When Indira Gandhi died …

When Indira Gandhi died at the hands of her security personnel, the whole world plunged into disbelief

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 30 Oct 2022, 08:44 PM
Updated : 30 Oct 2022, 08:44 PM

On the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Waheedul Haque -- our Waheed Bhai, at the time Joint Editor of the New Nation -- had us gather in his cubicle. We were joined by the Editor, Motahar Hossain Siddiqui. By we I mean my colleagues and myself in the editorial and news departments.

An editorial would certainly have to be written and so we discussed the points which required to go into it. The responsibility was given to me to draft the editorial. And I did that in about half an hour.

Thirty-eight years after the tragedy, memories of Indira Gandhi come flooding back to the mind. I recall the day when I read of her assumption of office as India’s Prime Minister in January 1966, a few days after the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent.

I remember going through news reports of her first official visit to Washington soon after she took office as the head of government, though the details of her talks with President Lyndon Johnson and his administration were facts I would come to know of later, when I was older and able to understand diplomacy somewhat.

As I prepared the editorial hours after her death in 1984, it was a rush of images of Indira Gandhi which flashed through my mind. A moment I recalled was when she informed India’s parliament on Dec 16, 1971, “Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country.” It was a statement which sent a thrill, at once felt in the bone and coursing through the heart in that moment of joy, throughout liberated Bangladesh.

The tour Mrs Gandhi undertook in 1971 of Europe and of the United States a short time earlier to project our cause before the world was an image of a true friend of Bangladesh speaking of the sufferings and the hopes of an oppressed nation.

Indira Gandhi lost little time in deciding that the Bengali refugees streaming across the frontier from an occupied Bangladesh under grievous assault by the Pakistan occupation army needed to be provided with shelter in her country. It was magnanimity in its highest form.

The Indian authorities could simply have sealed off the border on the ground that what was happening in Dhaka and elsewhere was an internal matter for the Yahya Khan junta. Indira Gandhi and her cabinet did not do that. Over the course of the following nine months, as many as 10,000,000 refugees made their way to West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and other places.

The presence of the refugees was a drag on the Indian economy and yet Mrs Gandhi placed humanity above political and economic considerations. That is a reason why the gratitude of the people of Bangladesh for the late Indian leader remains enduring, comes from deep within the heart.

When Mrs Gandhi met Tajuddin Ahmad and other Bengali luminaries in April 1971 following the crackdown by the Pakistan army, we saw light at the end of the tunnel for our bruised country.

Mrs Gandhi’s cooperation with the Bengali leadership in the establishment of the Mujibnagar government in April 1971 and in providing training to the Mukti Bahini is a watershed moment for us, indeed for political observers and historians in the subcontinent and elsewhere.

The determined manner in which Indira Gandhi campaigned for the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Pakistani military custody, for guarantees of his safety and well-being are a story we have not forgotten and will have future generations of Bengalis remember in the years and decades ahead.

In interviews with western media, Mrs Gandhi was firm in her insistence that the genocide in Bangladesh had to stop, that nothing which ignored the wishes of the people of Bangladesh would be acceptable to her government and to the Bengali leadership in Mujibnagar.

Indira Gandhi’s respect for Bangabandhu was deep and abiding. Her first meeting with the Father of the Nation in Delhi on 10 January 1972 on the latter’s way back home after his long incarceration in Pakistan was demonstrative of such respect.

In his turn, Bangabandhu’s gratitude to Mrs Gandhi was made clear through his decision to stop over in Delhi on his way home. Mrs Gandhi cheerfully urged him to address the crowd in Delhi on that historic morning in the Bangla language -- and Bangabandhu soared, as he always did, in his oratory.

Mrs Gandhi’s admiration for Tajuddin Ahmad’s political acumen was well-pronounced. She admired his intellectual approach to the war, his leadership of the wartime government and later his role as independent Bangladesh’s finance minister.

Indira Gandhi happily agreed with Bangabandhu that Indian troops would go back home from Bangladesh before his birthday in March 1972. She was as good as her word and travelled to Dhaka on her first, and only visit, to Bangladesh a few days later.

The 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation between Bangladesh and India she and Bangabandhu signed in that year of happy possibilities was a landmark in South Asian history.

Mrs Gandhi became increasingly worried, with politics running into rough weather in Bangladesh, about Bangabandhu’s security and warned him of the need for measures to ensure his safety. When the Bangladesh leader was gunned down along with his family on 15 August 1975, she received the news as she watched India’s independence day celebrations in Delhi.

There is little question that she was traumatised by the assassinations in Dhaka. Subsequently, her decision to have Sheikh Hasina find a home in Delhi, until she could return to Bangladesh in those days of the Zia dictatorship, was a measure of her concern for the safety of Bangabandhu’s surviving children.

On the day Bangladesh stood liberated in December 1971 and on the day after, the streets of Dhaka saw exultant Bengalis celebrate the joy of freedom, the final moments of it brought about by a determined drive against the occupation forces by the India-Bangladesh joint military command.

Posters carrying images of Bangabandhu and Indira Gandhi were all over town, testimony to the friendship that had brought the two nations together through the crucible of a war fought against an army that had raped and pillaged and murdered in the preceding nine months.

When Indira Gandhi died at the hands of her security personnel, the whole world plunged into disbelief. Here in Dhaka I finished writing the editorial, went through its proof once the compose section came back to the New Nation editorial department with it before making my sad way home.

We were all glued to television on the day Indira Gandhi was cremated in Delhi. It was the end of an era, of strong and purposeful leadership in South Asia.

[Indira Priyadarshini Nehru Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was assassinated on Oct 31, 1984.]

[Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics, diplomacy and literature]