When Delhi was on fire — a burning necklace of death a mile around Rashtrapati Bhavan, killer mobs given a furlough by the police, local government and the Congress party, narrow Trilokpuri lanes piled with half-burnt bodies. The embers still burn.
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 at New York and with its Washington bureau, suitcases laden with the usual gifts and goodies 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 even from the airport.
Still, one couldn’t be prepared for what unfolded on the ride home, then in New Delhi’s southernmost middle class ghetto, Saket. There were mobs on the way — actually not mobs, just small gangs with iron rods, swords, wolf-packs on the prowl — attacking shops and homes and 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 hordes in medieval times. Within 12 hours of Indira Gandhi’s death, the story of her assassination by her two Sikh bodyguards 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 by the rioting, in intensity or spread.
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 that much of it. But there are scenes and stories you cannot forget, and the future generations must not be allowed to forget. Because it is precisely because of our culture of evasion when it comes to our own continued…
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