Oct. 31, 2022

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

October 31st, 1984: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her bodyguards at her home in New Delhi.


Cold Open

It’s the evening of December 16th, 1971 in New Delhi, the capital of India.

A rickshaw operator pedals hard to get his passenger to his destination as quickly as possible. But as he cycles down a street near Parliament House… he finds his way blocked by a large crowd. The rickshaw operator’s heart sinks. His hope of gaining an extra few rupees tip is in jeopardy. It’s going to take a while to weave his way through all this chaos. So the operator stands on his pedals, trying to see what’s going on. There’s no pushing or shoving. In fact, everyone seems to be happy and rejoicing.

When he hears a voice from the crowd shout “Victory to Bengal” a smile washes over his face. He knows exactly why these people are celebrating. The war must finally be over.

For months, the Bengali people of East Pakistan have been fighting for their independence from the rest of the country. 13 days ago, Indian troops joined the conflict in support of the Bengalis. Now, Pakistan—India's geopolitical rival—has surrendered.

Soon, a black car slowly makes its way into the throng, forcing the people in the crowd to part. The rickshaw operator spots a woman in the car with a distinctive gray streak in her black hair— Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The rickshaw operator voted for her in the recent election because she appealed directly to poor workers like him with promises to end poverty. He joins the rest of the crowd in a chorus of cheers in her honor.

As Prime Minister Gandhi’s car moves down the street, and the crowd disperses, rickshaw operator begins to pedal again with pride in his heart. With Gandhi at the helm, India will no doubt remain the most prosperous and powerful nation in South Asia.

Four years ago, Indira Gandhi was appointed Prime Minister of India. A powerful syndicate of senior politicians in the Congress Party thought she would be pliable and easily manipulated to being their puppet. But Gandhi proved to be unyielding and uncompromising. She rode a wave of popularity to several election wins and split from the syndicate-controlled Congress Party. Instead, she created a breakaway faction based entirely around her leadership. Gandhi’s status was on the rise, and never higher than after the swift victory in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

But the determination and resolve that helped Gandhi rise to power, and propel India to success on the battlefield, will soon prove to be her downfall. Her policies will make her a divisive and controversial figure and her decision to send armed soldiers into a holy shrine will lead to her assassination on October 31st, 1984.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 31st, 1984: The Assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Act One

It’s the evening of June 25th, 1975, nine years before the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of the opposition party, addresses a vast crowd at the Ramlila Maidan showgrounds in New Delhi. He recites lines from a famous poem, declaring “Surrender your throne, for the people are coming.” He’s sending a not-so-subtle message to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Since her electoral success in 1971, Gandhi’s popularity has waned. Although many still see her as the hero who led India to success in the Indo-Pakistan War, many view her tendency to clamp down on any dissent with dismay. She was accused of electoral fraud in the 1971 election, but the case crawled through the judicial system. After years in delay, on June 12th, 1975, a judge finally delivered a bombshell verdict—Gandhi was guilty and was ordered to vacate her seat in the Indian Parliament—and step down as Prime Minister. But Gandhi refused. And nearly two weeks later, Narayan is pressuring Gandhi to do what the court has ordered.

As Narayan speaks, the cheers from the crowd of 100,000 people embolden him. He tells the police and army to refuse to obey orders from Gandhi because she has no authority. At the end of his speech, Narayan leaves the stage, and his heart rate soars. He knows he’s just declared political war on Gandhi but has no clue how the Prime Minister will react.

Shortly after the rally, Narayan enjoys dinner at an adviser’s house. The discussion across the table is passionate and lasts long into the night. Some of Narayan’s aides think he has gone too far — that his words might be interpreted as calling for a coup.

But the late-night discussion is interrupted by a loud knock at the door. Narayan sits in silence as he listens to the door creaking open. And moments later, several policemen storm in with revolvers drawn.

Narayan stands up in protest, but one of the policemen turns and points his gun at him. The officer tells Narayan that he is under arrest. Narayan stands firm saying they have no right to arrest him, but the policeman assures him that they do. Prime Minister Gandhi has just declared a state of emergency because India is under threat from internal unrest. The police can arrest whoever they want and hold them without trial.

