Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Revenge was the immediate motive for the two men who shot and killed Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, but a complex chain of historical events made the murder almost inevitable.

Summary of Event

Indira Gandhi, in effect, signed her own death warrant when she ordered the Indian army to execute Operation Bluestar Operation Bluestar in the first days of June, 1984. The operation involved putting the entire state of Punjab under martial law, Martial law;India but, more important, it called for soldiers to invade the precincts of the Golden Temple, Golden Temple (India) the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, located in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. Assassinations and attempts;Indira Gandhi[Gandhi] [kw]Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated (Oct. 31, 1984) [kw]Gandhi Is Assassinated, Indira (Oct. 31, 1984) [kw]Assassinated, Indira Gandhi Is (Oct. 31, 1984) Assassinations and attempts;Indira Gandhi[Gandhi] [g]South Asia;Oct. 31, 1984: Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated[05580] [g]India;Oct. 31, 1984: Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated[05580] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 31, 1984: Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated[05580] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 31, 1984: Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated[05580] [c]Crime and scandal;Oct. 31, 1984: Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated[05580] Bhindranwale, Jarnail Singh Gandhi, Indira Longowal, Harchand Singh Singh, Beant Singh, Satwant

In January of the same year, a charismatic sant (a Sikh holy man) named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale led more than one hundred followers in an occupation of parts of the Golden Temple. The Sikhs began to collect a cache of weapons and vowed that they would not leave the temple until the government of India allowed the Sikhs their own state in the Punjab.

From January until May, Prime Minister Gandhi’s administration tried to ignore Bhindranwale and his private army. The increasing militancy of this army of extremists expressed itself in a wave of assassinations of more moderate Sikhs and Hindus. Public pressure mounted for some kind of strong action, and the press criticized Gandhi for her seeming weakness. In May, the general staff of the Indian army began to plan a response to the militant takeover of the Golden Temple. They gave it the code name Operation Bluestar.

The planners envisioned a surprise attack on the militants in the Golden Temple and expected that the army’s soldiers would require only small arms to achieve their mission. From the start, everything went wrong. The Golden Temple itself was crowded with innocent pilgrims unaware of any danger. As many as one thousand visitors were caught in the crossfire during the attack. The militants put up stiff resistance, forcing the army to employ tanks and heavy artillery. More than one hundred soldiers and uncounted numbers of pilgrims and militants died in a battle that lasted two days, June 4-5. The Golden Temple compound itself sustained serious damage; a library containing many early copies of the Sikh holy book, Shri Guru Granth Sahib, was reduced to ashes.

Bhindranwale died during the assault. A number of his associates, however, managed to escape during the battle. They formed the core of an expanding army of rebels who continued to assassinate their opponents within the Sikh community as well as indiscriminately massacre Hindu residents of Punjab and other non-Sikhs who happened to be passing through the area on trains and buses.

Gandhi tried to avoid the practical consequences of the Bluestar disaster. Although her closest advisers urged her to transfer out the Sikhs who were serving in her personal bodyguard, she refused to take any action that would appear to accentuate communal tensions.

At about 9:00 a.m. on the morning of October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Gandhi left her residence and began to walk across the walled garden that separated her home from her office. On the way, two of her guards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, approached her and opened fire with their automatic weapons. At least sixteen bullets pierced her body. Beant Singh was killed immediately by other members of the security forces. Satwant Singh was later tried, found guilty, and hanged for his role in the assassination.

One needs to understand parts of India’s religious background to understand fully Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Sikh religion Sikhism is rooted in the preaching of ten gurus (teachers), the first of whom was Nanak (1469-1539) and the last of whom was Gobind Singh Gobind Singh (1666-1708). The word sikh itself means disciple or student. The early Sikh leaders asserted that there is only one god and combined their monotheistic beliefs with a social doctrine rejecting any hierarchy based on caste in favor of a single community (the Khalsa; literally, “the pure”) in which all believers are equal.

Indira Gandhi.

