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Thursday, May 28, 2020

When black smoke billowed

A reporter recalls 1984 — an assassination and the massacre that followed.

Written by Ritu Sarin | Updated: December 20, 2018 7:05:23 am
When Black Smoke Billowed, anti sikh riots, 1984 emergency, indira gandhi death The first signs of the communal conflagration which was to engulf the country for the next three days began with stones being pelted at the President’s motorcade when it turned away from the gate of AIIMS. 

It was the age when news was transmitted through teleprinters. That morning, when I reached the Nehru Place office of Delhi Recorder, the magazine where I worked, I found my colleagues in a huddle around the clattering machine. Then I saw the flash: “Prime Minister Indira Gandhi shot by her security guards.” I remember clearly having an argument with a fellow reporter who wanted to “follow the news” via the teleprinter. I wanted to go to the “spot”, which on the horrific morning of October 31, 1984, was AIIMS, where the bullet-ridden body of Indira Gandhi was taken and 88 units of blood administered to her before she was declared dead.

I was, perhaps, the only reporter who managed to sneak past several security cordons and reach the eighth floor of AIIMS, and remain there transfixed for hours in a corner outside the operation theatre. Rajiv Gandhi, who returned from Kolaghat, West Bengal, was brought directly to AIIMS to join a disconsolate Sonia Gandhi and other party leaders. When President Zail Singh landed from Yemen at 5 pm, he too was escorted to AIIMS and informed about the proposal of Rajiv Gandhi being sworn in as prime minister the same evening.

The first signs of the communal conflagration which was to engulf the country for the next three days began with stones being pelted at the President’s motorcade when it turned away from the gate of AIIMS. Though we were working for a monthly magazine with no daily despatch to file, I along with Delhi Recorder photographer, Praveen Jain, hopped on to a bus to reach some of the trouble spots. Already, there were reports of taxi stands owned by Sikhs being burnt and gurdwaras being attacked by mobs. And with news having spread that the prime minister was gunned down by her Sikh security guards, the killings in reprisal had begun.

It was while crossing the Ashram Chowk the same evening that I noticed what I thought looked like smouldering dead bodies on the railway crossing to my left. I waited alone while Praveen made his way to the railway tracks, and hurriedly took pictures of the charred remains of two Sikh men. There was no one else on the tracks; the sun was setting and the city seemed to be emptying out fast. I realised I must quickly head home, where more shocks awaited me.

There were many Sikh residents in the block where I lived in Safdarjung Enclave and each one must have feared for their life that evening. I remember vividly the half-terrified, half-ashamed expression of a neighbour who was forced to have an awkward haircut to hide his identity. Someone had hurriedly thrown a turban a few yards away from my house and, as I reached home, I witnessed a heated argument that our ground-floor tenants were having with an unknown Sikh couple: No, they could not give them shelter, their own lives would be in danger.

The next morning, when technically a curfew had been imposed in Delhi, I decided to head towards Connaught Place, from where there were reports of properties owned by Sikhs being burnt. From Khan Market, I managed to hire a cycle-rikshaw and the ride on it along Raj Path is one I will never forget. There was hardly any traffic and spirals of black smoke billowed on either side of the grand road — on the left where taxis and taxi stands had been set on fire and on the right, where large showrooms and shops were ablaze.

Reporter’s instinct took me a few days later to the epicentre of the anti-Sikh massacre, to Block 32 of Tirlokpuri, where the most brutal killings took place. Though the mass cremations had taken place by then, the stench of burning flesh remained, especially since this was the place where rubber tyres were used to ring the victims’ necks and then set them ablaze. The other colony in Delhi where the victims suffered thus was Sultanpuri. And just two days ago, reacting to the pronouncement of the life sentence to Sajjan Kumar, widowed victims recalled the horror of losing several members of their family, including newborns, during the senseless season of death and destruction.

Yes, the conviction has brought a sliver of hope for such victims that some justice has been done. But for those who lost their loved ones, those who witnessed the carnage, a measure of closure is not the same as forgetting.

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