The assassination of Indira Gandhi changed the lives of the families of Beant and Satwant Singh forever. Beant’s son had to shift cities, drop a school year. Satwant’s family faced social boycott. Every anniversary of the former PM’s killing, they wonder: could they have stopped it?
We are SCs. Our father was not seen as Sikh for long time: Brother
Sarabjeet Singh has not celebrated his birthday, which falls on November 1, for the last 30 years. A day before his sixth birthday, in 1984, his life “changed forever”. Sarabjeet’s father Beant Singh, a sub-inspector with the Delhi Police and a bodyguard of Indira Gandhi, had assassinated the former PM. Immediately detained by the ITBP, Beant was shot dead following a scuffle between his accomplice Satwant Singh and ITBP personnel. “My mother was decorating our house for my birthday when the police came and took her away,” says Sarabjeet, who lives in a large house in Mohali with his wife and six-year-old son.
His mother, along with other family members, was detained for around two weeks. Sarabjeet and his two siblings, in the meantime, stayed with their grandmother in the secure Police Lines area of Delhi. A few days later, the family moved to Chandigarh.
Life was never the same for Sarabjeet. “I studied in a convent school in Delhi, but in Chandigarh, schools refused me admission. I sat at home for a year before getting admission in a school in Kharar, a small town on the outskirts of Chandigarh,” he says.
Sarabjeet, who runs a “private business” for a living now, went on to contest three elections — the 2004 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2007 Assembly elections — raising his father’s “martyrdom” in his campaigns. While he lost each time, his late mother Bimal Khalsa and grandfather Sucha Singh had earlier been elected to the Lok Sabha from Ropar and Bathinda respectively, benefiting from public sympathy for his father. Now, Sarabjeet says he is “leading a normal life” and “stays out of politics”.
His younger brother Jaswinder Singh lives in Australia, and elder sister Amrit Kaur in Mohali.
What does he think of his father’s killing of Mrs Gandhi? “It was all about opportunity. Maybe I would have done the same thing in his place. A lot of injustice has been meted out to Sikhs and even now, the community is waiting for justice for the riot victims,” he says.
The assassination also took Beant Singh’s family away from other relatives. His wife and children “moved away and became distant” from his four brothers, says Beant’s eldest brother Shamsher Singh, 80, a lawyer at the city court in Chandigarh. “This was done by hardline groups as I wouldn’t allow Beant’s family to be part of the Khalistani campaign,” he says.
Shamsher, who calls himself a “liberal” and lives in a modest home full of books on history, philosophy and religion in Maloya, the family’s ancestral village in Chandigarh, says he has spent his life trying to study what drove Beant to kill Mrs Gandhi. “He was influenced by our uncle Kehar Singh, who in turn was in touch with a senior Congress leader. These things have never been investigated,” says Shamsher, adding that he “would have stopped Beant” if he knew.
Shamsher denies they are “fanatical” Sikhs. “We have a humble, mixed religious background. My wife is a Hindu Rajput, and I belong to a Scheduled Caste. While we were growing up, my father was not accepted by Sikhs even after converting to Sikhism. On the other hand, the atmosphere at that time was rife with so-called religious groups promoting hatred against Hinduism. Therefore, the assassination cannot be categorised merely as the influence of Sikhism on Beant Singh,” he says.
Shamsher also regrets that they have been “tagged as a murderer’s family”. “The Punjab and Haryana High Court (in the 1970s) wrongfully terminated my services. The court re-instated me later,” he says.
Beant’s other brother Kirpal Singh, 60, recently retired as a senior bank manager and stays in Mohali. His life too has been affected by the assassination, he says. “I was always on the radar of the Haryana Police when I was posted in Kaithal.”
The youngest brother, Bhagat Singh, 54, an employee in the Punjab Mandi Board, manages the Shaheed Bhai Beant Singh Trust Gurdwara in Maloya, where a bhog ceremony was held on October 31.
