As Indira Gandhi’s surviving son Rajiv became Prime Minister, and her body lay in state at Teen Murti House – her father’s home and, before that, the home of the Commander-in-Chief of colonial India – international notables converged on New Delhi. It was perhaps the final triumph of one who was so good at hosting such things: Mrs Gandhi’s last summit. Behind high and anxious barriers, the leaders of the world watched sandalwood flames on the orderly bank of the Yamuna reduce the earthly body to ashes. There is something irreducibly strange about the Hindu funeral ceremony, a finality that allows no notions of a soothing organic continuity. Only cinders, crumbling into sterile ash, as the insistent, age-old mantras reinforce the superfluous message of the vanity of earthly aspiration. Meanwhile, on the other bank, in the resettlement colonies, the savage mobs howled.
Within hours of Mrs Gandhi’s death – before, in fact, her death had been announced over All India Radio – dark rumours began to be heard. All over North India, the mobs appeared, emanations from the barely suppressed sub-world of the Indian polity. The ensuing violence, a country-wide riot of communal murder, was a throwback to a tribal past in which only the males of the offending community were targeted for vengeance. (The word ‘communal’, incidentally, has one distinctively Indian meaning, indicative, not of any prelapsarian realm of shared joys and values, but rather of the tense and prickly solidarities that divide and inflame.) The anti-Sikh violence at several places in urban North India was, of course, tragic, and its fall-out will contaminate the political environment for a long time to come. The Sikh communities that were set upon and put to the torch could only be guilty under a terrifyingly absolute reading of collective responsibility. Thus, because of the material conditions of their existence, the Sikhs who lived outside the Punjab – but, still, in India, and not in foreign sanctuaries – were not in favour of a communal ghetto state, a fundamentalist rump called Khalistan: and this should not be taken to suggest that all Sikhs inside the Punjab were, or are, in favour of such a conception. Furthermore, the vandalised Sikh communities, from which only the fortunate escaped to the refugee camps, very often consisted of people who had already, in one unbearable lifetime, been refugees – in 1947. Perhaps only the Palestinians could claim a similar melancholy distinction.
But it also has to be said that the communal violence, post-assassination, was perhaps unavoidable. For the last two years, there had been reports from the Punjab of calculated anti-Hindu violence. Indeed, it is remarkable that there had so far been no significant Hindu backlash – remarkable, because the Hindu majority community, too, is not without its reactionary and militant organisations which feed on precisely such bloody fare. The killing of Mrs Gandhi provided a sufficient opportunity for the senseless but not incomprehensible passion for communal vengeance.
In addition to being tragic and predictable, however, the communal violence of the days immediately after the assassination was also convenient. It became possible to cast the events into available, well-used moulds. One of these turned up, somewhat oddly, in the New Statesman, where David Selbourne argued that what had been persistently overlooked was the fact that India wasn’t a country at all, but a sub-continent. This thesis has some truth in it, but there hangs about it an ancient and fish-like smell. It was, after all, a standard colonial fiction: that India was simply an entity conjured up by the British administration, that India wasn’t a country at all, but a fractious collection of communities and nationalities, barely held together in relative amity by the restraining hand of that colonial administration which a kindly Providence had, in a famous fit of absent-mindedness, supplied. What is this thesis supposed to imply, in policy terms: several Pakistans, splitting up at intervals into smaller and smaller states?
The ‘martial’ Sikhs, creatures of myth and ballad, are another colonial stereotype: vigorous, strapping, lusty peasants, hard-working and earthy, bearded and be-turbaned, and enjoined by the valiant Guru Gobind Singh to bear always the name of ‘lion’, Singh. The story went something like this: the racial pride of this community had been injured by the Army’s behaviour in the Golden Temple, and now they have wreaked their terrible and inevitable vengeance against the person they saw as the author of their humiliation. Once again, there is a degree of truth in this ballad-like narrative of humiliation and retribution, not least because the Sikh community is itself trapped in these myths. But it obscures the divisions among the Sikhs themselves: between the reformist Nirankari and the diehard Nihang, the gentleman farmers and the gun-toting acolytes of Bhindranwale, between the different interests that expressed themselves in the moderate and extreme theses of the Punjab agitation.
Apart from the communal violence, the other great theme of the news from India has been the royal succession, Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension of the ‘throne’ of India. Before Mrs Gandhi’s death, the Congress Party was in disarray, and her own grip seemed to be slipping. Now, riding the crest of the ‘sympathy vote’, her Congress Party can be expected to gain a confident majority, and Nehru III will have been ensured his dynastic inheritance. I am disinclined to credit mere mortals with magical powers, but it is difficult to deny her, ‘she’, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the gift of prophecy. ‘When I am murdered they will say I arranged it for myself,’ (7 January 1975).