Smoke, fire and the smell of petrol. Swords and knives. Their mothers screaming, dragging them away. Their fathers, tall and proud, on their knees, begging for mercy. Their toys and homes melting in the flames.
They were only children. But recurring nightmares and conversations that have no end have kept those memories alive. Thirty years ago was yesterday.
“Tera pati ya tera beta (Your husband or your son)?” Jasbir Singh’s mother Manjeet Kaur still remembers those words. Jasbir was just two then, his father Paramjeet Singh 24. Manjeet had cried endlessly, hoping not to be forced to make the choice. She had also prayed the rioters wouldn’t realise she had another life to save: the baby in her womb. “She tells me they had some white powder that made everything burn faster. Some poured petrol, others set my father on fire. She ran,” says Jasbir, sitting in his garment shop at Tilak Nagar.
That’s the image that jogs his own memory alive. “I remember her running. I see it in my dreams,” he says.
Minku Singh, whose house is 2 km away in Tilak Vihar, can still feel the cloth he had wrapped around his face that November 1 day. A 12-year-old, he had let his long hair open, and tied a dupatta up to his eyes. Sikh men were being killed, but women and children were being assaulted and left alive. The choice was clear.
“My mother had died previously, and I lived with my family in Trilokpuri. I was with friends in Patparganj when news began to spread that there was trouble in the city. I came home, and my relatives were listening to the radio. For a while, nothing happened,” he says, speaking in the calm tones of a man who has told this story many times before.
Then, around 10.30 am, they started hearing “noises”. “In 10 minutes, they were upon us. My father and uncles were dragged out and killed. My sisters tied a dupatta around my face, and told me to run. I had no hair on my face then. My cousins and I, and some others from the colony, hid in a drain, and then in a buffalo stable, before the Army came,” recalls Minku. “I only lived because they thought I was a girl.”
Pointing to the seven garlanded photographs on a shelf in his two-room house, he adds: “They had hair. They never came out alive.”
For a year after the riots, Farsh Bazaar police station in Shahdara was home to Minku and his extended family, as they lived on government aid.
Then, in 1985, along with over nine hundred others, they moved to Tilak Vihar, into houses given to them as compensation.
But while security came with numbers, there remained the pressing question of how to make a living.
“All the men in our family, except me, were killed. Widows got jobs, but only as Class IV government employees, who got paid very little. Education became a luxury. There was no point studying if I couldn’t eat. The money the government gave wasn’t enough,” says Minku.
Jasbir can’t thank his mother enough for the seven years he managed to attend school. “For the first three years, she sent me to a private school. But the fees was Rs 280 a month, and her salary as a Class IV employee was Rs 780 a month. My brother was growing up and needed to go to school as well. So, I remember, she came to me crying and said she was sorry, I couldn’t go to a private school anymore. That night, like in 1984, she held me all night,” Jasbir says.
For the next four years, he went to a government public school, where fees was 64 paise a month. In Class VIII, he dropped out, and because he could read and write a little, got a job at a ball bearing factory earning
Rs 300 a month. His brother continued to go to school. Now they run the garment shop in Tilak Nagar together.
In the years following the riots, Minku says, even finding work was not easy. “We would be turned away by company owners, fearing there would be trouble if they hired us. If you wore a turban, or had Singh in your name, work was hard to come by. The only choice was to do something yourself,” he says.
At 13, he began to deliver milk house to house for Rs 30 a month. At 16, he graduated to selling tea at a crossing in Mayapuri. Now 44, Minku sells food from a push cart.
Tilak Vihar, however, is rife with stories of the other youngsters who, burdened by responsibilities and lack of choices, went astray and turned to crime. “Every Sikh was a bad investment. People knew we were left with nothing, no homes and money. What would we repay with? So many of us began to earn money in other ways. Illegal ways,” says Wajir Singh.
“Many started drinking at a young age and kept away from home. Their mothers would work the entire day, and sadness hung around their houses. Drugs were common, especially when children did menial jobs like pulling rickshaws,” Wajir says.
There were also constant street brawls, as youths took out anger on each other, often with weapons.
There were other irreversible changes. Wajir, for instance, grew up in a family that had remained devoted Congress followers for 37 years after Independence. Then came November 1, 1984, when as a 16-year-old he watched his father being hacked to death and had to cut his own hair to survive.
“When Indira Gandhi’s guards assassinated her, I remember my father abusing the killers. He was uncontrollable. My mother tried to stop him from going to Indiraji’s house, but he left regardless. He returned home with his shirt torn, pagdi open, and breathless. In less than 5 minutes, the mob was at our door. There were men who had known my father as a Congressman. Not one of them tried to save him,” says Wajir.
That day ended his association with the Congress forever. Thirty years later, he is the district secretary of the Delhi BJP. His home is the first in the “widows’ colony” of Tilak Vihar, and often it is he who is approached for information on the victims there.
“One widow who is the petitioner in the Nangloi case lives two lanes away,” Wajir says. A paan-seller now, she is a witness in a case against senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar.
“I am only part of the BJP because maybe they will get us justice. The Congress can’t. So I help anyone who comes looking for information. I will not let them walk free forever,” Wajir says.
All of them are fighting, Jasbir adds, at their own level. His brother got married in the last week of October and like every year, the media was at their door that day too, wanting to talk about 1984. Jasbir thought long and hard if his mother should speak about the riots.
“The day was auspicious and I knew speaking about it would make my mother cry. But she wanted to anyway. Anything that is written only strengthens our demand for justice. Nothing, not even my brother’s marriage, should come in the way of that,” he says.
House upon house in Tilak Vihar has garlanded photographs of the people who died in the 1984 riots. But lest the victims’ resolve for justice waver, there is that locked room at the colony’s gurdwara. Its walls are covered with photos of men, women and children killed over those three days, covering every inch of space.
Every year, on November 1, 2, and 3, for one hour each, Minku, Jasbir and Wajir make it here. As they sit, the tears come, unbidden.
FROM TRILOKPURI TO TILAK VIHAR
In 1984, Tilak Vihar existed only as a tiny extension of Tilak Nagar, a largely Sikh colony in West Delhi. Its inhabitants were mostly middle-class businessmen, and it was counted as firmly on the outskirts of Delhi. “Around Tilak Nagar, there was a lot of fallow land, with jungle on all sides. What is now Tilak Vihar was only a small cluster of homes, seen as part of Tilak Nagar,” says Atma Singh, pradhan of C-Block in Tilak Vihar.
In the early 80s, the Delhi government had constructed close to a thousand one- and two-room flats here, intended to serve as quarters for doctors and other medical staff employed with the Delhi government. “When the riots took place, people had not moved into these flats yet. The government needed to rehabilitate the survivors of the riots, and hence they were allotted flats here,” Singh says.
All the homes in C-Block as well as some in B-Block were allotted to women left widowed by the 1984 riots. Other riot victims were allotted homes in A- and D-Blocks.
Altogether, 944 families affected by the 1984 riots live in Tilak Vihar now. The Election Commission website lists 4,364 voters in the three blocks.