Dressed in a bright orange sari, which was soon to turn scarlet, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi emerged from her 1, Safdarjung Road residence at ten past nine. Holywood star Peter Ustinov was waiting to interview her for an Irish television. The cameras were ready on the lawns of the adjoining building, 1, Akbar Road-the Prime Minister‘s residential office. Sharda Prasad, the PM’s media adviser, had already joined the foreign TV crew for a last-minute check.
Keeping pace with Mrs Gandhi’s brisk walk towards a security passage, inter-linking the two bungalows, was constable Narain Singh, with an umbrella in hand. Following them were R.K. Dhawan, the Prime Minister’s aide for several years, G. Parthasrathi, her adviser on foreign affairs, and her trusted valet Nathu Ram. With the Mexican silk trees in full bloom across the road, the morning carried a nip of the approaching winter. Everyone was oblivious of the lurking danger.
Waiting in ambush inside the TMC gate, near which the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commandos stored their weapons, was sub-inspector Beant Singh. He opened the gate leading to l, Akbar Road, and emptied the chamber of his .38 service revolver, shooting five times from point-blank range. As the Prime Minister fell, the second assassin, constable Satwant Singh, rushed from a nearby booth and sprayed her with bullets. It was a deadly burst of 25 shots from a Sten gun.
A bullet ricocheted off something and hit assistant sub-inspector Rameshwar Dayal in the thigh. Unmindful of it, he rushed to the aid of Mrs Gandhi, as others ran for cover. The critically wounded Prime Minister lay unattended for a while before Dr Opai, one of the doctors on duty at her house, summoned a vehicle.
Immediately after the shooting, the assailants raised their hands in surrender. Two ITBP commandos, inspector T.S. Jamwal and constable Ram Saran, rushed ahead and locked their arms behind their backs before hustling them to a guard room. What happened inside the room is a mystery. The assassins, when taken out from the room, were found riddled with bullets.
The ITBP men later testified that they opened fire on the assailants when one of them tried to snatch their firearms inside the room. They claimed that Satwant said upon being asked why he had killed the Prime Minister: “We have done what we wanted. Now you can do whatever you want.” Having taken 17 shots at the PM's killers, the ITBP duo gave them up for dead. That Satwant was alive could be discovered only after the arrival of local policemen.
“They are dead...we shot them,” one of the ITBP men is reported to have told the police. But on examination it was found that Satwant still breathed. He was quickly removed to the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital along with Beant, whom the doctors pronounced dead. Two crack commandos were subsequently posted in the recovery room, where Satwant lay fter an operation. He had to be kept alive to unravel the conspiracy 'which had stunned the nation.
So stringent was the security at Lohia Hospital that the two commandos, who too were under counter-surveillance, were barred from coming out of the room. The doctors attending on Satwant, also selected after thorough screening, were warned in no uncertain terms against leaking out any information about the patient’s‘ condition. However,it is learnt that Satwant showed steady progress after the bullets were removed from his body.
The local police were informed of the assassination attempt at 9.28 a.m.—within ten minutes. According to Home Secretary M.M.K. Wali, the assassins struck at 9.18. In the vehicle carrying Mrs Gandhi to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences ‘was her daughter-in-law Sonia, besides Dr Opai and Dinesh ‘Bhatt, personal security officer on duty.
Sharda Prasad, waiting on the lawns nearby, was alerted by the gun shots and so was Bhatt. Sonia had come out rushing, dressed in her household clothes and was completely shaken by the sight of a blood-splattered Mrs Gandhi. It was chaos all over, with the security fortress reduced to a shambles.
By the time Mrs Gandhi was put in the vehicle, Dhawan too had regained composure. He and M.L. Fotedar, political adviser to Mrs Gandhi, joined the convoy which sped towards the AIIMS.
They left before doctors from the nearby Lohia Hospital, who were informed of the tragedy, could reach the PM’s house.
At the AIIMS casualty, the very sight of Mrs Gandhi lying on a stretcher, her eyes wide open and body wrapped in a blanket, unnerved the three junior doctors on duty. The initial flutter over, the medicos rose to the occasion. They attended to her and informed their seniors. Among the experts, the first to
arrive was Dr J.S. Guleria, head of-the department of medicine. He was followed by other senior doctors, including P. Venugopal of the cardio-thoraic surgery, Prof. G.R. Gode of the department of anaesthesiology, Prof. M.M. Kapur and Dr I.K. Dhawan, head of the department of surgery.
There was virtually no delay in shifting Mrs Gandhi to the operation theatre. “As it happened during morning hours, the assisting staff was already there to carry out another major surgery,” said a senior doctor. “We took the PM straight to the eighth ﬂoor, cancelling the other operation."
For Dr Guleria, the physician, it was the “second early morning calamity.“ He was among the doctors summoned to Teen Murti Bhavan when Nehru died. “Years back I had cut her father‘s veins and this time...", he was at loss for words.
Catherine Thomas, the matron in charge of the operation theatre, too had attended on Nehru as a staff nurse, and also on Sanjay Gandhi, during an operation he underwent in the Emergency days. In her 24 years of service, the October 31 experience was the most traumatic.
By the time Dr K.P. Mathur, medical superintendent of Lohia Hospital and Mrs Gandhi’s personal physician for 20 years reached the AIIMS the Prime Minister was. already on the operation table.
He remained with the AIIMS doctors all through; struggling to revive the patient he had known so well. It was a battle against all odds as, according to one version, Mrs Gandhi was “dead when brought to the hospital.“ She was kept alive “clinically” on the heat-lung bypass put at around 10.30 a.m. and taken off at 2.20 when the doctors ﬁnally gave up hope.
