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Rajiv Gandhi Cremated as Party Struggles to Find Successor

May 24, 1991

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Hundreds upon hundreds of mourners wept and hurled rose petals onto the blazing funeral pyre of Rajiv Gandhi on Friday as India once again paid sorrowful tribute to a leader struck down by political hatred.

The widow and children of Gandhi, the former prime minister who was slain Tuesday by an apparent suicide bomber, committed his body to fire in ancient Hindu rites, piling fragrant sandalwood on the white-shrouded corpse atop a flower-strewn brick platform.

The priest presiding over the ceremony had also overseen the cremation of Gandhi’s mother, Prime Minister India Gandhi, after she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

About 250,000 people attended the nationally televised funeral or participated in the nearly 10-mile procession that began at the home of Gandhi’s grandfather, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Foreign dignitaries attending included Vice President Dan Quayle.

Gandhi’s assassination likely ended the political dynasty that helped guide India to independence in 1947 and dominated its politics since.

The 46-year-old leader’s death also deprived the dominant Congress Party of its leader and left it groping for a successor less than three weeks before the interrupted general elections are to resume.

The party’s 18-member leadership committee is to meet Saturday in what could become a divisive struggle for the mantle of leadership.

The leadership, hoping to avoid a fight and to draw a massive sympathy vote, had offered Gandhi’s position as party leader to his Italian-born widow Sonia, 43, but she refused.

Mrs. Gandhi, who is Roman Catholic, broke with Hindu tradition and attended the funeral. Clad in white, India’s color of mourning, she watched as her son, Rahul Gandhi, a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, sprinkled holy water from the Ganges around his father’s body.

In accordance with tradition, he added clarified butter to the wood to help spread the flames, sprinkled a mixture of herbs, grains and sweets that symbolize the necessities of life, and touched a torch to the pyre.

Mrs. Gandhi swayed slightly, then crumpled onto the supporting arm of her 21-year-old daughter, Priyanka.

As the flames rose high, Rahul Gandhi took a 10-foot wooden staff and gave his father’s skull a symbolic tap to release his soul to seek rebirth.

With the conclusion of the solemn rites, hundreds of Indians rushed toward the funeral pyre, chanting the former prime minister’s name and throwing rose petals on the leaping seven-foot flames.

The funeral ceremony was a mix of military ritual and 5,000-year-old Vedic tradition. The chanting of hymns in the ancient Sanskrit language was momentarily drowned out by a gun salute. A helicopter circled overhead dropping rose petals. The pallbearers were the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, and 2,150 soldiers took part. Armed troops of the elite Black Cats commando unit, dressed in black jumpsuits, escorted the procession through the city center.

″People had a lot of expectations from Rajiv. He had a good vision for India,″ said Neeraj Ghai, an accounting student who marched beside the gun carriage bearing Gandhi’s body.

″I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for anyone. They are all corrupt. But Rajiv had a lot of potential. The young people of India expected good things from him,″ he said.

Though the rites were in accordance with Hindu tradition, the ceremony also was true to the family’s support for India’s religious diversity. Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Bahai prayers were recited before Gandhi’s body was brought to the pyre, wrapped in the national flag.

Foreign dignitaries attending included Quayle; Britain’s Prince Charles and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd; German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher; Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the prime ministers of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Police and government officials say Gandhi’s killer was a woman who strapped plastic explosive onto a denim belt and triggered the device while bending over as if to touch Gandhi’s feet in homage.

Suspicion fell on the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, which is fighting for a Tamil homeland on the island nation of Sri Lanka, 25 miles off India’s southern coast. The Tigers denied involvement.

The slaying capped India’s most violent election ever. About 180 people were killed in political strife during the first stage of the three-phased voting early this week.

Violence continued to rock Tamil Nadu, scene of the assassination, but the killing tapered off in most other places. United News of India said 23 people were killed in the days following Gandhi’s death.

Update hourly