Indian Assassins Used a Popular Copy of a British Gun to Kill Their Prime Minister
Thousands died in the ensuing riots
On Oct. 31, 1984, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, both Sikhs who sought revenge for Gandhi’s treatment of militant Sikh religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers.
Gandhi had ordered Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army’s storming of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, in early June 1984. The operation’s goal was to capture Bhindranwale. It escalated. Bhindranwale and many Sikhs were killed.
This caused widespread outrage among India’s Sikh community. Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, both members of the Indian Intelligence Bureau’s special task force for the protection of the prime minister, plotted revenge. They were armed with a 1A machine carbine and a .38-caliber revolver.
Gandhi was shot as she walked through the garden of her residence in New Delhi en route to a television interview with Peter Ustinov. As she approached a gate guarded by the two bodyguards, Beant Singh stepped forward and fired three rounds from his .38, hitting Gandhi in the abdomen. Satwant Singh then emptied his 1A’s entire 30-round magazine into the prime minister.
At top — a 1A submachine gun. Above — Indira Gandhi. Photos via the author
The 1A is an Indian copy of the British L2A3/Mk4 Sterling submachine gun. Sterling agreed a production license with India in the early 1960s, signing a contract worth £16,000 to produce the first 60,000 guns and provide the technical drawings and tooling for India to manufacture the weapons. Over the last 50 years India’ small arms factories have produced around a million 1A machine carbines — many more than even Sterling produced.
The prime minister reportedly died almost instantly, although other sources suggest she died later in hospital. Her assassins threw down their guns and were arrested. They were taken to a guardroom, where in an ensuing struggle for one of their captor’s weapons, Beant Singh was killed by a burst of fire from another Indian-made Sterling.
In the wake of the assassination India was swept by a wave of anti-Sikh riots. Thousands died. Satwant Singh was sentenced to death and hanged in January 1989. Operation Blue Star and the assassination remain deeply decisive events.