Did Indira Gandhi Have Any Premonition About Her Death?

‘The thought of death had been preying on Indira Gandhi’s mind ever since Operation Blue Star was conducted.’

6 min read
Hindi Female

On that fateful morning of 31 October 1984, Indira would just not let go of Priyanka, her granddaughter, as she readied herself for school. She hugged her tightly and reminded Rahul Gandhi of her instruction to not cry in the event of her death.

Two days prior to it, Indira was in Bhubaneswar, delivering a speech that became her last. Senior IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah was accompanying her.

In his recently published memoirs, My Years With Rajiv Gandhi –Triumph and Tragedy [Westland Publications], Habibullah recalls how Indira’s speech read like a summary of her endeavours as prime minister; “her ceaseless striving at integrating the nation, the cleaving to her view of national interest that underwrote her foreign policies and what she considered to be now the responsibilities of the Indian people, almost as if she were bequeathing her legacy to a people that she had loved and laboured to serve.”


Death On Indira Gandhi’s Mind

The speech, extending over 90 minutes, had a sense of foreboding: “I am here today; I may not be here tomorrow.  But the responsibility to look after national interest is on the shoulder of every citizen of India. I have often mentioned this earlier. Nobody knows how many attempts have been made to shoot me; lathis have been used to beat me. In Bhubaneswar itself, a brickbat hit me. They have attacked me in every possible manner. I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”

Habibullah and other officials had felt that ‘Madam’, as Indira was referred to, was being too gloomy in talking of what they considered an unlikely presentiment.

Earlier that month she had written that if she died a violent death, the violence would be in the thought of the assassin, not in her death, “for no hate is dark enough to overshadow the extent of my love for the people and my country, no force is strong enough to divert me from that purpose and my endeavour to take this country forward.”


Indira Gandhi Had Been Contemplating Death Ever Since Operation Blue Star

Indira’s speech at Bhubaneswar on 29 October 1984 had also touched upon the emergency, a measure that temporarily dubbed her as a whimsical dictator and tyrant.

In a veiled criticism of the US, which was supporting Pakistani army dictator Zia ul Haq, Indira had remarked, “I had to resort to emergency for a very brief period.  But even today I am being criticised. I am being described as authoritarian and dictatorial. But the same people are fully helping the other authoritarian regimes with money, resources and arms. For them that dictatorship is not dictatorship. Therefore, we have to learn from all this and know after all what they want, why they want that India should not go forward. No outsider will take care of our interest or think about us.  We have to look after ourselves. This is not exclusively my responsibility.”

According to Habibullah, who had been friends with Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in Doon School, the thought of death had been preying on Indira’s mind ever since Operation Blue Star was conducted in Amritsar, ostensibly to flush out the militants of the Khalistani separatist movement.

Instead, Operation Blue Star led to a large scale of loss of life and destruction of the Akal Takht, the Sikh equivalent of the Catholic Holy See. Harmandir Sahib, the principal shrine, was badly desecrated.


Was Indira Gandhi Hesitant To Use Military Force In Operation Blue Star?

Habibullah, 1968-batch IAS officer of Jammu and Kashmir cadre, thinks Indira was hesitating to use military force against Khalistani militants hiding inside the Golden Temple. “She well knew the consequences for the country of any miscalculation at the holiest shrine of the world’s Sikhs. She had also been advised by the former Vice Chief of the Army Staff Lt General SK Sinha, widely expected at the time to take over from Gen Krishna Rao as Chief, against any such move. It has been argued by some that General Arun Sridhar Vaidya being anointed successor instead of Gen Sinha indicated that Mrs Gandhi had already resolved to seek a military solution,” writes Habibullah, pointing that she had only the military option open to her a year later due to Gen Sinha’s reluctance.

Significantly, when General Vaidya was asked to proceed with his plans, Indira was reportedly assured that the militants would, through a massive show of force, be overwhelmed into surrender, and that on no account would heavy weaponry be deployed within the sacred precincts, reveals Habibullah.

But there were several tactical errors and oversight in Operation Blue Star that was conceived and planned by Army Commander, Western Command Lt Gen Krishnaswami Sundarji.


Tactical Errors & Oversight In Operation Blue Star

Habibullah, without mincing words, observes, “It amazes me to this day as to how the army could have so miscalculated as to have launched Operation Blue Star on the very day of the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev, one of the Sikh’s greatest Gurus, the revered compiler of the Sikh Holy Scripture the Adi Granth of Guru Granth Sahib.”

Giving a somewhat graphic account, Habibullah who briefly taught history at St Stephen’s College before joining the IAS pens:

“Pilgrims had therefore flocked to Harmandir Sahib, which was defended with sophisticated military weaponry, the extent of which had exceeded the estimates of military intelligence. Worse, the civilian authorities, which could at the very least have warned of the martyrdom day, had not in any way been taken into confidence by the military authorities despite the fact that, noticing the build-up in the vicinity of Amritsar, the Chief Secretary SS Dhanoa had called Sundarji asking if he needed any assistance whatever from the civil administration and had been assured that none was necessary.”

In other words, the chief secretary was kept in the dark.

However, by the afternoon of 5 June 1984, the day Operation Blue Star was launched, it became evident that the effort to evict militants and make them surrender, was nowhere in sight. Lt Gen Sundarji called up Indira pleading that he be permitted to send armoured cars into the Temple complex to take the Akal Takht that had become the epicentre of Bhindranwale’s military operation. The alternative he warned was a military retreat, which would be seen as a defeat of India’s army by a group of secessionists. Indira was left with no option but to agree.


Did Indira Realise The Full Magnitude Of Operation Blue Star?

Habibullah writes that, a full panoply of military operation – with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and armoured vehicles – was pressed into action. Casualty figures, as per official records, had put deaths in the Indian Army at 83, and 492 civilians were killed. Habibullah however, relies on Chief Secretary SS Dhanoa’s account when the civil servant wrote in 2004, “after collecting all information that I could get as Chief Secretary, Punjab, that about 1000-1200 persons lost their lives at the hands of the Indian military…”

Indira seemed to have realised the full magnitude of Blue Star. Habibullah was with her when she paid a visit to Ladakh, in June 1984, to address troops, which had a large representation of Sikhs.

“I was as usual among her escorts. In her speech, she spoke of her anguish at the recent events, talking of herself as a mother who suffers together with her children in pain. She looked upon all the people of India as her children, as she looked upon the troops assembled before her, and all those Sikhs who had lost their lives in Amritsar as her sons. It was a speech delivered without rhetoric but with obvious passion and much pain.”


“By the afternoon of 31 October 1984, Indira was lying in state at Teen Murti House, motionless, where she had spent so many formative years of her growth as a political phenomenon and home to Prime Minister Nehru for whom she had been official hostess, attended to now by her family and, helping regulate the soaring inflow of visitors, all of us from PMO, with the officials from the Ministry of External Affairs attending to a host of heads of government and heads of state from across the world,” observed Habibullah.

(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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