1984: Assassination – and Massacre of Sikhs
Dr. P. C. Alexander
There is little doubt, at this point of time, that Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1984 was ill served by her advisers, whether politician, bureaucrats or defence, who egged her on to launch the assault on the Golden Temple. Among them was Dr. P. C. Alexander, principal secretary to the prime minister, (now two-term Governor of Maharashtra) who did not even been a nodding acquaintance with the Sikh history or ethos, much less of the mystique of Amritsar. The retribution to the Operation Bluestar was swift in coming and has been well documented.
But the massacre of the innocents, in the aftermath of the assassination, mostly remains under wraps lest the truth should embarrass those in power. This first-hand account of the bloody days after 31 October, 1984 is significant – as much for what it reveals as for what it conceals. The massacre of innocent Sikhs in India’s capital and across the entire north India had all the trappings of a diabolical conspiracy "to teach the Sikhs a lesson". This report, written many years ago, is significant. Despite the author’s obvious reluctance to tell "the whole truth" facts keep bobbing up; for instance, that the army was not called to intervene until the night of 3/4 November, by which time the well armed lumpen mobs had indulged unhindered in blood-bath, arson and loot, as 5000 Sikh policemen remained confined to barracks and the rest of ranks stood by in self-inflicted paralysis. Official figures of the dead in Delhi alone were 2733. Known culprits go unpunished to date, some of them still strutting the corridors of power. Ed. S.R.
I reached 1, Safdarjung Road at 6.30 in the morning of November 1. Indiraji’s body had been kept in the dining room and a small group of ladies sat around the body singing bhajans. Her face was still full of serene charm even though that frail body had taken in several bullets from the assassins. The face was surprisingly free of any injury, entry into the house was restricted to a few people. At about 8 a.m., we brought the body to the gun-carriage through the main porch from where she used to leave the house all these years in her white Ambassador for the office and for various other engagements. Now, she was leaving on her final journey through the same porch.
The body was taken to the main room of Teen Murti House facing the porch. The platform on which it was laid was so arranged that the crowds who were to pass through the porch could see her face clearly. By this time, there was a sea of humanity on the premises of Teen Murti House, and the crowds were getting restless and impatient to see the body. Rajiv, Sonia and others followed. I laid a wreath on behalf of her office. Within an hour, the crowds had become uncontrollable. People appeared to be in a frenzy and the police and the volunteers found it difficult to introduce even a semblance of order and discipline. The crowds became larger and larger every minute and many people were in a state of near-hysteria. Some of those passing through the porch were in a highly emotional state of grief and anger and started provocative and inflammatory slogans. At about 11 a.m. we heard some groups of young men shouting "Khoon ka badle khoon" (blood for blood) and shrieking and gesticulating in wild anger. Rajiv came out to the porch three time that morning to appeal to the people to be calm and to chastise those who were shouting such explosive slogans.
At about 1.30 p.m. the crowds in Teen Murti House had become so uncontrollable that there was a real danger of their breaking into the house to have a closer glimpse of the body. Some window panes were actually broken and the situation became very ugly. We found the police quite unequal to the task and decided to request the Prime Minister to call in the Army to take charge of the situation. We also received reports about attacks on Sikhs and looting of Sikhs’ shops from different part of the city and about the failure of the Delhi police to deal with the riots effectively. The Cabinet Secretary and I immediately rushed to the Prime Minister’s house and suggested that the Army be called in to take charge of the situation in Teen Murti House and also to deal with the law and order situation in the city. The Prime Minister said that he himself had spoken to General Vaidya to keep the army in readiness and immediately authorised the calling in of the Army.
On November 2, Rajiv received the senior leaders of foreign delegations one by one at 1, Akbar Road. I was with him when Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Nakasone, Mr. Schultz and others called on him. Mrs. Thatcher, dressed in black, was visibly moved when she spoke to Rajiv. She recalled her warm friendship with Indiraji and expressed her sense of personal loss in very touching words. Three ambassadors of the US who had known Indiraji very closely – Prof. Galbraith, Mr. Goheen and Mr. Moynihan – called on the Prime Minister and together they spoke with great feeling about their association with Indiraji. Throughout the night of November 2, people continued to visit Teen Murti House. It was decided that public darshan should be stopped at 6 a.m. on November 3. so that arrangements for preparing the body for cremation could begin.
The riots in Delhi had created a most serious problem of protection and care of the several hundreds of Sikhs, mostly old men, women and children, who had taken temporary shelter in school buildings and several public offices. While the Delhi administration was busy trying to deal with widespread riots, looting and arson, there were no satisfactory arrangements to look after even the elementary needs of these unfortunate people who had huddled together, frightened about possible renewed attacks from rioters and not knowing where to turn for help. A few camps for refuges had been opened in a purely ad hoc manner and hundreds had crowded into such camps which lacked even elementary facilities like light, water food, medicines, etc.
Mother Teresa arrived in Delhi and started visiting some of these camps in a efforts to assess their immediate need and to organised relief measures wherever possible. The Mother, who knew my wife very well, telephoned her on the morning of November 2 and told her that she found some of the camps to be in a miserable condition and she was setting out to see other camps then. My wife and Mrs. Pranab Mukherjee accompanied the Mother on these visits in the forenoon and they were quite shocked by the horrible state of affairs they saw in the camps. A few camps had received food and water organised by some groups of good citizens who had come forward at great risk to their lives, but there were several camps which had not so far received even drinking water. The Delhi administration’s efforts in providing help appeared to have made no impact at all. The refugees in several camps, seeing and recognizing Mother Teresa, started crying out – calling her name and asking for drinking water and blankets. In the absence of proper sanitary arrangements, some of these camps had become stinking cess pools.
I told the Prime Minister that the only remedy was for the Central Government to assume direct responsibility for organising relief. The Prime Minister immediately approved the proposal and asked that the resources of all the concerned Central Government departments should be pressed into service and the public informed of the assumption of the direct responsibility for relief work by the Central Government. He said that assistance should reach all the camps that day itself and wanted me to report to him again about the results of the action taken by 9 p.m.
I rushed back to the Cabinet Secretariat and informed the Cabinet Secretary about the blanket authority given by the Prime Minister in organising relief and protection. The Cabinet Secretary immediately formed a special action group of senior officers representing the ministries of defence, home, transport, health, food, commerce, civil supplies, etc. and convened a meeting of this group to plan out the action for relief. Relief in the form of medicines, water, food, blankets, etc. started flowing into the camps within an hour of the meeting of the action group. The Lt. Governor and the senior officers of the Delhi administration were not quite pleased that the central ministers and agencies were stepping into an area which they thought was their responsibility. But their views were ignored and they were asked – from then on – to take instructions directly from the Cabinet Secretary and the action group on all matters relating to relief and protection for the Sikhs. By 8.30 p.m. on the 2nd practically every camp had been provided with water, food, blankets, medical attention, sanitary arrangements and other such facilities. Wireless communication and security arrangements were made for every camp and senior officers were placed in charge of groups of camps to attend to all emergency needs.