NEW DELHI — Three gunmen shouting "Khalistan"--the name of the independent homeland sought by Sikh separatists--Wednesday assassinated a City Council member who was a family friend of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The politician's police bodyguard was also slain.
Arjun Das, 46, a member of the Delhi Metropolitan Council and a Congress-I party activist here, was killed by gunmen carrying Sten automatic weapons as he crouched behind a filing cabinet in his street-front office, where he also operated a garage. His plainclothes police bodyguard, Constable Vijendra Singh, was killed and six other people visiting the shop were wounded.
The attackers, said to be a bearded Sikh and two clean-shaven men, escaped on a waiting motor scooter.
The style of the killing was nearly identical to the July 31 assassination of Parliament member Lalit Maken and his wife, Geetanjali, both political allies of the prime minister, in another section of New Delhi.
Mentioned in Report
Significantly, both Das and Maken were mentioned in a report by two civil liberties groups because of their alleged association with violence against Sikhs in New Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi last Oct. 31.
Officials speculated that Sikh terrorists are using the report to identify targets. The report did not accuse Das of inciting the violence, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Sikhs here, but it did say he was present outside the All-India Medical Institute when the first violence against Sikhs broke out.
Friends interviewed outside his modest Laxmi Bai market shop, decorated with enlarged pictures of Das with Rajiv Gandhi, Gandhi's late brother, Sanjay, and his mother Indira, said Das was a native of Punjab, home for most Indian Sikhs, and worshiped many of the Sikh gurus, the 10 highest holy men of the Sikh faith.
"He assisted in finding land for a Sikh gurdwara (temple) here," said B.S. Puri, a longtime friend.
Das' death heightened fears here of increasing violence by Sikh terrorists in advance of state elections in Punjab scheduled for Sept. 25. The Gandhi government hopes the elections will calm the political process in the Punjab, an arena of nearly unrelenting violence and terrorism for the past five years.
However, on Aug. 20, shortly after the announcement of the elections, terrorists assassinated Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal in a Punjab temple. Earlier this week, three Hindu merchants in the Punjab village of Sarhali were gunned down by Sikh gunmen, also armed with automatic weapons.
A leading opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, called Wednesday for the resignation of India Home Minister S.B. Chavan, whom it blamed for a breakdown in security that has led to the killings.
Gandhi Visits Hospital
After he learned of the killings Wednesday morning, Gandhi went immediately to the hospital and met with the Das family. An aide to Gandhi described Das as "a good worker who was close to the (Gandhi) family." Das was a member and former president of the Delhi Flying Club, to which Gandhi also belonged.
Das once took private flying lessons with Gandhi, who was an Indian Airlines pilot before entering politics. Das was particularly close to Sanjay Gandhi, the controversial younger brother of the prime minister who played a key role in the 1975-77 emergency period in India during which many civil rights were suspended. Sanjay died in a 1980 plane crash.
Das also acted as a consultant to Sanjay Gandhi in an ill-fated effort to produce a modern Indian automobile. Sanjay would often bring a prototype of the new car to Das' garage, where the two would tinker with it.
Prime Minister Gandhi, who begins a three-day trip to South India today, canceled a scheduled speech Wednesday afternoon after security workers had already swept the meeting area with explosives-sniffing dogs and metal detectors. An aide said the cancellation was not related to the Das killing.