Why is it that if you walk into a bookstore in Delhi you will not find a single book on the 1984 riots? Why is it that when Shonali Bose showed her film about the 1984 riots to history students in Delhi very few were aware that thousands of Sikhs were massacred after Indira Gandhi’s assassination? As Shonali Bose said after the screening of her film "Amu" in Canada, "it is rather amazing that the capital of the world’s largest democracy witnessed a massacre of a minority and amazingly nobody has been held accountable". While it may be easy for a nation to move on and forget the violence that was committed against one its minority groups, for the victims the living nightmare of genocide still lingers.
The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 rank as one of the worst instances of sectarian violence in the history of secular India. Beginning on the evening of October 31st, 1984, unrestrained murder, mayhem, and rape continued for three horrifying days and nights. The pogrom suddenly stopped on the evening of November 3rd, 1984. Delhi was filled with nearly 3000 corpses of innocent Sikh men, women and children. Fellow Hindus and Muslims who helped Sikhs by hiding them in their homes or defending them from mobs were also found among the dead. The slaughter was not limited to Delhi. Conservative estimates say that over 2000 Sikhs were killed in Gurgaon, Kanpur, Bokaro Indore and other towns and cities across North India. Immediately following the riots, The Congress Party of India was widely criticized for their inaction to stem the violence. For three days and nights the killing and pillaging continued without the police, the civil administration and the Union government lifting a finger in rebuke. Eyewitness testimony and subsequent public inquiries would later point the finger towards Congress party politicians and high ranking police officers for inciting mobs to kill Sikhs.
Following the reports submitted by the Nanavati commission in February 2004, the tenth and final inquiry into the anti-Sikh riots, Justice G.T. Nanavati ruled that there was "credible evidence" to suggest that Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L. Bhagat and Dharam Dass Shastri were involved in orchestrating the 1984 riots. The Commission also held the then Delhi police commissioner S.C. Tandon directly responsible for the riots. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has since taken over the cases against Congress leaders indicted by the Nanavati Commission but probes into riot cases have been substantially delayed due to the difficulty in locating original police records, many which have been reported missing. In a bizarre new twist, a Delhi police official, deposing in a 1984 anti-Sikh riot case, informed a city court in October 2006 that the Shahdara Police station records, which contained entries of riot victim’s complaints, were not available as they had been destroyed. It seems that inside corruption may once again rob victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom their right to justice.
The Delhi riots were sparked by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant and Beant Singh. The assassination of Indira Gandhi was motivated by her controversial decision to attack the Sikh’s holiest and sacred shrine, Sri Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple). Her aim was to flush out "separatists". Ironically, Indira Gandhi had militarily backed a nascent separatist movement in East Pakistan that lead to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. On June 3, 1984, Prime Minister Gandhi ordered the Indian army to Punjab, imposed a state-wide curfew, suspended the train service, deported foreign journalists, and prohibited domestic press from reporting on army action. Operation Bluestar, the code name for the military operation at the Golden temple, was widely criticized by both Indians and members of the international community; it was akin to carrying out a military strike on the Christian Vatican or Muslim Kaaba. The timing of the attack was diabolical as pilgrims from all over the world were coming to the Golden Temple to attend the martyrdom anniversary of 5th Sikh Guru and founder of the Golden Temple, Sri Guru Arjun Dev Ji. According to official estimates, over 1000 people were killed during the attack. Mark Tully, notable BBC journalist, has put the unofficial death toll near 4000. Many Sikh men were falsely branded "terrorists", arrested and tortured for months. The Sikh reference library, which housed over 20,000 books and rare artifacts such as 2500 hand-written copies of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sacred scripture and 11th Guru of Sikhs), original works of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadar, a manuscript prepared by Sri Guru Gobind Singh and hukamnamas (edicts) written by the Sikh Gurus were all destroyed during the military operation. Eyewitness testimony of civilians caught in the crossfire also revealed the disrespect shown by Indian army officers who were seen spitting, urinating, smoking and wearing their shoes inside the sacred Golden temple complex after the military strike had ceased.
The Operation led to an estrangement between the Indian Central government and large portions of the Sikh community in India and abroad. The Sikh community was justifiably enraged at the sacrilege and needless civilian casualties. The damage done to Akal Takht and the Golden temple complex outraged Beant Singh, who was a bodyguard of Indira Gandhi. This outrage was further propelled by his uncle Kehar Singh who narrated the story of Massa Ranghar, a Mughal governor under Zakriya Khan who had taken over Amritsar in 1740. Massa Ranghar forbade Sikhs to enter the Golden Temple and desecrated the holy shrine by keeping "dancing girls" and smoking hookah inside the complex. Massa Ranghar was later decapitated by celebrated Sikh martyrs, Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh. Beant Singh believed the time had come once again to defend the honour of Sri Harmindar Sahib. He approached Satwant Singh and an assassination plan was set in motion. On the morning of October 31st, 1984, Beant Singh drew a .38 revolver and fired three shots into the abdomen of Indira Gandhi. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh fired all 30 rounds from his Sten automatic weapon. Both men then calmly dropped their weapons and waited for security officials to arrest them, the Prime Minister was no more.
