The murder trial of the accused assassins of prime minister Indira Gandhi began today in a stifling, 15-by-30-foot prison courtroom with not enough chairs to go around for the barely 40 court officers and spectators who showed up.
Moments before the opening representations were made by prosecution and defense attorneys, courtroom attendants scurried into the room with a short, backless bench so that Satwant Singh, the Sikh security guard accused of emptying the magazine of his submachine gun into Gandhi's body on Oct. 31, could be seated alongside his two codefendants.
The makeshift courtroom, with yellowing, whitewashed walls and crude benches, was as striking in its spartan and innocuous appearance as was the almost casual tone of the first day's proceedings of what may be the most celebrated murder trial since the 1948 assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of Indian independence.
The 40-minute proceeding was consumed by opening formalities, with Sessions Court Judge Mahesh Chandra recessing the trial until Monday to give one of the defendants, police subinspector Balbir Singh, time to produce a defense lawyer.
But it was the first occasion in which Satwant Singh had been exposed to public view since the Gandhi was slain. Minutes after the assassination, Singh was critically wounded by gunshots fired by Border Security Force guards inside a guardhouse at the prime minister's residence.
The youthful-looking, 6-foot-tall Singh, wearing a bright blue turban and saffron-colored scarf -- colors symbolizing Sikh martyrdom -- appeared in an ebullient mood as he greeted and shook the hands of two foreign journalists who entered the courtroom at the Tihar central jail about 10 minutes before the start of the trial.
Neither Satwant Singh nor his alleged coconspirators, Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh, were handcuffed, and only six unarmed guards stood watch in the tiny courtroom just inside the 16-foot-high walls of the sprawling prison.
Another Sikh security guard, Beant Singh, who shot Gandhi as she walked through a latticework gate in her garden on her way to a scheduled television interview, died of gunshot wounds shortly after he threw down his weapon and was led to a nearby guardhouse.
Chandra, a soft-spoken and self-effacing 56-year-old judge who is the second most senior jurist in New Delhi's highest court, conducted the proceedings almost as informally as would a traffic court magistrate.
About 10 Indian and foreign journalists were accredited to attend the trial after they appealed an earlier ruling barring access to the proceedings for reporters. Court observers said they expected the testimony to take months.