A year of political upsets

Published : Jan 23, 2015 12:30 IST

New Delhi, November 3, 1984: After lighting the pyre at Shativan, Rajiv Gandhi wtih his son Rahul, wife Sonia and daughter Priyanka.

New Delhi, November 3, 1984: After lighting the pyre at Shativan, Rajiv Gandhi wtih his son Rahul, wife Sonia and daughter Priyanka.

IT was during Indira Gandhi’s journey from somewhere in Maharashtra to Delhi in 1966 that the plane tumbled into an air pocket with a deafening thud, all of a sudden. A disaster would have followed had the pilot not retained his nerve and succeeded in steadying it in the turbulent atmosphere. Inside, her entourage—two other journalists and I included—was thrown up violently from the seats, shaken, bewildered, some left with swollen foreheads, others with bruises. The odd baggage items above the seats were tossed around. The cabin crew rushed to the Prime Minister with the first-aid box. Fortunately, emergency help was not needed.

“Lot of turmoil in the air” was a pointed remark she made to me as we deplaned in Delhi. This was not a reference to something that happened during the steep fall of the aircraft, but to an incident earlier in the course of the tour of Maharashtra. As her motorcade passed through the busy street of a town beyond Pune, angry demonstrators shouted hoarse in protest against New Delhi’s stand on Maharashtra’s boundary dispute with Karnataka. At one spot, the protesters turned violent, pelted stones, waved lathis and gesticulated violently at the slow-moving procession of cars.

“The turmoil in the air” that was uppermost in Mrs. Gandhi’s mind at the beginning of her term as Prime Minister was to take many disturbing forms in the years that followed. In the course of a normal working day, she used to scribble notes on whatever struck her as important. These chits, big and small, would be sent to the seniors in her office or the Secretary of the Ministry concerned and would often start detailed bureaucratic exercises. The subjects included law and order, toning up the police, communal tension, the build-up of public grievances and the like.

Ironically, the factors and the forces responsible for the turmoil multiplied over the years and found freer and freer play. Was not protest of the type seen in the Maharashtra town 18 years ago a child’s prank compared with the bloody or otherwise upsetting convulsions of 1984, of which the prime victim was the Prime Minister herself?

The murder of the helmswoman could not have been more coldblooded or grisly. As she was about to enter the official portion of her New Delhi bungalow to meet with Peter Ustinov, the film personality who had come a long way for the session, a trusted bodyguard flung open the connecting door, offered the customary Sikh salutation, “Sat Sri Akal”, and emptied five shots from his revolver into her. “Aree Mar Diya”—“O, they killed me”—her last words were drowned in the terrible confusion that ensued. Seconds later, another guard standing nearby raised his sten-gun and riddled the fallen Prime Minister with his ammunition. Her saffron-coloured sari was soaked in blood, her chappals thrown away.

After three days, the elder son, Rajiv Gandhi, lit the pyre on the banks of the Jamuna. As the sandalwood flames fed by ghee and samigri leapt up, the body of the mighty Prime Minister was reduced to a heap of ashes.

1984 was a period of sharp political upsets that, most upsettingly of all, climaxed in this colossal tragedy. These shocks to the body politic, these blows in the face of set, unhurried ways, these events that stirred powerfully the people’s moods and consciousness and affected the approaches and attitudes of those who rule and those who are ruled, surprised and shook up the political map of the subcontinent that is India.

This upsetting process began over a year ago, ominously with an unresolved Punjab crisis that was getting complicated by escalating terrorism, by Bhindranwaleism, by separatism and other forms of fanatical, armed extremism.

The noises from Assam showed that the tragedies of the past continued to cast their disturbing shadow on the troubled or problematical north-eastern region.

New strains were evident in Centre-State relations, which initially got focussed in Opposition protests against moves to destabilise the non-Congress (I) government of Karnataka but, later, were to take a sinister form following the brazen, fraudulent and indecent act of dismissing the legally constituted, majority Telugu Desam government of N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh. The reversal of this political upset was itself one of the major political upsets of 1984.

As the months rolled by, powerful tensions induced by the approaching Lok Sabha elections transformed innocuous matters into bitter controversies and created new distances between different sections of the people on issues that were already known to divide them.

To enter or not to enter the Golden Temple in Amritsar which, from all accounts, had become the citadel of militant separatism, terrorism and defiance of state power, was a question that was settled with Operation Bluestar before the first week of June was out. The deployment of over 1,00,000 troops to enforce the first State-wide curfew in any part of India after Independence, the virtual imposition of martial law in India’s most prosperous State, this spectacular acknowledgement of the inability of civilian methods and resources to cope with the crisis, set up the action that jolted the national consciousness. The Army broke the command structure of the terrorists; Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, along with his top associates, perished in the action; and the extremists seemed cornered, like hunted man-eaters, in the length and breadth of the State. The terrorist activity waned, but the price paid for buying “peace”, it became clear, was exorbitant—in terms of not the disproportionately heavy casualties suffered by the Army but the alienation of the Sikhs and the ushering in of a new phase of danger. Practically all sections of the community, not excluding those who had publicly denounced and worked against Bhindranwale, reacted furiously to the entry of the Army into the Golden Temple and especially to the damage the Akal Takht, the highest seat of the Sikh religion, suffered.

