Mourners wait hours in hot sun for last respects ASSASSINATION OF RAJIV GANDHI

May 23, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India -- In a house where Rajiv Gandhi played as a little boy, the mutilated body of the former Indian prime minister was placed on a slab of ice and cloaked by his country's flag yesterday as thousands of mourners stood beneath a blazing sun for at least an hour to catch a brief, last glimpse of him.

India's capital was in the first day of a week of official mourning for the 46-year-old Mr. Gandhi, who was slain along with 15 others by a bomb blast late Tuesday as he was about to give a campaign speech in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Three separate central-government investigations into Mr. Gandhi's assassination were announced yesterday. No one has taken responsibility for the blast.

Supporters of a group of Tamil guerrilla fighters who have long waged a civil war in Sri Lanka from bases in Tamil Nadu were blamed for the killing in initial, unconfirmed reports. That group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, issued a denial yesterday of any involvement.

A government spokesman said yesterday that the bomb now was believed to have been "an improvised" or homemade device, possibly concealed in a traditional garland of flowers brought to Mr. Gandhi by a young woman. It may have been set off by remote control, said the spokesman, Ramamohan Rao.

Army troops parked in the streets of several major Indian cities, including Delhi, as well as the absence of an immediate scapegoat for Mr. Gandhi's killing, seemed to forestall anticipated violence yesterday -- much less the deadly rioting that followed the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984.

Fewer than 10 deaths were reported yesterday in sporadic incidents around the country. Many parts of India were said to be at a standstill.

New Delhi's normally frantic streets were nearly deserted, with buses not running and with government offices, banks and virtually all businesses closed. Flags were half-staff.

Mr. Gandhi's remains were flown back to the capital yesterday morning, examined at a medical institute and put on display at a museum that was the home of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as modern India's first prime minister from 1947 to 1974. Mr. Gandhi lived in that home for a while as a boy.

Police briefly used tear gas and bamboo sticks to control distraught mourners about noon when some tried to scale the fence to the Nehru mansion's expansive, stately grounds.

Inside a small, hot reception room, Mr. Gandhi's body was covered with the green, white and saffron-colored flag of India. Dozens of rose petals were strewn about the surface of the flag, and a large color picture of his upper body and face stood upright at the head of the corpse.

Mr. Gandhi's head reportedly was partially torn off by the bomb blast, as well as part of his abdomen. Under the Indian flag, all that could be discerned was the rough form of two legs.

Near Mr. Gandhi's remains sat the listless figures of his wife, Sonia, and his 21-year-old daughter, Priyanka. His son Rahul, 19, was flying back from Boston, where he attends school.

Mourners had only a few seconds each to pay their respects, but they waited in line, sometimes pressing upon each other roughly, for at least an hour most of the day, chanting at times Mr. Gandhi's name.

Just before entering the viewing room, a 24-year-old worker in Mr. Gandhi's Congress Party, Shikaha Garg, said, "I think that my country is going to be an orphan. We have lost our leader."

Immediately outside the room, women in saris were crumpled on the ground, weeping in sorrow and crying out, "Long live Rajiv Gandhi." One of them suddenly fell prostrate, yelling, "We have lost our son."

By 9 p.m., 40,000 people had walked by Mr. Gandhi's body; 5,000 others were still in line, and there were no plans to close the mansion until Mr. Gandhi's cremation tomorrow afternoon, said a Delhi police commander on the scene.

After lying in state for two days, Mr. Gandhi's body will be cremated.

L Vice President Dan Quayle is to represent the United States.

Mr. Gandhi's assassination came after the first of three days of voting that had been scheduled for this week in India's national elections.

The last two days of voting have been postponed for about three weeks -- long enough for political events to take a rapid turn.

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