(Library of Congress)

The earliest gurus advocated pacifism, but the Sikh movement became involved with the Punjab region’s resistance to the revenue exactions of the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that ruled areas of India from the sixteenth century through part of the eighteenth century. Sikhs began to equate that empire’s attempts to suppress the tax rebellion with religious persecution. In response, the Sikh religion became increasingly militaristic. Guru Gobind Singh added to the rise in militarism by decreeing that every “true” Sikh undergo a special baptism and take the name Singh, which translates as “Lion.” Every male Sikh was to wear clothes suited to a warrior’s life and was expected to carry a sword as a mark of status; he should also avoid consuming anything, such as alcohol, that might diminish a fighting man’s prowess in battle.

As the authority of the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate in the eighteenth century, the Sikhs of the Punjab region were able to establish their own independent states. The empire of Ranjit Singh (1792-1839) brought together those petty kingdoms. Shortly after the death of Ranjit Singh, the expanding British Empire came into conflict with the Sikhs. In two wars, the British narrowly defeated the Sikhs, but during those conflicts the Sikhs won the admiration of the British military. The British classified the Sikhs as one of India’s martial races, which meant that Sikhs had a privileged place in Britain’s Indian army.

The British actually worked to enhance the importance of Guru Gobind Singh’s religious reforms. Before Gobind Singh, the Sikhs had been barely distinguishable from other popular religious movements in the Punjab. Gobind Singh’s emphasis on such things as baptism and a prohibition on the trimming of a male’s hair and beard served to distinguish his followers. The British Indian army recruited only men who had undergone the baptism and adhered to Gobind Singh’s rules.

During the Revolt of 1857, also known as the Indian Mutiny, Sikhs remained steadfastly loyal to the British. The support of Sikh troops was especially crucial during the siege of Delhi. Considered not only martial but also trustworthy, the Sikhs formed one of the largest components of the British Indian army. After Indian independence in 1947, the proportion of Sikhs in the military (around 25 percent) considerably exceeded the proportion of Sikhs in India’s general population (less than 2 percent).

When the British decided to give up the Indian portion of their empire in 1947, they reluctantly agreed to divide the subcontinent between a Muslim nation, Pakistan, and the predominantly Hindu India. Although one of the cardinal doctrines of the Sikhs is “We are not Hindu, we are not Muslim,” the Sikh community’s leaders agreed that Sikhs would be counted as Hindus at the time of partition, believing that it would be advantageous for Sikhs as a whole to be part of the larger state of India. This brought considerable hardship to the many Sikhs who lived in the western Punjab, the region that would go to Pakistan. As they moved eastward toward the new border, they encountered many Punjabi Muslims headed west, toward Pakistan. What some saw as a forced migration raised tensions and escalated ill feelings between groups. Many incidents of violence occurred between Muslims and Sikhs during this period.

In 1947, a minority of Sikhs did not agree with the policies of their leaders. A few believed that the Sikhs should have joined Pakistan. Others believed that the Sikhs would be better off having their own nation. By the 1950’s, the Sikhs were politically divided. Even the moderates began agitating for a “Punjabi Suba,” a distinct province with a Punjabi-speaking majority. In 1966, Indira Gandhi’s government seemed to accede to that demand. The hill tracts of northern Punjab that had a Hindi-speaking majority were separated into a new state, Himachal Pradesh, with its capital at Simla. The Hindi-speaking areas of southern Punjab were turned into the state of Haryana. The state of Punjab was much reduced in size, although it did have a Sikh majority of 52 percent. Punjab and Haryana were supposed to share a common capital at Chandigarh. Many Sikhs, however, both moderates and extremists, decided that these changes did not meet their demands. Harchand Singh Longowal, the moderate leader of the Akali Dal, the largest Sikh political organization, began to agitate for the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab alone.