On the evening of October 31st, 1984, mobs of 400-500 began to descend on various localities in South Delhi where Sikh homes were concentrated. They were heard shouting slogans such as "Indira Gandhi Zindabad" (Long live Indira Gandhi), followed by "Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge," (We will avenge murder with murder) "Mar do jala do" (Kill them, Burn them). By the next morning, sectarian violence had spread like wildfire all over Delhi. Demonic mobs carrying iron rods, knives, clubs, and kerosene, swarmed into Sikh homes and brutalized the occupants in the most inhumane manner. Sikh males were forced to witness the rape of their wives and daughters before being dragged out to the streets to be burned alive or lynched. Mobs stopped buses and trains, pulled out Sikh passengers, hung tires around their necks and then set them on fire. In the area of Mangolpuri even children were not spared and many were hacked to pieces by mobs. Gurdwara’s and Sikh owned businesses were looted and set ablaze. The worst butchery took place in Block 32 of Trilokpuri, a resettlement colony in east Delhi where hundreds were brutally killed in the span of two days. One dire account is that of Gurdeep Kaur, a former resident of Block 32, who lost 21 men in her family including her husband, sons and son-in-law. She was also maliciously gang raped in front of her young son. In her affidavit, the descriptions of her assailants and the awful experience she suffered are given in gruesome detail "The mob broke open the door of the house and pulled the 4 men out. Bhajan was hit on his head by an iron rod and sprinkled with kerosene and set on fire at the door; Man Singh was hit with a dagger and burnt; Gulab who had managed to hide himself in a neighbour’s house was pointed out by Draupadi’s sister, Tello, and beaten mercilessly with lathis, after which finding that he was still alive the mob electrocuted him. My youngest son Pritam was hiding behind me. They pulled him out and dragged him to Jagga’s house where he was killed. Before pulling him out, the mob began pulling and tearing my clothes and in a little while I was standing unclothed. After this they raped me in front of my son".
2733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi, another 2,000 killed in other towns and cities across North India. Thousands of women were raped, property worth tens of thousands looted and sacked, families were devastated for the rest of their lives, survivors scarred forever. The Tilak Vihar settlement where the victims of the 1984 riots reside is popularly referred to as the "widow colony" due to stark absence of adult Sikh men. It has become an urban ghetto bound tight by grief of women trying to raise entire families. Many surviving women, finding the haunting memories of murder and rape hard to bear, have ended up committing suicide. There is high also a high rate of substance abuse in Tilak Vihar which has lost over 50 young men to drug addiction. The area that witnessed one of the most gruesome carnages in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Trilokpuri resettlement colony, has only one Sikh family left today. In the last 22 years, ten commissions and committees have been set up to look into different aspects of the anti-Sikh pogrom. There has been much protest to bring the perpetrators to justice but what we have seen time and time again is inertia, political intervention and delayed prosecution. Overwhelming evidence against Congress politicians has been set aside or dismissed. The papers of the Mishra Commission, the main official inquiry into the pogrom, have never been made public and there is wide speculation that the Mishra commission holds brutal truths that the Congress Party does not want revealed.
In the last and final inquiry, the Nanvanti commission, eyewitness testimony has once again placed Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and H K L Bhagat at the scene of the crimes instigating and leading mobs. PV Narasimha Rao, who was the home minister and responsible for maintaining law and order in Delhi during those dark days, was fully aware of how grim the situation had turned in Delhi yet he chose not to deploy the army in time which could have prevented the pogrom. In his affidavit submitted to the G T Nanavati Commission, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, much decorated hero of the 1971 war, has said, "The home minister was grossly negligent in his approach, which clearly reflected his connivance with perpetrators of the heinous crimes being committed against the Sikhs." Another indication of gerrymandering is the methodical movement of the mobs who only targeted Sikh homes and business establishments in multi-faith neighbourhoods. The only way mobs would be able to identify Sikh homes or business establishments from the rest was if they had voter’s lists of houses and businesses belonging to the Sikhs, lists that could only be attained from Municipal Corporation in the Delhi government. Further suspicion of government involvement stems from the fact that a media blackout was issued in Punjab during the days of the Delhi riots, leaving the rest of country uninformed of what was happening in Delhi.
Renowned Indian author and journalist Khushwant Singh, a close acquaintance to the Nehru-Gandhi family, gave the following testimony before the Nanavati Commission "On October 31, 1984, I came out of my house, near Ambassador Hotel and from the gate near the road, I saw a mob burning a taxi, belonging to a Sikh. From a distance of 10 yards, I saw around 30 policemen, an inspector, who was armed and a sub-inspector, standing across the road. The policemen did nothing to prevent the mob from burning the taxi". While watching the incident happen, Singh’s Hindu neighbours urged him to hide inside their home as his life could be in danger if the mob saw him. "I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany." Singh told the commission. Darshan Kaur, who was widowed by the 1984 pogrom, and dared to identify H.K.L. Bhagat in public, has this to say about the lack of accountability: "Leaders of the ilk of Narasimha Rao have relied in the past on the short life of public memory to evade the delivery of justice and save the face of their party. But how will they get past the several thousand embittered hearts, many of them bonded by common suffering and ghettoized in one-room tenements in West Delhi’s Tilak Vihar since 1985? How will they assuage the seething anger of the young people who have grown up in the wake of the pogrom? When an atrocity of such magnitude has occurred, whitewashes won’t do. Before a line is drawn under the whole event, wisdom demands that justice be done. Only then can any genuine peace and harmony can be expected."
It can be argued that the only way to break the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is to move beyond the memory of that violence. The Sikh psyche was scarred during the 1984 riots and the general sentiment of the Sikh community is that if they forgive and forget the 1984 riots, they should be prepared for another one. The only way to close chapters to this truly horrific event is to ensure that justice is served visibly. The Congress Party so far has not been held accountable for the Delhi riots and Bharatiya Janata Party has been cleared in the Gujarat riots in 2002. India has a history of communal violence against minority groups and this is only bound to continue when demons that hold political posts go unpunished for mass murder. As Paramjit Singh Sarna, president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee has stated "Injustice is a fertile breeding ground for terrorism."