Hindi Film 101: Nehru-Gandhi Family Part 4, 1984

Oh boy, getting close to modern times!  And the stuff that doesn’t have, like, any “perspective of history” on it at all.  Which is also why it is really important to know about it to watch film, because it is the stuff that is kind of being worked through actively still through film plots. (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here)

Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not Indian, nor am I an Indian history expert.  More importantly for this post, I have no deep emotional connection to any of these events.  And I know many millions of people do.  So please know I am aware of that and I don’t want to diminish your feelings by talking about them.  I am just hoping to provide a small introduction for people who don’t know anything about the source of these emotions in order to let them take the first step in understanding them.



In the previous section, I ended with the 1977 elections, post-Emergency, in which Indira was shocked to learn she had lost power.  She fought for a seat and won in the 1978 elections in a different constituency, in response to which the new Prime Minister ordered her arrest.  In response to which, Indira’s supporters hijacked a plane.  It was all very messy.

The big problem was, Indira’s opponents had no real identity beyond being Indira’s opponents.  It was a loose coalition of smaller factions who were essentially ideologically opposed to each other.  Once Indira was defeated, their cracks immediately started appearing.

On the other hand, Indira’s problem was that her version of Congress (which split AGAIN and was now called “Congress (I)”) had no identity beyond Indira.  Still slightly more of an identity than the other party, but not much of one.  She spent 3 years fighting her way back to power, making bargains wherever she could, and when she finally won victory in the 1980 elections, it was taken as a mandate on, well, Indira!  All of India had decided that she should have full power.

Image result for indira gandhi 1980

(Indira in 1980)

Shortly after the elections, Indira suffered a personal tragedy which forever changed the course of Indian history.  And Indian narrative.  The idea of Indira as the mother, as the strong almost unwomanly woman leading the country, that is something you have probably seen over and over in Indian film.  And so is the idea of the two sons, one spoiled and “bad”, one overlooked but full of potential.  Or is it that these stories already existed and we just got used to putting that narrative onto the Gandhi family?

However you want to think of it, Sanjay Gandhi was Indira’s chosen heir.  He was living in her house, helping with political decisions, her strong right arm.  The only one she fully trusted by this point.  And shortly after her re-election to power, he died in a plane crash (if you watch Qurbani, Greatest Movie of the Eighties, you can see a big tribute to him).  This was of course a personal tragedy for Indira.  But it was kind of a good thing for her in public life.  She had never had so much sympathy or popularity.  Both because of the tragedy of her son’s death, and because Sanjay was a large reason her followers were dubious about her, and now he was removed.

Image result for indira sanjay's funeral

(Indira at Sanjay’s funeral)

But, by this point, Indira couldn’t function without a son with her.  She had taken so much power for herself, and she did not trust anyone outside of the family.  It was literally too much for one person to handle.  And so she had to call on her other son, the older son who was working as a pilot for Air India and living a quiet life mostly out of the spotlight.  Rajiv.

Rajiv was Amitabh’s best friend, who grew up and studied overseas, got a pilot’s license, and a career on his own merit.  And picked his own wife, a woman who seemingly removed him from political consideration ever.  Sonia Gandhi, a Italian student who was working as a waitress in England while Rajiv was studying there.  They fell in love and got married.  An Italian waitress as the first lady of India seemed like it could never happen.  But as the wife and mother of his children, she seemed fine.  So far as I can tell, Rajiv and Sonia were always very happy together.

Image result for rajiv and sonia gandhi wedding

But then Sanjay died.  And his mother needed him.  And suddenly Rajiv, the forgotten son, came to power.  And no one really knew what to make of him.  He didn’t seem as aggressive as Sanjay, but besides a sort of general modern cosmopolitan outlook, there wasn’t a clear sense of what he wanted.  But he was there, he was working, he was learning, his family was living in the Prime Minister’s house, his wife was being a good daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, things were moving in a new direction.

Okay, now I get to the part with the deep deep scars that are barely really scars and mostly still wounds.  So I am going to try to be a simple and factual as possible.  Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a leader of the Sikh community.  The Sikhs had lost much of their traditional territory during Partition.  And since then, there had been a constant struggle to regain their identity, their land, their everything.  This struggle had various parts, concern over land redistribution, over access to religious sites, over keeping the Sikh/Punjabi literature alive.

