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The Snake In the Garden


Time, Oct. 13, 1986

Photo: Rajiv Gandhi

The gunman in the bush first fired at 7 a.m., shortly after his target, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, entered the cordoned-off gardens of the Raj Ghat in New Delhi.

The shot was barely noticed by those attending outdoor prayer services commemorating the birth of Mohandas Gandhi, India's spiritual leader. Indeed, the prime minister's elite guard concluded that the noise had merely been the backfire of a passing motor scooter.

But at 8:05, when the gunman fired two more shots from a homemade pistol, security forces awoke to the threat. They grabbed a green-clad man who, from the evidence of a tube of toothpaste and a water jug found nearby, had spent the night hiding in the gardens. The Prime Minister and his wife were rushed into a car and driven to safety.

Police later identified the assailant as Karamjit Singh, 26, a resident of Punjab state, where Sikh terrorists are agitating for independence. While Singh is a Sikh who had shaved his beard and cut his hair to disguise his identity, authorities concluded that the crude assassination try was a lone terrorist act rather than part of an organized Sikh conspiracy. The day after the attempt on Rajiv Gandhi's life, Sikh radicals in Punjab shot and slightly wounded J.F. Ribeiro, director general of the state police force.