New Delhi — The assassination of Indira Gandhi, carried out with clockwork precision, has exposed an extraordinary intelligence failure - both before and after the Indian leader was killed by two Sikh members of her elite security guard.
It was 9:05 last Wednesday morning when Mrs. Gandhi left her official residence inside the elegant compound at 1 Safdarjung Road.
By 7:00 the morning security shift - 50 guards from the 150-member Special Task Force - had taken their posts around the compound. The men had all been hand-picked and assiduously screened by the country's intelligence bureaus and the prime minister's staff in an exhaustive process that normally included six sets of interviews and tests.
Mrs. Gandhi left her residence late that day. She had returned at 8:30 the night before after an exhausting two-day tour of Orissa State.
As she stepped out of her bungalow, Actor-director Peter Ustinov and a television crew were waiting in a corner of the garden for an hour-long interview.
She walked alone along the path to her office. Two to three yards behind, she was followed by five security men, led by her personal security officer, Dinesh Bhatt. He was followed by head constable Narain Singh, who carried Mrs. Gandhi's umbrella, some of her papers, and her handbag. Her personal assistant, R.K. Dhawan, followed at some distance behind the security men.
Three-quarters of the way up the path, two Sikh security guards stood at attention on either side of a wicker gate. One was Beant Singh, a favorite of Mrs. Gandhi's, who was ending a second tour of duty on her staff.
Beant was a security officer in one of her escort cars during the turbulent period that began in 1974 and ended with her 1977 election defeat.
The following year, Beant returned to his regular paramilitary unit, the Delhi Armed Police. He was promoted to subinspector and transferred out of its special security wing.
He returned to 1 Safdarjung Road in January 1982 and was placed within the prime minister's inner circle - those who actually guarded her official residence.
Two months before the assassination, while Mrs. Gandhi entertained a group of foreign correspondents on Safdarjung's lawn, Beant passed by as one journalist asked, ''Is it possible for you, after the Golden Temple assault, to trust Sikh security guards?'' The reporter was referring to the Army's raid in June on the Sikh shrine to root out militant Sikhs encamped there.
Mrs. Gandhi smiled as she glanced at Beant. ''When I have Sikhs like this around me,'' she reportedly said, ''then, I don't believe I have anything to fear.''
On the morning of her murder, the guard facing Beant on the other side of the gate was unknown to Mrs. Gandhi. Satwant Singh was new to her staff, a constable specially assigned from the second battalion of the Delhi Armed Police. He had been recruited into the police force in 1982 and was assigned to the special branch the next year. One month before the Army entered the Golden Temple, he was assigned to Mrs. Gandhi's elite guard.
Mrs. Gandhi greeted the two rigidly poised men. In what everyone thought was a salute, Beant raised his .38 service revolver, aiming it at Indira Gandhi from a distance of three feet. Three shots pierced the air.
According to Mr. Ustinov, the time was exactly 8 minutes and 27 seconds past 9 o'clock.
As Mrs. Gandhi fell to the ground, Satwant Singh fired the entire magazine of his sten gun into her body - in all, 25 rounds. Sixteen bullets pierced her. By 9:12, she was clinically dead. The scene was frantic, except for Beant and Satwant Singh, who quietly laid down their arms.
''I've done what I had to. You do what you want to,'' Beant calmly said in Hindi before he and Satwant were bundled off to a guard house in the compound by members of the paramilitary, Indo-Tibetan border guard.
Then came a second burst of machine-gun fire.
According to Sheamus Smith, Mr. Ustinov's producer, the second burst came ''perhaps four, five, six minutes after Mrs. Gandhi was killed.''
After he heard the first shots, Mr. Smith, who was shielded from sight in a far corner of the garden, rushed toward the spot where Mrs. Gandhi was shot. Her body and the assassins had already been taken away. An abandoned sten gun lay at the site.
Smith then went in search of Mr. Ustinov. ''It was then that I heard the second round,'' Smith said.
Precisely what happened after the assassins were captured remains unclear. But, according to one intelligence source, Beant suddenly grabbed for a sten gun hanging casually at the side of one of the Indo-Tibetan guards, who had taken the assassins into custody. Satwant reportedly pulled a traditional Sikh kirpan, or small dagger, from his turban. More chaos ensued. Beant was shot dead, and Satwant was pumped with bullets. He is now out of danger at a Delhi hospital.
Why the Indo-Tibetan guards - skilled in hand-to-hand combat - did not physically overpower the men is a key question in the official investigation under way. It is one of the many unanswered questions of an extraordinary intelligence gap, which could have ramifications well beyond the roles of Beant and Satwant Singh.
According to sources at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital where Satwant lies under heavy security, three Sikhs in police uniform, claiming they were from the Delhi police, arrived at 1:30 a.m. Thursday allegedly to question Satwant. Officers from the security cordon outside Satwant's room refused to permit them entry. Then, for some unexplained reason, they were allowed to leave.
Satwant had returned to duty only on the Monday before the assassination after two months' leave in his village of Agira in Punjab State's Gurdaspur District. One of three areas of the Punjab (where a majority of the population is Sikh) considered the ''most disturbed,'' Gurdaspur remains under military control. The late Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale drew extremist followers from the district.
Intelligence agencies had been instructed to maintain round-the-clock surveillance of Mrs. Gandhi's Special Task Force to ensure that members were not contacted by Sikh extremists. No one followed Satwant to Gurdaspur. There are unconfirmed reports that his brother was killed in the Golden Temple raid. If that is true, why was Satwant not dismissed from Mrs. Gandhi's security force?
Indeed, there are serious questions about his recruitment into the police. Nowhere do his 1982 induction records indicate that he was from the Punjab. He is registered as having been recruited from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh State. By 1982, Bhindranwale was already encamped inside the Golden Temple and Gurdaspur had become a terrorists' nest.
The day before Mrs. Gandhi's murder, no suspicions were aroused when both Beant and Satwant requested a change of duty for Wednesday's shift. Beant, pleading personal reasons, asked to be shifted from the evening to the morning roll. Satwant, not normally posted at the crucial wicker gate, complained of stomach troubles and asked to be assigned to a position close to a lavatory.
Security around the Indian prime minister had been strengthened enormously since the storming of the Golden Temple. There had been several intelligence reports that an attempt would be made on her life. All members of her 150-man task force were rescreened.
Although all the force members had passed the screening in the last week of July, the director of the Intelligence Bureau suggested to Mrs. Gandhi that all Sikhs be removed from her security staff, in view of certain ''adverse intelligence reports.''
She quickly dispatched the file back to the director of the Intelligence Bureau with a hastily scrawled note: ''How can we claim to be secular?''
It was a decision that cost her her life.