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The anti-Sikh riots were 3 days of furlough given to criminals by police, government, and yes, Congress – Rahul Gandhi’s denial notwithstanding.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi caught me on the wrongest foot possible: in transit from New York to New Delhi. I was returning from a six-week fellowship of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in the New York Times newsroom, suitcases laden with the usual things you brought along from your first visit overseas those days: clothes, minor gadgets, shoes, books and toys for my three-year-old. Desperately homesick, I climbed down from the Air India jumbo to see ground staff go through their motions as if in mourning. “Indira Gandhi”, one of them, a Sikh, said “had been assassinated by her bodyguards and riots had broken out in the city”. That, he said, explained the dark columns of smoke you could see in the distance.

We are not able to apply closure to the most tragic points in our history

Still, one couldn’t be prepared for what unfolded on the ride home, then in New Delhi’s southernmost and new middle class ghetto, Saket. There were mobs on the way—actually not mobs, just small gangs with iron rods, swords. These were wolf-packs on the prowl, attacking shops and homes, burning what they could. Another few hours, and all of Delhi was like a battlefield, with burning fires, screaming people, in conquest, or in agony. Or, correction, it wasn’t a battlefield. It was, or at least in several places, like a city that had just been conquered by some awful medieval hordes. Within 12 hours of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the story had been overtaken by the reprisals against the Sikhs. If one could see this on a 40-minute drive from airport to home so clearly, what excuse could the government, or the police ever have of having been taken by surprise.

Since this is one of the better covered and researched communal riots in India’s history – the finest coverage, in fact, was in The Indian Express and its sister Hindi daily Jansatta – let me not waste your time trying to recapitulate all that happened. In any case, so much was happening simultaneously in so many parts of the city that any reporter, even one riding a nifty Enfield 200, could cover only so much of it. But there are scenes and stories you cannot forget, and the future generations must not be allowed to forget. It is precisely because of our culture of evasion over our own collective crimes that, as a nation and society, we are not able to apply closure to the most tragic turning points in our history.


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Was the Congress involved?

You want to know if the Congress, at least at the local levels, was involved? I will repeat some stories I documented then: I witnessed a scene created by local Congress leader Dharam Dass Shastri (In 1993, the Jain-Aggarwal committee recommended registering a case against him, and in 2005, the Nanavati commission found “credible evidence” against him, following which the Union home ministry ordered the CBI to reopen the case. But nothing happened, and Shastri is now dead.) at the Karol Bagh police station as he protested against the arrest of Congressmen caught with property looted from Sikh homes. Recover the property for sure, he said, but why arrest? They are “not criminals”.

Brahm Yadav, the Delhi Youth Congress president, was far ahead of this too. He protested against a joint Army-police raid in Kodapur, his block, and you want to know the reason why? He said a fair raid could not be carried out by a patrol led by a Sikh army officer assisted by another Sikh from the police. One most significant fact about the rioting was how dramatically it all stopped the moment the first Army units moved in, including Soviet-made BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The army had to hardly fire any shots, make any arrests. As the news of the Army’s arrival spread, the mobs just melted away. They knew they were not dealing with Delhi Police any more, which was incompetent where it wasn’t complicit, and mostly absent, some for predictable reasons like leave, and some because of panic and indecision among the higher brass that somehow decided to tell the Sikhs in the force to stay out of trouble. And Delhi Police? Here is one of the scenes I witnessed and reported. A mid-level police officer, with a strong, armed patrol, sat on a chair picked up from a nearby house and watched coolly as a mob chased a group of Sikhs, including women, with sticks, iron rods and swords while two of the panicked Sikhs fought desperately to keep them at bay with iron rods. Why don’t you people do something, I asked the officer. How can I, he said with mock helplessness, I have a very small force. Let’s wait for reinforcements.

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The longest lasting stench of all is the stench of burning flesh

There were tragedies to see and record across the city, but none more heart-rending than the killings in outlying, particularly east Delhi colonies where lumpens looted, raped and killed not merely unhindered, but often helped along by the police. I reached Block 32 in Trilokpuri, the trans-Yamuna near-slum on the second afternoon of the riots. Its narrow lanes were piled with half-burnt bodies, in the odd case, a decapitated one. I spoke with Jasmer Singh, a survivor from a poorer section, a real slum and she said “they would strike a man unconscious, douse him with kerosene and touch him with a burning torch. It was also the first time, and hopefully the last, in India’s history that the rioters used the “necklacing” method of killing, putting an old automobile tyre around the victim’s neck and setting it on fire. One thing I can tell you, from that unfortunate experience, is that the most horrible, and the longest lasting stench of all is the stench of burning flesh. It doesn’t leave your head, even after three decades have passed.

