Letter: Long shadow of Gandhi's pyre

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The Independent Online
Sir: The lack of troops to ensure order and provide security at Gandhi's funeral was even more severe than Paul Elmhirst recalls (letter, 5 April), and threw a long shadow.

At the climactic moment there was a real danger of an accidental suttee - that the uncontrolled thrust of the multitude would impel the Viceroy and his party from the front row of the mourners on to the flaming pyre. The memory of that narrow escape stayed with one of the Indian Army officers present, J N Chaudhuri, so when Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964 Chaudhuri, by then army chief, immediately ordered an extra brigade of troops into Delhi to ensure that this time the obsequies would be orderly.

But Indian politicians have never fully shared Western faith that the Indian Army will never assume a political role - indeed, they have sometimes been quite paranoiac in their fear of the generals. So it was in 1964. Learning of the troop movements, ordered by General Chaudhuri the intelligence chief, B N Mullik, hastened to warn Prime Minister Nanda that a coup might be in the making. Reinforcements of armed police were rushed into the capital and the army chief was kept under surveillance. It was a false alarm, of course. General Chaudhuri's exertions that day were wholly professional and merely laid him low with heat-stroke.