Published in Washington, D.C.      November 21, 1989

Widow of Mrs. Gandhi's killer seeks seat in Parliament

By Richard S. Ehrlich


      Grim-faced Bimal Khalsa, widow of Indira Gandhi's assassin, roars through Punjab's back roads atop a motorcade, telling cheering Sikhs that her husband is a martyr.

      Her husband, Beant Singh, was one of two police bodyguards who, on Oct. 31, 1984, shot and killed Mrs. Gandhi at point-blank range in her back yard, before they were overpowered by other security men.

      He in turn was killed at Mrs. Gandhi's house in what was described as a scuffle during an escape attempt.

      He is a martyr, Mrs. Khalsa says, because the government murders innocent Sikh youths.

      the widow is one of four Sikh extremist candidates campaigning in Punjab for a seat in the Indian Parliament.

      The ruling Congress Party of Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as prime minister, is waging a fight for its political life in the five-day election, which begins tomorrow.

      The other Sikh extremists seeking a seat in Parliament are Sucha Singh, the Gandhi assassin's father, Simranjit Singh Mann, a former senior police officer in prison for allegedly conspiring to kill Mrs. Gandhi, and Atinderpal Singh, the leader of the guerrillas' deadly Khalistan Liberation Organization.

      Turbaned men, curious women and gleeful children flock to village squares, roadsides and rooftops to glimpse the now-famous woman, who appears well on her way towards winning a seat in Parliament.

      Fierce-eyed, brooding and slightly graying, the 38-year-old Mrs. Khalsa warned a 1,000-strong audience that if she loses, "the entire world and our own country would not believe the sad story of Punjab, of police atrocities, of torture, of fake encounters [murders by police] and killings of the Sikhs."

      The Sikh candidates have pledged to press for autonomy and an end to alleged human rights violations in Punjab.

      The four are backed by many Sikhs who formerly used violence in their fight to turn wealthy Punjab into an independent theocratic nation, to be called Khalistan, or "Land of the Pure."

      Their new campaign to use the ballot instead of the bullet is seen by some officials as a successful result of Mr. Gandhi's campaign to bring militant Sikhs into the democratic mainstream, while security forces contain a minority of other Sikhs who persist in their bloody hit-and-run fight.

      But the emergence of Mrs. Khalsa, who is a high school graduate and former nurse, alongside the three other candidates, also indicates many of the Sikhs' grievances against Mr. Gandhi continue to smolder amid widespread public dissent.

      The assassination of Mrs. Gandhi followed her decision to order the army to storm the Golden Temple -- the Sikhs' holiest shrine -- which left more than 600 Sikhs and 100 soldiers dead in June 1984.

      Many Sikhs are angry at her son for refusing to give Punjab greater autonomy and for supposedly endorsing "atrocities" against members of the minority Sikh religion.

      The government denies the charges, though officials privately acknowledge that Punjab police use torture during interrogations.

      Mr. Gandhi claims his past five years in power have crippled Sikh "terrorists," though peace is still not in sight.

      Mrs. Khalsa, whose constituency in eastern Punjab has been relatively peaceful, laces her fiery speeches with politically sophisticated appeals to Punjab's Hindus -- many of who have been alienated from Sikhs by the past six years of violence.

      "We are for Hindu-Sikh unity," Mrs. Khalsa said in an interview during a pause in her motorcade while guarded by Sikhs brandishing swords.

      Though she is riding on support by Sikhs, who comprise about 60 percent of her constituency's one million voters, she wants to try for some of the 40 percent Hindu vote.

      "We are saying the security forces should be withdrawn" from Punjab, she said.

      "We will try to prosecute Rajiv Gandhi," she added, referring to charges that he pocketed kickbacks on a Swedish weapons deal in 1986.

      "We will also prosecute those who have murdered my husband and those responsible for the 1984 riots," Mrs. Khalsa said, adjusting her saffron-colored scarf with large, rough hands.

      One senior Punjab government official said the four extremists' campaigns "are slightly embarrassing but a good thing.

      "It is part of democracy. They have signed an oath to the constitution" abandoning the earlier demands for independence.

      In some areas of Punjab, which votes on Sunday, Mr. Gandhi's candidates are too frightened to campaign.

      Security forces have provided them with extra protection, and more than 112,000 police, home guards and troops will fan out through Punjab during voting to protect 14,636 polling booths, said Home Secretary S. L. Kapur.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

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Richard S. Ehrlich's Asia news, non-fiction book titled, "Hello My Big Big Honey!" plus hundreds of photographs are available at his website