Just to clarify, the Sikh religion was founded in the Punjab.  The Punjab has it’s own unique language, festivals, clothing style, all the stuff that goes into making an identity, just like all the other regions of India.  Since the Sikh religion was founded there, many Punjabis are Sikh.  And almost all Sikhs are Punjabi.  So there is a lot of slippage between the two identities.  It was Punjabi territory which was given to Pakistan (thus a lot of ethnically Punjabis who live in Pakistan).  But there were a lot of Sikhs living there, and the Sikh community felt it was an insult to their religion.  Which maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.  It is certainly a thing that the entire Sikh homeland is/was in Indian territory.  And that large parts of this land that had all kinds of religious significance in different ways was given away in order to placate another religious minority in the creation of Pakistan.  Yes, there were all kinds of other issues involved, but there is also this.

Image result for punjab partition map

In the years since Independence, the Sikh community went back and forth on how to be a part of India.  Most Sikhs were just Indian.  They farmed or worked, prayed, lived their lives.  Many of them took up military service.  But there were also politically active members of the group who argued and talked loudly about what the community should do, as a community, to strengthen themselves.

And this brings me to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  He was the strongest voice for a few years.  And he was calling for radical changes.  At the most extreme, the creation of “Khalistan”, a Sikh homeland separate from India.  At the least extreme, a remaking of the maps of India so that “Khalistan” would be a separate state within India.  Protests were constant, throughout the state.  Sikhs were killed, their attackers were not prosecuted.  And then their enemies died mysteriously, Sikhs were arrested, and then released for lack of evidence.  It was messy.  Law and order was increasingly lost.  And Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became somehow the one man everyone was turning to.  He took the place of the judges and police, solving land disputes and other issues.  And he encouraged his followers to be ready for attacks, to always go armed, as he did himself.

In 1982, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale moved into the grounds of the Golden Temple complex.  The Golden Temple is the most sacred site of Sikhism.  And it’s very very large.  Don’t picture, like, the one temple and that’s it.  It’s a whole complex.  And one part of this complex had a group of armed men living in it.  While the rest of it continued to host pilgrims, scholars, religious men, and so on.

Image result for golden temple complex

Jarnail Singh’s group slowly came more and more towards the center of it.  And they also got permission to post machine guns and look out stations around the edges.  At the same time, publically, they frequently declared their willingness to appear and face any charges brought against them, to hand themselves over to the police at any point.  Which in fact Jarnail Singh had already done earlier, agreeing to a date to surrender himself and then calmly handing himself over back in 1980.  But that was before he was living at the center of the center of Sikhdom, surrounded by armed guards.

Jarnail Singh was absolutely preaching anti-Indian sentiments.  That was sort of his point, that he wanted the Sikh community to have something for themselves within India.  And he was absolutely a potential threat, a potential massive threat considering his popularity, the stronghold where he was living, and even the number of Sikh’s in the armed forces who could at any time choose to mutiny and follow him.  He was a challenge for the central state to figure out.

In a greater sense, India had been rocked by those state boundary protests since the beginning.  Going back to Nehru, there had been a pull between the desire for ethnic identities to be subsumed in the national leading to greater national stability, versus the desire of the people of India to maintain their own existing strong identities.  Nehru himself hadn’t been fully able to solve this question when dealing with the borders of the southern states and the protests that ensued.  And now Indira was facing a similar threat to nationhood.  What to do?  Giving in could lead to an avalanche of statehood requests, but not giving in ran the risk of (even more) armed rebellion.  And negotiations weren’t working.

I don’t know if I would be able to find a solution for this, but I like to think I would have winced away from the solution Indira found.  In June of 1984, Operation Blue Star went into effect.  Power was cut for the entire state, journalists were woken in the middle of the night and transported outside the state borders, telephone and telegraph lines were cut.  And curfew was imposed.  Once the entire state of 20 million people had been cut off from the outside world, the army went into the Golden Temple complex, The Most Sacred site of Sikhdom, and killed somewhere between 483 and 800 civilians.  Supposedly around 400 security forces died in the exchange of gunfire.

Image result for black square image

(No images for this, because power cut, reporters transported outside state borders, etc. etc. etc.)

So, yes, you can’t let armed militants just set up shop within your country.  But on the other hand, you really shouldn’t desecrate in the worst way possible the most sacred site in the world for 25 million people, most of whom are also your citizens.  And authorizing the complete shutdown of an entire state in order to facilitate your attack is also not good.

As word got out as to what had happened (although clear accounts are still not really available 33 years later), shock reverberated throughout the Sikh community.  Still is reverberating.  In the immediate aftermath, around 5,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied, with rumors of pitched battles being fought to bring the mutineers under control.  Indira’s actions, besides considering the morality of it all, was also a terrible political decision.  There is perhaps nothing more offensive that she could have done, nothing that more clearly stated that the Indian state did not respect the Sikh community.