Despite the political turmoil, Punjab’s economy in the 1960’s and 1970’s boomed. The “Green Revolution” particularly benefited farmers who had the capital to invest in new strains of grain seed and chemical fertilizers. Even without those resources, Punjabi farmers experienced a rising standard of living. The income of the average Punjabi peasant household was more than twice that of farmers elsewhere in India. The government invested considerable sums in the region to build roads, irrigation works, and small industries. In the 1980’s, however, the boom ended. The burden fell most heavily on small peasant producers. In their frustration, these peasants began to listen to the voices of political radicals such as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

At the same time, Indira Gandhi’s government began to discuss a plan that called for the numbers of any given community in the military to match their proportion of the total Indian population. For the Sikhs, this would mean a reduction in military membership from 25 percent to less than 2 percent. Many Sikhs depended on military service as a means of earning cash income, which in turn allowed them to enter into business ventures. Implementation of such a plan would cause them great economic hardship. The mere mention of the idea further alienated the Sikhs and persuaded increasing numbers of them that only in their own state could they be truly secure.

The increased agitation favored the radicals, whose takeover of the Golden Temple was supported by a significant number of Sikhs. In choosing confrontation over negotiation, Indira Gandhi failed to win back the loyalty of the majority of Sikhs. The assault on the Golden Temple served only to inflame the religious component of Sikh radicalism and led not only to Gandhi’s death but also to the deaths of uncounted Indians.

Significance

Shortly after Indira Gandhi’s death, a wave of violence broke out against the Sikhs in Delhi. Busloads of young thugs were brought into Sikh neighborhoods and allowed to rape, kill, and pillage. The police made no attempt to interfere. Although the Sikhs fought back, they were outnumbered, and many died. The government’s official count of the dead was twelve hundred, but most observers believed that figure was far too low.

In the wake of the violence, many claimed that the killings had been orchestrated by officials in the Congress Party. Rajiv Gandhi, Gandhi, Rajiv who was sworn in as prime minister on the night of his mother’s murder, promised an inquiry into the rioting. In April, 1985, he appointed a commission of inquiry that was headed by Justice Misra. The commission met and investigated for two years before it finally released a report. The report did not name any individual culprits. No leader of the Congress Party was indicted, and the public, especially the Sikhs, claimed that the commission had covered up the truth.

Rajiv Gandhi attempted to forge an alliance with the moderate Sikhs. He agreed to Harchand Singh Longowal’s request that Chandigarh serve as capital of the Punjab state only and not be shared with Haryana state. In 1985, Longowal was assassinated, and Gandhi no longer had a Sikh leader of any significance with whom to negotiate.

In the years after 1984, murder and massacre became endemic in the Punjab and in the areas immediately adjacent to it. Militants bombed buses and stopped trains, pulling off all non-Sikh passengers and brutally killing them. The Punjab was placed under a state of emergency, but the violence continued. No easy solution to the conflicting demands of the Sikhs was immediately apparent, and the problem persisted, although at a much reduced level, into the early twenty-first century. The eventual reduction in tensions was underscored by the election in 2004 of India’s first Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Assassinations and attempts;Indira Gandhi[Gandhi]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunningham, Joseph D. A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej. Edited by H. L. O. Garrett. Amritsar, Punjab, India: Satvic Media, 2000. Originally published in 1849 by a British officer who fought in the Sikh wars. Contains many interesting observations on the character of the independent Sikh kingdoms, especially on the empire of Ranjit Singh.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dhar, P. N. Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency,” and Indian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Provides a detailed examination of Indira Gandhi’s role and political dealings during a confrontational time. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Richard G. Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Work by an anthropologist describes the emergence of a distinct Sikh community in the Punjab. Provides commentary on the many ways in which British policy contributed to Sikh separatism that is highly relevant to an understanding of the political situation in India in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Interesting, readable biography of the famous leader. Includes photographs, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, Henry C., ed. Indira Gandhi’s India. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1976. Collection of essays discusses Gandhi’s impact on Indian politics, especially on the position of the Congress Party. Several contributors address her increasingly authoritarian and paranoid style of leadership, which contributed to her ultimately fatal confrontation with the Sikhs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963-1966. Khushwant Singh is one of modern India’s most celebrated novelists as well as a historian. His own status as a member of the Sikh community gives this work an interesting perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tully, Mark, and Satish Jacob. Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986. Well-documented work centers on the Sikh takeover of the Golden Temple and the resulting siege by the Indian army. Provides a largely unflattering portrait of Gandhi in action and excellent reporting of the events that led to her assassination. Includes bibliography and index.

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