I Ramamohan Rao Writes : Why All India Radio could not announce the death of Indira Gandhi till six in the evening
The events of October 31, 1984 are still vivid in my memory. I was the head of the News Services Division of the All India Radio. As was my usual practice, I had just returned home after a visit to the newsroom to have a look at the morning 8 A.M. series of bulletins. I had just finished my breakfast, when the RAX telephone rang. At the other end was Sharada Prasad, the Information Advisor to the Prime Minister.
Sharada Prasad told me: “Ramamohan, the Prime Minister has been shot by her security guards. The injury is serious and she has been shifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). For further information you will have to be in touch with the doctors.”
I soon rushed to the newsroom of the All India Radio and deployed reporters at the AIIMS and at the official residence of the Prime Minister at 1, Safdarjang Road.
In our bulletins, we stated that the Prime Minister has been shot at by security guards at her residence, the injury is serious and she has been shifted to the AIIMS. Sharada Prasad updated me saying that the doctors are trying to save her.
In the newsroom, we were aware that the injuries suffered by Indira Gandhi were fatal and there was little chance of her survival.
Being a public broadcaster, the All India Radio had to get the information confirmed by the government. Unfortunately, on that day, the President was out of the country, the Home Minister, the Cabinet Secretary and the Home Secretary were out of Delhi. The Prime Minister’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, was away in Calcutta.
In a parliamentary democracy, the government automatically stands dissolved with the death of a Prime Minister
Looking back at the precedents, when the Prime Minister died, an interim Prime Minister was sworn in. Gulzarilal Nanda acted as Prime Minister on two occasions. There was speculation that someone may be sworn in till a regular Prime Minister was elected.
Very soon, foreign broadcasting stations like the BBC were announcing that Indira Gandhi had been shot dead by her security guards in her house, but we in the All India Radio had to wait. I was told that in case of the death of the King of England, the news was not given out until the successor Prince, who was on a tour in South Africa, was informed.
Meanwhile, All India Radio cancelled all of its programmes and was broadcasting devotional music
I was told that the President, who was on a foreign tour, was on his way back, and that Rajiv Gandhi was returning from Calcutta (now Kolkata) President Zail Singh went straight to the hospital after landing in Delhi, and so did Rajiv Gandhi.
The All India Radio staff stationed at the AIIMS said that confabulations were going on and it was likely that there would not be an interim Prime Minister, and Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in as the next Prime Minister of the country. But no one would confirm the information.
I went to the Vice President R. Venkataraman to seek his advice. I had known him closely when he was the Defence Minister and I was the spokesman for the Ministry and the armed forces. He told me that he would cross check the information. Soon he told me that Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in at six in the evening. He also decided to come to the newsroom himself. He himself announced in our 6 p.m. bulletin that Rajiv Gandhi has been sworn in as the Prime Minister following the death of Indira Gandhi.
Following reports that some persons had distributed sweets near the AIIMS after hearing of the death of Indira Gandhi, violence broke out in the area. My house was in West Kidwai Nagar, next to the AIIMS Safdarjang Hospital complex, and I told my family not to move out.
Incidentally, in the All India Radio News Services Division we had a canteen. Following reports from our correspondents that there was tension in the city, I authorized the purchase of enough rations for nearly a week. Our canteen fed staff of the All India Radio for the next three days.
Among the unsung heroes of the critical days that followed, were the All India Radio and Doordarshan correspondents, news readers and staff car drivers. They stayed in the office for three days to ensure uninterrupted service. Two engineers of the All India Radio were pulled out of their vehicles and set on fire. I remember virtually quarantining the Station Director of the All India Radio, M.S. Batra, for a night.
For three days there was uncontrolled violence in parts of Delhi. The army had to be called to restore normalcy.
One of the first steps taken by Rajiv Gandhi after he was sworn in as Prime Minister was to address the grievances of Sikhs, and he signed the Rajiv-Longowal Accord. But the controversy regarding the violence that followed the death of Indira Gandhi has not yet died down.
The Government of India soon promulgated rules regarding the announcement of the death of senior ministers. And I as Principal Information Officer of the Government of India, had the misfortune to announce the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.
NB: Author Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India and can be reached on his e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org