Today in Terrorism: 31 October 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi assassinated by Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Golden Temple siege

While nowadays Hallowe’en has become a campy occasion that seems to be dominated by more and more ridiculous ‘sexy ___’ (vampires, witches, pirates…) costumes, it was originally a night that was all about evil, the Underworld and scary things. In other words, things that cause fear among humans. Who has not watched one of the Hallowe’en slasher films and NOT been terrified?

Terrorism is another thing that frightens people, so much so that in the post 9/11 era it has led some to alter their plans (travel, vacation, etc.) out of fear at being caught in an attack despite the astronomically small chances of that happening. In that, those who use terrorism as a tactic achieve one of their goals: getting us to change what we do.

Today’s featured attack underscores another unfortunate reality about terrorism. These blogs have often tried to demonstrate that state actions to deal with violent extremism sometimes have the opposite effect, i.e. rather than making it less common they lead to more. One would assume this is not the goal.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, on this day in 1984 is an excellent example of unintended consequences. She was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards, both of whom were executed for their actions.

Gandhi’s assassins

The killing occurred a few months after the Indian army’s Operation Bluestar, an effort to oust Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The operation badly damaged or destroyed parts of the Temple complex, and led to the deaths of a large number of Sikh fighters and innocent pilgrims. The number of casualties remain disputed with estimates ranging from many hundreds to many thousands. It is not a stretch to suggest that the assassination of Indira Gandhi was payback for Bluestar, on the assumption that as the nation’s leader she would have ordered the assault.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, site of Indian Army Operation Bluestar (Photo: Dreamstime.com)

It is also probable that the bombing of Air India flight 182 by Canadian Sikh terrorists was also tied to the raid on the Golden Temple, demonstrating that actions in one land can have far away repercussions. Recall that the downing of that aircraft represented the single largest terrorist attack in history until 9/11 occurred.

Wreckage from Air India Flight 182, which exploded off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985.
A part of Air India flight 182 in the Atlantic Ocean June 23, 1985

While the Indian government could not stand idly by and allow terrorists to plan violence from the temple complex their response was far too heavy handed. As a result, India lost a PM.

Hallowe’en is meant to be scary in a way that does not really matter. We should get to the point where terrorism is treated in a similar manner.