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Sanjay Gandhi S-2A crash 1980

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Dennis Flamini

Well-Known Member
Sep 6, 2007
Reaction score
Sunil Sethi
July 15, 1980 | UPDATED 11:34 IST
A +A -

It had the makings of a Greek tragedy. There was the obsessive taste for power, the reckless addiction to speed and the consuming urge to be glorified. There was a kingdom to take over, and legions of admiring lieutenants. Few men could have asked for more - and got it. The world, it seemed, was at the calling of Sanjay Gandhi, MP. But there was a fatal flow, as in all tragedies. When it struck, in the shape of a malevolent red aircraft, the instant heroism matamorphosed into instant martyrdom and the glorification became absolute.

Last week, as the surging crowds pressed towards the funeral cortege of Sanjay Gandhi all along the 12-km route to Shantivana, they invoked the image of an immortal, Sanjay Gandhi amar rahen, they shouted, participating in one of the grandest but unofficial state funerals ever organised in Delhi, and the other slogan that caught the popular imagination extended the image further: Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Sanjay tera naam rahega.

Sanjay Gandhi achieved in death what other politicians hanker after all their lives. In the process he altered the shape of politics to come. As a result, the outflow of power reverts again to his mother, to the single woman who has survived her ordained political successor, and who has remained shadowed for most of her political life by the unexpected passing away of those whom she has trusted most.

Violent End: Unlike his father's or grandfather's death, Sanjav's was the most sudden. It was violent. It was instant. It was also self-indulgent. On that clear June morning when he left, in his green Matador, from his mother's house less than a kilometre drive to Safdarjang Airport, there was nothing unusual in the fact that he did not say goodbye to her. In recent days, the early morning drive had become almost a ritual. Safdarjang Airport, say his friends, had almost become a second home to him.

He was there the morning before. He had been there the evening before as well. For three days before the fateful Monday morning of June 23 he had been obsessed by the new aircraft acquired by the Delhi Flying Club. "He was like a little boy crazy about the plane," says a personal friend whom Sanjay had spoken to on Sunday evening "Come for a ride anytime," he told me. "It's a terrific feeling, he said."

On Sunday morning, Dhirendra Brahmachari, resident swami of the Gandhi household, ran into Sanjay at Safdarjang Airport on returning from Kashmir in his own private plane. The bearded yogi recalls their encounter: "I was most happy to find Sanjay at the airport But when he suggested that he would take me up for a ride in the new Pitts S-2A , I was a little apprehensive. I told him I would only come if he would avoid his kalabazi (acrobatics) I had heard about the acrobatics that he had started doing recently"

Other friends had warned him as well. Mrs Gandhi's personal aide, R. K. Dhawan, whom Sanjay took up in the air that afternoon, came down feeling jittery. The same afternoon Sanjay had taken his wife, Maneka up for a ride also. When the trio returned home at about 6.30 in the evening, Dhawan was reported as saying that he felt "dead scared" when Sanjay indulged in aerobatics.

Mrs Gandhi, just back from her tour of Ladakh, was apparently informed of the misgivings of members of the household. Although she had been indulgent about Sanjay's greatest pleasure, she had apparently made up her mind to tell him to stop flying. There had been complaints from bureaucratic quarters as well. Civil Aviation authorities had complained last May that Sanjay was ignoring safety requirements during his frequent flights around Delhi and North India. And the fear had been compounded by the nervousness of friends.

Obsession: For Sanjay himself, flying had in the last few years become more than a pleasure. It had become a singular obsession, a heady, perhaps the only release from the growing pressures of an active political life. It gave him a special "high". "He was a damned good flier," says an Uttar Pradesh Government pilot who used to go aloft with him at the Delhi Flying Club: "Flying seemed to be in his blood."

Another pilot from Chandigarh, a former instructor at the Flying Club, who met Sanjay after he had piloted a twin-engine Beechcraft to Chandigarh during the Assembly elections, was astonished at the man's knowledge about planes: "He seemed extremely keen to fly an aerobatics aircraft. The amount he knew about planes was simply staggering."

The Pitts S-2A aircraft with a 200 hp Lycoming engine which Sanjay was flying is one of the best-known competition aerobatics aircraft. Its light body, its specially designed short wingspan which measures just over 17 feet, and its flexible but compact controls, make it an ideal sports aircraft for complex manoeuvring in the air..

The plane had been cleared for airworthiness four days earlier, but Sanjay seemed to have set his mind on mastering it long before that. Instructors at the Flying Club did not share his enthusiasm. They knew him as a skilled but wilful flier, extremely confident and knowledgeable about planes, but prone to show off his dare-devilry. He had no ears for cautionary advice. And they were often too embarrassed to point out the hazards.

He seemed possessed by the thrill of risky manoeuvres in mid-air. Flying had overtaken his earlier obsession of fast driving. Often he would "tease" friends in the air by swooping down to just a few feet above the ground or turning off the ignition at 4, 000 ft. Other friends who knew him in his early days remember the same "teasing" as he drove his van. "He used to take the sharpest turns on Safdarjang Road," recalls one, "he just loved the speed of it."

The "red bird" he took off in on his last flight did not even belong to the Flying Club but to Thomas Mouget & Co (India) Pvt Ltd, a Calcutta-based firm linked to the Apeejay Group, of which industrialist Jit Paul is a director. Sanjay was flying dangerously low low enough to spot his family in his back garden.

As it happened, his aircraft crashed barely 500 yards diagonally behind his official residence at 12, Willingdon Crescent. There is a theory that, realising in a split second that he had lost control, he was trying to crashland in the open space near the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra. At 7.58 a.m. when he took off in the plane with Capt Subhash Saxena, he flew over Ashoka Hotel and began making loops. He was flying dangerously low. Mrs Devendra Nath, who lives at 15, Willingdon Crescent saw him from her kitchen window.