4 months after Operation Blue Star, while walking through the gardens of her house on the way to meet Peter Ustinov (not an important detail, I just find it odd that Peter Ustinov was there), Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh.

Image result for peter ustinov

(Peter Ustinov.  Talented character actor, and witness to the assassination of the leader of the world’s largest democracy)

No one really knew what to do.  Literally.  Even the decision of whether or not to take her to the hospital was confounding for people.  This is what happens when power is too centralized.  Even if Indira had been the wisest leader in the history of the world, having power fully within one person means that if that one person is taken away, the state will flounder.  Which is what happened.  Sonia, her daughter-in-law, briefly took control.  And then Rajiv arrived, flying in from a state visit out of the country.

Taking a break from all this really heavy political stuff for a moment, do you know who met Rajiv as his plane landed in Delhi and rode with him in the car to the hospital?  Amitabh Bachchan!  His oldest friend.  He was there, in the car, when Rajiv decided to take control of India.  Other people were there too, it wasn’t just a Rajiv-Amitabh conversation, but Amitabh was there.

Rajiv arrived at the hospital and took charge.  He was made head of the Congress Party and, in essence, the leader of India.  Within hours of his mother’s death.  A smooth transition of power, mother to son.

Well, kind of smooth.  Operation Blue Star was a tragedy and a blasphemy, there is no way around that.  But what happened after Indira’s death, that was possibly worse.  While she lay in the hospital, her followers went outside and spoke to the crowds gathered.  The constant refrain was “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon” (blood for blood).  The crowd started stopping passing cars and pulling those identified as Sikhs out of them and beating them.

Over the next few days, Delhi erupted.  Some sources claim 3,000 dead in the city, 8,000 dead in total in India.  Millions were displaced as the Sikh areas were destroyed.  The riots were bad, but what was worse was the state response.  Or lack of response.  Police did not come, the army was not sent in, the city just burned and no one seemed to want to stop it.  Depending on what sources you read, this is called a “pogrom”, “genocide”, “riots”, or most often simply “1984”.

Image result for 1984 protest sikh


(Oh, and Amitabh was there too.  He has been named as one of those Congress party voices who stood outside the hospital and helped incite the mob.)

Image result for 1984 amitabh


21 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Nehru-Gandhi Family Part 4, 1984

  1. I was in Amritser and saw the memorials etc. I knew it was a bad massacre, but I didn’t now all this. I makes a bunch of movie references much clearer. Its also interesting to think of how old certain actors were at the time. The Khan’s were all 20 or so. Its got to be engraved on the souls in a certain way. I’m sure it shaped a lot of people even if they didn’t lose loved ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking while writing this about all those carefree silly 80s films. People were watching Himmatwala, and meanwhile an entire state was descending into revolution followed by oppression followed by massacres.

      In an odd way, I sometimes think this is why the Sikh characters are usually so comic. Like, you can’t put a serious Sikh on film because that is going to remind people of 1984. I was shocked when I saw the first trailers for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag because it had such strong 1984 vibes, in a way you never see in film.

      And this, along with The Emergency, is why Indira doesn’t really show up in films the way Gandhi, Nehru, and other figures do. People (understandable) have very very strong feelings about her still, you can’t even do a little cameo of someone playing her. Just putting her photo somewhere in the background of the film is still a big statement.

      On Thu, Jul 6, 2017 at 2:23 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

  2. If film hasn’t really talked about or represented this, is there anything else that has? Literature or music? Or have they done so in a very roundabout way?


    • Not that I know of, but then I don’t know everything. The newish Punjabi cinema is dealing with it a lot. There is a film titled 1984. Oh, and there was a recent Hindi film about it that barely snuck into theaters and past the censors. But it wasn’t very good (partly because all the major talents stayed away from this topic).


  3. The decision to storm the Golden Temple was not at all impulsive.It was considered once before when Bhindranwale first made his headquarters in the Golden Temple.A Deputy Inspector General of Police,Avtar Singh Atwal (a Sikh) was gunned down by Bhindranwale’s people on the steps of the Golden temple.The mission was abandoned at that time considering the civilian causalities.On hindsight the bloodshed would have been much less if they had stormed the Temple then itself.Because after that, Bhindranwale started stockpiling weapons and fortifying his headquarters.Civilians were made hostages and kept under guard.The number of people(both civilians as well as Bhindranwale’s followers) considerably swelled.After that storming the Golden Temple was the only option.It could not be avoided and hence was undertaken.It was terrible but what was to follow was even more horrible.

