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Friday, 14 October 2011

Talking about "Sonia Gandhi" brings in interesting nuggets of gold

Appearing on "Today with Pat Kenny" yesterday a listener with a special interest wrote into the show. It was the producer who had led the film crew that was supposed to interview Indira Gandhi, Sonia's mother in law, the day she got assassinated. This is what he wrote, and it is a really good eye witness account. He saw a momentous event in Indian history.

"Lovely piece on new book About Sonia Gandhi this morning. For the record, Seamus Deasy, although he always was my favourite cameraman, was not there when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The programme ‘Peter Ustinov’s People’ was produced by me with Rory O’Farrell directing that episode. Here is an excerpt from original manuscript of my book , OFF SCREEN – A Memoir’:

Early in 1984 I met my old friend Peter Ustinov in London. I proposed making a series of television programmes, “Peter Ustinov’s People”. Peter was enthusiastic. Over lunch we came up with a list of names which included Indian Premier, Indira Ghandi.

I approached Indira Ghandi through Kiran Doshi the Indian Ambassador to Ireland. Within a few days he confirmed that Mrs Gandhi would be delighted to participate in the programme. Three weeks later having negotiated a deal with controller of programmes, Muiris MacConghail that RTE would substantially finance the project, I acquired a German co-producer. We set out for New Delhi. I would produce the programme; Rory O’Farrell my business partner at the time would direct. Our German co-producer engaged a local Indian film crew.

I met Mrs. Gandhi before at the New Delhi Film Festival. She was then an opposition politician. I was impressed by her. She was very attractive, smaller than I had imagined. Then in her mid 60’s, dressed in a colourful sari she looked younger. Certainly a person who would make a charming and interesting dinner companion. She talked of Indian and world affairs. She told of a meeting with the Irish harpist, Grainne Yeats and how she loved classical music. She mentioned that because of the presence of grandchildren in her home, the only music she ever heard there was that of Michael Jackson!

On this occasion she was in fine health and ebullient spirits as she prepared to seek a fifth term as prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy. Mrs. Gandhi invited us to travel with her on her pre-election visit to the state of Orissa where she would hold a series of political meetings. These public meetings always followed the same pattern. The Prime Minister would emerge from her helicopter to orchestrated shouts of “Zindabad Gandhi” (Long live Gandhi). She would then stand in the front of a jeep and be driven slowly round the inner perimeter of the meeting ground, waving and being showered with flowers. Then she would mount a small concrete grandstand. She made her speeches in Hindi and spoke in a weak unresonant voice, completely devoid of oratorical tricks. The average attendance at these rural meetings was 100,000.

Mrs. Gandhi told us with evident satisfaction that these were small meetings compared to most. She seemed to be a microcosm of India, as capable of calmly ruthless decisions - like the storming of the Sikh Temple at Amritsar- as she was of most engaging and even humorous banter. Five months earlier, she had sent the army into Punjab and into the most sacred of all Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple, which Sikh extremists had turned into a sort of holy fortress. At least 600 people were killed in the ensuing battle.

The main interview with Peter Ustinov would take place in the garden of the prime minister’s residence at 9 a.m. on the morning after our return from her political tour. This had included the laying of the foundation stone for a new ordinance factory in Saintala, a helicopter ride from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa which was our base during the trip. On the return journey to New Delhi in the Prime Minister‘s private aircraft, Indira Gandhi told me about her son, Rajiv, a former airline pilot who had reluctantly given up that career to become a politician and his mother’s heir apparent. After the death of her younger son, Sanjay, four years earlier, she had been grooming Rajiv for leadership of the party. He was currently conducting similar campaign meetings in West Bengal and would not return to the capital until after our departure. However, as I proposed returning to India later in the year, she said that we would have an opportunity to meet then. Little did she or I know that within twenty-four hours of this conversation, Indira Gandhi would be dead and her son, Rajiv would be sworn in as Prime Minister of India.

On the evening of our return to New Delhi, I received a ’phone call from the Prime Minister herself to ask me what she should wear for her interview the next day. Over the previous few days, we had seen a wide array of saris, so I suggested one which was predominately orange coloured. She agreed with this.

We arrived at the official residence at 8.30.a.m. the next morning. Our camera was set up on a large lawn in the extensive garden. This was no ordinary suburban garden but rather a small park. At the appointed time, the Prime Minister’s press secretary went to fetch her. I followed a little behind in order to meet her as she entered the garden from the living area. I carried a gift-wrapped present, an Irish linen tablecloth. As I approached the high fence which divided the garden from the residence three shots rang out. Behind me in the interview area, the Indian cameraman explained to the other members of the crew. “Firecrackers” he said. “They are quite usual in these parts”. Then came a burst from an automatic weapon. Clearly not fireworks. I briefly glimpsed the figure dressed in the blood-stained orange sari lying on the pathway surrounded by security guards. Shocked, I slowly walked back to the film crew. Peter Ustinov later described me as “looking white and shaken”. I told them that the Prime Minister had been shot. The whole situation seemed unreal. The early morning birdsong in the garden which had ceased momentarily when the shooting started created an eerie silence. One recalls film and television footage of public assassinations in other countries which take place in public with the attendant panic, shouting and general confusion. In India it was different. Indiria Ghandi’s assassination took place in her garden, in silence as had been in the case of her distinguished predecessor, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India many years earlier.

Indira Gandhi had been shot by two of her Sikh bodyguards who then calmly dropped their guns and were seized by other security guards. A fight broke out and both of the assassins were shot dead. The day before her death, Indira Gandhi had told a large enthusiastic crowd in Orissa’s capital city, Bhubaneswar “I am not interested in a long life. I am not afraid of these things. I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of this nation. If I die to-day, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation”. These words are now displayed in a shrine erected in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence along with other memorabilia including Indira Ghandi’s diary. The page open for the last day of her life includes two appointment entries, one for the early morning and one for the afternoon with “Sheamus Smith and Irish television crew”.

As ever


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