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.

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...

...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.”...

...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...

...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.”...

...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.”

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