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"I Am Innocent"


Time, Feb. 3, 1986

Photo: Beant Singh, left, and Satwant Singh

The security precautions at the Tihar Central Jail in suburban New Delhi were unusually strict last week as heavily armed police guarded a makeshift courtroom for the final hearing of an eight-month trial. Both judge and defendants were protected behind bulletproof glass shields. After taking the bench, Judge Mahesh Chandra wasted no time. The evidence was overwhelming, he said, that the three suspects in the October 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were guilty. Following a brief recess, Chandra declared this to be one of those 'rarest of rare' crimes in which the ultimate penalty was clearly called for. He then sentenced the men to death. Asked if they had anything to say, the three bearded and turbaned defendants each stood up and declared, 'I am innocent.'

Condemned to a hangman's noose were Satwant Singh, Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh. The three Sikh militants are not related; all Sikh men take the name Singh, which means lion. Satwant, who was one of Gandhi's security guards, opened fire on the Prime Minister while she was walking down a path near her residence. Kehar and Balbir, neither of whom was at the assassination scene, were accused of being part of a conspiracy to murder Gandhi, who was succeeded by her son Rajiv.

There had been widespread apprehension that the death sentences would spark riots among Sikh extremists, but that did not occur. There was also no violence last week after a Pakistani court gave death sentences to three Sikhs convicted of hijacking an Indian airliner in 1984.

Nonetheless, there was no shortage of Sikh-related rancor. In the northern Indian state of Haryana, at least three Hindus were killed and 40 injured in violence sparked by Rajiv Gandhi's Sikh peace plan. Part of that program calls for redrawing the boundaries between Haryana and Punjab, where Sikhs form a majority.

In the Punjab city of Amritsar, an uneasy truce was holding at week's end between militant and moderate Sikh groups that had earlier exchanged gunfire at their most sacred shrine, the Golden Temple. The groups were fighting for the right to rebuild a revered part of the temple complex called the Akal Takht, which was severely damaged in a June 1984 siege by the Indian army. That military action, in which at least 600 Sikhs died, inflamed unrest and ultimately led to Indira Gandhi's assassination.