Close Call

As 30-Year Anniversary of Mass Killings in India Arrives, Sikhs Find Safety in USA

A man tells of his lucky escape from a mob and finding acceptance in America.

Peter Turnley/Corbis

Thirty years ago today, following the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in apparent retaliation for the Indian army’s assault on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in Amritsar, a wave of anti-Sikh massacres swept across New Delhi. Eyewitnesses report that angry mobs roved the streets, raping, murdering, burning, and looting; official reports estimate as many as 8,000 Sikhs were killed across India in the four-day killing spree, with approximately 3,000 killed in the capital alone.

One of the mobs caught Dr. Saptal Singh, beat him unconscious—and presuming him dead—threw his body off a train. Nearly 30 years later, Singh tells his remarkable story of survival, his new life in the United States, and a recent confrontation with a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1984 Dr. Satpal Singh was 33 years old with a wife and two young children. He had just received an offer to start and head a new neuroscience division at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, a prominent institute in India. On Oct. 31, just a few hours before his scheduled return home by train, from Hyderabad to Amritsar, Punjab, Singh heard the shocking news: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Singh wondered about the possibility of violence and unrest, but after calculating the risk, he decided to board the train and return home to see his family.

The next evening, Singh was surprised when his train made an unscheduled stop at a small railway station near Bhopal. Rumors passed through the compartments that a mob had taken over the train and was moving from coach to coach, attacking Sikhs. As the seconds became minutes, Singh and his fellow passengers became increasingly concerned, to the point that some off-duty army men in his coach assured their protection.

Moments later, a mob of about 25 young men burst through the door and unleashed a brutal attack on Singh. He crumpled to the ground under a flurry of fists and boots, and as he recalls, no one around him tried to stop the attack. “I was surprised that no one intervened,” recalls Singh, “especially after the army men had promised their support.” Rather than helping though, policemen were actually complicit in the mob violence. I remember seeing some of them standing outside our coach and encouraging the mob that we (the Sikhs) must be killed and no one must be spared.”

“The punches and kicks eventually knocked me unconscious and left me completely unresponsive,” Singh explained. “Thinking that I was dead, they lifted up my body and threw it off the train. After a few minutes, I came to my senses enough to see an angry mob standing on the railway platform. I knew that if I ever wanted to see my children again, I would have to avoid them at any cost. So I dragged myself back to the train and pulled myself aboard. I just had to hope that the mob would not come back and find me.”

When Singh got back on board, he saw the off-duty army officers and realized that posing as one of them might help save him. He asked to borrow one of their uniforms, and when they staunchly refused, Singh realized that he had run out of all options.

“At this point, I recognized that there was no way to escape and accepted the inevitability of my own death. I said my own last prayer. In my mind, I hugged my wife and my infant children goodbye, and prayed for the peace of those who had attacked me.”

Singh knew the nightmare was not over when the train began moving again, and he thought frantically about possible escape routes in case of another attack. His concerns were confirmed when the train reached its scheduled stop in the city of Gwalior. Two individuals entered the coach and made a chilling announcement: “Sikhs who serve in the Indian Army should get off the train now. All Sikh passengers will be killed by armed mobs before reaching New Delhi.”

Singh could not see the two speakers from where he was sitting, and he had no idea if their offer was a genuine attempt to save lives or a ruse to get Sikhs off the train and kill them. With nothing else to go on, and with no time to think about it, Singh decided to take a gamble—he rushed to the exit as the train began to pick up steam, and he threw himself out of the train just as it reached the end of the platform.

Officers at the railway station’s army facility refused to give him shelter. They told him that they had not received any orders to offer protection to civilians. They also mentioned that the two Sikhs for whom they had provided shelter had just been taken by a mob the previous morning. The officers explained that those Sikhs had been lynched to death and that Singh ought to anticipate the same fate for himself. A senior police officer who came to the army facility also refused to help him saying “I cannot interfere with what’s written in your destiny.”

Singh was instructed not to speak with the officers who visited the facility, but the more officers he saw, the more difficult it became to remain silent. Eventually, Singh noticed a senior army officer walking by and decided that he had to take the risk. Ignoring all the other army men around him, he jumped up, rushed towards the senior army office, and hurriedly explained his situation. The officer listened to Singh’s story, and feeling compassion for him, had him transported for safety to the army base in Gwalior. After a couple of days there, he was transported to a nearby gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) where many other injured Sikhs were being housed for safety.

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“In retrospect, I think we were both surprised,” recalled Singh. “He was surprised by my sudden move towards him, and I was surprised by his willingness to listen. Up until this point, not a single person had shown interest in helping me, and this was my first break. I have no doubt I would have been killed in the next bout of mob violence—I owe my life to that kind officer.”

After two days had passed since Singh had stepped on his train, and news about the anti-Sikh pogroms had spread across the country, his family back in Amritsar braced for the possibility that he had been killed. Singh stayed in Gwalior for a few more days, and once things appeared to have settled down, volunteers at the gurdwara arranged a flight for him to Amritsar. He made it home 10 days after he had initially left Hyderabad.

When Singh finally showed up at the front door of his home in Amritsar, his family was overwhelmed with relief. They briefly celebrated his return, and soon thereafter decided that India could no longer be their home. Within a few months, Singh and his family packed their possessions and moved to the United States.

“After my experiences in 1984, I felt that it was unsafe for me to live as a Sikh in India,” said Singh. “What weighed particularly on my mind was the fact that even the Indian Army and the Indian Police had refused to protect me. That meant that if any other provocation arose against Sikhs in the coming years, there would be no protection anywhere in the country.”

When asked if he ever regrets leaving India, Singh quickly responds in the negative. Security is still an issue, especially if one considers that the victims of the anti-Sikh massacre have yet to receive any sort of justice and that violence continues to be perpetrated regularly against minorities in India. Singh also points out that while he has personally escaped oppression in his home country, his experiences continue to shape the person that he is today. Singh has devoted much of his time to serving various organizations, from the World Sikh Council-America Region to the Council on Foreign Relations, and he is currently focusing his attention on the global problem of violence against women. He hopes his humanitarian contributions will ultimately help prevent similar massacres in other parts of the world.

But violence still stalks the Sikh community in America. Nearly 30 years after he was beaten unconscious and left for dead, a white supremacist entered a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., and opened fire on the congregation. As part of his response, Singh accepted an invitation to the Geraldo Show on Fox News, on which he debated intolerance with a white supremacist and a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Singh says that surviving the anti-Sikh pogroms has only strengthened his resolve to serve his communities and help alleviate suffering:

“My experiences in 1984 have really affected who I am today. I had come to terms with death then, and I feel so blessed every day that I am still alive. My faith teaches me that I have nothing to fear—and I accept that—so I try to see everyday as an opportunity to improve myself as well as the world around me.”