As the heart-lung bypass was done by Dr Venugopal, the cardio-thoraic expert was shown to be heading the expert team. “Otherwise it was a group of equals, all of them specialists in their respective fields," explained an AIIMS ofﬁcial. He said the “wretched” death certiﬁcate was signed around 2.30 pm. after which the Institute formally pronounced Mrs Gandhi dead.
When Mrs Gandhi was on the operation table, almost every drug that could possibly have been used was made available to the doctors. Stored in a side room were sophisticated medical equipment like electro-encephalogram, which is used to ascertain whether the brain is alive or not. It, however, was not used.
The medical experts, after putting Mrs Gandhi on the heart-lung bypass machine,began “repairing” the damaged organs, sans the heart, which was somewhat intact. The machine maintained the “oxygenisation and temperature of the body tissues." Explained a doctor: “The machine keeps the blood circulation going, even though the heart may not function...It is a machine which bypasses the heart and the lung to pump blood.”
As Mrs Gandhi had lost a lot of blood, nearly 88 bottles were used during the operation. Additional supplies of her ORh negative group were brought from the Red Cross Society. “But nothing helped.. Her body had simply been blasted off, except the face. Below the neck it was all wounds," remarked a surgeon. He said that was why the body was shown to the family, including Rajiv, only after it was embalmed.
Sonia, who had complained of some “chest problem", which a doctor described as asthma, after arriving at the hospital, recovered after some time. She had wept bitterly in the casualty ward, but slipped into a glum silence later. She remained seated outside the operation theatre on the eighth ﬂoor, where Rajiv, who flew in from West Bengal, joined her around 3.35 pm. He came to the hospital
accompanied by Amitabh Bachchan, the super star family friend. Among those who received Rajiv at the hospital included Parliamentary Affairs Minister Buta Singh, who had suddenly taken ill.
Buta Singh lay in his hospital bed, staring at the ceiling. When we approached him for comments, he simply folded his hands. By his bedside was a weeping MP from Tamil Nadu.
Mrs Gandhi’s grandchildren, Priyanka, and Rahul, were with their mother outside the operation theatre before Rajiv’s arrival. Priyanka left in the evening, Rahul stayed put. Menaka Gandhi, the estranged daughter-in-law, came with her son Varun, first in the morning and then in the afternoon. During her second visit Menaka anxiously inquired, “What has happened? I 'am hearing all sorts of rumours.” She was referring to a message flashed by a news agency announcing Mrs Gandhi‘s demise long before it was officially made known.
Police outside the hospital had a tough time controlling the crowd,whose number was swelling with each passing hour. Besides the VIPs, who were allowed till outside the operation theatre, many commoners and pressmen reached the eighth floor. In the prevailing confusion, the wounded ASI Rameshwar Dayal lay unattended. Then a senior doctor noticed it and he deputed his juniors to look after Dayal, whose injuries fortunately were not very serious.
As the dressing rooms opposite the eight operation theatres of the hospital were occupied by chief ministers, Central leaders and bureaucrats, the doctors were left with no place to change clothes. It was not a time to complain, they knew it well. Dr H.D. Tandon, whose tenure as director of AIIMS was to end that day, was as active as others. While Dr A.N. Safaya, the medical superintendent, held fort downstairs, Dr Tandon camped on the eighth ﬂoor.
The crowds were quite hopeful of Mrs Gandhi surviving the crisis. But when Fotedar was seen leaving the hospital around 12 o’ clock in a limousine, to be followed an hour later by R.K. Dhawan and Arun Nehru, rumours began ﬂying. While Arun Nehru had mumbled while leaving that “nothing can be said now," Dhawan said, “She's still in the operation theatre."
Newsmen got the ﬁrst deﬁnite indication of Mrs Gandhi’s death from an intelligence official. He was heard telling, “Woh to khatam ho gayen (she is no more).” Later he rang up the special assistant of Home Minister Narasimha Rao, saying that the minister should come straight to the hospital from the airport upon his arrival from Warangal. It was around 3.25 pm, and Rajiv arrived a few minutes later, a white scarf with saffron border around his neck. He was wearing dark glasses. One was reminded that Mrs Gandhi had worn dark glasses while taking the mortal remains of Sanjay to l, Akbar Road from Lohia Hospital in June 1980. The crowds then shouted, “Sanjay bhaiya kahan gaye? (where has brother Sanjay gone?)“. Now the crowd wailed, “Indira Gandhi amar rahe.“
By the time President Zail Singh reached AIIMS, cutting short his foreign tour, the news of Mrs Gandhi’s death was public knowledge. Indications of the impending communal violence, which was to engulf the whole of India, especially Delhi, were already there. A motorcycle lay smoldering on the road as the presidential motorcade swerved into the institute, with some people even pelting ‘stones on it.
The police, demoralised as they were by the killing of the Prime Minister by her own securitymen, were found completely wanting in controlling the mob frenzy, which spread on the Aurobindo Marg, on which AIIMS is located, with government and private vehicles belonging to one community being set ablaze. The 'crowd around the hospital melted only after Mrs Gandhi’s body was removed to 1, Safdarjung Road in the night. Next morning, the scene shifted to Teen Murti Bhavan, where the body was kept in state till the funeral on November 3, and scores of other areas in Delhi where mad mobs,
returning after paying homage to the departed leader, indulged in incidents reminiscent of the partition days.
(This article originally appeared as covers story in the issue dated November 17, 1984)