were brought in by Kao to take a hand in Punjab politics. Earlier these two had a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, and they were reportedly briefed to use their own contacts and links to find out if the Akalis could be brought around. I was asked to give the necessary institutional help by providing officers and men as well as funds. However, I frankly pointed out the utter futility of such operations being entrusted to people who did not have first-hand knowledge of Punjab affairs.

On 17 May 1983, I met the PM at her residence in the evening and told her that people felt the government was dragging its feet on a settlement in Punjab and they suspected the PM wanted to polarize the communities in the state. She remained silent when I made this remark, whereas she was communicative when I touched upon some other subjects.

On 29 May, Mrs Gandhi made a day’s visit to the towns of Nabha, Ludhiana and Gurdaspur, addressing public meetings and meeting several people. I accompanied her in view of the explosive situation prevailing in Punjab as I wanted to personally ensure that everything went off all right. This was to be her last visit to Punjab. She left on a foreign tour on 8 June. In her absence, discussions took place at 1, Akbar Road, with Rajiv Gandhi ‘officiating unofficially’ in the PM’s absence.

On certain issues, the PM’s reaction was to be sought. Kao produced a new gadget, which, he assured, would ensure total secrecy of communication. He fiddled with it for a few minutes and then called his technical staff who were waiting outside. They fiddled a little more, but the instrument remained uncooperative, and no talk with Mrs Gandhi could be possible.

On 1 August 1983, I handed over my charge as DIB to R.K. Kapoor. However, during my periodical visits to Delhi to meet the PM, ministers and officials, I was asked about my views on the various developments in respect of Punjab and other matters. On one such visit early in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi asked me at the prime minister’s house if it would be worthwhile to negotiate with Bhindranwale. I told him in no uncertain terms that inviting him for negotiations would be tantamount to laying the foundation stone of Khalistan, the separate sovereign state for Sikhs that was demanded by the insurgents, and that the thought should be simply put away.

Again on 5 April 1984, Rajiv Gandhi asked me whether he, if not Mrs Gandhi, should meet Bhindranwale as he promised prospects of a settlement. I reiterated my total opposition to any such move and advised him against it. During the same visit to Delhi, I had long sessions with Alexander and Krishnaswamy Rao on various matters, but the prime topic was Punjab. I found Alexander tired and weak, and he said he was suffering from lack of sleep. Both had come to the conclusion that there was no hope of restoring a semblance of order in Punjab except by paramilitary or military forces entering the Golden Temple, where the insurgents had taken up sanctuary, to tackle them.

I met the PM on 27 May and was asked for my views on the Punjab situation. I could sense that action in Punjab was imminent. I was asked for a note, which I handed over to the PM the next day. I said that entry into the Golden Temple to flush out the insurgents would have wide ramifications and might lead to violence in Punjab and Haryana and even in Delhi, and that our missions abroad might be targeted. There might be repercussions in some Sikh-dominated army units as well as Punjab police units, particularly those of the Punjab armed police units. I said India would face the biggest law and order problem since Partition. I suggested that before the Centre took such a step, the leaders of opposition parties and major regional parities might be invited and apprised of the grave situation and the need to take determined action. I said these parties required to be convinced that the government’s stern measures had no other choice.

I added that entry into the Golden Temple might result in storming the Akal Takht, since Bhindranwale had already taken refuge there and he had said he would never be captured alive. This would be sacrilegious and would offend the religious sentiments of the Sikh community, including ‘some of the very highly placed VIPs’, and it had to be ensured that there was no serious embarrassment. This was a hint regarding Gianiji’s possible reaction and the need to take steps to assuage his feelings. I also suggested imposition of censorship in Punjab as well as debarring foreign correspondents from entering the state. I later learnt that this note was circulated to members of the cabinet committee on political affairs, which met the next day to discuss it.

On 3 June 1984, the government launched Operation Blue Star to eliminate Bhindranwale and his followers, who were armed with light machine guns and semi-automatic rifles, from the holy precincts of the Golden Temple. By this time, the Akali Dal had abandoned Bhindranwale. Lt Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar had command of action. A thirty-six-hour curfew was imposed on Punjab, with all methods of communication and public travel suspended. Electricity supply was also interrupted, creating a total blackout and cutting off the state from the rest of the world. Complete media censorship was enforced.

