First Person Second Draft: 1 Assassination, Countless Murders

The assassination of Indira Gandhi caught me on the wrongest foot possible: in transit from New York to New Delhi.

Rajiv Gandhi and actor Amitabh Bachchan beside the body of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi and actor Amitabh Bachchan beside the body of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: June 6, 2014 9:59 pm

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 fully 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.

This is when the more exclusive localities were targeted. Along the radial roads emanating from Connaught Circus, fires blazed as if in a properly 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 …continued »

First Published on: June 6, 2014 12:00 amSingle Page Format
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