Homeland Security

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi
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By B Raman
Issue Book Excerpt: The Kaoboys of R&AW | Date : 20 Sep , 2020

The intelligence community was worried that the ISI would exploit the widespread anger in the Sikh community for trying to have her killed in retaliation for her role in the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh. We , therefore, closely monitored the telecommunication links of the ISI too. We also stepped up our HUMINT coverage of the ISI. There were no leads suggesting a possible assassination attempt. Some members of the Congress (I) apprehended that even the CIA might exploit the Sikh anger to have her assassinated. It also came under watch — internally by the IB and externally by the R&AW.

While the R&AW had no role in physical security for her, it was responsible for the collection of all external intelligence, which could have a bearing on the security of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and their family.

There was thus an intense apprehension in the national security bureaucracy that some Sikh somewhere would make an attempt to kill her in revenge for the raid, but there were no answers to the questions who, when, where and how, which make a general piece of intelligence precise and actionable. Kao set up a co-ordination committee chaired by him and consisting of senior representatives of the intelligence agencies, which met daily to review the security arrangements for her. It used to discuss all intelligence inputs relating to her security and her daily programme.

Rajiv Gandhi, who was then not holding any position in the Government, took close interest in the action taken for strengthening her physical security . As per his desire, two of his closest personal advisers used to attend these meetings in order to give their suggestions and keep him informed of the discussions and the action taken. Since they too did not hold any position in the Government, they were not entitled to attend these top secret meetings, in which classified information was discussed. Despite this, in order to satisfy him that everything that was required to be done for her physical security was being done, Kao let them attend though they did not have the required security clearance, but the minutes of these meetings did not show their presence.

One of the first steps taken by this committee was to ensure that there could be no threat to her security from Sikh members of the staff of the security set-up meant to protect her. There was no Special Protection Group (SPG) at that time. It was set up after her assassination. The close proximity protection group—as the bodyguards are called- — were hand-picked officers of the Delhi Police, which was responsible for her security at her residence and during her movements in Delhi. The work of this group was co-ordinated by a senior IPS officer of the Delhi Police, under the overall supervision of the head of the VIP Security Division of the IB, who was also a senior IPS officer. There was another senior IPS officer in the IB’s VIP Security Division, who focused on the protection of Rajiv Gandhi and his family. While the R&AW had no role in physical security for her, it was responsible for the collection of all external intelligence, which could have a bearing on the security of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and their family. For this purpose, there were two Divisions (called Branches) in the R&AW called the VIP Security Division and the Sikh Extremists Division. While I headed the Sikh Extremists’ Division, another senior IPS officer headed the VIP Security Division.

All these officers reported to Kao through the DIB or the Director, R&AW or the head of the Delhi Police as the case may be and carried out his instructions. While the channel of command and communications in the case of the IB and the R&AW was well laid out and clear, there was a certain confusion in the case of the Delhi Police. This arose from the fact that certain senior officers of the Delhi Police also maintained a line of communication with close associates of Indira Gandhi such as R.K.Dhawan and M.L.Fotedar. Not infrequently, the associates of Rajiv Gandhi, who kept themselves briefed on the security arrangements for Indira Gandhi, also interacted directly with officers of the Delhi Police. These interactions at various levels did result in a dilution in the implementation of the decisions taken and in a crossing of wires.

One of the first decisions taken after Operation Blue Star was that no Sikh officer should be deployed in close-proximity duties. All Sikh officers posted at her residence were re-deployed discreetly. There was absolutely nothing wrong about this decision.

It is a rule of prudence followed by the security agencies of many countries that no officer belonging to a community, which is aggrieved against the Government, should be deployed as bodyguards of the head of the government. For many years in the US, officers from the Afro-American community were not deployed by the US Secret Service as bodyguards to the President.

…decisions taken after Operation Blue Star was that no Sikh officer should be deployed in close-proximity duties. All Sikh officers posted at her residence were re-deployed discreetly.

