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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 collective crimes that, as a nation and society, we are not able to apply closure to the most tragic turning points in our history.
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 decided to melt 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.
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 corpse. 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 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 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.
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 persistence. 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. The most striking stories of police incompetence and casual complicity were brought by Rahul Bedi and Joseph Malliakan of The Indian Express. 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 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. But, as after Operation Bluestar, Roli Books again 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 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 district Gurdaspur in Punjab where Satwant Singh, the younger of the two assassins hailed 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.
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 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.
Almost exactly 30 years later now, that wheel has turned full circle, or more or less. The BJP, from 2, is now up to 282, the first time a party has won a majority since 1984 and in fact leads a coalition of 338. The Congress is down to 44, 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.