There was no doubt that this trauma would have far-reaching consequences for the Indian polity but none could say how. It was feared that, pushed out of the mainstream, major sections of a highly talented community, in their sullenness, would wittingly or unwittingly fan secessionist trends which the Army action was intended to stem. Or that, propelled by sympathy from across the border, the hotheads and extremists would add to security problems in the strategic area.

Indira Gandhi was singled out as the architect of what was painted as a conscious policy of humiliating the Sikhs, but the outpourings of wrath on her were generally taken as part of an exercise which sought a tangible target for the amorphous feelings of hurt. Nothing more than that. Even the curses heaped on her failed to arouse any serious suspicion that the climate was getting vitiated to the extent that a plot against the life of the Prime Minister could get going. The threats by the pro-Khalistan elements abroad, of course, were considered serious, but who had imagined in June or July or right up to that morning of October 31 that these vile boasts would be operationalised?

In any case, the quick repair of the Akal Takht and the transfer of the Golden Temple to the Sikh head priests, and, through them, to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) were seen as having moderated, if not reversed, the most hostile trends. New Delhi patted itself on the back for what appeared to itself a masterly job and looked forward to a gradual easing of tension. It was persuasive in part—till the biggest upset of them all came along.

The shattered Akal Takht would certainly have been a grim reminder of the Army action, a standing provocation to the devout. Things would have been worse if, as was suggested by a minority in the Akali Dal, the mauled frontage and minarets were left unrepaired to serve as a memorial to Bhindranwale and his associates.

Its restoration after weeks of Herculean non-stop work and, more so, its formal acceptance by the head priests and the community seemed to point to a qualitative change in the overall mood. It was nothing of the kind; shockingly vile were the imprecations hurled at Mrs Gandhi as the repaired structure was scrutinised on its first exposure to the community, but these were understandably underplayed.

Obscured from the public view, sheltered by the anger and cynicism of vast sections of the community, the forces of conspiracy and revenge were at work, itching to settle scores, desperately looking for means and instruments to achieve quick results. Indira Gandhi was to be the target, but how it was to be hit was the question. Direct frontal attacks must have been conceived and planned but, perhaps, found impracticable.

When one looks back, the numerous security alerts, the reports of killing squads entering the capital and of infiltration in the police set-up could not have been pieces of irresponsible reporting. The worst conclusions drawn from these reports would, in retrospect, have seemed warranted. The whole truth, however, could only be revealed by a thoroughly professional probe ordered by the government. But, going by the obvious, the killer guards acted as the instrument of the hard core of extremists. Nor could there be any doubt about the professionalism behind the planning of the conspiracy.

End to an era The bullets of the two assassins did not merely cut short the life of a very powerful individual, but put an end to an era. Removed from the scene was a personality who provided a central point of reference for the country’s political life for more than 18 years and, barring a brief break, exercised total control over its decision-taking processes. A personality, whose overwhelming dimensions did not leave any No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 and whose charisma, it was thought, was a substitute for an institutionalised organisational framework.

Paradoxically, the induction of Rajiv Gandhi through an essay of a notably smooth transition served to deemphasise the dimensions of the vacuum. The ease with which Rajiv’s succession took place contrasted with the wrangles and hassles of similar occasions in the past.

TThe coup in Andhra

Only the magnitude of the October 31 tragedy dwarfs the upsets earlier in the year—in the realm of Centre-State relations for instance. Not long ago, the country was rudely shaken by the fell attack on parliamentary institutions by Ram Lal, a middle-rank Congress (I) leader from distant Himachal Pradesh who found himself catapulted to the Governorship of Andhra Pradesh. What happened in the full public gaze and behind the scenes hit the common people and democratic values as a low blow. The dismissal of the NTR government had all the makings of a coup, involving the guardian of the Constitution in the State and leading figures of the ruling party at the Centre. Though Mrs Gandhi attempted unconvincingly to explain that she had no advance hint of the dismissal, some of those close to her and the ambitious Congress (I) politicians from Andhra Pradesh, operating from Delhi, worked in league with the dissidents in the ruling Telugu Desam and left the Governor in no doubt that, by proceeding against Rama Rao, he would be fulfilling the fond desire of those who mattered at the Centre.

The move boomeranged. N. Bhaskara Rao, on whom the Congress (I) relied, failed to muster the support of a majority despite the tricks and manoeuvres and the power of patronage he acquired after his indecent assumption of the Chief Minister’s gaddi. In the process, the dismissed Chief Minister became the rallying point for the entire Opposition. Galvanised into action, the disparate non-Congress (I) parties suspended their squabbles to join the protest against the ruling party for its attack on democratic institutions. While the reinstatement of Rama Rao was their immediate objective, the bigger goal was to cripple the Congress (I) as an electoral force. They did remarkably well under the circumstances. The pressures generated within Andhra Pradesh made it impossible for the pretender government to function with any semblance of authority while the Congress (I)’s stock dipped through the country. The party’s high command saw the reading on the wall and decided on a retreat in the State to cut the losses nationally. Ram Lal was removed in disgrace and, after initial hesitations, NTR was called back to head the State administration. The strategy was effective, at least in part. It took the steam out of the united campaign of the Opposition parties, some of whom soon after were seen growling at one another with a new fury.