With a sinking heart, Narayan follows the policeman out of the room as the other dinner guests are rounded up. He knew that Gandhi was determined to cling to power. But he didn’t think she would go this far. 


14 days later, Parkash Singh Badal stands in a courtyard in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, north India in front of a large crowd.

Badal is the Leader of the Opposition in Punjab, a state in the north of India - and the only state in the country where Sikhism is the majority religion. Badal spends much of his time here engaging in political debate with Gandhi’s political party. Today, he is leading a mass protest against their decision to declare The Emergency and assume dictatorial powers.

On the morning that Narayan and other prominent political figures were arrested, Gandhi addressed the nation by radio and explained that a state of emergency had been declared. She tried to reassure Indians that there was no reason to panic, but her opponents had plenty of cause to be concerned. Hundreds were plucked from their homes during the night and thrown into prison cells. The electricity supply to newspaper offices were cut, ensuring that no papers were printed the next morning. And when the electricity was turned back on, newspaper content was heavily censored.

Badal soon received overtures from Gandhi’s administration inviting him to cooperate with the government during The Emergency. But Badal had no intention of going along. Instead, he and the other leaders of the Sikh community openly criticized The Emergency as a “great step toward dictatorship.” Now, Badal hopes to ramp up the pressure on Gandhi by leading this demonstration.

Badal addresses the thousands of Sikhs who have gathered here in the Golden Temple for a “Save Democracy” rally. Badal says that the question is not whether Gandhi should remain Prime Minister but whether India will remain a true country of the people. 

Badal raises his hands and calls out that he is willing to be arrested for opposing Gandhi. He then calls upon his fellow Sikhs and Indians of all religions to stand up and voice their opposition too, to fill the jails with political prisoners and prove the strength of their cause. He invites Sikhs to return to the Golden Temple every day to demonstrate until The Emergency is ended. The Save Democracy campaign succeeds in putting pressure on Gandhi, but it does not achieve its primary objective. Gandhi remains Prime Minister, and Badal is arrested and thrown in prison where he languishes for 19 months.

With Badal out of the picture, Gandhi spends the next two years ruthlessly clamping down on other opponents and controlling the news media. She modifies the constitution to gain greater power. And when she thinks her grip on the nation is secure, Gandhi ends The Emergency, allowing much-delayed elections to take place. But Badal and other opponents seize their chance, working together in a coalition to inflict a surprising defeat on Gandhi.

But her loss at the ballot box will not stop her returning to power three years later. And when she does, she will continue to crack down on the opposition with a controversial attack on the holiest site in the Sikh world.

Act Two

It’s half past ten on the evening of June 15th, 1984, five months before the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

A commando in the Indian Army crouches silently in the darkness near the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Soon, an explosion breaks the silence. It’s his signal to move. The commando runs with a small group of soldiers through the twisted wreckage of a gate, determined to do his part to achieve the objectives of Operation Blue Star.

After The Emergency was ended in 1977, and political opposition was no longer censored, Sikhs opposing Indira Gandhi began to agitate for greater freedom and the creation of an independent Sikh state. The most prominent of the Sikh revolutionaries was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant prepared to use violence to force Gandhi to the negotiating table. But Gandhi was in no mood to compromise. She never forgave the Sikhs for their incessant opposition to The Emergency. So she gave the go-ahead for the Indian Army to carry out Operation Blue Star—a strike to take out Sikh militants. Tonight, as part of the operation, this commando has orders to apprehend Bhindranwale and his followers sheltering in one of Sikhism’s holiest places.

As the commando steps through the exterior walls of the Golden Temple complex, he sees the gold-leaf dome of the sanctum building twinkling in the twilight. But he also spots the bodies of dead women and children lying on the marble paths outside. The commando knows the Indian Army has been firing into the temple complex for the past few days. Sikh militants have been firing back. He expected to see dead Sikh soldiers littering the ground, not innocent women and children. But he quickly shakes off his apprehension and tries to stay focused and follow orders.

The commando makes his way along the covered walkways around the perimeter of the temple. In the middle of the complex is a large rectangular pool. The still water reflects occasional muzzle flashes as militants fire at the Indian Army commandos from concealed positions.

