Trilokpuri: Once upon a riot

Last week, the East Delhi locality erupted in riots, reopening an old wound. Over three days in Nov 1984, 350 Sikhs had lost their lives here. And Trilokpuri was never the same.

Written by Shalini Narayan | Updated: November 2, 2014 7:47 am
Over three days in Nov 1984,  350 Sikhs had lost their lives here. (Source: Photograph by Ram Rahman) Over three days in Nov 1984, 350 Sikhs had lost their lives here. (Source: Photograph by Ram Rahman)

Sri Krishna Gupta is the storyteller. Dressed in white kurta and pyjama, the frail 78-year-old sits on a plastic chair on his porch in a little corner of Block 27 of Trilokpuri. Around him, a dozen children and their mothers sit huddled, listening intently, the silence broken only by intermittent gasps of horror. It’s a story Gupta has told several times over, each time with more chilling effect. “They came, unannounced. I heard screams and went out. I thought I was dreaming. I saw about 20 men chasing a Sikh. There was madness in their eyes. They threw petrol from a distance and caught hold of the poor man,” he says, tightening his grip on Guttu’s hand. The six-year-old lets out a squeal, but is transfixed. “While some continued dousing the man with petrol, the others tied up his limbs. One by one, they all lit match sticks. And then, they set him ablaze.”

“This is nothing,” says Gupta, looking around him. The lane outside is littered with shards of glass and bricks. Men in uniform patrol the roads, holding plastic shields and batons. When the East Delhi locality erupted on October 24, the coincidence wasn’t lost on Gupta. It was exactly 30 years ago that the area witnessed one of the most gruesome communal attacks that followed the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Over 350 Sikhs were killed in Block 32 of Trilokpuri, which was among the worst affected in the riots that lasted three days.  Only 10 Sikh families remain in the area now.

Gupta says the mob roamed the streets till every Sikh they saw had been reduced to a charred lump. Why didn’t he do anything to stop them, a child asks. “Jab baadh aati hai toh pyasa bhi pyaas bhool jata hai (When the flood comes, even the thirsty forget their thirst). We stepped out of our homes five days after the massacre. That’s when the trucks started coming to collect the bodies. I scooped the bodies with a shovel and placed them in the trucks,” says Gupta, who then sold chole bhature on a push cart for a living.

The single-storeyed house he lived in has now grown vertically and is spread over three floors, where he lives with his two sons and their families.

Gupta remembers how the stench of death lingered for days after the massacre. Smoky and dank, the area remained deserted, with bodies piled up. That one incident changed Trilokpuri forever, a change that layers of time have done little to heal. Every year, around this time, the few old-timers such as Gupta and his neighbour Ram Swaroop Khandelwal talk of Trilokpuri with a mix of longing and loath. All they do is shut their eyes and the Trilokpuri of 30 years ago flashes by.

“Two lengths of my arm and we could touch the walls,” says Khandelwal, spreading out his arms as he talks of his one-room tenement that he shared with his wife and four children then. The 68-year-old, who owns a grocery store, now lives in a four-storeyed house in Block 22, a few houses away from Gupta’s.

In 1984, he says, Trilokpuri was surrounded by jungle. Back then, residents had to walk at least 30 metres to the forests to defecate.

Water was further still. “We had to bring water from the Yamuna and that was at least 3 km away,” he says.

***
Trilokpuri came up in 1976 as a resettlement colony for slumdwellers evicted from different parts of the Capital, part of a slum-clearance drive that Sanjay Gandhi led during the Emergency. Muslims were brought in from Turkman Gate and the Valmikis came from the slum behind Birla Mandir on Mandir Marg. But the Sikhs were already there, living in shanties. “The Labana Sikhs are mainly working-class Sikhs from Sindh who moved to Rajasthan after Partition. Slowly, in 1968, ’72 and ’74, they moved to Delhi and settled down in places such as Trilokpuri, Nangloi, Sultanpuri, Geeta Colony, Patparganj and Mangolpuri. When the resettlement colony came up, the Labana Sikhs moved in with the others,” says Atma Singh, pradhan of C-Block in Tilak Vihar, the West Delhi locality where most of the Sikhs who fled Trilokpuri sought refuge.

So it was this disparate group of people who initially made up Trilokpuri, a cluster of over 900 single-storey houses across the Yamuna.

Former Congress MLA from Trilokpuri Harnam Singh says that as a resettlement colony, Trilokpuri barely had 30 to 40 houses in each of the 31 blocks. “It had no schools or hospitals. There were just rows of single-storey houses,” says Singh.

That’s the Trilokpuri 52-year-old Janaki Kaur still remembers. It’s the place her two sons grew up, as part of a large extended family with their father, uncles and cousins. “Hindus and Sikhs lived together in Trilokpuri, celebrated all festivals together. Our children played in each other’s homes.”