One thing I have never been able to understand is the exact motivation of the rioters. Was it communal? Maybe for some, but you did not see so many religious symbols on the attackers, no Hindu slogans and, most significantly, nobody reported a case of neighbours attacking neighbours. Delhi, in fact, had more stories then of Hindu neighbours protecting the odd Sikh in their locality, even at risk to their own lives.

Was it rioting? Or rape? Or looting? By the time the rioting had been on for 24 hours, nobody could really say which was the main act, and which the side show. The very first trigger, admittedly, came from anger against the assassination. It started outside All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where doctors were trying to revive Mrs Gandhi. The first to experience this was President Giani Zail Singh. His motorcade was attacked, his escort officer removed his turban in panic to avoid being identified and Trilochan Singh, his widely popular press officer (and forever so, even now), pulled out a seat cushion from his car to protect himself from the mob’s lathi blows. But once it spread, and it became evident that the police had no intention of intervening, looters and arsonists came out in small bands.


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In many areas the purpose was just loot and arson

This is when the more exclusive localities were targeted. Along the radial roads emanating from Connaught Circus, fires blazed as if in a choreographed show. Furniture shops on Panchkuian Road were set on fire, Paharganj, Shiela cinema, the abandoned Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, though very ably defended by young Sikhs carrying iron rods, lathis and the odd shotgun, a glass-and-mirror shop where a Sikh lay dead, impaled by shards of large glass sheets that rained on him as the shop was looted. In the more central and generally less congested parts of Delhi, looting was the primary motive. South Extension market’s Perfection Silk and Saree House and Wings Shoes were looted and burnt.

The houses of two Punjab and Sind Bank chairmen, Mohinder Singh and Bhai Inderjit Singh, in Friends Colony (East) were looted and burnt. In nearby Maharani Bagh, mobs arrived with lists carrying numbers of rich Sikhs’ homes. Again, the purpose was loot and arson. This then spread to Hauz Khas, Vasant Vihar and Safdarjung Enclave. In distant, sleepy Saket where we lived, mobs came in a neat row of three-wheelers, as if in a procession, and burnt down the very pretty new gurdwara, leaving the granthi for dead. He was later rescued by neighbours, all of them Hindu. On a drive back from my office to home one afternoon, two of my women colleagues and neighbours, Anita Kaul Basu and Anuradha Kapoor, squeezed themselves on the pillion as no other transport was available. We drove past the Chirag Dilli area and saw a beautiful new bungalow fully ablaze on the intersection of Outer Ring Road and what is now Josip Broz Tito Marg. Anita, who, with her equally talented husband, Siddhartha Basu, runs a successful TV production house that produces Kaun Banega Crorepati, was then expecting her first child as we were our second. Both boys are now grown up and working for many years. And we still cannot erase that image from our eyes or minds.

Delhi Police failed the uniform

In fact, the least celebrated story of those riots is also its most inspirational and reassuring. It is of Hindu neighbours setting up vigils, even in upper middle class localities and carrying out 24-hour patrols to protect Sikhs. Mostly, these were no more than motley groups of babus and other salaried professionals – including this reporter in G Block, Saket – wielding anything they could find, lathis, walking sticks, iron rods and hockey sticks, the most effective weapon, though in short supply. I noted then that sometimes these patrols looked like excited teams of uncles and teenagers in some mohalla cricket match. You also found what protection you could, thick winter jackets (it was quite cold already at night), crash helmets, anything. These defenders would not have lasted if challenged by even half a mob with any intent. But the fact that these were never challenged, that mobs saw even these and disappeared and then stopped targeting colonies that had this vigilante patrolling tells you the real story of the 1984 killings. It wasn’t a communal riot in the classical sense, there was no mass upsurge, no widespread frenzy. It was just three days out for the looters, rapists and killers, given a furlough by the police and the local government, and of course, the Congress party.

