16 Years On, Wounds Fester In Hearts of anti-Sikh Riot Victims
Kavita Bajeli-Datt, India Abroad News Service, 31 October 2000
Sixteen years later, vivid images of that gory night still come back to haunt Bimla and Kora Kaur.
The two teenaged sisters, who had married into the same Sikh family in New Delhi and were then expecting their first children, woke up on the night of November 1, 1984, to find terrified neighbors huddling in their home.
Before they could realize what was happening, a huge mob broke down the door of their house and dragged all the men folk out. Before their eyes, their husbands were torched to death, women sexually abused and houses set on fire.
Even today Bimla gets fits thinking of that night, when anti-Sikh riots broke out in the Indian capital following the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
Officially, 2,733 people died in the anti-Sikh riots, said to be the worst religious riots since the partition of India in 1947. Hundreds were rendered homeless, an equal number fled the city. Sikh neighborhoods were rampaged by angry mobs that went on a looting and killing spree.
"I saw with my own eyes my husband being taken out and then set on fire. After all the men in the house were set afire, the mob then targeted the women who were hiding. They were dragged out and sexually abused. I saw one of my relatives being raped. And the mob did not spare me and molested me," Bimla Kaur told India Abroad News Service.
The situation was brought under control when Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who later became the prime minister, called the army to stop the orgy of murder and terror in the streets of Delhi.
Several ruling Congress Party leaders were later accused of inciting the mobs to commit violence. While one case is still pending against Congress leaders H. K. L. Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar, Bhagat has been let off in two other cases. Jagdish Tytler, another Congress leader, was also exonerated in the case.
The government announced a plethora of probes by the Mishra committee, the Jain- Banerjee committee, the Potty-Rosha committee and the Jain-Aggarwal committee. The Jain-Aggarwal committee recommended the registration of 1,000 cases. As allegations about the police role in the violence surfaced, the government set up the Kapoor- Mittal committee to probe the role of 72 police officers.
Another committee — the Narula committee — was set up which recommended the registration of cases against the three Congress leaders. Currently the Nanavati commission is investigating the cases.
"According to our estimates around 4,000 people died in the riots. Till today only 2,200 widows have got the compensation of Rs. 350,000 from the government. So many people died, but only seven were given life sentences, while 200 were punished for minor offences," H. S. Phoolka, a high court lawyer who has been representing the riot victims and is a representative of the November 1984 carnage justice committee, told IANS.
Bimla and Kora, for instance, are still trying to survive against all odds. They were both thrown out of their Sultanpuri house in northwest Delhi by their mother-in-law. They then came to live with their parents in Kalyanpuri in east Delhi.
Like them, more than 500 families, who live in the congested Kalyanpuri neighborhood, have similar tales of horror. On the morning of November 1, 1984, people in this neighborhood were still talking about the assassination when came another shocking news — a Sikh youth had just been burnt alive on the main street.
Panic-stricken people then soon reached the nearby police station. But there, they were asked to lock themselves in their homes. Even as the residents did as they were told, the smell of petrol hit them and, within minutes, their homes had been being set afire.
"I am alive because I ran away from my house. I saw a naked man approaching me and could tell his intentions. I ran away along with my six children. For two-three days we lived in a local gurdwara. After few days we dared to venture out. Later I saw lines of burnt houses in our neighborhood. My house was among them. There was no sign of my husband or any other male member," said Sail Kaur, who lost 12 male family members in the riot.
"I made desperate attempts to locate my husband, but there was no news. Today, I cannot even claim compensation as I don’t have any evidence or certificate showing that my husband is dead," she said.
Seventy-year-old Mitha Singh was able to get a compensation of Rs. 350,000 last year only after several rounds of the city court. Singh lost his only son who was burnt alive in their factory that day.
For Gurdeep Singh, memories of his mother are still strong. Even after 16 years there is no news of his mother, Vimlesh Kaur, who disappeared after the riots. His father Sukhbeer Singh, whose efforts to trace his wife failed, lost his mental faculties and today roams the streets looking for his lost wife.