The army stormed the Golden Temple on the night of 5 June. The operation was carried out using tanks, artillery, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tear gas. The forces had full control of the complex by the morning of 7 June. Bhindranwale and his men were killed. Casualty figures put the number of deaths among the Indian army at eighty-three and injuries at 220. According to the official estimate presented by the Indian government, 492 civilians were killed. The military action led to an uproar amongst Sikhs worldwide. Many Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied, many Sikhs resigned from armed and civil administrative office and several returned awards and honours they had received from the Indian government.

In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, it was decided to transfer Mrs Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards to other duties that did not require close contact with her. But when this came to her attention, she was unhappy with the arrangement. The Sikh security personnel who had been transferred away were posted back to their original positions.

On 30 October 1984, while on a tour of Orissa, she famously said: ‘I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow … I shall continue to serve until my last breath, and when I die I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.’

The next morning, she was back at her Safdarjung Road residence. She was scheduled to be interviewed by renowned British actor-director Peter Ustinov. Around 9 a.m., Mrs Gandhi, clad in a bright orange sari, descended the stairs from the front door of her residence and stepped onto the pathway that led through a garden. As she approached a wicket gate on the way, she saw two of her Sikh bodyguards: Sub-Inspector Beant Singh Brar and Constable Satwant Singh. She greeted them, and then, without warning, Beant Singh drew his .38 side-arm revolver and fired into her abdomen. Satwant Singh aimed his sten-gun at her body and emptied his entire magazine.

On hearing the commotion, other security guards rushed to the scene, killing Beant Singh and wounding Satwant Singh. During his interrogation, the latter named a co-conspirator by the name of Kehar Singh. Both of them were hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail five years later.

At the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a post-mortem revealed that Mrs Gandhi had sustained as many as thirty bullet wounds. The assailants had fired thirty-one bullets at her, of which thirty had hit; twenty-three had passed through her body while seven were trapped inside her. She was declared dead around 2.30 p.m.

On receiving news of her assassination, I flew back to Itanagar at 4 p.m. The same evening, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the new prime minister, and I saw the telecast on TV. I reached Delhi on 1 November and went to Teen Murti House, the former residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, where her body was laid, to pay my homage and place a wreath. Indira Gandhi’s face in death looked serene.

I returned to Itanagar on 6 November, carrying an urn containing a part of her ashes. Most of the tribals of the north-east had a special affection for Mrs Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and I could see genuine sorrow and grief on the faces of many people.

On 5 December, Rajiv Gandhi made a day’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh during his election tour and addressed public meetings. Before leaving for Nagaland, he took me aside and said that certain steps had to be taken for toning up various things in the administration and my services might be required in this connection. Later in the day, soon after I returned to Itanagar, Alexander rang me up from Delhi, saying that the prime minister had set up a committee, that it was to meet quickly and suggest ways and means for reorganizing administration, police and intelligence, and that I was to be part of it.

The meetings of this group called the Administrative Reforms Group (ARG) took place at 10 Janpath, which was then the residence of L.K. Jha, the head of the committee, and later became the residence of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi in 1990. Prior to the first meeting, we were given the broad outlines of our tasks by Dr Alexander in his room, with Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao being present.

The ARG met on 11, 12 and 15 December. Our recommendations pertained to the sprucing up of administration, the need for training courses for administrators at various levels, toning up the police and intelligence machinery, and so on. The more important points of our recommendations were incorporated in Rajiv Gandhi’s inaugural broadcast to the nation a few days later.

Assembly elections for Arunachal Pradesh were held along with the Lok Sabha elections as they were due at the same time. The Congress emerged victorious with an overwhelming majority in the thirty-member assembly, and Gegong Apang was sworn in as chief minister on 7 January 1985.


Buy T.V. Rajeswar’s insightful book about at a key period — the 1970s and ’80s — in independent India’s history informed by the six decades he spent in the thick of affairs of national importance here.

India the crucial Years_Front

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