One-fifth of the 30,000-strong Delhi Police then was Sikh, but it was not to be seen. Of its SHOs, 13 out of 66, and four out of 21 ACPs were Sikh. Many of them were told to stay at home, or stayed in headquarters. They bitterly complained to us reporters that they were being treated like outcastes, not wanted by the brass though willing to work even as they worried about their own families. In an inquiry later, they accused then additional commissioners, Nikhil Kumar, H.C. Jatav and DCP Seva Dass of negligence. Nikhil, who later became an MP and governor, was reported to have pleaded that he was on leave and merely visiting the headquarter, so was no more than a “guest artist”. Nikhil denied this later, but the larger belief still remains that Delhi Police failed the uniform, and until today, nobody senior enough has been called to account. Then you say why there is no closure on India’s tragedies, ever.

That year of madness made too many simple people do crazy, unexpected things

That I do not follow the correct chronology and put the riots ahead of the assassination is a deliberate, editorial call and not merely an admission of the fact that I was late on the assassination story. Everybody was, because, as I had said earlier, the riots had overtaken everything else, even the assassination. In fact, even as the funeral procession made its way past New Delhi to the banks of the Yamuna, rioting still raged. Roli Books later brought out The Assassination and After, another contributory book for which I wrote the chapter on the assassination, Claws of Conspiracy, while Rahul Bedi wrote on the riots, Arun Shourie on the militancy and Prannoy Roy, who made his mark as a psephologist globally by correctly calling the 1984 elections that followed the assassination and the killings, wrote about them. The conspiracy was later fully unravelled, accused put to trial and convicted. So there isn’t much left to tell now. But I cannot forget the visit to Agwaan Kurd, near the border enclave of Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district in Punjab where Satwant Singh, the younger of the two assassins came from. I remember his mother, Pyaaro, protesting her son could never do such a thing, that he was such a Congress loyalist, that even as a child he only played with Congress flags etc. She even pleaded that they were not a family of traditional Sikhs, that they believed in the Babaji of Radha Soami Satsang at Beas, not so far away, and further that Satwant Singh had visited it thrice seeking baptism as a Radha Soami. I could see a mother’s desperation, and no mother would ever believe anything else but that her child was never capable of committing murder, and least of all, of the woman he protected. But that year of madness had made too many simple, sane people do crazy, unexpected things.

Thirty-three years later now, that wheel has turned full circle

This election campaign was marked by a one-sided intensity not much different from Narendra Modi’s in 2014. But I dare say, while it had the optimism of Rajiv Gandhi’s youth and his promise of the 21st century and the sympathy for his mother’s assassination, it had stronger negative and even communal overtones than any seen in 2014. One slogan was, Rajiv Gandhi ka ailaan, nahin baneyga Khalistan. The advertisement campaign, designed by Rediffusion, invoked iron rods and daggers etc as far-from-subtle metaphors to build insecurity and paranoia. Nevertheless, Rajiv Gandhi won a majority of 415, and my one abiding recollection is his smiling, gentle, but devastating declaration of having reduced the opposition to a 10 (Janata) plus two (Jan Sangh), and 3 (Socialists) system, as the tenure system of school/ college education was then described.

Thirty-three years later now, that wheel has turned full circle. Or more or less. The BJP, from 2, is now up to 277, the first time a party has won a majority since 1984 and in fact leads a coalition of 333. The Congress is down to 46, almost exactly living up to the dictionary definition of decimation. It speaks for the BJP and two generations of its leaders’ remarkable resilience and political intellect that they have scripted such a revival. But if it has taken India three decades to produce a full majority now, it also underlines the year 1984 was.

This article was originally published on 31 October 2017.

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29 Comments Share Your Views

29 COMMENTS

  1. It was an extremely tragic and sad incident. Unfortunately the divisive forces at that point of time had become so strong that the situation in the entire region had become extremely volatile and inflammable. Selective killing of innocents was rampant. People were pulled out of buses and trains and their own houses and were shot point blank mercilessly. Thousands killed did not have any political ideology.Nobody can imagine the trauma it created on part of the survivors and general public. It carried on for good about a couple of years. Govts were paralyzed and helpless. This is an first hand account. the mood all around was that of fear. All this was very well orchestrated cunningly by our neighbour on the western front.God willing, and I pray all wounds should heal.