Rajiv comforts Mrs Gandhi as Viren Anand (Meneka's brother) takes Sanjay's ashes
"Why is this plane flying so low, I kept asking my husband." she says. A few minutes later, Pratap Singh, her cook, noticed from the back verandah that the sound of the plane engine which filled the air had suddenly stopped. "It was like a scooter grinding to a halt," he said. "The plane suddenly lurched up in the air, then it nosedived into some trees behind the big nallah and we all heard the loud crash."

Within 15 minutes the fire brigade and an ambulance were at the spot. Four firemen helped hack down the branches of the tree to extricate the two bodies that were clinging together. The sight was gory. Sanjay's face was split down the centre. His skull was visibly smashed. The plane's joy-stick had slashed the waist of his crumpled body. Tatters of his khadi kurta-pyjama stuck to him. Saxena, who was sitting in the front seat was even more badly mangled. Later, eight surgeons would take nearly four hours to patch up the bodies. Slowly dragged out, the two bodies were laid out on stretchers and covered in red blankets. Just at that moment Mrs Gandhi arrived with R. K. Dhawan.

Stoic Reaction: Her car parked a few yards down the dirt track, she had first begun to run towards the crash. Then slowing down, she composed herself, and began to walk briskly. Reaching the stretcher, she knelt down to touch her son's body. When she saw his face, her self-control vanished. Kneeling over the corpse she began to sob without restraint. The tears came uncontrollably.

It was one of the few moments in the 30 hours till his cremation that Mrs Gandhi broke down in public. At all other times she maintained an impassive face, going about her duties as mother and prime minister in what became an elaborate public event. In the hospital she comforted the family of Capt Saxena: at home she received delegations of ambassadors, ushered in political leaders paying homage, drove to the scene of the crash again to ask after Sanjay's watch and eye and personally supervised arrangements the cremation ceremony which was to be bid a stone's throw away from her father's memorial.

It was her Government's media department that displayed confusion, not she. All India Radio which broadcast the first news of Sanjay's death at 10 a.m. continued with its normal programmes till half an hour . The Minister for Information and broadcasting, Vasant Sathe, then came on the air to broadcast a short speech of condonce. Programmes were disrupted to be substituted by funeral music. Two hours later, when it dawned upon All India Radio that the death of a member of Parliament was not commensurate with the protocol reserved for a head of state, they changed again to the normal schedule of programmes.

The prime minister's own secretariat however proved a model of efficiency. Sanjay's strongmen, overcoming their personal loss, performed to prefection. Taking their cue from his mother, who remained forbiddingly private in her sorrow, Leutenant-Governor Jagmohan and Police Commissioner P. S. Bhinder. together with R. K. Dhawan and Yashpal Kapoor, spread but to organise a funeral on a grand scale.

Within hours of the crash, the Akbar Road annexe to the prime minister's Safdarjang Road residence, had been fortified by barriers, cordons, armies of policemen, slabs of ice and cold water, and shamianas. The dignitaries began to arrive soon after.

The extended mourning was essential for personal reasons. Sanjay's elder brother, Rajiv and his family, were away in Italy on vacation, and so was Maneka's mother.

Flight from state capitals were jammed with ministers, and their entourage. Special trains to Delhi were anounced to carry mourners to the funeral, chief ministers, many of them sworn in at Sanjay's behest, vied with one another to bring greater crowds from neighbouring states. It is estimated that of the three lakh people who crowded the capital's streets for the funeral, nearly one-third came from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. More than 1 0,000 policemen were deployed to hold them at bay. Sanjay's last journey quickly became the biggest spectacle since the elections.

Rajiv and Tytler (left): bringing the ashes home in Sanjay's light-green Matador van
Impressive Turnout: It confirmed, finally, this encompassing political authority. As one Opposition politician pointed out, it was ironic that his status could not officialise the scale of his funeral. But coincidence provided he chance. The death of former President V.V. Giri in Madras on June 24 proved a ready excuse. A national mourning was declared. A national holiday was announced.

Yet Giri's death received only subsidiary treatment in most morning papers. Sanjay's funeral grabbed the headlines.

In real life, the turnout seemed even more impressive. In the sweltering afternoon of the hot June day, Sanjay's cortege attracted greater attendance than the death of any-Indian President. "You'll have to admit," said Mohd Arif Khan, Youth Congress MP from Kanpur tearfully, "that this man achieved at 33 what eludes most political leaders in their entire careers."

His achievement was evident in the 200 sq yards of space surrounding his pyre. There was hardly a political personage in the land missing. Every chief minister, including Tamil Nadu's M. G. Ramachandran, squatted humbly on the ground. Every resident ambassador in the capital made an appearance. Teams of foreign cameramen flew in to film the ceremony. And there were those who made a social event of it: puffing pipes, lighting cigars and spotting the luminaries.

As the priests completed the task of laying out the pyre, and Sanjay's brother Rajiv rose to perform the last rites by setting it ablaze, there was silence. His young widow sat shattered, looking blankly ahead of her. But the thousands of spectators, clamouring to break cordons, gazed in the direction of another woman who squatted motionless in the centre of the family group.

On her right was Maneka. and on her left an old relation of her husband. Hardly a muscle moved in the face of the woman who had battled bitterly for the son. protected him, and anointed him as her successor. A mere tightening of the lips, a straining of the neck. but the eyes were kept hidden by sunglasses. As she watched the growing blaze, there were those struck by the savage irony of the sequence, and the sudden switch in political metaphor. No one would now ask where the son will be without his mother. They would rather ask where the mother will be without her son.

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