As news of Indira Gandhi's assassination and subsequent rioting in India reached Washington yesterday, some Sikh leaders hailed her death as "justice" while others voiced fear that the murder will provoke more sectarian violence. Other Indian leaders expressed sorrow and called for "calm and dignity."
"We are very grateful to God that this thing happened and justice has been carried out," said Dr. Amrit Singh of Duarte, Calif., a spokesman for the World Sikh Organization of Southern California. "As soon as we heard the news she was shot, we had services and prayed she would be finished," said Singh, who referred to Gandhi as "India's Hitler."
In San Francisco Sikhs passed out cookies in celebration, and in New York about 80 Sikhs drank champagne and danced in the street outside the Indian Consulate.
But other leaders among the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States deplored the assassination, fearing it will lead to retribution against the estimated 12 million Sikhs, who make up less than 2 percent of India's 717 million population.
Washington Post correspondent Michael Getler reported from London that there were celebrations with champagne behind police barricades outside the Indian High Commission and rejoicing in the streets of Sikh communities. There was concern about the reaction among the 300,000 Sikhs in Britain and possible reprisals from Britain's much smaller Hindu population. Hindu leaders appealed for calm.
"I feel great tragedy for the Sikhs, because more Sikhs will be killed and they are being killed at this time . . . . We are religious people; we are never happy for any death," said Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, administrative director of the Sikhs in the Western Hemisphere. His group includes both Americans and Indians.
But like other Sikhs, he believes Gandhi planted the seeds of her own death by ordering an Indian Army assault on the Sikhs' holiest shrine in the northern province of Punjab in June to put a stop to sectarian violence there.
"There is a legend that says: 'Whenever the Golden Temple is desecrated, the dynasty falls,' " the Los Angeles-based Khalsa said.
Official reports said 600 Sikhs and Army troops were killed in the bloody battle, but other sources have said the toll was double that. Some Sikh groups want Punjab, where the majority of Sikhs live, to be independent from India.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Indian Cultural Coordinating Committee, an umbrella organization of 40 Indo-American groups, some of them Sikh, called on members of the Indian community to respond to "provocative statements" by "maintaining their calm and dignity" as the "best tribute you can pay to Mrs. Gandhi."
D.S. Sastri, a lawyer and founder of the committee, said there are about 30,000 Indians living in the Washington area.
Those Sikhs who hailed Gandhi's death "don't represent the whole Sikh community," said committee president Ashok Batra. "They are a faction who are traitors. They want to separate from India. Religion comes later -- first comes nationality," said Batra, a lawyer and probation officer with the D.C. Superior Court.
Inderjit Singh, a Sikh economist at the World Bank, said he deplored the killing even though he had grave reservations about the way Gandhi used the Indian Army to solve political problems. "I think this is just a terrible thing . . . . It's a setback to democracy," he said. "I was not a supporter of Mrs. Gandhi, . . . but this cannot be resolved in any way by violence," he added.
"I think it was not good news for the nation as a whole," said Laxmi Berwa of Clinton, Md., who as an Indian activist for the Hindu caste of Untouchables has been an outspoken critic of the slain prime minister.
"We do not have any leader of her caliber and her stature even though we did not always agree with her methodology of running the government. It was a national loss," Berwa said.
"There is nothing to celebrate as far as I'm concerned. The Hindu majority is not going to forget this episode, because the people in villages considered her as their mother . . . . There will be innocent people killed in both religious communites," Berwa added.