Indira Gandhi’s Funeral Is Proof That Even Her Critics Admired Her

At Indira Gandhi’s funeral, her estranged aunt Vijaya Laxmi Pandit came to pay her dues despite their differences.

3 min read

(This story was first published on 19 November 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi.)

There was a flutter when the ruthless dictator and then Pakistan President General Zia-ul-Haq reached ‘Shakti Sthal’ to attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral. He had also visited Teen Murti Bhawan where the mortal remains of Mrs Gandhi were placed.

However, the absence of then Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at the funeral was considered a big blow to South Block mandarins. Castro was seen as a friend of India, after the ‘bear hug’ he gave Mrs Gandhi at the Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi in 1983.

The American delegation was not led by President Ronald Reagan or Vice-President George HW Bush. It was a small party led by Secretary of State George P Shultz. In his book ‘Mother India’, noted writer Pranay Gupta said:

Former US envoy to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, who was present at the funeral, privately told friends how disappointed he was that neither Reagan nor Bush came to Delhi.

Two other former US envoys to India, John Sherman Cooper and Senator Daniel Patrick Moyniham, attended the funeral. Even they were reportedly unhappy that both Reagan and Bush skipped the funeral of an important leader of the developing world.

Of Royalty and Revolutionaries

That apart, royalty, revolutionaries, presidents and prime ministers were there to pay their last tributes to Mrs Gandhi at her funeral on Saturday, 3 November 1984. Buta Singh, the then Union Urban Development Minister and close associate of the Gandhi family, personally looked after the funerary preparations at Shakti Sthal. It is believed that he stayed back at the site for two days.

It was Dr Goswami Girdhari Lal, a noted Vedic scholar and head of the Birla Mandir, who helped Rajiv Gandhi perform his mother’s last rites. Lal had also handled the funeral of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Once, Lal said at his East Patel Nagar residence that, at Shakti Sthal, “PLA leader Yaseer Arafat was weeping like a child. He used to call Mrs Gandhi his sister. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia was also in tears.” Among those who condemned Mrs Gandhi’s assassination was then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the original ‘iron lady’.


Should Old Acquaintances be Forgotten?

The Bollywood contingent was led by actors Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt. Renowned musician Zubin Mehta was also there. And who can forget those pictures of Amitabh Bachchan standing close to Mrs Gandhi’s body – first at Teen Murti House and later at Shakti Sthal.

Other eminent guests present at the funeral were Mrs Gandhi’s estranged aunt Vijaya Laxmi Pandit; former Indian envoy to the US, BK Nehru; Mrs Gandhi’s son Sanjay’s widow Menaka Gandhi and her son Varun. Pandit and Mrs Gandhi had not been on talking terms for long, after the former had criticised the latter’s decision to impose Emergency.

Apart from her son Rajiv, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw also helped carry Mrs Gandhi’s body to Shakti Sthal. Just as Rajiv was lighting the pyre, yoga guru Dhirendra Brahmachari also made an appearance at the funeral.

Among those who mourned Mrs Gandhi’s death was George Chiu, the owner of the eminent New Delhi-based shoe company ‘D Minsen and Sons’, whose father too would visit her at 1, Safdarjung Road, to deliver her sandals and bellies.

(The writer is former Editor, Somaiya Publications. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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