Morgan Institute for Human Rights


Rajiv Gandhi

Son of the previous Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and grandson of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi was the logical successor in India’s “democratic dynasty” when his mother was assassinated in 1984.  The Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress Party had been elected to lead India for all but a few years since Independence from Britain in 1947.  Rather than developing a career as a politician, Rajiv had been a pilot for Indian Airlines.  While a student at Cambridge, Rajiv, raised by his Hindu mother and Parsi father, met the Italian Catholic Sonia Maino.  Their marriage in 1968 was politically risky in a country with a Hindu majority and history of European colonization, but at the time he was still uninterested in politics.  Nevertheless, by 1984 he had taken over for his assassinated mother as the Prime Minister, elected in a sympathetic landslide which secured 80 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, a greater majority than any previous Prime Minister of India had received.  But soon the political honeymoon was over.  

Rajiv came to power with minority religious tensions at a high point and tried to engage in a balancing act among India’s numerous religious communities.  Indira had been killed by Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of her decision to launch Operation Bluestar, a government attack on an extremist faction of Sikhs while they were in the holiest Sikh shine, the Golden Temple.  Following her assassination, a violent backlash against Sikhs killed many members of this minority religion.  Rajiv made some symbolic efforts to reconcile with the Sikhs, short of granting independence to the Sikh dominated state of Punjab, by releasing some prisoners and launching an investigation of the anti-Sikh riots. Hindu nationalist organizations including the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticized the Congress Party for “pandering” to Muslims and other minorities.  Hindu nationalists had argued for decades that a Muslim place of worship, the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya, had been built on the site of a destroyed Hindu temple honoring the birthplace of a Hindu god, Ram, leading to government restrictions on access.  Trying to attract Hindu voters, Rajiv’s Congress government let the controversial site be reopened, which “led to confrontations between the parties and uncertainty in the Muslim community regarding the intentions of the Congress party government” (Lateef 1998, 262-3).  Religious minority insecurities were on the rise and Rajiv’s grace period as a fledgling Prime Minster was over when Shah Bano’s case forced him to make a fateful decision about Muslim women’s rights.