Under intense pressure from India’s political opposition and media, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Monday was forced to release a secret, three-year-old investigative report that implicates one of his closest personal aides in the assassination of his mother, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984.
The report, released to the Indian Parliament after 10 days of political flip-flopping that critics say seriously eroded Gandhi’s credibility, plunged the government into its worst crisis since Gandhi succeeded his mother as prime minister four years ago.
Based on three months of interviews and research by Indian Supreme Court Justice M. P. Thakkar, the 314-page report, dated February, 1986, states: “There are strong indicators and numerous factors which warrant grave suspicion as regard the complicity and involvement of R. K. Dhawan, special assistant to the prime minister, in the conspiracy to assassinate the late prime minister.”
The full report appears to be contradicted by an official nine-page synopsis of Thakkar’s voluminous study, which was all that the Indian government released to the press Monday night. The synopsis said that a further investigation found that Dhawan had no role in the assassination.
Within weeks of taking office after his mother’s slaying, Gandhi fired Rajinder Kumar Dhawan, 52, who had served as his mother’s closest aide. But, facing a serious erosion of his political and personal popularity, the prime minister rehired Dhawan last month in an effort to pull his ruling party together before national elections in December.
On the day of the assassination, Oct. 31, 1984, Dhawan was standing just a few feet from Indira Gandhi in the garden of her New Delhi house when two of her Sikh bodyguards opened fire with automatic weapons. They shot her more than 40 times.
The newly released report by the Thakkar commission, which was similar in scope and secrecy to the Warren Commission’s investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, found that Dhawan had contradicted himself in several statements to investigators, that he had been instrumental in reposting Gandhi’s two assassins to be her bodyguards months before the slaying and that he failed to tend to the prime minister after she was shot.
Dhawan declined to comment on the latest report.
Despite a flood of rumors at the time that Dhawan may have been involved in a larger assassination conspiracy, Rajiv Gandhi’s government publicly blamed only the bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, along with a close associate, Kehar Singh. It said the crime was motivated by hatred among the Sikh religious community after Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to storm the Sikhdom’s holiest shrine six months before her death.
The commission’s report, it was decided, would be kept secret for at least 30 years.
Beant Singh was killed by security forces within moments of the assassination. Satwant and Kehar were hanged at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail last Jan. 6 after a prolonged trial and appeals. Their executions set off a wave of killings by Sikh extremists in their home state of Punjab, where more than a dozen farmers have been lynched in retaliation.
Although hinting at a broader conspiracy that may well have involved unnamed foreign powers, the Thakkar Commission report stopped short of defining either the conspiracy itself or a possible motive for the involvement of an official as close to Indira Gandhi as Dhawan. The report itself appeared to be based solely on circumstantial and unconfirmed evidence.
“The motive which operated on his (Dhawan’s) mind has not become sufficiently evident from the material which has come to light so far,” the report stated, adding that its principal recommendation was an in-depth police investigation focusing specifically on Dhawan.
The official synopsis of Thakkar’s report states that such an investigation did take place.
“The Special Investigation Team,” the synopsis stated, “has concluded that Mr. R. K. Dhawan had no hand in the conspiracy for the assassination of the then-prime minister and that there is nothing to indicate that Mr. R. K. Dhawan was, in any way, involved in the crime or the conspiracy.”
But that is the only mention in the synopsis of Dhawan. Nor is there any mention in the government handout of the specific charges cited by Justice Thakkar, whose inch-thick report focuses almost entirely on Dhawan.
Opposition leaders, who have turned the Thakkar Commission report into a key national issue since sections of it were leaked to India’s prominent opposition daily newspaper, the Indian Express, sharply criticized the fact that the government only released three copies of the commission’s full report and hundreds of copies of the brief synopsis.
“They took 10 days to give a few copies to the Parliament’s library and none to the press,” said opposition member Jai Pal Reddy, whose Janata Dal Party made one of the full copies available to The Times on Monday night. “They could not resist the overwhelming public pressure to release it, but, at the same time, they must do everything in their little power to see that it’s played down.”
Veteran opposition Parliament member Madhu Dandavate said the report “further eroded the credibility of the government,” and he added, “The tragedy of this government is it always does the right thing at the wrong moment.”
V. P. Singh, Gandhi’s former finance minister who is now leading an umbrella opposition coalition that will challenge the prime minister and his Congress-I party later this year, said the contents of the report are nowhere near as damaging as the government’s moves that led up to it.
“The simple fact is, the government obviously lied,” Singh said. “They misled the House, and they misled the people. That is on the record, and now, the first witness against this government is the prime minister himself.”
The debate over the Thakkar Commission report, critics say, is a classic illustration of the increasing perception that Gandhi is a weak and vacillating leader.
When the opposition onslaught began in Parliament on March 14, Gandhi’s home minister, Buta Singh, stated categorically that the report would remain secret for reasons of national security.
“The report shall not be placed in this house,” he said. “This house cannot discuss or even raise a question on this. We will not change this position.”
Two days later, Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma told Parliament’s upper house, “I am entirely convinced that this matter should not be admitted.”
The very next day, though, Gandhi himself stood in Parliament and stated that the incessant press speculation on the subject “is fueling willful distortion, malicious innuendo and irresponsible character assassination. To put a stop to this, it is important that the full text of the report be made public.”
As Home Minister Singh released the three official copies Monday, conceding that national security would in no way be affected, the opposition shouted “Victory for democracy!” and “Victory for the opposition!”