New Delhi — A mysterious third gunman was involved in the shooting of Mrs. Indira Gandhi but escaped in the confusion that followed, according to the man accused of her murder.
In an extraordinary account of the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister last October, police constable Satwant Singh, 22, currently awaiting trial in New Delhi’s Tihar jail, has told his lawyer that he heard shots being fired after Mrs. Gandhi fell to the ground.
“There were definitely some other shots,”’ he is reported as saying. “There was another man there.”
Satwant’s story, given the course of the first interview he has been permitted to have with his lawyer, Pran Nath Lekhi, presents a version of events that differs sharply from all other reports of the assassination.
That he is innocent of the killing.
That he was not a coconspirator with the man who first opened fire on. the Prime Minister fellow Sikh guard Beant Singh.
That he was taken afterwards to a guard house and deliberately shot 10 times by one of Mrs. Gandhi’s other guards, an Indian commando. He survived only after an emergency operation.
What Satwant has told his lawyer is as follows: he was on duty in Mrs. Gandhi’s garden. With Beant Singh on the morning of 31 October last year when she emerged from her residence for a television interview.
As she approached, Beant Singh, who was in front of her and to her left, stepped forward and fired five shots at her with his .38 revolver. Satwant who was to her right, immediately opened up with his sten gun accidentally striking the Prime Minister with one stray bullet.
Only then, he says did he hear another long burst of gunfire which he argues, must have come from a third gunman.
None of this can be tested until the Indian authorities release full forensic details.
What happened afterwards in perhaps the most startling aspect of Satwant’s account.
While he was standing there momentarily stunned, Satwant said he was pushed to the ground by two commandos. He hada horrifying recollection of what happened afterwards.
“They just dragged me into their guard house. I heard one of them say: “Cut off his hands, “but the other one did not answer.” He simply pushed me into a chair, picked up a sten gun from the floor and shot me 10 times.” Satwant later underwent emergency surgery to remove the bullets, but two are still lodged near his spine.
Lekhi has received threatening telephone calls and abusive letters ever since he took up the case. He says the authorities have also obstructed him at every step. The chances of Satwant receiving a fair trial, because of biased news reporting and the highly charged atmosphere in the country, he says, are diminishing.
The prison authorities have also been accused by Lekhi of trying to tape his conversations with Satwant. ‘“‘They have tried to ignore basic rights,’’ he said.
“The wardens told me quite openly that they were trying to keep a record of what was being said, despite the confidential relationship that is supposed to exist between a lawyer and his client.”
A long black tube hanging from the ceiling of the prison cell contained a recording device, according to Lekhi. When the prison authorities refused to remove it, he and Satwant decided to communicate only by writing messages to each other.
Lekhi’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities has earned him the displeasure of the ruling Congress Party. The Delhi Municipal Corporation, which is Congress controlled, has passed a resolution asking for Lekhi’s immediate suspension from the bar.
Most extraordinary of all have been a series of attacks on Lekhi’s personal integrity.
They have been spearheaded by the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who said at election rallies that the lawyer defending Satwant Singh had also defended the convicted killer of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation.
In fact, Lekhi was still in his teens when the Mahatma was shot and he did not qualify as a lawyer until 12 years later.
At his New Delhi home, still smarting from the attacks against him, Lekhi said: “‘A quite extraordinary climate is being created.
“We are witnessing the trial of my client by the Press.”