Similarly, Catholic officers from Northern Ireland were not deployed as bodyguards to the British Prime Minister. Unfortunately, in India, decisions taken in the interest of national security, are sought to be given an unnecessary communal colour, thereby weakening security. The withdrawal of the Sikh officers from close-proximity duties came to the notice of Indira Gandhi. Some say she noticed it herself. Others say one of her close associates noticed it, ascertained from the Delhi Police that this was done on the orders of Kao and brought this to her attention.

She expressed her misgivings over the wisdom of the decision. Following this, the withdrawn Sikh Police officers were posted back to her residence. However, Kao instructed that no Sikh police officer should normally be posted alone in her close proximity and that, whenever a Sikh police officer was posted in her close proximity, he should be accompanied by a non-Sikh officer.

A number of other decisions for tightening her physical security was taken. These included strengthening the capability and arrangements for anti-explosive checks at her place of residence in Delhi and during her movements in Delhi and outside and providing her with bullet-proof cars. The R&AW, which normally had no role in physical security, came into the picture in respect of the bullet-proof cars.

None of the manufacturers or garages in India had a capability for the bullet-proofing of vehicles. Till a satisfactory indigenous capability was developed, the bullet-proofing had to be got done from West Europe. It would have been simpler to have ordered bullet-proofed vehicles from famous companies such as the Mercedes of West Germany, which had a very good capability for bullet-proofing.

The security agencies of many countries in the world order bullet-proof models from the Mercedes for the use of their Heads of State and Government.

Indira Gandhi — like her predecessors and successors except Rajiv Gandhi — disliked moving around in a foreign-made car. They preferred the Ambassador.

So, Ambassador cars bought in India used to be sent to West Europe for bullet-proofing till the R&AW developed its own capability for bullet-proofing. Kao gave the responsibility for the co-ordination of this work to the R&AW because its head, in his capacity as a Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, had independent powers of sanction. Financial sanctions for sending the cars, therefore, came quickly.

Two other decisions taken by Kao need to be noted. The first was that an ambulance with a competent doctor and nurses should always form part of Indira Gandhi’s convoy and that this ambulance should always be stationed outside her place of stay so that it could quickly join the convoy. Indira Gandhi strongly disliked the sight of an ambulance permanently stationed outside her house or in her convoy. Despite her dislike, Kao insisted it should be there. The only concession he made to her sensitivities was to instruct that the ambulance should position itself in such a manner as not to be visible to her.

The second was to persuade her to start wearing a bullet-proof vest. Before broaching the topic with her, he decided to get a bullet-proof vest from the UK. Since nobody had the courage to ask her for measurements, he took a blouse from a lady of roughly the same body build as Indira Gandhi and asked the R&AW to get three BP vests made in the UK —- one of the same size as the blouse, the second a size bigger and the third a size smaller.

After they arrived, Kao rang up M.L. Fotedar and told him that he would be sending the vests through me. He asked Fotedar to request her to start wearing the size that suited her. Fotedar was hesitant to talk to her on the subject. He felt that she would refuse to wear it. Kao insisted that it was necessary.

We never got a feed-back from Indira Gandhi whether any of the Bullet Proof vests suited her.

He asked Fotedar to tell the security people at her residence that I would be bringing a package and that they should not ask me to open it. I got the vests re-packed after inspecting them and took it to her residence. As the package was put through the door-frame metal detector, there was an alarm as it contained metal pieces. Since Fotedar had told the security staff in advance about me, they did not ask me to open it. One of them took me to Fotedar’s room and informed him that I had come. Fotedar came out and told me that Farooq Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir, was with him. He asked me to wait till Abdullah left. He asked the security guards to put a chair for me outside.

I had to keep sitting there for nearly an hour till Abdullah left. I noticed menial staff moving all over the garden without being checked or accompanied by the security personnel. A mini transport van of a well-known soft drinks company, whose owner was reportedly close to the Congress (I), entered the premises without its being subjected to anti-explosives check.

