It usually takes just one picture to tell a story. But when the story spans 30 years, it’s often the second photo that completes the picture.
From the moment the flames lit by rioters blazed through this line of shops at Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, a day after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, to the bright signboards of today. From the first photo pulled out from this newspaper’s archives of November 1, 1984 to the second taken on the same day, 30 years later.
“It was Ground Zero,” Adesh Kumar recalls. Kumar was on the first floor when he looked down to see flames eating into his shop, Anand Garments, right below.
The memories still haunt Kumar, and those who were next in line: Vijay Prasad, owner of Ratanlal Ganeshji Das, a shoe shop; and Anmol Lal, whose father Rajan was manning the counter at Kishan Lal Taalewala, which sells locks and aluminium cupboards. As for the owners of the last three shops, they simply chose to sell and leave forever.
Ironically, the rioters did not intend to target any of these shops. Frustrated after they were prevented by devotees from attacking Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, they had set fire to the nearest Sikh target — NewWays, another garment shop, right before Anand Garments, owned by Manmohan Singh. But the flames knew no limits.
Looking back, Manmohan Singh says he knew what was coming. “My shop was the first to be looted and set on fire,” he says. “I was at home then. We had heard that Delhi was burning. So we stayed in our house in Daryaganj. That day, on November 1, my friends from Chandni Chowk called me to say my shop had been looted and burnt, and that the fire had spread. I was not surprised. I was almost waiting for such news. All I thought was at least my family was safe. We did not step out for the next four days. And then, when Sikhs started coming out of their homes, my brother and I went to our shop. It was a sight.”
From NewWays, the flames started eating into Kumar’s Anand Garments.
“I witnessed the entire incident,” said Kumar. “None of the shops in Chandni Chowk were open that day because of the PM’s assassination. But when I came out onto the balcony, I saw smoke and fire from below. I ran inside and alerted my wife and children. Together we ran out of our house. Then we saw the whole building come down. That was the end of it. It had become Ground Zero. There was nothing left of the shop set up by our father around 20 years before.”
Within minutes, down came Ratanlal Ganeshji Das, the shoe shop; Kishan Lal Taalewala, the lock-seller; and the rest in that line.
But what really rankles these shopkeepers even now is the apathy shown by the administration then. Singh and Kumar said FIRs were lodged at the Chandni Chowk police station over the rioting and looting that destroyed over 30 shops in this iconic market but no one has been arrested in all these years. “The fire tenders never came despite frantic calls from shopkeepers all around. It was only after all the damage was done that a few pipes and buckets of water from neighbours helped stop the fire from spreading any further,” said Prasad, the shoe shop owner.
“We did not even think about receiving compensation from the government. I lost goods and the shop worth Rs 10 lakh,” said Singh. “But my dealers gave me goods on credit, solely on goodwill, friendship and trust, and helped me restart my business. Today, I have moved to a better house in Defence Colony and opened another showroom called NewWays in Pitam Pura.”
The flames also taught the shopkeepers a few valuable lessons, says Anmol Lal, who now runs Kishan Lal Taalewala, after his father.
“After the fire, we left the basic structure and foundation as it was because it was still strong,” said Lal. “We began building again and the market complex was on its feet within a year. Many of us who had not paid much attention to insurance learnt from our mistakes. All the shopkeepers here have now insured the shops and goods.”
Of course, it was not just the shops that people here lost in the riots. Many, like Anand Garments’ Kumar, lost their homes too.
“The families pooled in money and for the first time the concept of builders’ cooperatives came about in Chandni Chowk,” said Kumar.
“The tragedy brought everyone together and ours is a family that has stood by each member for 30 long years. No one has forgotten. No one forgets such things.”
As Sanjay Bhargava, general secretary of the Chandni Chowk market association, sums it up, “Chandni Chowk is resilient. Live has moved on and so have we.”
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