By Philip Segal
THE conventional version of Indira Gandhi’s assignation is familiar to the most casual newspaper reader. Most people outside of India are unaware that there even exists another side to an apparently open and shut case.
The convention version goes as follows: The Indian army raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June, 1984, left India’s Sikh community deeply injured. Many Sikhs felt the government went too far in ordering a full scale military assault complete with tanks when a more limited commando operation might have been sufficient, and would not have done so much damage to the temple premises.
During the raid, whole buildings in the temple complex were destroyed, and thousands of innocent people were killed. The leader of the radicals, religious preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed and immediately venerated by Sikhs as a martyr who died defending Sikhism’s holiest shrine.
This version says that Beant Singh, an armed guard at the Prime Minister’s official residence recruited another guard, Satwant Singh and convinced him to help shoot the Prime Minister.
On the morning of 31 October, 1984, just four months after the raid on the Golden Temple, Mrs. Gandhi was gunned down inside the compound containing her official residence and an office three minutes-walk away. As she passed through a gate linking the residence and office areas. Her two security guards shot thirty bullets at her at point blank range. Various officials and guards (including members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police who also serve at the Prime Minister’s house), came running and led the two assassins away.
Mrs. Gandhi was lifted into a car and driven to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi’s best hospital, with a separate ward of VIPs. Doctors tried for six hours to save her, but she ‘was pronounced dead at 2:23 in the afternoon.
Beant Singh was shot to death several minutes after the assignation, in the guardroom of the Prime Minister’s residence. He was not killed in any cross firing that took place as the Prime Minister was being shot. Satwant Singh nearly died too but he survived despite receiving approximately ten bullets.
Within several hours, the entire world was convinced Satwantand Beant had killed the Prime Minister. The first reports from India spoke of three assassins but two days later these were changed to the two gunmen case now being advanced. In early December, 1984, two more Sikhs were charged with conspiracy in the murder. Balbir Singh had also been in the Prime Minister’s security unit, and. Kehar Singh was a government worker said “to’ be an ‘uncle-but’ was in fact just a close friend of Beant Singh.
The case took seven months to come to trial. Defending Satwant Singh was Pran Nath Lekhi, normally a constitutional lawyer who had long harbored what some would describe as a pathological hatred of the NehruGandhi family. In his defense, Lekhi was to maintain that the official story of Mrs. Gandhi’s murder was not the true story.
Lekhi’s competing version as to who plotted and carried out the assassination runs as follows: Beant Singh was indeed a fanatic but he did not act alone. He was recruited by certain members of the Prime Minister’s inner circle to carry out the killing along with an as yet unidentified gunman.
Satwant Singh argues, Lekhi, was shot in the same ambush that killed Mrs. Gandhi, and not fifteen minutes later by the security minutes later by the security officials, Lekhi points to evidence showing that after the Prime Minister had been shot, a single guard secured Beant Singh and led him back to: the guardroom while four are supposed to have handled Satwant Singh, (The prosecution argued that neither struggled voluntarily), In addition, the prosecution’s own sight plan shows a trial of blood between the scene of shooting and the guardroom Mrs. Gandhi was never carried along that route but the two bodyguards were.
To no one’s surprise Satwant Singh, Balbir Singh and Kehar Singh were all found guilty as charged and sentenced to death on 22 January 1986. After a four month appeal to the Delhi High Court, the verdicts and sentences for all three were unanimously upheld. The three would seem to have little hope of acquittal from an impending Supreme Court hearing.
Almost no foreign journalists covered the trial in a consistent way. It was too long and the details were too intricate. As with many stories, the foreign media relied on the Indian press, which tended in this case to conceal the stunningly weak evidence the government was relying on. The conviction of Satwant Singh rests entirely on the credibility of three ‘eyewitnesses to the shooting. The rest of the evidence ballistic, forensic, confessional was SO weak the public prosecutor eventually requested” the court to disregard all of it. “Satwant Singh lives or dies he told the High Court, with these three eyewitnesses”.
