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Narasimha Rao and Inder Kumar Gujral: What happened as anti-Sikh riots raged in 1984?

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that if Gujral's advice to Rao had been heeded, perhaps the massacre could have been avoided.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 7, 2019 8:20:30 am
Narasimha Rao and Inder Kumar Gujral: What happened as anti-Sikh riots raged in 1984? Sikhs fleeing the capital stranded at the New Delhi railway station on November 2 during 1984 riots in Delhi. (Express archive photo)

On Wednesday (December 4), former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 could have been avoided if then Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao had acted upon the advice that Inder Kumar Gujral had offered to him at the time.

Gujral was India’s Prime Minister for less than a year from April 1997 to March 1998. Singh was speaking at the ceremony to mark the 100th birth anniversary of the leader, who passed away in 2012.

“When the sad event of 1984 took place, Gujral ji on that very sad evening went to the then Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao and said to him that the situation is so grave that it is necessary for the government to call the Army at the earliest. If that advice would have been heeded, perhaps the massacre that took place in 1984 could have been avoided,” Singh said.

What happened on October 31, 1984?

Between 9.15 am and 9.30 am on October 31, 1984, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot at by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army operation at the Golden Temple complex to take out militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Blue Star was carried out between June 1 and June 8 of that year. One of the bodyguards who fired at Indira, Beant Singh, was killed by the PM’s other bodyguards on the spot. The second assassin, Satwant Singh, was hanged in 1989.

Indira’s assassination triggered waves of violent attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and some other parts of the country. In just three days, 2,733 Sikhs were slaughtered by well-organised mobs, and properties worth hundreds of crore were looted and destroyed. Unofficial estimates of the number of killings is much higher.

Where was Narasimha Rao at the time?

Rao was India’s Home Minister. According to Rao’s biography titled Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India (2016), by Vinay Sitapati, Rao was visiting Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, when he received the news around 10.15 am that Indira had been shot.

“On hearing the news, Narasimha Rao recollected that he ‘left Warangal at about 1.00 pm by special plane of BSF, reached Delhi airport around 5.00 pm and state way [sic], went to AIIMS [hospital]’,” Sitapati wrote.

“Delhi was a union territory at the time, and the police chief reported directly to the Union home minister, Narasimha Rao. That evening, as police dispatches began to report attacks against Sikhs, Rao was in his office in the home ministry in North Block on Raisina Hill talking to a bureaucrat from the ministry. This bureaucrat recalls vividly what happened next…:

“According to this bureaucrat, the telephone rang at around 6 pm. On the line was a young Congressman known for his proximity to Rajiv Gandhi. He told Narasimha Rao about the attacks against the Sikhs living in Delhi, and spoke of the need to ‘coordinate a single response to the violence’.

Henceforth, ‘all information [on the violence] should be sent to the PMO’. The reason was one of efficiency, but the result was that home minister Rao was bypassed. Reports from local police stations were now sent directly to the prime minister’s office,” Sitapati wrote.

The book then records that “An hour or two after Rao had been sidelined, the lawyer Ram Jethmalani met him and urged that the army be called in to protect the city’s Sikh population.”

According to Sitapati, “Jethmalani was struck by the fact that Rao appeared unconcerned. He also noticed that throughout the thirty-minute meeting, Rao was not in contact with police officers, by phone or in person. With the prime minister’s office in direct control of the police, the home minister knew he had been made redundant.”

Rajiv Gandhi had become Prime Minister on the evening of October 31.

What did the commissions of inquiry into the killings find?

Several inquiry commissions and Special Investigation Teams (SITs) were set up to investigate and fix responsibility for the killings of the Sikhs.

The Justice Nanavati Commission that was set up in 2000 records an affidavit filed by the prominent Sikh writer Patwant Singh on this issue.

The affidavit says that Patwant Singh and Lt Gen J S Aurora (the hero of the Bangladesh War) called then President Giani Zail Singh on November 1, 1984 to request him to call in the Army. According to the affidavit, Zail Singh responded: “I am not in contact with Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao. I suggest you (Aurora) talk to him.”

That afternoon, Patwant Singh, Aurora, and I K Gujral went to Rao’s house. “He was surprised to see no activity there. The Home Minister looked impassive. When they asked Shri P V Narasimha Rao whether the army was being called, his reply was “it will be here in the evening and that the Area Commander will meet Lt. Governor for this purpose”,” the Commission’s report noted.

The Commission also noted that Patwant Singh had found Rao’s approach “casual”, and that he appeared to be “unconcerned”. In the affidavit, Singh said that Rao did not make any plans to discuss the matter with the Army Chief.

The Commission noted that the Army took effective charge only over three days after the first killings were reported, on November 3, 1984.

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