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Indira Gandhi remembered

Emergency was a blunder, Operation Bluestar an unmitigated disaster

| by K. Natwar Singh

( October 31, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) What was I doing in the morning of 31st October 1984? I was getting ready to leave for Bharatpur to do some politicking. The RAX telephone rang. It was H.Y. Sharada Prasad, “Natwar, this is the worst day of our lives. PM has been shot. Come over to No 1 Akbar Road, as soon as you can.”

I asked a dazed Sharada, “What happened. Who shot her?” “She was walking from 1 Safdarjung Road to 1 Akbar Road to be interviewed by film actor and producer Peter Ustinov. When she was walking on the glass “river” (presented by the government of Czechoslovakia), which led to 1 Akbar Road, she was shot by the two Sikh guards at the gate leading to 1 Akbar Road. I heard the shots, but thought it must be someone playing with fire crackers… it was over in a few seconds.” I walked up to the gate to see the spot where she had fallen. Her blood had not dried. Her spectacles, chappals and bag were still lying on the glass river.

Peter Ustinov’s camera men had recorded the sound of the shots. It took Sharda and me a long time to persuade Ustinov not to use that portion of the film. He eventually agreed. I met him in 1997 at a seminar in Valencia, Spain, I reminded him our conversation on 31.10.1984. “I remember it well. I never used the ‘shots’ recording.”

She was 19 days short of her 67th birthday on that fateful and searing day. Even after three decades her fame and name, her achievements, her qualities as a leader have not been forgotten.

For me, it is not easy to sum up her life objectively. My affection and respect for her have not diminished. In more ways than one she enriched, uplifted my life. She broadened the contours of my vision. To some readers this may sound as crass sentimentalism and melodramatic. I worked in her secretariat for five years, 1966-71, meeting her every other day, sometimes three times a day.

Jawaharlal Nehru never faced the challenges she did. Nehru’s leadership was never questioned for 15 years. In the last two years of his life he encountered serious dissatisfaction in the Congress party. Indira Gandhi's road to power between 1966 and 1969 was strewn with boulders. The syndicate was breathing down her neck. Several were patronising and treated her as the daughter of Nehru and not as the Prime Minister. Krishna Menon referred to her as “that chit of a girl”. Ram Manohar Lohia was vicious. In Parliament she was nervy, tense and diffident. She was not comfortable in the Cabinet or in meetings with her elderly colleagues — Kamraj, Nijilingappa, Morarji Desai, S.K Patil, Swaran Singh, Y.B Chavan and Jagjivan Ram. They too felt uneasy with a woman Prime Minister. They did not take her seriously. Later they would.

Gradually her diffidence and shyness began to erode. By 1970 she had come to grips with her job and responsibilities. The jeering stopped. The cheering began. She had a flair for foreign affairs. Her international image grew by the week. At the UN she was heard with respect. At NAM and Commonwealth summits, she often stole the show. In 1983 she was the chairperson of the NAM and Commonwealth summits, both held in New Delhi. She strengthened the Non-Aligned Movement — “the greatest peace movement in the world”, she called it. At the Commonwealth Summit she produced awe in Margaret Thatcher. I one day asked her what she thought of the Iron lady. Her response: “What Iron lady. I saw a nervous woman sitting at the edge of the sofa.”

She wrote an article in the October 1972 issue of “Foreign Affairs” magazine. She wrote, “India’s foreign policy is a projection of the values which we have cherished through centuries as well as our present concerns. We are not tied to the traditional concepts of a foreign policy, designed to safeguard overseas possessions, investments, the carving out spheres of influence and the creation of cordons sanitaires. We are not interested in exporting ideologies.”

Her finest hour came in 1971. She created a new nation — Bangladesh. She isolated Nixon and Kissinger, won over the Western media and liberal members of the US Congress. Teddy Kennedy was one of them.

We now come to the other side of the Indira Gandhi coin. The Emergency was a blunder, Operation Bluestar an unmitigated disaster. In the words of P.N. Dhar, her Principal Secretary for half a decade, “the Emergency changed the basic relationship between the citizen and the state and indeed threatened to change the character of the Indian State.” During the Emergency I was the Deputy High Commissioner in London. There it was impossible to 'sell' the Emergency. I wrote to the PM, “I know what to say to our critics but do not know what to say to our friends”. Untypically she did not respond. Professionally it was the duty of High Commissioner B.K. Nehru and myself to defend the Emergency. We suppressed our conscience.

Operation Bluestar was grievously handled. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I know that Indira Gandhi’s instructions were disregarded by those who in Amritsar were in charge of the operation. The Golden Temple complex could have been cordoned, electric and water supply could have been switched off. Instead tanks entered the complex. The rest is too well known. It cost Indira Gandhi her life. The Sikh community both in India and abroad was not only outraged, it was deeply hurt, deeply offended.

If one were to take an overall view of Indira Gandhi's life and labours, she would still rank very high in the Prime Ministerial pecking order. Even today her admirers outnumber her detractors. I remain an admirer.