In my long professional career, covering two incidents amidst difficult circumstances is etched in my mind. One was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the other the dismissal of Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao. Both happened in 1984 in a space of two months. Both were heads of state and charismatic leaders with a popular mass base and both had built up a personality cult around themselves. What happened to them had its own echo in the country.
There was a month-long political drama in August-September 1984 when NTR was dismissed and later reinstated by a rattled Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in October was a shocking incident, resulting in the Sikh riots in Delhi. There was mob fury, violence, riots, curfew and arson in the aftermath.
I was a reporter in Hyderabad working for the UNI. It was not so dangerous for women scribes to work in the field, although we were only a handful. N.T.Rama Rao came to power riding on the slogan of “Atma gauravam” when Rajiv Gandhi insulted Andhra Pradesh chief minister T. Anjiah at the airport in 1982. By August 1984, his own trusted aide Bhaskara Rao got NTR dismissed with the help of the Congress and installed himself as a puppet chief minister. This naturally resulted in swelling of popular support in favour of NTR followed by a month long instability, curfew, violence and arson.
I had a rickety old Fiat, which I used to drive myself. My movements were restricted because of the curfew and there was an eerie silence in the capital with the army flag march. I used to leave home in the morning and invariably return after midnight during the entire month, spending most of the time going from place to place. Once I had to face an agitating mob, but fortunately a friendly policeman who had seen me around rescued me.
NTR created history when Indira Gandhi, realizing her mistake, reinstated him after a month. Before I could recover, I was transferred to Delhi. To my dismay, the day after I landed in Delhi, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I was called to report for work and sent as part of the news team to the AIIMS where she was taken. By late afternoon, the crowds near the hospital began to swell and were getting out of control. I was also pushed around along with the numerous media persons keeping vigil. When President Giani Zail Singh arrived at the AIIMS at 5.25 PM, his motorcade was attacked. The mob shouted, “ Blood for blood.” By evening Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime minister.
On the way back home that night, I found men with sticks and kerosene going around looking for Sikh victims. The next morning I had a horrendous experience. I was staying with relatives in Janakpuri. Around 9 AM, I heard shots in the street and found hooligans shouting “Indira Gandhi zindabad”, while looting the gurudwara opposite. Before we could stop them, they fled. Several other shops were also looted in the area and Sikhs were particularly targeted. The next two days I was put on the duty to cover the two assassins who were treated in Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. More horrendous stories were pouring out in the hospital.
On the fourth day, I accompanied BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia, who came prepared with food for distribution in the relief camps but the victims told her in one voice that what they needed was security.
Looking back I find it fascinating how I had moved along with history but what kept us going was the challenging and fearless profession, which I felt was a shield to me.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print.
Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist