Indira Gandhi: Death in the Garden

Indira Gandhi's assassination sparks a fearful round of sectarian violence

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Namaste, in Hindi, means "Greetings to you." It is the traditional Indian salutation, accompanied by a crossing of hands before the face, as if the speaker were offering a prayer.

At 9:08 last Wednesday morning, Indira Gandhi folded her hands in front of her face, looked at the two guards standing along the path to her office and said, "Namaste." It was to be her last word. Within hours India would be plunged into one of its worst paroxysms of sectarian violence since partition in 1947. As the death toll passed the 1,000 mark, the dominant question was whether the country's new leader, Indira's inexperienced son Rajiv, could, over the long term, sustain the integrity of the ambitious political patchwork that against all odds binds 746 million ethnically and religiously diverse people.

The tragedy began on a bright, lovely autumn morning, with a light breeze blowing through the towering tamarind and margosa trees in the sprawling compound at 1 Safdarjang Road in New Delhi, the Prime Minister's official residence. There are two bungalows within the compound, one containing offices and various public rooms, the other serving as the Prime Minister's private quarters, where she lived with her son Rajiv, her daughter-in-law Sonia and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka. Rajiv was off on a political trip to the state of West Bengal, preparing the ruling Congress (I) Party for national elections that are due to be held by mid-January 1985. As Mrs. Gandhi's sole surviving son, Rajiv, 40, was also the heir apparent to the House of Nehru and the leadership of India. But at 66, Indira Gandhi was in fine health and ebullient spirits as she prepared to seek a fifth term as Prime Minister of the world's most populous democracy.

She was in a buoyant mood as she opened the door of her private bungalow, came down the steps and walked onto the winding gravel path toward the larger building. Following discreetly two to three yards behind her were five security men. The Prime Minister was on her way to meet British Actor-Director Peter Ustinov, who was waiting with a television crew to conduct an hourlong interview. He had been with her for two days as she campaigned through the state of Orissa in eastern India, and she had enjoyed the actor's droll wit. "The one thing I find utterly boring," she had said, "are second-rate journalists. But when I meet one who is smart and well informed, I find I give a much better interview."

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