Friday, September 17, 2010

The death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi


Friday, 17 September 2010

Author / Source : My Foreign Office Years, 1986-1990

M Serajul Islam

Mrs. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 with a big mandate. By 1983 when I arrived in New Delhi, she had crossed three years of her 4th term as Prime Minister. Early in that term, she lost her younger son but preferred successor to the Nehru mantle Sanjai Gandhi in a plane accident. Two incidents about Mrs. Gandhi will forever remain etched in my memory. One was my first view of her in person and another a story told to me by a friend about what transpired when she went to see Sanjai minutes after he had died in the air crash.

I saw Mrs. Gandhi at a SAARC meeting in New Delhi in end of 1983. It was not a very large meeting; just 7 delegations and was held at Vigyan Bhavan. There was very little fanfare attached to the event. Mrs. Gandhi came to the meeting to give a short speech to inaugurate it. The Bangladesh delegation was led by Ambassador Abul Ahsan who was then the Additional Foreign Secretary. I was the only other member of our delegation. The Prime Minister arrived at the appointed time but in a very angry mood. We could hear her angry voice clearly but not the words as she walked to her chair with the officials led by R.K Dhawan, his Private Secretary behind her visibly nervous and scratching their heads. Her presence and her voice had electrified the room. I could sense that I was not the only one affected by her presence. Everybody was as moved as I was as we all waited in pin drop silence for her to take the microphone. She spoke firmly but there was none of the anger in her voice. As soon as she finished her speech, she came around the room to shake hands with the members of the delegation. As she came to our table and extended her hand towards me, I was frozen for a brief moment but somehow managed to shake her hand. I never felt such a moment in my life and I instantly knew that I was shaking the hand of one of the most outstanding political leaders of our time.

The other incident was narrated to me by Jaglul Ahmed Chowdhury, a well known columnist now but who was then the BSS Correspondent in New Delhi. Jaglul told me that he was going from his home to his office in a three-wheeler the morning Sanjay Gandhi died. He heard the news of the crash as he was passing Safdarjung Airport where Sanjay’s plane had come down. He was able to get inside the airport to the place where Sanjay’s body was kept with his credentials as a foreign correspondent. By then Mrs. Gandhi had already arrived. There was no emotion at all that was exceptional for a mother who has just seen her son’s dead body; a son who was being groomed to be her political heir. Instead, she was anxious about the location of a key that he told officials should be somewhere in his pocket! A year later when she herself was killed and Rajiv was left to mourn as the grieving son, he too did not show any emotions in public over the death of her mother!

The day Mrs. Gandhi was shot was like any other day in the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi, except the fact that the High Commissioner AK Khandker was in Dhaka for official duty and Tareq Karim, our present High Commissioner in New Delhi, was the Acting High Commissioner. At about 10 am, the receptionist called me on the intercom to inform me that there was a gentleman who had a “very important” communication to give to the High Commissioner. As my office room was across the reception, I came out to meet the gentleman. He appeared disheveled and quite visibly, tense. I asked him to come to my room but he insisted on seeing the High Commissioner. By then, I could sense that he indeed needed to see the High Commissioner. I took him to the room of the Acting High Commissioner. As soon as we sat in our chairs, the gentleman blurted out that Indira Gandhi was dead! He told us that he was a doctor undergoing training at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and he was in the emergency when Mrs. Gandhi was brought in. Before he was asked to leave the room, he saw that Mrs. Gandhi was lifeless on the stretcher with her body riddled with bullets and blood all over. He said categorically that she was dead and there was nothing the doctors at the AIIMS could do!

