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When 31 bullets felled Indira - R.K. Dhawan remembers
Published on 28 Oct. 2009 10:44 PM IST
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It was Oct 31, 1984, a day like any other with R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s special assistant, arriving at 1, Safdarjung Road at 8 a.m. to find the prime minister getting her famous tresses - with the distinctive streak of white rising from the centre - trimmed for a television interview. “She gave me a set of instructions of how she had to receive the president (Zail Singh) who was returning from a trip abroad and a dinner she was to host for a foreign dignitary that evening. She wanted to ensure there was no clash in timings,” recounts Dhawan, now 72, often referred to as her factotum, confidant and shadow all rolled into one, and who was associated with her for 22 uninterrupted years. After the perfunctory briefing, Dhawan, remembered in political circles as one who wielded unparallelled power like no secretary to the Congress chief has, retired to his room. All public appointments at the adjoining thick-walled white bungalow in Akbar Road, used for her official engagements, had been cancelled as Gandhi had arrived late from Orissa the previous evening. Only a television interview with two- time Academy award-winning film actor and journalist, Peter Ustinov, was scheduled. Ustinov waited under a tree in the sprawling lawns for an interview that was never to be. An hour later, everything changed. Dhawan remembers each detail of that terrible morning. “Just a few days earlier it was Diwali and the gardens of the two houses that are adjoined were being cleaned. She had to wait for a while for the gardeners to clear out to go for the interview and I noticed she was getting restless,” says Dhawan. “When we finally got the go-ahead from security after about 10 minutes, I walked alongside her. As we reached the wicker gate that connects both gardens we saw Beant Singh, her Sikh bodyguard and dressed in civilian clothes, approach her.” Before Dhawan’s very eyes, Beant Singh drew out a .38 revolver in a flash and fired three shots into Indira Gandhi’s abdomen. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh, who was from the Delhi Armed Police came running and emptied his carbine into her. “It all happened so fast. Even today, I still shudder when I think of that moment when she was shot. Words fail me even now,” says Dhawan. Gandhi was not wearing her bulletproof vest that morning, something she was advised to wear after she ordered the army to storm into the Golden Temple in June that year. “I remember Beant Singh say as he put his revolver down - We have done what we needed to, now you can do what you have to,” recalls Dhawan, who immediately shouted for help. Hearing the gunfire, Sonia Gandhi was the first to rush out from her room. “She was shell-shocked to see such a spine-chilling sight,” says Dhawan. Though an ambulance was stationed in Akbar Road, the driver had gone out for tea. But not a minute was wasted and a bullet-ridden Gandhi was put into the official Ambassador car and rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Instructions were specifically given at the office to be relayed to AIIMS that the prime minister was being brought in. But when they reached the hospital, Dhawan recalls, the authorities were unaware of what had happened. “Soniaji was at the backseat, Indira Gandhi on her lap while M.L. Fotedar (a trusted Congress loyalist), me and the driver were in the front. I could see she was bleeding profusely.” On reaching AIIMS, Indira Gandhi was wheeled into emergency. Within no time, doctors quickly moved her to the operation theatre, where it is believed they pumped in several units of blood. “The doctors told me in the emergency itself there was little hope. With so many bullets inside her what could be left behind?” asks Dhawan, 25 years after the assassination that shook the world and India. Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India for 15 years over two terms, died on her way to AIIMS. But she was not declared dead until many hours later. Official accounts spoke of 29 entry and exit wounds; 31 bullets were extracted from her body. Later, the Justice Thakkar Commission of Inquiry pointed the needle of suspicion to Dhawan for allegedly changing the guard’s duties. That was unfounded and Dhawan was exonerated. Sitting in his plush Golf Links residence in New Delhi, Dhawan is out of power now but remains a loyal Congressman with memories of that Oct 31 morning and its aftermath still coming back to haunt.

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