No security personnel accompanied it. A couple of employees of the company went from room to room replacing used soft drink bottles with fresh ones. None of them was subjected to any security check. Nobody checked the crates of soft drinks for any concealed explosive device. The staff of the company were not escorted by any member of the security staff as they moved around the place. After about an hour, Abdullah left. Fotedar came out, took the package from me and said: “ Why can’t Kao do this himself? Why does he want me to do it?”

We never got a feed-back from Indira Gandhi whether any of the Bullet Proof vests suited her. One heard that she tried it once or twice, but felt uncomfortable as she sweated a lot. She was irregular in wearing it. I went back to Kao and reported to him what happened. I also told him about my observations regarding the very weak state of physical security inside her house. He said he would take it up with the concerned officers in the IB and the Delhi Police. I was told he did the next day, but they denied any laxity.

On October 31, 1984, I went to office as usual at around 8 am. After some time, I got a phone call from G.C.Saxena, who was the head of the R&AW at that time. He said: “Raman, the Prime Minister has been shot. I am at her residence. I may be coming late to office. Take care of it.”

Before I could ask him for any other details, he kept the phone down. I was his staff officer. At the time she was shot, many senior officers were attending the annual parade of a central para-military organization. Kao was on a secret visit to Beijing at the instance of Indira Gandhi to meet Chinese leaders and senior officials to test the waters for a possible visit by her.

She had been shot by two of her Sikh security guards, who had manipulated the duty allotment in order to ensure that they would be on duty together.

I got a phone call from Dhawan. He asked: “We have been frantically trying to contact Kao. Where is he?” I told him he was in Beijing. He said that Kao should be informed that she had been shot and requested to return immediately. I told him that I would convey his message to Saxena. I did.

In the meanwhile, I started getting details from other sources. She had cancelled all her public engagements for the day and decided to spend the day with her grand-children. She had been shot by two of her Sikh security guards, who had manipulated the duty allotment in order to ensure that they would be on duty together. The two assassins were themselves shot at by other security guards immediately after the assassination. One of the assassins died. This gave rise to widespread rumours that there was a large conspiracy involving many members of the security staff and that one of the assassins had been killed by the Police in order to prevent the truth from coming out.

The instruction that no Sikh security guard should be deployed alone without their being a non-Sikh guard with him was not observed.

She was not wearing her BP vest as she was spending the day in the house. There was no ambulance with qualified medical personnel and with arrangements for immediate blood transfusion available. She bled to death by the time she was taken to hospital by Sonia Gandhi. However, the announcement about her death was made by the Government of India much later, but the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had announced her death much earlier.

The fact that she had been shot by her own Sikh security guards despite all the security precautions taken after Operation Blue Star to prevent such a possibility shocked everybody. The senior officers of the IB and the Delhi police responsible for her security, including the DIB, were removed. The head of the VIP Security Division in the IB was reverted back to his State. One or two officers were placed under suspension and departmental enquiries on charges of negligence were ordered against them. A full-fledged enquiry into the assassination was ordered by Rajiv Gandhi, who had taken over as the new Prime Minister.

The reputation of the Indian intelligence community and the Delhi Police sank to new depths that day. That she should have been so easily killed by her own security guards in her own house, which on paper was supposed to have been the most protected place in India, shocked Indian public opinion and the international community. Any Police or intelligence officer, who had the least qualms of conscience, would have hung his head in shame. Bravely, she had done her duty in the best way as perceived by her by ordering the Army to raid the Golden Temple and free it from the control of the terrorists. She depended on us to protect her. We failed her. It was a dark chapter in the history of the Indian intelligence and security establishment.

She should have been so easily killed by her own security guards in her own house, which on paper was supposed to have been the most protected place in India.

