Indira Gandhi's Assassination and the


According to Katherine Frank's account of Indira Gandhi's rule, there are no definitive sources available that give a true picture. Both the victims of Emergency and those who victimized exist in the current Indian set-up. This results in vastly differing accounts of Emergency (Frank, 2001). Through the declaration of state of Emergency, the government hoped to absorb sweeping power in order to gain complete authority. However the power thus absorbed was not put to any particular use by the government making bringing about major economic or social reforms. Small and scattered use of dictatorial power was displayed at a national level. Freedom of press was largely restricted, political dissenters and opponents were imprisoned, sterilizations were enforced and slums were demolished in the name of schemes that aimed to beautify cities. Therefore it was the constitutional power that was abused and the liberal status of India's democratic life that was restricted because of the declaration of Emergency (Dumar, 1999).

In such a political climate, India swerved between the ideals of democracy and ideals of one ruler. The Emergency was an attempt to reestablish the power of a handful of elites over India by reducing the democratic ideal to the status of serving those in power. This period was a critical juncture as the government's credibility became dubious. By suppressing democratic diffusion, Indira Gandhi aimed to de-politicize India. She wanted to hand over the power of political decision making to a handful of technocratic elite, to an established bureaucracy and judiciary. However the declaration of Emergency and what followed it backfired. It served only to alienate masses further and when elections were called in 1977, the public expressed its choice. Indira Gandhi and her party were voted out of the government. In addition she faced charges of corruption and authoritarianism. As a result, Indira was expelled from parliament and was imprisoned. She was released the following year, in 1978.


Following the release, Indira chose to resign from the congress party and became the leader of the Indian National Congress. In 1980, she won a seat through a by-election and was re-elected as the prime minister (Sahgal, 1992). This became possible largely because of the government that had hoped to replace her fell into internal strife. However this time her election did not allow her a convenient political climate. She now had to handle the dissent provoked by her centralization gimmicks. Since she had already broken the power of the regional states, there was not a single favor these regional bosses wanted to do for the government. If she had kept them happy, they could have helped her in handling the dissenters. However they were angry for their own reasons and Indira was left alone to take care of the political dissents that were spreading across the country. Lack of regional support resulted in birth of regionalist movements throughout the country. These movements were a potential form of political protest and they raised their demands and any actions that would force the government to agree to their demands. These movements demanded secession and were prepared to use violence to have it. In Punjab to the west, Assam to the east, and Kashmir to the north, the former democratic set-up that had crumbled under the weight of centralization failed to contain these movements. Since democracy had lost a local and tangible presence, the regional states were not only under direct control of the government but also were its direct and collective burden. In Punjab, during the post-Emergency years, when Indira Gandhi and the Congress were out of power, the regional movement of the Sikh faction had gained momentum primarily because of Indira Gandhi herself. In order to break the power of the Sikh political party, the faction- ridden Akali Dal (in the late 1970s it supported the opponents of Indira Gandhi), Sanjay, at her mother's order, refined a young Sikh sant, or a Sikh religious preacher, named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Indira and her son had built him up so that he could be used to serve the interests of the mother and the son. However when Indira came back into power, she realized that Bhindranwale could no longer be used as an aid and sought to remove him. But Bhindranwale had become quite a force to reckon with. His religious sermons with militant flavor had attracted followers across the Sikh Diaspora who were now roused to get their demands met at any cost. The leader demanded secession of India where a separate homeland for Sikhs would exist. After waiting for a positive response from the government, he led his followers to an armed struggle for the creation of Sikh homeland called Khalistan. He fortified his men into the Golden Temple at Amritsar from where he directed them in a brutal campaign of terrorism against the government and its people. In an attempt to crush the secessionist movement in Punjab, Indira Gandhi launched "Operation Blue Star" where the troops struck a massive assault on the temple. This led to the death of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the secessionist movement of Sikh militants. Following the death of their leader and failure of their movement to get the Sikh demands met by the government, the members of the movement planned to remove Indira Gandhi from power. In 1984, during one of her election campaigns, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards (Sarin, 1998). This did not serve their motives but it certainly allowed the Sikhs to take revenge.

In assassination attempts, it is generally seen that major world powers have some sort of contribution to make. Just as at the time of the 1971 war, the American bloc sided with Pakistan, it can be deduced that the government of Indira Gandhi had become a major threat to the democratic ideals of the American government. Since she had created a stronghold in the country through various, Indira could not be easily removed. Her assassination was an attempt to restore democracy in India where different regional states had the power to deal with its people.

The short-term and direct results of her assassination were sectarian violence across India during which over a 1000 people died of which many were Sikhs. In the long-run, the indirect result was the beginning of irreparable damage to Indian democracy and a permanent Sectarian divide between the Sikhs and the Hindus.

Through the research, it was discovered that the leader of the Sikh movement, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was a man cultivated by Indira Gandhi herself. However when he ceased to be of any use to the Prime Minister, Bhindranwale became an arch enemy. Gandhi's assassination stems from the fact a part of Sikh population felt betrayed and hurt over Indira's treatment of Bhindranwale and the Golden Temple respectively. However this does not change the significance of the assassination in its historical context.


Indira Gandhi was an influential figure in her country and commanded great respect from those who came into contact with her. However her long political career where winning the 1971 war with arch rival Pakistan, contributed significantly to and established her influence over the Indian masses culminated in a dire miscalculation regarding domestic rife. Moreover her intentions towards the end of her political career did not remain simply patriotic but instead became inclined towards struggle for power. Hence her personality traits and her assassination cannot be matched with that of a tragic hero.


Dumar, Dhrub. Impact of Indira Gandhi on Indian Political System. Harper Collins: 1999.

Frank, Katherine. Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Harper Collins; 2001

Gupte, Pranay. Mother India: A Political Biography of Indira Gandhi. Scribners Charles Sons; 1992.

Jayakar, Pupul. Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography. Pantheon Books Inc.: 1993.

Khilnani, Sunil. States of Emergency. The New Republic: 12-17-2001.

Malhotra, Inder. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography. Northeastern U. Press; 1991.

Moraes, Dom. Indira Gandhi…