As the commando crouches behind a stone pillar, he looks across the complex to his destination, the Akal Takht—a grand meeting house for Sikh leaders that Bhindranwale is thought to be hiding in. But to get there, the commando and his cohorts must first cross wide-open ground, under fire. It will be dangerous. But as the commando watches some of his brothers-in-arms sprint across, they are instantly cut down by enemy fire. Other army soldiers try to crawl across but suffer the same fate.

The commando peers out from his hiding spot and sees several soldiers attempt to fire tear gas through the windows of the Akal Takht, but the canisters miss and bounce off the walls. Then the commando hears the loud roar of an engine. He turns to see an armored truck slowly drive along a wide path by the pool towards the Akal Takht, coming under a hail of small-arms fire. Suddenly, the truck erupts in a fireball. And it’s clear that Operation Blue Star is not going to plan.

The commando crouches down and waits for backup to arrive. He occasionally peers out from his shelter but ducks back when a volley of bullets is sprayed his way. He knows he's pinned down. If backup doesn't come soon, he's a dead man. But just when it seems that all is lost, the commando hears more engines roaring.

He and other commandos cheer as three Indian Army tanks rumble into view at the far end of the temple. They slowly maneuver into position as bullets ricochet off the armor. Then a loud explosion echoes across the complex as one of the tanks fires and hits the Akal Takht, causing its historic façade to crumble.

Emboldened, the commando and others charge forward and cross the open ground. He enters the building carefully, waiting an ambush. But inside is only a scene of devastation. The Akal Takht is packed with people—some are alive, but most are dead. Men, women, and children huddle in corners, fearful and shivering as the commandos sweep through the rooms.

Soon, the commando spots the man he’s been searching for. Bhindranwale has a bullet hole in his forehead and his lower right leg is wrenched into an awkward angle. Near him are other young Sikh men who fought against the Indian government and paid for it. The commando is pleased that the mission is a success. Bhindranwale is dead, and so are many of his militant followers. But still, the commando can’t shake off the thought of the innocent people who were taken out in the process. And he’s not the only one.

The brutality of the raid will stun Sikhs across India, including members of Gandhi’s own security staff. Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards will be reassigned amidst fears they might seek revenge for Operation Blue Star. But Gandhi will tell her staff to reinstate them—she isn’t interested in living her life in fear. In the end, that decision will cost her life.

Act Three

It’s 9 o’clock in the morning on October 31st, 1984 in New Delhi, almost five months after Operation Blue Star.

47-year-old RK Dhawan follows Indira Gandhi as she walks along a path in her secluded garden. On the grass ahead, RK is pleased to see a camera crew set up and ready to interview Gandhi for a documentary. As Gandhi’s personal secretary, RK is keen his boss does not fall behind schedule so early in the day.

As Gandhi approaches a gate, two armed guards step forward. RK expects these men to politely open it for her. But instead, one of them pulls a revolver from his belt. Before RK can utter a sound, the guard fires three times into Gandhi from point-blank range. She collapses to the ground. The second guard takes aim with his machine gun and fires into her body.

RK watches in horror as the two guards turn to face him. He fears they are about to gun him down too. But the guards calmly place their weapons on the ground. One looks at RK and tells him, “I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do”. RK recognizes the shooter who speaks. It is one of the Sikhs on Gandhi’s security staff.

RK staggers backward as more security officials come running. The assassins are wrestled to the ground and hauled away from the scene. Medics arrive and tend to Gandhi, but RK sees blood pooling under her body, knowing that no one can survive such terrible wounds.

Five hours after the shooting, Gandhi is declared dead. The assassins say they killed her in revenge for the deaths of hundreds of Sikhs in the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star. But thousands more Sikhs die in the retaliatory violence that follows across India.

The brutal gunning down of Gandhi brought an end to the life of one of India’s most polarizing figures. Many mourned the death of the tough Prime Minister who guided India through difficult times. Her domestic and foreign policies modernized India and transformed it into the dominant regional power. But her reputation was tarnished by allegations that she illegally wielded political power and influence. And the atrocities committed during The Emergency and Operation Blue Star made Gandhi enemies who were prepared to fight back, and ultimately, take her life on this day, October 31st, 1984.


Next onHistory Daily. November 1st, 1755. A massive earthquake hits Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, reducing half the city to rubble and killing over 50,000 people.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.