It was soon after we had this dramatic discussion with the doctor that news spread everywhere that there had been an attempt on Mrs. Gandhi. We kept talking with our friends in the other Embassies but no one could either confirm or deny that Mrs. Gandhi had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. In fact, at that moment we in the Bangladesh Embassy had perhaps the best information than any of our colleagues in the other Embassies with whom we shared our information. The External Affairs Ministry was not much helpful with information; or the media that kept on saying that there was an attempt on the life of the Prime Minister and that doctors at the AIIMS were trying their best to keep her alive. Around 2 in the afternoon, a journalist who was a good friend of some of us at the High Commission who was then working for a foreign news agency and was following the incident at the AIIMS flashed the news that Mrs. Gandhi was dead based on inside information that he had received that AIIMS has stopped asking for blood from another hospital across AIIMS soon after mid-day from which this friend of ours assumed that Mrs. Gandhi was no more.

The world was nevertheless kept in tension till about 6 in the evening when an All-India radio broadcast the news that Mrs. Gandhi had died. The delay in the announcement was intentional; to allow Rajiv Gandhi who was then in West Bengal, to arrive in New Delhi. At the High Commission, we were all huddled together as we heard and also saw tension spread like wildfire through the city after the announcement as Sikhs were systematically targeted and attacked, in many instances killed. Just after the news was broken, a Sardarji who had come out of a bus was chased into the High Commission where we took charge of him with an agitated crowd shouting that we hand him over to them. One of us called the External Affairs Ministry for guidance only to be answered back that information had reached the Ministry that a guard from the High Commission had fired upon the crowd! We explained that the High Commission did not have any armed guards and only arms carried were those by the Indian Police who looked after our security. We could sense that the Ministry was much more tensed than we were and we would have to fend for ourselves instead. We took the Sardarji inside and told him he could stay with us as long as he wanted till it was safe for him to walk out. Surprisingly for us, he was not nervous at all and although he was hurt by the chase, he showed none of it. After 15 minutes or so, he calmly walked out of the back door of the High Commission!

Not many Sikhs were as lucky that night and the days that followed when there was mayhem in slaughtering of the Sikhs. In New Delhi, names and addresses of Sikhs were given by the Congress to rioters and attacks on Sikh houses were carried out with precision. While hundreds of Sikhs were killed, and Sikh properties destroyed, even accidentally, no non-Sikh property or life was endangered. We were required to stay at the High Commission after office hours and return home very late to prepare for President Ershad’s trip to New Delhi for the funeral. I drove my own car home but never felt any danger for two reasons; as a diplomat my identity was clear to the rioters on the road looking for Sikhs from the number plate on my car; and second, as a Muslim, I was in no dangers from the rioters who were allowed by the police to move around freely although Delhi was under curfew at night till the end of the funeral. A friend from a European Embassy who lived in an area where Sikhs also lived in good numbers took some pictures that eventually were published in news weekly that showed Sikhs being thrown live into fire! For me, the carnage on the Sikhs by the Hindus did not leave a very good impression of India’s democratic and secular claims.

In fact, while my experiences during my New Delhi posting enhanced my understanding on many issues regarding India; it made me realise that India was not fair when it came to its neighbours. Indian democracy had two faces; one known and appreciated by the West and another, a very ugly one where politicians were susceptible to all sorts of corruption. In fact while Mrs. Gandhi held charge, there was the added contempt about Bangladesh for its military rule and its perceived closeness with Pakistan. We were always welcomed by the hosts for official representation and also had close friendship with our counterparts. Some of them viewed that we owed India much more loyalty than we had shown for their contribution in our liberation war. I remember telling an Indian diplomat that it would not be wise to press Bangladesh on that issue for it would create more distance between us than was the case. Of course, there were times we were also put on defensive because of our policies at home. I faced a very embarrassing predicament one day when I was called to the External Affairs Ministry on an official matter. After the discussion with my host was over, he started praising BTV for its wonderful camera work with reference to an international hockey tournament that was then being played in Dhaka. I knew the reason for his praise for soon he was asking me the reasons for the exuberance in the stadium when Pakistan had scored a goal against India! That was one of the occasions that I realised that representing Bangladesh could also be a humiliating job!

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