Rumours and conspiracy theories galore spread like wild fire in the wake of her brutal killing—– that the Sikh bodyguards were acting at the behest of the Khalistanis and the ISI; that one of the conspirators had visited his village in the Gurdaspur District on leave before the assassination and from there had secretly visited Pakistan to meet ISI officers; that it was a joint conspiracy by the ISI and the CIA and so on. The fact that some months before her assassination, an American academic had undertaken a study on what could happen in India after her death added grist to the rumour mills. There was surprise and shock that the intelligence agencies were not even aware of this study. They had very little information on the background of this academic.

The judge, who conducted the enquiry, turned out to be not a good choice. Instead of a well-focused enquiry, what one had was a plethora of conjectures and speculative conclusions. There was no credible evidence to show that the Sikh officers of the Delhi Police and their instigators in a gurudwara of Delhi were acting at the behest of the Khalistani terrorists. The terrorists were hatching their own conspiracy. So too some Sikhs in the Delhi Police in association with some in a gurudwara. The Sikh police officers succeeded, where the terrorists could not. Being police officers, they knew the importance of communications security. They, therefore, avoided the use of telephones for contacting each other. As a result, it was not a surprise that no TECHINT about the conspiracy was forthcoming.

The only way of collecting HUMINT would have been by keeping the Sikh police officers associated with her security under close surveillance— at Delhi as well as during their visits to their villages on leave. This was not done. There was a shocking laxity in the supervision of the security arrangements by the senior officers. Who benefited from the assassination? Pakistan, definitely. The US,possibly. The absence of evidence of their involvement did not mean that they were not involved. If they were involved, they had covered up their tracks successfully. History is unlikely to be able to find an answer to the question of any foreign involvement.

The announcement of the death of Indira Gandhi was followed by widespread anti- Sikh riots. The R&AW had many Sikh officers at various levels in its staff. The moment Saxena heard of these riots, he asked me to contact all Sikh officers and ask them to shift to the offices of the R&AW along with their families and stay there till the riots stopped. I did so. Some, particularly at the junior levels, availed of the offer and shifted to the office. Some preferred to shift to the houses of their relatives. Others decided to brave it out in their house and requested the R&AW to arrange for physical security for them and their families in their house. We did so, with the co-operation of the Delhi Police.

Kao was informed of the tragedy immediately after the assassination. He cut short his stay in Beijing and decided to return to Delhi. There was an Air India flight from Tokyo to Delhi via Hong Kong the same evening, but there was no flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. On coming to know of his problem, the Chinese authorities graciously offered to place a special aircraft at his disposal to enable him catch the Air India flight at Hong Kong.

He accepted their offer and managed to reach Delhi past midnight. Saxena received him at the airport. I went with him. He accompanied Kao to his house in the car and briefed him during the journey. I was not privy to the briefing. A day after the cremation, Kao met Rajiv Gandhi and told him of his desire to resign from his post as Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Secretariat. Rajiv Gandhi accepted his request to be relieved of the responsibility.

The assassination must have been a terrible blow to Kao for two reasons. The senior officers of the IB and the Delhi Police, whom he trusted implicitly and on whom he relied for protecting her, had let him down through their negligence and lax supervision.

Indira Gandhi, whom he had known for over three decades and who had implicit trust in his judgement and advice, was brutally killed during Kao’s watch of the intelligence community as its Czar. He never showed it on his face. Nor did he ever discuss with those close to him the feelings in his heart over the failure to protect her.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

B Raman

Former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of The Kaoboys of R&AW, A Terrorist State as a Frontline Ally,  INTELLIGENCE, PAST, PRESENT & FUTUREMumbai 26/11: A Day of Infamy and Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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One thought on “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

  1. Dear Author,
    You may be an expert in our own right, but i wish to clarify that Anand marg has never indulged in the acts of terrorism niether in india nor elsewhere. Here it will worth mentioning that Anand marg is one such organisation that is committed to the cause of humanity that it has one of the biggest relief teams which travels thru out the world for natural disasters.


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