    Indira knew that she would be assassinated.She was advised not to have Sikh bodyguards.But she wouldn’t listen.(Remind anyone of Caesar? ) Maybe she even wanted to go out while in power? More speculation.After she was assassinated the mob took to the streets and Sikhs were mercilessly killed.Rajiv Gandhi was terribly inexperienced.Or maybe, a tiny part of him wanted vengeance?I don’t know.He was universally liked both by his friends as well as enemies and everyone considered him an ideal gentleman.The army could not stop this because they wouldn’t call the Sikh regiment which was nearby because ‘they’ suspected the regiment’s loyalty.By the time another regiment , which was posted elsewhere came, the situation had worsened.As you can assume bloodthirsty sociopaths(in the party as well as out of it) used that time to hunt down Sikhs.


    • In the next section, I’m going to have to somehow wrap my head around the “When a Great Tree Falls” line. On the one hand, if my mother had just died and I was suddenly thrust into a position of power I had never expected, I don’t know that I would have been able to solve a massive human rights issue within the first week. But on the other hand, surely he could have done something better than what he did. Or at least said something a little more sympathetic about it. And he, along with Congress in general, absolutely should have investigated and prosecuted the offenders at some point in the next 30 years. It’s just a sad bad situation.

      On Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 3:48 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • The “great tree” quote sure raises question about his objectivity.But the mob leaders,who incited the crowd usually tend to be educated,powerful and wealthy enough not to be prosecuted.They never get caught or even if caught are out on bail.One of the main accused in the 1984 riots died naturally. The same thing happened during the Godhra riots too.One of the accused mob leaders is a freaking lady gynecologist.

        What do you think of casting Neil Nitin Mukesh as Sanjay Gandhi in Indu Sarkar? Couldn’t they have chosen some other actor who resembled him instead of going for the extreme makeover? That bulging forehead! Agh!


        • I am still not over Kat as Sonia in Raajneeti. Or, you know, “Sonia” since her character was not based on any real person.

          On Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 8:44 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Kat’s character in Rajneeti had more in common with Draupadi than Sonia.The Sonia factor was hyped purely to create some controversy/extra publicity.Other than the ‘look’ and the factor of assassinated dead husband, there was nothing remotely of Sonia in it.It was Ranbir’s show all the way.And Nana Paterkar’s to an extent. Kat’s character was not properly developed.


  4. the massacre of 1984 was abominable. I know of a sikh friend who never spoke of the details but implied it was a terrible time for her family based in Delhi & men had to cut off their hair (a hard thing to do because it has religious significance) to avoid being lynched. Truly a terrifying sad experience for those impacted. Hope everyone finds peace at some point.


    • That was one of the most powerful parts of Patiala House for me, when Akshay’s mother cuts his kesh. Because it feels like such a, I don’t know, personal thing. Cutting the kesh, stopping wearing Hijabs, or yarmulkes. It’s something that is such a part of your identity for every minute of your whole life, not just something like going to church that you only think about on Sundays. To have to cut that off is like cutting off a part of yourself. I hate that people around the world feel the need to scar themselves like that.

      On Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 6:21 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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  7. I don’t know when kashmiris will understand this, given that there is a live example in front of them in the form of Afghanistan that, you can’t stay an independent nation state in a land locked resource less location. You have to choose sides, and choose it wisely. Sikhs have learned their lesson, given they had to pay with so much blood, which is sad. T
    Just think about it. If there is a nation in between two independent powerful nations, not only is it a bone of contention but is a battle ground for both the countries and none of them care to do anything for them because ” It is not our country”, like it happens with USA, Russia and Afghanistan. If you claim a nation-state you should atleast have one port-city to sustain yourself. Else you are ineligible in this modern world of Increasingly threatening Nuclear and Military capabilities. Look at how Bhutan and Nepal are constantly at the mercy of either India or China, though they don’t like it. Its good that they chose India and made pacts with it, seeing how Tibet went with China.

    Secessionist movement happen all the time around the world, but they can never be peacefully settled without choosing sides. Only solution is plebiscite. UN should encourage more plebisictes, but there will always be doubts on it from old times to the new Brexit. Plebiscite never took a shape in Kashmir. Meanwhile political leaders continue to encourage/incite people towards statehood which is impractical.


    • In my Polish history class in college, they talked about that. How Poland was always at the mercy of geography. Not even because it was landlocked, but because it was in the way. Any time Russia wanted to attack Germany or vice versa, they would have to go through Poland. It was an independent state, of and on, for ages. But that didn’t really matter, because it was still just invaded and the rights lost again the next time someone wanted to go through it to get to somewhere else.

      On Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 10:01 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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