The day Sanjay Gandhi died

It happened when I was with the National Herald where I worked as a reporter for five and half months. It was at about 8.25 a.m. in the morning of June 23rd in 1980 when I received a phone call from the Delhi police PRO, Mr A.N.Sharma. I had just got up after a late night at work and my father passed on the telephone to me. Sharmaji had no urgency in his voice and after exchanging greetings told me in a whisper, “Sir, a Glider has crashed in Chankyapuri behind Willingdon Crescent. It is feared that Sanjay Gandhi was in it. He has been taken to Willingdon hospital’’. If there was any element of sleep left in me it vanished in seconds. I brushed my teeth, changed my clothes and called for a Taxi to our house (2, Jawaharlal Nehru Marg) near Delhi Gate. I was out in a jiffy and reached the Lohia hospital (Willingdon hospital) by 8.55 a.m. I met Anil Sharma, now a lawyer and then a Congress activist who told me that “Sanjay is no more’’.

Totally in shock at the sudden development, I rushed inside the hospital. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Chandra Shekhar were both there. Vajpayee in his inimitable style was paying a tribute–“the Sun has set…’’. I moved past him and reached the nursing home side and towards a corridor outside a room where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood with her face totally pale with fear and shock. Nearby, Maneka Gandhi seemed to be in a trance and also in total shock and disbelief. I knew that the worst had happened and I also knew that as the Crime Reporter I would be expected to do the story from all angles and very less logistic support as Herald was not one of the top newspaper organizations which could afford to provide cars and other things to its reporters to cover any event. I stood quietly and then moved towards the medical superintendent’s office.

As I entered, I saw Yashpal Kapoor, Indira Gandhi’s aide and senior Congress leader seated behind a table. He was also the Chairman of the National Herald and someone I had known for many years. He called me in and asked me to sit down. At this stage, Coomi Kapoor, then the Chief Reporter of Indian Express also came in. Yashpal Kapoor looking very philosophical started speaking in a low tone. “It was 20 years ago, I had taken his father’s (Feroze Gandhi) body from this hospital. Now I will be taking his body’’. The truth had started hitting everyone.

Coomi and I came out and I requested her if I could accompany her in her Matador to the crash site. I remember that some people known to the Gandhi family guided us there. We took the path from behind the Nehru Yuvak Kendra and came almost near the rear side of 12, Willingdon Crescent which was allotted to Indira Gandhi while she was out of power. There we saw, the Pitts 2 aircraft badly smashed lying on the ground. A Chappal seemed to have been struck in the cockpit and we learnt that Sanjay and his co-pilot, S.Saxena had been taken out and rushed to the hospital. The plane had come down after taking a loop and crashed to the ground. While we were still there, Indira Gandhi came to the spot and left after sometime. We also moved towards 1, Akbar Road where arrangements for receiving the body had already started.

It was sinking in that Sanjay Gandhi who had virtually led the Congress fightback to win the 1980 Parliamentary polls along with his mother and was considered as the heir apparent was no more. Though a lot of people till this day have plenty of ill feelings towards him, I always have thought that Sanjay Gandhi was a man far ahead of his times. He talked about environment and ecological balance and family planning and discipline when nobody did. He was both misunderstood and hated by a section of people who felt very uncomfortable with Indira Gandhi. I had met him on several occasions though the most memorable meeting was when I accompanied Shamim Saab of Times of India to 12, Willingdon Crescent. Shamim Saab was very close to him and also to Indiraji. I remember both Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi even as the Prime Minister would always address him as “Sir’’. Maybe more on it some other day. But coming to Sanjay, he also had acquired over the years the ability to find and groom young people of that time. Most of today’s top Congress leadership had worked closely with him in the Youth Congress or Congress starting from Ambika Soni, Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot, P.Chidambaram, AK Antony, Jagdish Tytler, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ram Chander Rath, Ahmed Patel, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Janardhan Gehlot, Indersain Reddy, Anand Sharma, Venod Sharma and Bhupinder Hooda. Even in the BJP, people like Jagmohan who switched loyalties from the Congress owed much of their earlier success to him.

Looking back at his death, I sometimes feel that like his mother and elder brother, he too may have been a victim of some conspiracy. He was sure to take over as Indira Gandhi’s successor at an opportune time and somebody may have planned his exit in a plane crash. Somehow, the crash was never investigated as a case of murder but as simply as a crash and therefore a lot of facts may have got concealed. At that time there were rumours that the Pitts 2 or its fuel tank may have been tampered with at the Delhi Flying Club at Safdarjung Airport. But since there is no evidence to support this claim, everything is in the realm of speculation.

I remember covering his funeral. I had walked along with the gun carriage to the Shanti Vana and do remember Rajiv lighting his brother’s pyre. When the last rites were being performed an elderly lady, presumably from the Nehru-Gandhi family broke into a wail. Indira Gandhi who was sitting nearby with dark glasses took off her dark glasses and gave her a cold stare, which totally silenced her. The message it seems was that “We Nehru-Gandhis never cry in public’’. I know Indira Gandhi was never the same again and carried the grief till her last day. Maneka Gandhi was perhaps barely 23 or 24 when Sanjay died and for her the whole world had been lost. Varun (whose birth at AIIMS I also covered during my Herald stint) was about three months old and obviously oblivious of what had happened. I always shudder whenever I think of what happened that morning. Incidentally, I also covered the Kanishka air crash in which 329 people died that also took place on the same date (June 23) five years later as a reporter with the Times of India. I will write about it sometimes.

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