I WAS THERE

 

INDIRA

I was in India when Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

Indira succeeded her father, Jawaharlal Nerhu, the first Prime Minister of India, and continued the dynastic rule of the family.  Indians place great trust in their leaders and perpetuate family involvement in their rulers as a matter of course, venerating them as living deities.

Immediately after her assassination, like a Himalayan avalanche events became unstoppable and the dizzying swiftness of retributory action from an enraged populace led to unchecked violence on the imagined perpetrators, the Sikhs, deemed collectively responsible for Gandhi’s assassination.

Where was I?

Panhala is a large hill station in Maharashtra State and there are beautiful trees and natural rolling hills outlying the central huddle of homes and shops. Around the town is a wall and under Shivaji Maharaj, in the seventeenth century, it became the largest walled hill fort in India.

Panhala

Panhala

Muslims and Hindus  live peaceably side by side, and generally, all  get on well together.  Indira’s murder literally brought them closer together on the main thoroughfare through the town.

In 1984 there was only one black and white television and the owner had placed it outside his shop on a raised wooden boardwalk.  Around the television on the dusty roadside stood hundreds of townsfolk watching aghast as events unfolded.  There were looks of consternation as the facts became clear: Indira was assassinated by two-Sikh bodyguards who had killed her in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.  The Temple had become the main centre of operations for an uprising by Bhindranwale and armed followers who wanted a cessation from Indian governance over the Punjab.

bindranwale

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

 

No doubt, they were a nasty lot, torturing dissenters and accumulating weapons while fortifying the temple against attack by the Indian army.

Following the assassination, more that 3,000 Sikhs were murdered.  This seemed inevitable at the time. Being India, when things fall apart events happen with an unstoppable velocity.  Bodies were found on trains arriving mostly in the northern states;  houses were burned with terrified Sikhs locked inside; others were hacked to death on the streets of Delhi.

In the south where I was, the responses were much more sedate and tempered with understanding that a more educated population is capable of; and I saw Sikhs walking freely in  the nearest towns of Kolhapur and Belgaum in Karnataka State.

Later, I did visit Indira Gandhi’s residence where she was murdered at No. 1 Safdarjung Road in New Delhi and saw the exact spot where two paths crossed  and where  she was walking on her way to be interviewed by Peter Ustinov for a television documentary.  There was a feeling of unreality in seeing this lonely little path and I found it difficult to relate its peaceful ambiance to the violent and bloody event of her death and the events that followed.

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