“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist”—Indira Gandhi
Two of her own bodyguards assassinated the first female Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, outside of her New Delhi home on October 31, 1984. Satwant Singh and Beant Singh killed the prime minister in retaliation for her crackdown on Sikhs.
Gandhi’s bloodstained sari at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi.
In June of the same year, the Indian Army conducted Operation Blue Star—an assault on the Sikh Golden Temple that left 492 civilians and approximately 300 combatants from both sides dead. It was reported that Sikh separtists were stockpiling weapons within the temple and seeking shelter in the holy building. Sikhs worldwide often refer to Operation Blue Star as “the great massacre”. The government states that the operation was launched in order to eliminate Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, leader of the Sikh group, Damdami Taksal, and proponent of the Anandpur sahib resolution. The resolution sought to propagate Sikhism and to preserve the teachings of the religion. Gandhi viewed the resolution as a document proposing secession. She used this document as a means to show that she was for Indian unity and to gain more support.
The destroyed Golden Temple with scaffolding that the government had put up to repair the holy site.
The destruction and desecration of the temple led to Sikhs resigning from the military and government. A reported 4,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied in protest of the operation. Gandhi’s assassination is attributed to revenge for the operation. The bloodshed did not end there: Gandhi’s assassination led to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots during which about 2,800 people died.
The riots lasted four days, from the day of Gandhi’s assassination to November 3. The area affected the most were low-income areas in New Delhi where police did not intervene or take measures against the mobs. Sikh holy temples were amongst the first targets after armed mobs took over the streets in New Delhi. Time magazine reported, “Frenzied mobs of young Hindu thugs, thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs out of their homes, cars and trains, then clubbed them to death or set them aflame before raging off in search of other victims.” On the fourth day, the army and local police worked together to stop the violence—despite their intervention, there were still mild cases of violence.
Members of the Sikh community hold aloft a banner calling for the 1984 storming of Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, by Indian troops, to be recognized as genocide as they join a demonstration in central London on June 8, 2014, to mark the 30th anniversary of the assault known as Operation Blue Star. (Leon Neal AFP/Getty Images)
The series of pogroms was directed by anti-Sikh mobs, who the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation believed had the support from Delhi police and some government officials. Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi reportedly said of the riots, “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” In April 2015, the California State Assembly recognized that the riots were, in fact, a genocide and they “recognized the responsibility of the Indian government in the alleged rape, torture and murder of thousands of Sikhs across India” according to the Times of India.
The day the riots officially ended, Gandhi was cremated. Some sources attribute the end of the bloodshed to the former leader’s funeral. Gandhi’s cremation took place at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, marking the place where he was cremated as well. Nearly 127 President, Vice-President, and Prime Ministers attended Gandhi’s last rites. The New York Times compiled a list of world leaders who were at her funeral. Amongst those who attended were former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Pakistani President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who had never had good relations with Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher who first met with the Gandhi gamily and gave her condolences.
Video of funeral procession:
Indria Gandhi’s last speech at Bhubaneswar in Odisha:
Indira Gandhi - Sikh Confrontation (TV-14; 3:24) As confrontations between the Indian state and Sikh extremists rose, Indira Gandhi was forced to take action. Video courtesy of Biography.
Memorial to Indira Gandhi, Shakti Sthal, which means Place of Power. The memorial marks her cremation spot within the Raj Ghat memorial park.
Asiya Haouchine is an editorial intern at Warscapes. She is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.