The prosecution’s version of events alleges there were four additional eyewitnesses to the assassination; R.K. Dhawan, the Prime Minister’s personal assistant, acknowledged to be the second most powerful official in the country; Lawang Sherpa, an Indo Tibetan border guard, Assistant Commissioner of Police, D.K. Bhatt, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Security and Police Sub Inspector Ranji Lal.
None of these people were examined in court. All gave statements to the police. The prosecutor gave no reason for holding back these as well as over half the 144 witnesses they had originally listed. The Special Public Prosecutor, K.L. Arora, said seventy five of the witnesses had either been won over by the defense or were “unnecessary”. He refused to say which had been bought and which had simply become redundant, just before the trial period, he added four more witnesses:
Three other people who claim to have witnessed the shooting were examined in court.
The first, New Delhi Police Assistant Sub Inspector Rameshwar Dayal, says he was Prepare three thermoses of purified water a napkin and a water glass for Mrs. Gandhi to use during an interview she was to record that morning,
As proof of his presence at the scene the prosecution said he was hit in the leg with four of the thirty bullets fired by the two bod guards. He was asked by the defense to produce the blood soaked pants he says he was wearing at the time, but over the course of a whole afternoon in court he was unable to show where the bullets had penetrated the fabric. The prosecution offered that the tears in the cloth had been so small so as to have been resealed perhaps by clotted blood.
The one bullet produced by the prosecution supposedly taken out of Dayal’s leg could not be linked to either of the alleged murder weapons Satwant’s stengun or Beant’s revolver. The court never heard whether his injuries were consistent with shots fired from the direction of the two bodyguards.
The police sight plan of assassination has Rameshwar Dayal not ten to fifteen feet from the Prime Minister, as he testified, but rather sixty to seventy feet away at a spot the defense says would have been out of the line of fire.
Most damaging to prosecution claims that Dayal was an eyewitness was his sworn statement to police less than a month after the assassination. He said he had only heard shots being fired and that he came to know the Prime Minister had been shot from a Sub Inspector Khanna who told me it was Beant Singh and Satwant Singh who had shot ((Mrs. Gandhi)”.
The second prosecution eyewitness was Head Constable Narain Singh. He supposedly walked alongside Mrs. Gandhi and held an umbrella to give her shade over the short distance between the home and office portions of her compound. The prosecution offers the day’s duty roster as proof of Narain Singh’s presence but Lekhiargues that being two to three steps from the Prime Minister would have been in violation of police rules, which prohibit someone with the low rank of head constable from being inside the “isolation cordon”. According to Lekhi, Narain Singh might have been in the reception office some distance from the scene of the shooting.
A more interesting question is that if Satwant Singh sprayed twenty five 9 mm bullets at the Prime Minister with a shaking machine gun whose advantage do not include pinpoint accuracy how is it that neither Narain Singh nor RK. Dhawan both just two and three steps from Mrs. Gandhi, received any injuries? And how did Rameshwar Dayal, between ten and seventy feet away supposedly catch four bullets in his leg?
The last eyewitness the prosecution chose to examine was Nathu Ram, Mrs. Gandhi’s valet. He worked for the Prime Minister in her residence and testified that it was not his custom to accompany her to the office for her usual early morning meetings with members of the public. It is unclear what his duties would have been on the day. Of the shooting. The other two eyewitnesses examined in court claim Nathu Ram witnessed the assassination. Witnesses D.K. Bhat and R.K. Dhawan (not examined in court never mention him in their statements even though he had been a fixture around the Prime Minister’s house for decades.
The first witness, Rameshwar Dayal, was asked in court whether he had been carrying his water tray, pitcher and glass when he was hit by the assassin’s bullets. He said he wasn’t and Narain Singh agreed Nathu Ram said he was.