  2. Let us not hide our communalism behind names of political parties. Time to face it squarely . Iam a Sikh and was then posted in the Army Hq and know the virus that lurks within all of us as a carry over of history which just waits for an opportunity to express its ugliness. Go back to partition and killing of Gandhi.They vs Us.As a society only if we had recognised the devil in this divisiveness and not rationalised it by blaming individuals and parties, as if they were not part of us the whole, we would have put our education and all efforts to fight these narrow domestic walls.
    It is time to remind ourselves the danger that bigotry and the ifeazeal to right wrongs of history, whichever way , holds for our unity in diversity and peace and harmony.

  3. Riot? Rioters?
    Shameless Hindus. Trying to whitewash their crimes.
    It was one sided, pre-planned rape and killing of Sikhs all over India by Hindus.
    It’s called Genocide.
    Not rioters or mod, but Hindus. Congress, BJP, Jan-Sang, RSS etc doesn’t matter, the killers are hindus

  4. Mass massacre of Sikhs was meticulously planned on 31st Oct 1984. The riots took place in many parts of India. Delhi & Kanpur were the worst affected. Plus many killings took place is cities like Bhillai, Bhokaro.

  5. The same forces who had plotted the assassination of Indira Gandhi had plotted the massacre of the innocent Sikhs. The services of several local Congress leaders were of course utilised for the purpose. The attempt to point fingers merely at the local Congress leaders for the gruesome events is nothing but an attempt to conceal the role of the real conspirators behind the plot.

  6. There is no doubt mobs couldn’t have killed thousands of Sikhs without full support of ruling Congress Govt. and leadership. The Delhi police was ordered to stay away to let mobs kill Sikhs, rape women and burn their houses and properties. Sikh policemen were not allowed to go out. Because they knew that if Sikh policemen were allowed then they will certainly act to save lives. And it was not riots but very well planned, organised and executed Sikh Genocide by Congress Govt. and leadership. The Congress leaders with address lists were leading mobs to attack Sikh houses and businesses. The sad thing is that Hindutava majority voters supported Congress for killing thousands of innocent Sikhs, by giving Congress the largest majority in the Parliament elections. Rajeev Gandhi openly justified the killing by saying, When a big tree falls, it shakes the earth. And Rajeev Gandhi openly rewarded and protected the guilty Congress leaders and police officers involved in innocent killings. And still in 34 years the ruling Govts. and Justice system has failed to punish the guilty. Very shameful thing for justice system.

  7. For a writer of English, SHekhar Gupta is quite illiterate. He and others keep calling this a riot. A riot is a violent clash between two groups. 1984 was not a riot, it was a systemic and targeted cleansing of the Sikh community across the nation – i.e. a genocide. Anyone who says that only Congress was involved can continue to live in their world full of lies. Congress initiated it but everyone else rejoiced in the rape, murder and plunder. There are were three populations – the perpetuators, the silent majority who justified and rejoiced in these killings and the minority (a miniscule number) who stood by the Sikhs. India has sown the seeds of hatred in the 80s against the Sikhs and these seeds are bearing fruit today in the violence against every citizen.

    • How old are you Sir? Do you have any idea behind the root cause? India always loved Sikhs more than the rest of the community. It loves them till date.

  8. Shekhar ji, similarly you are not raising issue of Jumlebaj Modi’s silence on Gujarat massacre. How long you will betray your self ? You have nothing to achieve anymore. Be useful to society now. Come down from the wall between GODI media and sincere media. I have been admiring you since almost 30 years.

  9. Shekar Gupta does not want a closer to 84 riots as he seems to have ran out of his walk the talk and losing his ground if Gujarat riots cannot be blamed on Ataljee led BjPso also Congress party no doubt some Congress men were involved

  10. Noone talks of the Godhra train burning an organised and deliberate attack on Hindus. without this act by the jehadis there would have been no riots in Gujarat. Hindu bashing is a fashion for commies and pseudos

  11. Shekhar Gupta why it took you to publish this as late as 2017. What did you do. You just did the reporting. Could you and others not have filed an FIR. You are just stoking up old fires during the time of Election. You were in Indian Express and we know you had to write as per the diktat of your he/she Masters.

  12. now that sbekhar gupta has set forth the truth about 1984,we hope he stop eulogising the congress party and its infantile leader and cut down his anti bjp and anti rss rantings!