The Kashmir story The Andhra Pradesh case, serious in itself, indicated a disturbing pattern in the wake of the induced change of government in Srinagar. Here was a gross misuse of authority by those expected to protect and safeguard the Constitution. Both episodes contained an element of conspiracy and raised the level of public suspicion that democracy was in some kind of trouble.

The developments in Srinagar of July 1984, in one sense burlesque, did not come as a total surprise, unlike the dismissal of the NTR government in August. The trouble had been brewing for months. The Congress (I) had not accepted the verdict of the 1983 Assembly election in favour of Farooq Abdullah, the Chief Minister, but blamed the State government for rigging the poll and causing disturbances to the disadvantage of the Opposition. Practically every winner of the ruling party found his election challenged in a court of law. The State Congress (I) unit enjoyed the support of a powerful lobby in Delhi, including some close to the ultimate seat of power, and the pressure against Abdullah was stepped up gradually. He was indicted on two counts—for giving respectability and latitude to pro-Pakistan elements, and for softness towards Sikh extremists. The “pro-Pakistan” past of his new ally, Maulvi Farooq of the Awami Action Committee, came in handy for dubbing the former Chief Minister as a communalist. It was a different matter that the Congress (I), too, had explored the chances of an electoral arrangement with the Maulvi’s outfit. Another charge—Abdullah was not sufficiently harsh on the Jamat-e-lslami, a rabid communal organisation. But was it not the same body with which Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed had allied, enabling it to enter the Assembly for the first time after Independence?

Sikh extremists were, no doubt, active in Jammu and Kashmir but what was essentially a spill over of the trouble in Punjab, a Congress (I)-ruled State, became a substantive ground for action against Abdullah. He would, perhaps, have been removed earlier, had not B.K. Nehru, State Governor during and after the elections, counselled against the wrong and adventurous step. In the process, Nehru himself incurred the wrath of the State Congress (I) and the displeasure of the Delhi lobby. He was transferred to Gujarat.

The day his successor, Jagmohan, with his reputation for pliability, moved into the Srinagar Raj Bhavan, Abdullah’s fate seemed sealed.

Compared with the subsequent Hyderabad assault, the Srinagar operation was a sophisticated one; no chances were taken with the game of numbers. The day after Id, when Jagmohan summoned Abdullah to the Raj Bhavan at dawn, 12 members of the ruling National Conference whose defection was to bring about the collapse of the government had already taken shelter there. How they came there and what considerations guided them did not remain a mystery for long. That very day, all the 12 were sworn in as members of the government headed by Abdullah’s estranged brother-in-law, G.M. Shah. With the ready support of the Congress (I), a minority government was inducted in office.

The wrong in Jammu and Kashmir was not undone, contrary to the way things turned out in Andhra Pradesh. Jagmohan stays on as Governor, Shah as Chief Minister, with the continued support of the Congress (I). Whatever New Delhi might say for public consumption, it is clearly not happy with the present situation. Whether it be on account of the inadequacies of the new government or of the fresh problems in the wake of the change, the alienation of vast sections of the local populace seems sharper than before and the pro-Pakistan and anti-national elements are not less active. No wonder that some influential persons initiated moves for a reconciliation between Farooq Abdullah and the Congress (I) seniors at the Centre.

Anti-Sikh violence

What happened in Delhi and elsewhere in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination shattered some illusions nursed over the years. Faceless crowds descended, as if from nowhere, on busy residential colonies, and indulged in an orgy of murder, torture, arson, loot and other forms of violence. Who they were and how they felt emboldened to take to such savagery could not be immediately established.

Any generalisation in regard to the involvement of Congress (I) members may be contested, but some of them known for their clout in local party units, could not be absolved of the responsibility for the ruinous violence in their areas. In any case, at the very least, the rampaging crowds were under the impression that they were acting according to the wishes of the people who mattered. That, perhaps, was also related to the paralysis of the law and order set-up before the Army was called in.

The selectivity shown in picking up the Sikhs could not be attributed solely to the fact that Indira Gandhi’s assassins were perceived by ignorant people to represent this community and that some among them were rumoured to have rejoiced over the killing. The value system had collapsed totally at that hour.

Never before was the system subjected to the stresses and strains that are evident now. Not before was the polity faced with such danger of fragmentation. What went wrong? Could the framework of parliamentary democracy Indians stand proudly committed to, withstand the pressures? The blame for the present malaise has to be shared, to a large extent, by the politicians, particularly the ruling group—by the Congress which has ruled the country for almost all of the last 37 years.

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