He recalls Beant as a generous man. “If he saw a homeless man shivering in the cold, he would instantly take out his own shirt and give it,” Bhagat says.
I said he did not want innocents killed… it angered all: Father
Tarlok Singh, 85, wishes he had known. So that he could have stopped Satwant Singh from killing Indira Gandhi.
But Tarlok Singh believes he also understands why Satwant couldn’t have been stopped.
“My son was deeply religious and could not tolerate disrespect to the Golden Temple. He acted out of revenge and did not repent it,” he says.
Tarlok cleans shoes of devotees at Dera Baba Nanak gurdwara near Agwan village, 50 km from Amritsar. He walks with a cane, having lost one leg to diabetes a few years ago and drives a car on the wind shield of which is written ‘Shaheed Bhai Satwant Singh Agwan’.
Since 1984, he has taken to carrying a revolver, along with the kirpan, around his waist. “I bought the revolver after the assassination. I faced threats both from Hindu organisations and Sikh hardliners as I propagated my son’s ideology that no innocent should be killed,” says Tarlok at his modest home which has a large portrait of Satwant Singh.
In the early hours of November 1, 1984, when a police team had barged into Tarlok’s home and taken him away for questioning, his first reaction was of shock.
“I was also scared. After all, it was the prime minister of India who was killed and my son was the accused. I was taken to Batala for questioning. They tortured me, but I said I have no information to offer. I knew nothing about the killing. I was released on bail after two days,” he recalls.
However, Tarlok admits, he did know that Mrs Gandhi’s life was in danger. “Satwant would say she would be killed by someone. But he never said he would be killing her, as I would have told him not to. I remember how an Akali leader of the area could not get bail for 18 months after he said during a public address that Indira should be killed for Operation Blue Star.”
Satwant spent five years in prison before being executed at the age of 27. “We met him four times a month. He never regretted killing Indira. Rather, he used to say that he had paid off a debt by killing her,” says Tarlok.
Satwant was engaged to Surinder Kaur before the assassination. Kaur performed the ‘Anand Karaj (marriage)’ with Satwant’s photo.
Satwant had joined the Delhi Police in 1981, and appointed bodyguard to the prime minister soon after commando training. “It was a moment of pride for the family and the village. He also sorted a few land disputes of acquaintances owing to his good position,” says Tarlok.
After the assassination, the family suffered social boycott ordered by the panchayat of Agwan, then a Congress stronghold.
“Neighbours, friends, relatives, all cut off ties with us. The police would misbehave with us. With time, people ended the boycott, but even now, 20 per cent of the society avoids us,” he says. However, Agwan does have a gurdwara named after Satwant.
Satwant’s three brothers, meanwhile, are doing well. The eldest, Gurnam Singh, is a farmer, younger brother Waryam Singh has a motorcycle dealership and the youngest, Sarwan Singh, lives in New Zealand. His mother Piar Kaur is with Sarwan these days.
Things were not always easy for the brothers though. Waryam, who served in the Army for over 19 years before retiring a decade ago, was “not given a weapon on duty for years and was never posted in Punjab”. “Nearly three weeks were left for my training to complete when the assassination took place. I was questioned and then suffered the long-term effects. Whenever my regiment was posted in Punjab, I would be singled out and deputed elsewhere,” he says.
Waryam has portraits of Satwant and militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale at his motorcycle dealership. In another corner is a photo of his brother Sarwan and Sukhbir Badal (Punjab deputy CM). “Sarwan was a senior Youth Akali Dal activist when the photo was taken years ago,” recalls Waryam.
Satwant’s sister Baljit Kaur lives in Toronto, the other sister Ranjit Kaur is no more.
The family supports the Akali Dal, but Tarlok is unhappy with the party. “Waryam has been performing sewa at the Golden Temple for 12 years, but the SGPC never considered him for a job. The gate at the entrance to the village carries the name of a cop who was killed during the days of militancy. The gate should have Satwant’s name,” he says.