In a country where astrological forecasts are taken seriously, the government of India did not laugh when a seer predicted that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would either be assassinated or be killed in an accident this month.
The astrologer was picked up for questioning by special intelligence police, and the government related the prediction to Parliament, charging that attempts were being made on Gandhi's life in an effort to create anarchy and confusion in the country.
The government's action against the astrologer, Ratnanand Shastri, whose prediction appeared in an obscure Hindu newspaper a week ago, was not surprising considering that astrological predictions are a factor in most major business and political decisions made in India.
Even Gandhi, who always denies it, is widely believed to consult astrologers before making any major move. Political allies say that two years ago she delayed her swearing-in as prime minister to a day that her Hindu astrologer called auspicious.
The hold that astrology has on Indians is such that a government servant postponed signing a rental agreement for his house for a day on the advice of an astrologer and a young woman setting off for graduate school in the United States changed her departure date because of an astrologer's forecast.
Shastri's predictions of Gandhi's death, however, went beyond the bounds for normal astrological forecasts, the minister of state for home affairs, P. Venkatasubbaiah, told Parliament yesterday. He called them "politically motivated" and said they were "intended to malign the prime minister and members of her family."
"Mrs. Gandhi is not only the prime minister but one of the outstanding leaders of our nation. Some attempts are being made to harm her person and create anarchy and confusion in the country," Venkatasubbaiah said before reading a prepared statement on Shastri's activities.
Amid loud protests from members of the opposition, Venkatasubbaiah called Shastri "a staunch supporter" of H. N. Bahuguna, who according to an earlier Shastri prediction, would become prime minister with Gandhi gone. Bahuguna defected from the ruling Congress I (for Indira) Party after supporting Gandhi in elections two years ago.
Ram Vilas Paswan, a member of the opposition Lok Dal Party, complained that the government statements in Parliament were unwarranted considering the frivolous nature of Shastri's predictions.
Making astrological predictions about Gandhi and her family appears to be a national pastime here, although few are cast in as specific terms as those used by Shastri.
When Gandhi's son, Sanjay, died in an airplane crash in June 1980, for example, many astrologers claimed they had predicted his demise. It was difficult, however, to tell from reading their columns what they had foreseen, although some claimed to have held back what they really felt in deference to the Gandhi family.
The two predictions of Shastri's cited in Parliament, were quite specific. In the first, made last June, he said Gandhi was likely to be assassinated in September, followed by her son, Rajiv, a member of Parliament and since Sanjay's death the heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of the 34 years since independence.
Former ally Bahuguna would then become prime minister, according to the forecast, which, of course, has been disproven by events.
Nonetheless, Venkatasubbaiah said, the police began watching the astrologer because the predictions were "alarming."
Shastri's latest prediction brought direct police action, and Shastri was picked up for questioning. It is unclear whether charges were filed and he is still being held. Venkatasubbaiah told Parliament that Shastri, whose real name was given as Ram Avtar Gupta, is free on bail on a charge of kidnaping a young woman.
He was described in Parliament as having taken up astrology -- an important and even noble profession in India -- after having been discharged from the Army for "a personality disorder." on a charge of kidnaping a young woman.
He was described in Parliament as having taken up astrology -- an important and even noble profession in India -- after having been discharged from the Army for "a personality disorder."