In a surprise ruling that will likely have widespread political repercussions, India's highest court yesterday acquitted one of three Sikhs convicted of killing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Many legal observers had expected the Supreme Court to uphold lower court convictions and death sentences for the three men convicted of conspiring to kill Mrs. Gandhi in October 1984.
The late prime minister was shot by her Sikh bodyguards who were avenging the Indian Army attack on Sikh extremists in the Golden Temple in June of that year. Gandhi had ordered the Army into the Sikh's holiest shrine to root out militants who were fighting for an independent homeland.
The assassination triggered vicious anti-Sikh rioting in which thousands of people were killed.
The three judges overturned the decision against Balbir Singh, a former security guard, and ordered him set free. They reaffirmed the death penalties for the other two bodyguards:
Satwant Singh, one of the two bodyguards who opened fire on Mrs. Gandhi.
Kehar Singh, a former government employee who plotted the murder.
Another gunman, Beant Singh, was killed in a scuffle with police after the shooting.
The executions of Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh could fuel new violence by Sikh militants who are fighting for an all-Sikh, independent state called Khalistan - ``land of the pure'' - in the Punjab. Throughout the lengthy court case, the militants and their sympathizers hailed the defendants as heroes and martyrs.
The two men could appeal to India's President, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, for clemency, although that is rarely given, legal observers say.
But the acquittal could reassure moderate Sikhs who have been traumatized by the political turmoil since 1984 and who nurse deep grievances against the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother after her assassination.
``This is significant for the Sikhs who will see that they are not being persecuted from all sides,'' says Gobinda Mukhoty, a prominent New Delhi lawyer and civil liberties activist. ``This judgment may help to soothe their feelings, although it won't won't totally ease all of their suffering.''
That won't be unwelcome for Rajiv Gandhi who has been trying to rally moderate Sikhs to seek a political compromise to the insurgency in Punjab State.
Three years ago, the prime minister signed a peace accord with moderates although the agreement dissolved in continuing violence which has killed more than 1,500 people this year.
``This has been a very sensitive political case,'' says one legal expert who has closely followed the proceedings. ``Balbir Singh's acquittal may lessen some of the reaction to the death penalty among Sikhs.''
In their decision, the Supreme Court said the two Sikhs deserved death sentences for ``this most foul and heinous crime.''
``We want the people to know that this country is ruled by ballots, not bullets,'' the panel said.
The court overturned what many legal experts considered weak evidence against Balbir Singh. He had been linked to the conspiracy by diary entries revealing meetings with the other three Sikhs and statements against the June 1984 Army action in the Golden Temple.
``Balbir Singh was roped in by the overzealousness of the police in collusion with the government,'' said Rani Jethmalani, one of the lawyers for the defendants.