Jonathan Salem Baskin

Political Change

Today, a community lost its authority.

Indira Gandhi was a controversial figure for most of her professional life. Her father, Jawaharal Nehru, had been a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi and India’s first prime minister (her last name came from her husband, who wasn’t a relation). She got into politics early, but her dad didn’t want his daughter serving in his government, saying it would smack of dynastism. When he died in 1964, a caretaker prime minister was named, and Indira was made president of her Congress Party. She was elevated to lead the country two years later, and persevered as prime minister for the next 30 years, despite fighting the Pakistanis, nationalizing the economy, declaring a state of emergency, getting convicted of corruption and spending time in jail, and murdering Sikhs who were agitating for greater rights in Punjab. This last action prompted her assassination on this day in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, who shot her 33 times.

Individual action intended to supersede a group’s will and remove rulers is as old as civilization. It emerged out of the monarchical systems of ancient China and Assyria, and became the go-to mode for succession in the Roman Empire. The Europeans relied on it too, usually moving one competing familial faction into power over their relations, and then allowing the losers to reaffirm their authority later on. Assassinations started wars, like the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria led to WWI, and stopped them, as the stabbing of French Revolution mastermind Jean-Paul Marat may have done. Generally, such murders occurred when leaders’ claim to authority was based on nothing more than power, circumstances, or some presumption of Divine Right. Political assassinations of democratically-elected leaders usually come from nutjobs, like the attempts to kill 10 different American Presidents (four succeeded).

When leadership is seen as a symbol and not the outcome of a community’s will, any individual action to change it seems reasonable.