Publish Date: Nov. 12, 1984
Cover Story: Death in the Garden
How TIME Covered the News: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of the country’s first leader Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch defender of India’s secular state. When she launched Operation Blue Star, which sent in the army to root out Sikh separatists encamped in the Golden Temple of Amristar, the holiest site in Sikhism, she understandably incensed many Sikhs. Yet despite the tensions, Gandhi maintained her Sikh bodyguards as a demonstration of her faith in India’s unity. But two of her protectors betrayed that trust, gunning her down on Oct. 31, 1984. The anti-Sikh rioting that followed in New Delhi and its environs would lead to thousands of deaths.
As news of the Prime Minister’s death began to spread through New Delhi, there were screams, weeping and tearing of hair, but mostly the kind of stoic acceptance that Indians tend to show in times of sorrow and pain. “She’s gone,” they told one another, rarely using her name, because in India, “she” meant Indira. All around Connaught Place, the capital’s commercial center, there was the sound of steel shutters slamming down as shop after shop closed for twelve days of mourning. By late afternoon, New Delhi had become a ghostly city of empty streets. Flags were lowered to half-staff. On television, prayers were offered by priests and holy men representing India’s main religions and sects. Patrols were quietly posted around the darkened Sikh temples to protect them from attack. From Amritsar, the five Sikh high priests at the Golden Temple expressed their “shock” and “deep grief over the assassination. In the hours that followed, the calm gave way to fights and rioting between Sikhs and Hindus all across India.