But on November 4, as the military took over the streets after three days of rioting, she fled.

Seven of her closest had died, torched in a frenzy that leaves her flinching every time she talks about it. On November 1, the mob had charged into her house in Block 26, dragged her husband out by his hair, tied him to bamboo poles with five others, and burnt him alive. She had to choose between her husband and her children. “He asked me to run. And I ran,” she says, tears streaming down her eyes. In her two-bedroom flat in Tilak Vihar hangs a garlanded photograph of her husband Sardar Ranjit Singh.

The day she fled, she went straight to Farsh Bazaar police station close by with her two sons, one a toddler, the other a few days old. The police station was to be their home for the next few months till the government made alternative arrangements and she moved to Tilak Vihar, where she has been living ever since.

The Labana Sikhs were mostly coolies, carpenters and rickshaw pullers. Like Kaur, about 600 of them moved to Tilak Vihar and elsewhere, changing the demographics of Trilokpuri for all times to come. “We (the Labana Sikhs) were singled out and attacked. Most of our men were slaughtered. We were so scared we decided never to leave our people, so we stayed behind in Tilak Vihar,” she says.

***
By the Nineties, as the Capital grew, distances shrunk and Trilokpuri was now only a bus ride away from most places in Delhi. But the memory of the riots hung heavy with rows of deserted, partly-burnt houses of Sikhs. That’s when the migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan moved in. Some of the houses in the locality were sold to the new occupants for as little as Rs 3,000.

“The original residents had power of attorney, but about 40 per cent of them sold their houses to migrants from neighbouring states. That’s how some of the well-off Baniya families you see in Trilokpuri came here,” says Harnam Singh, the former Congress MLA.

In about four decades, Trilokpuri became what it is now, a 90-acre colony that’s a melting pot of communities, its narrow alleys lined with haphazard multiple-storeyed buildings, with at least 400 houses in each of its 37 blocks. Some of its less affluent pockets service the nearby middle-class localities of Mayur Vihar and Vasundhara Enclave, supplying them with domestic helps, cooks and security guards. Dalits make up 70 per cent of the locality’s population now, and the remaining are Muslims and from a few other communities.

Shabnam’s grandparents were among the first to move into Block 32, Trilokpuri’s worst-hit riot area, in 1986. The 22-year-old says her grandfather came to Delhi in search of a better job and couldn’t have afforded a home anywhere else in the city. “They had heard of the area that was affected by the riots and were told that there were no takers for the houses there. The plots were going cheap.

That’s how he bought this house,” she says of her two-storeyed house.

Twelve-year-old Rohan is not convinced. “If all the Sikhs left, why didn’t Amrit uncle go,” he asks.

It is a question that Amrit Pal Singh, 38, has been asked many times before. Each time he says, “God willed our survival. I survived because of our neighbours. They are our family.”

Amrit, who runs a motor parts business in Ghaziabad, lives in Block 30 with his 76-year-old mother Bidya Kaur, his wife and two children. It is the house he grew up in. “When the mob entered our area, we ran to our neighbour’s house. They quickly shaved off my father’s hair and beard. But the mob noticed the mark that the pagdi (turban) had left on his forehead and cried for his blood. My neighbours intervened again. They said we were from Bihar,” he recalls.

The mob was sceptical. “They asked us if we could speak the language. Fortunately, my sister-in-law, although a Sikh, had grown up in Bihar and spoke to them in the language,” says Amrit. The mob left.

Sitting on her charpoy, his mother Bidya says she should have left with the others. She barely recognises most of the people in her locality — new faces come everyday, she says. “For a few years after the riots, every knock at the door would send shivers down my spine. But we soon got used to the call of the azaan and the jagran,” she says. Trilokpuri had changed.

Harbani Kaur’s family in Block 30 is another of the Sikh families that stayed behind after the riots. Though the family moved to Tilak Vihar after the riots and spent a few years there, Kaur returned with her children. “Trilokpuri is our home. Our children grew up here.

Even after we moved to Tilak Vihar, my children would only speak of their friends and neighbours here,” says the 52-year-old. She is preparing for an evening tea session with her “closest friend” and neighbour Sheela Kumar, whose family, Kaur says, protected them when the rioters attacked.

It’s 5 pm on Tuesday, four days after the recent riots, and as the azaan call goes out from the nearby masjid in Block 15, policemen in Gypsies and some on foot begin their patrol, asking residents to hurry back inside their homes. Mothers round up their children and shut the doors behind them.

Gupta, the storyteller in Block 27, winds up his session. His daughter-in-law takes the plastic chair and Gupta’s towel back inside the house. As he heads inside to check on the paalak ki subzi he has cooked for himself, Gupta says, “Back then, they (the rioters) were our own. This time, too, they are our own”.

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