From this point on the case of the prosecution rests on even less solid ground. The gun Satwant is supposed to have used had no identifiable fingerprints, although he never wore gloves, No report on the fingerprint analysis was ever produced. The gun analyzed by ballistics experts had a different serial numbers from the one of the two bullets removed from Mrs. Gandhi’s body was linked to one or the other of these guns. None of the bullets analyzed had any trace of blood or tissue, despite a medical report describing a bullet “impacted and protruding from the wound of exit”. The prosecution made much of Satwant’s confession. This confession was later retracted, Satwant claiming he had been tortured before making any statement,
The sequence of events following the assassination remains murky. Despite being riddled with eight to ten bullets, Satwant was kept in the hospital for just two weeks. One of the bullets is lodged in his spine to this day. He was released from the hospital and taken to a series of jail cells and interrogating centers, but it is not clear to which ones or when. On January 4, he was ill enough to be: readmitted to the hospital, yet the prosecution says he was examined and declared fit to make a statement as early as 29 November, less than a month after being shot.
Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Bharat Bhushan claims to have taken Satwant Singh’s confession statement. The defense pointed out during the trial that the statement bears the wrong home district for Satwant Singh. If of sound mind a man who grew up in the state of Punjab is not likely to confuse the districts of Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur. When accepting the statement, Bushan says he did not enquire whether Satwant had actually applied to make a confession and did not check to see whether the application was in the suspect’s own writing. During the appeal the judges said Bushan “broke the code for taking confessions. It is as simple as that. Insufficient care was taken to see that it was voluntary and without inducement”.
The prosecution’s case got off to a terrible start when it called its fifth witness, the man who says he performed the post mortem on Mrs. Gandhi, Dr, T.D. Dogra of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Even Indians who believe the rest of the prosecution’s case concede the Prime Minister was probably dead on arrival at AITMS half an hour after the shooting,
It is difficult to imagine a woman who was two weeks short of her sixty seventh birthdays being shot with thirty bullets at close range and surviving for more than five hours. Yet that is what the prosecution says happened. Even the symptoms as recorded by the emergency room doctor who first examined Mrs. Gandhi would indicate she was already dead on arrival: “Unconscious, face is pale; pulse not felt, peripheral parts cold and clammy. Blood pressure not recordable. Pupils dilated cannot react to light on either side. No spontaneous respiration, heart sound not heard. Nervous system. No response to painful stimuli.
Dr. Dogra insists he received the complete police inquest report before starting the post mortem at 3 p.m. A police witness testified the inquest only started at 5 p.m.
The same police constable testified he heard about Mrs. Gandhi’s death at ten o’clock that morning. Yet if this is true, Dr. Dogra’s findings that post mortem staining and rigor mortis had not yet set in should be viewed as suspect. And if Nathu Ram served Mrs. Gandhi breakfast at 7:30 a.m. her stomach should not have been empty as Dr. Dogra said it was. If no post mortem was done, or if only a limited one was performed, what evidence does that conceal?
Only two bullets were said to have been removed from the Prime Minister’s body. One was linked to Beant Singh’s revolver the other to the carbine with “inconclusive fingerprints”. Whether there were bullets from other guns lodged inside the Prime Minister, we may never know as her body was cremated. The number of bullets left in her body remains a mystery also. X-Rays were taken* but Dr. Dogra could not remember how many bullets they showed. These X-Rays have been misplaced.
An expert defense medical witness stand:
Dogra: I did not know the number of assailants, if they were two. Lekhi: There could be thirty persons firing thirty entry wounds? Lekhi: Please group the injuries, and tell me the number of assailants.
Dogra: I cannot opine.
At one point, Lekhi asked the doctor about a particular wound he thought proved firing from the rear. Dr. Dogra in his report mentioned injuries to the third, fourth and fifth ribs on the left side of the chest.
Lekhi: Which part of the ribs? Dogra: | have not mentioned the same in my report.
Lekhi: Was the injury to the front, back or side of the ribs?
Dogra: have not mentioned and therefore I cannot say.
Lekhi: In so far as you had not examined anything, therefore, you could not mention?
Dogra: That is incorrect.
