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Indira Gandhi faced a threat when she visited a New York gurudwara in 1982

In ‘The Khalistan Conspiracy’, former R&AW officer G.B.S. Sidhu writes about the security details of Indira Gandhi’s US trip and possible threats to her life.

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Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to reach New York on 27 July 1982 for an eight-day state visit to the US. Director (R) Suntook called me about a fortnight before and said that according to the information he had, the chances of a threat to her life from US and Canada-based Sikh extremists had considerably increased. We had to do everything possible to see that the visit passed off without any untoward incident. His information was of a general nature and he did not tell me any specifics as to who, how and wherefrom that threat could emanate and how it was going to be executed. Providing physical security to the PM was the job of many other people and this would in any case be taken care of by the concerned agencies. But keeping in view Suntook’s instructions, to look out for related intelligence it was clear that I also needed to do everything possible within my means to prevent any harm to the prime minister.

I told Suntook that rather than trying to find a needle in a haystack by meeting my friends and contacts spread over various parts of Canada and the US, I would reach New York a couple of days before Indira Gandhi’s arrival. Thereafter, I would commence by getting in touch with certain knowledgeable friends and contacts by phone to gather the required intelligence. I would then concentrate on such functions or meetings as could be used by suspected Sikh extremists to cause physical harm to the PM, by keeping a watch out for any suspicious activity. With Suntook’s approval, I reached New York around 25 July and booked my room in a hotel close to Carlyle Hotel on East 76th Street, where the prime minister and members of her delegation were to stay.

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‘An honour to us’

Soon after my arrival, I started calling my relatives, friends and contacts spread across Canada and the US one by one, and that process continued till the end of Indira Gandhi’s visit.What I learnt was that although anti-Indira and anti-Congress feelings were running high among a segment of the Sikh diaspora due to the happenings in Punjab, there was nothing to support apprehensions of a threat to her life during that visit.

The prime minister’s delegation reached New York on the afternoon of 27 July. After a formal reception at the airport, she drove straight to the Carlyle Hotel.The Indian delegation had a full complement of a VVIP security team from the Intelligence Bureau, led by Joint Director S.C. (Subhash) Tandon (IPS 1952 Rajasthan, later commissioner of Delhi Police, from April 1983 to 12 November 1984, including the period of the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi), his two deputy directors – S.D.Trivedi (IPS 1960 Uttar Pradesh) and my batchmate and friend Ratan Sahgal (IPS 1964 Madhya Pradesh) – and their supporting staff.

On returning to my hotel room, I studied her programme carefully to prepare my action plan. Of all the listed functions I decided to focus on two – the meeting with prominent members of associations of persons of Indian origin on 31 July at Hotel Carlyle, and the visit to Richmond Hill Gurudwara on 95-30, 118th St South Richmond, Queens, on 1 August.

In an interview to the New York Times on 31 July, Tejinder Singh Kahlon, president of the Sikh Cultural Society, which had invited Indira Gandhi to Richmond Gurudwara, described her impending visit as ‘an honour to us’.

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‘Where are your gunmen?’ 

On her arrival, Indira Gandhi was received by Kahlon and some other members of the gurudwara management committee (of the Sikh Cultural Society Inc.). I entered the gurudwara following her entourage.The hall was almost full.There were about ten officers, five on each side of the entrance, from the New York Police Department, the FBI and some plainclothesmen. S.D.Trivedi and Ratan Sahgal were standing in the left-hand row. On the other side, Subhash Tandon was in close proximity to Indira Gandhi.

I stood just behind Trivedi and Sahgal, from where I could see everyone entering the gurudwara. There was a large fixed glass window on the wall to the right, through which I could observe what was happening in the area just outside the entrance. My attention was divided between what was happening in the area around the Guru Granth Sahib and the movement of people both inside and outside the gurudwara’s main entrance. Indira Gandhi, wearing a lightly embroidered crimson salwar-kurta with a matching chunni to cover her head, was her usual elegant self.

After the customary welcome address by Tejinder Singh Kahlon, a siropa (scarf of honour) was presented to Prime Minister Gandhi by the granthi (head priest) of the gurudwara. She was then requested to address the gathering. She was speaking very softly, and I, standing at a distance, could hear her say, ‘We should follow the path shown by Gurbani which would help us in overcoming difficulties in our way.’ Meanwhile, my attention was diverted towards a group of four Sikhs standing outside but not very far from the entrance. I identified one of them as the Toronto-based self-styled ‘consul general of Khalistan’, Kuldip Singh Sodhi, from Jagjit Singh Chauhan’s outfit.

Sodhi was agitated and appeared to be having an argument with one of the people with him. It also seemed that with the help of two of the men, he was trying to prevent the fourth from entering the gurudwara. This animated discussion continued for another five minutes. Upon observing them, I made a mental note that if they attempted to enter the gurudwara I would tell Ratan Sahgal to ask the local police to stop them, lest they should start shouting anti-India or anti-Indira slogans. But Sodhi appeared to have finally prevailed upon the others and they did not enter the gurudwara. The function was over in another ten minutes and Indira Gandhi left soon afterwards, through the side door.

While she was leaving, Trivedi turned to me and suddenly out of the blue asked, ‘Sidhu, where are your gunmen?’ Taken aback, I replied that I had not told him anything of the sort. He then said, ‘But your department created a scare.’ It was obvious that the IB had been forewarned by the R&AW about the possibility of an incident taking place during Indira Gandhi’s visit, especially during her visit to the gurudwara. Naturally, the IB officers and the local security officers, who had been suitably briefed by Tandon, were extra cautious during the PM’s visit to the gurudwara.

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As soon as Trivedi and Sahgal left, I sought out Sodhi, who was talking to some visitors outside the gurudwara. Sodhi had met me once before in March 1979 at a Toronto hotel (Chapter 1) after a Sikh conference. He recognized me and came over to meet me. I took him aside and asked him the reason for the altercation earlier. He said,‘What should I say? One of the persons [he didn’t tell me his name] in our group was carrying a gun and wanted to shoot Indira Gandhi inside the gurudwara.’

This was the reason why he and the others with him were trying to stop that man from entering the gurudwara. Sodhi said they could not allow any such thing to happen in the US or Canada as their security agencies would have immediately clamped down on all their activities in North America. Sodhi said the person with the gun was from Toronto and had developed a strong animosity towards Indira Gandhi because of what was happening in Punjab.

Sodhi then said that he had come to know about this man’s plan to kill Indira Gandhi during her visit to the gurudwara about a month back. From then onwards Sodhi had been keeping a close watch on the man’s activities.

This excerpt from ‘The Khalistan Conspiracy’ by G.B.S Sidhu has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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  1. Remember our great Prime Minister Madam Indira on this day of her death anniversary.
    Like Kennedy or Martin Luther King ,they put their cause for which they stood as the first thing.
    and never feared about the consequences or who would have even thought of visiting the Gurudwara
    or keeping the same bodyguards with out a trace of suspicion. I really thanked her when she offered to fund my IIT education as a poor village boy from Tamilnadu on a request letter from me after finishing my school.
    We offer our heartfelt good wishes for the great sacrifice she had to make for this Great Country .

    • Remembering the woman who orchestrated a genocide against the Sikhs. Thankfully she was assassinated and justice was served. Horrible woman really.

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