  13. An offence is carru d out by an individual or group of individuals In furtherance of common intent to fulfill the conspiracy . A political party unless it supports such violence should not be blamed particularly when the a political leader often seen to change the sides . Rajeev Gandhi did make the unfortunate analogy of large tree falling and the earth shaking. But that is not good enough to hold that it was Congress who was responsible

  14. Forget blaming parties , we need to recognise the appeal that communalism and violence still dominate our lives. Unless we address these demons through rational education of humanism , from primary level upwards based on Tagore ‘s”Where. ..”the genie will not only endure but the appeal of identity and history will make it ever more dangerous.

    • I fully agree with you General. Having grown and lived in Delhi and that too opposite to Gurdwara I have seen and been with sikh citizens. If one can find two really gentlemen sikh, one would find more the other way. It was silent anger which got burst out which I think should be condemned as no should be allowed to kill in name hatred others. This why I said RSS /BJP were also part of violence during 1984 riots.

      • You are not the only one who has said this. Many people have said this. It has also appeared in Quora from first hand witneses accounts.

  15. The Army was not called. Who was responsible for this deliberate omission? Was the Congress not in power at the Centre? Was the Lt. Governor of Delhi not told to stay inert? Did Congress hoodlums and thugs like Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat, Tytler, Dharamdas Shastri not run amuck? Was the murderousness and looting not intentionally allowed? What does Sonia’s pup think? Does he think minorities are not terrified by his cynical & brazen denials?

  16. This is a fine example that when citizens are banned from owning personal safety weapons they died worse deaths than as a POW. Could the mob kill so many people and fanilies if they owned bunch of personal weapons, semi automatic rifles and pistols for their safety? People that are denied weapons at home (registered) are Basically a slave race.

  17. Yes there was violence against which has to condemned but the crowd also included BJP/RSS who also joined the crowd to take their own revenge against Sikhs as many Hindus and their leaders were also target of sikh militancy and demand for Khalistan. I fail to understand why only few media attempts to highlight the role of RSS/BJP. That only Punjab CM Amrinder Singh has been drawing public attention. However BJP leaders have no right to talk about Sikh riots when their own hands blood strained ever since demolition of Babri Masjid and of course Gujarat riots

    • What non-sense? The RSS and BJP were at the forefront of saving Hindus at that time. Many Sikh leaders will attest to this in Delhi. Even BJP critics like Phoolkaji and Late Kushwantji have mentioned the role of BJP and RSS in saving Sikhs at that time.
      There was no doubt, a general anger among Hindus against the sikh militancy but this was more prominent in Haryana and Eastern Punjab, not at all in Delhi.

      • So also Congress leaders were in forefront saving sikh . FIR’s were filed and cases were never pursued. I would still condemn where sikhs or others in Gujarat.

      • Why would they be saving hindus, it were the Sikhs that were being killed by Hindu not the other way and there have been more than 600 FIR’s against jansangh leaders. I am all aware of the kind of hatred spread by jansangh in Punjab. The truth is both congress and jansangh were thirsty for blood of Sikhs at that time and still is taking political leverage from those events

    • Good joke. So despite knowing RSS involvement Congress Government did not take action till end of UPA. So what is the understanding between Congress and RSS? Sikhs were attacked in Coimbatore Tamilnadu also . Banks organised relief acts by way of loans and other helps through State Level Bankers’ Committee and Lead Bank. Was the Tamilnadu Government sleeping then knowing well about the culprits responsible for the riots? Who is the liar? The then Central Government or State Government or both?

      • BJP/RSS FIR’s was not taken seriously. If BJP /RSS were in front to save Sikh so also Congress leaders. Congress is paying a price but on the other BJP has managed to polarise voters systematically from Gujarat and no slowly in rest of India.

        • So true…it was a kind of enormous and matchless “dream come true opportunity” for RSS in their anti minority stand which they utilized through khadi wearing saffron underwear moles in congress. The same game plan occurred again in bababri masjid episode.

    • we have the evidences on involvement of RSS/BJP actisits in killing and rioting during Sikh genocide organized by Congress. Not only this but their names were also removed to shield them by BJP. There were 14 FIRs against these activists in Delhi. Ram Kumar Jian, an eminent activist and election agent of Atal Bihari Bajpayi was also arrested on his involvement vide FIR no. 315.92 dated June 18, 1992 was registered against him, he was former President of Jain Mahasabha, hari Nagar ashram and these FIRs were registered in Sriniwaspuri, Police station at South Delhi

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