POST — MORTEM
Clearly, either no postmortem took place or if one did, evidence damaging to the neat case against the two Sikhs seems to have been concealed. As it is we have only Dr. Dogra’s word that the two bullets matched to the guns police say the bodyguards were using, were in fact removed from the body of Mrs. Gandhi.
Satwant Singh is supposed to have requested a change of duty at the last minute on 31 October so that he could be posted near the Prime Minister and Beant Singh. His excuse for the request, according to the charge sheet, was dysentery, as the post close to Mrs. Gandhi’s path was nearer the lattine. No one was ever produced in court to confirm Satwant making such a transfer request. If Satwant Was not nears the Prime Minister on31 October he is innocent. If he did switch duties, it is entirely plausible he was ordered to do so pointing to the “inside job” defense lawyer Lekhi is so keen to expose.
The case against the two convicted coconspirators is even weaker than the case against Satwant Singh. Ina British or American court it is highly unlikely it would ever have come to trial, for lack of evidence. Newspaper reports spoke repeatedly of the detention of both men weeks before their formal arrest (at which time incriminating documents are said to have been found on one of them). Two defense witnesses confirmed the illegal detention.
The impression that the Indian government is hiding something is inescapable. As the trial wore on, a parallel commission of enquiry held in camera sessions into the assassination. Many of the witnesses not heard from at the trial appeared before the commission or answered questions in writing. When the commission’s report ‘was submitted to the government Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the unprecedented step of keeping it secret by amending the Commissions of Enquiry Act. The report remains secret to this day.
Another curiosity is why there has been no official enquiry or case registered for the shooting of Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. Beant Singh’s was not an accidental death, he was executed but we still do not know who gave the order to. Shoot him.
The first trial’s judgment so clearly glossed over the many weaknesses in the state’s case that it drew overt criticism and frequent laughter from the three judge bench during the appeal. These judges demolished the state’s case during Prosecutor Arora’s arguments but when the time came to render their own verdict they closely followed the lead of the first judge.
As with the original trial, the judgments received heavy publicity while the proceedings did not. During the trial critical remarks from the judges were usually buried at the bottom of obscure 400word stories, or omitted altogether State television and radio ignored the hearings entirely.
One dissident magazine Surya, published the story on the medical evidence at the trial in August, 1984, complete with transcripts of Dr. Dogra’s disastrous cross examination. That issue of Surya was banned, and since then the Indian press has seldom strayed far from the state’s version of the case.
P.N. Lekhi says he has evidence the shooting actually happened at 8:55 a.m. not 9:10 a.m. He quotes specific numbers of radio logbooks from the New Delhi police which he says report firing at the Prime Minister’s house at 8:55 a.m. and even warn police that a certain car should be given all assistance to clear the scene as soon as possible.
In the neatly typed First Information Report, under “Time of Occurrence” the recording police officer typed “between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.” but the 9 was written in, and another figure below it deleted.
Indians seem satisfied the culprits in the murder of Mrs. Gandhi have been brought to justice, but those of us who attended the trial on a regular basis are far less certain.
(Courtesy The Muslim Islamabad)
The first trial’s judgment so clearly glossed over the
Many weaknesses in the state’s case that it drew over
Criticism and frequently laughter from the three-judge
Bench during the appeal. These judges demolished the
State’s case during Prosecutor Arora’s arguments but when
The time came to render their own verdict they closely
Followed the lead of the first judge.
The case against the two convicted co-conspirators is
Even weaker than the case against Satwant Singh. In a
British or American court it is highly unlikely it would ever:
have come to trial, for lack of evidence.
The first reports from India spoke of three assassins but
two days later these were changed to the two-gunmen case
now being advanced.
Beant Singh was indeed a fanatic but he did not act alone.
He was recruited by certain members of the Prime
Minister’s inner circle to carry out the killing along with.an
as yet unidentified gunman.
As with many stories, the foreign media relied on the
Indian press, which tended in this case to conceal the
Stunningly weak evidence the government was relying on.