The Affidavit Writers of 1984 Riots/Massacre
In the 1984 Sikh pogrom thousands of Sikh men were burned by putting burning tyres around them.
The Spokesman, Chandigarh
From the very beginning a question has been asked about the 1984 riots–were they organized? The unofficial records by concerned individuals and civil rights groups have diligently maintained a list of guilty politicians who organized the violence. They go on to say that secret meetings took place between state actors where plans were hatched to exterminate the Sikhs. On the other hand, government accounts have always said that the riots were spontaneous. The former group refuses to call the violence, riots, and uses words like massacre, genocide or carnage. The latter mostly constituting the sycophant Congress (I) politicians and their sympathizers have maintained that the riots were a time of madness for people bereaved of prime minister Indira Gandhi who, they passionately cry, was treacherously killed by the very people who were recruited to protect her—the bodyguards.
Twenty years after the riots, the contribution of GT Nanavati Commission has been in accepting that the violence was organized. This is a big step for official records which have so far denied that the violence was planned. The Nanavati Commission has come to this conclusion after going through the nature of violence. It has noted how Sikhs were killed and seen a pattern that led it to the conclusion that killings were organized. Sadly, after making this statement the Commission becomes ambiguous and fails to explain its conclusions. It does not go into specific cases of people who organized the riots. According to the report, “Whatever acts were done, were done by the local Congress (I) leaders and workers, and they appear to have done so for their personal political reasons,” without explaining what those personal political reasons were.
It further says, “Large number of affidavits indicate that local Congress (I) leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking the Sikhs. But for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of the Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened. In many places, the riotous mobs consisted of outsiders, though there is evidence to show that in certain areas like Sultanpuri, Yamunapuri, where there are large cluster of Jhuggis and Jhoparis, local persons were also seen in the mobs. Outsiders in large numbers could not have been brought by ordinary persons from the public. Bringing them from outside required an organized effort. Supplying them with weapons and inflammable material also required an organized effort. There is evidence to show that outsiders were shown the houses of the Sikhs. Obviously, it would have been difficult for them to find out the houses and shops of Sikhs so quickly and easily.”
After stating all of this, the Commission report fails to make a case against any Congress leader and by so doing it makes a farce of 3,000 deaths and memories of a deeply divided society in Delhi and elsewhere where neighbors started looting and killing each other. It has shut the door again in the face of countless survivors some of whom continue to attend Commission hearings making it their life’s mission to be the voice, which gives details of violence so that their future generations and any grandchildren that might have survived the riots don’t tell them “you did nothing”, and it is because of this that 2,500 affidavits were submitted before the commission with charges against guilty politicians and police officials.
Without any kind of witness protection program these people have been making their way to the Commission recounting to anyone willing to listen how their family members were killed. For these affidavit writers the Commission’s conclusions are a slap in the face. The earlier Justice Ranganathan Misra Commission Report had clearly said the killings were a spontaneous reaction to the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. To these victims and all seekers of justice, Nanavati commission was a platform to get justice. For one, it was set-up by the opposition party BJP which has always considered the riots its political trump card against the Congress Party. After holding hearings for five years, the 339 pages of Nanavati report are a cold comfort to those who deserve a lot more in the name of justice.
The Commission has not made a strong case against politicians who organized the riots. Instead it has made the most general statement about riots that any school going student of political science knows. It says that some poorer sections joined the mobs for economic gains and exploited the situation. For the victims of the riots this conclusion is clearly too little and too late. However, the real tragedy of 1984 riots remains in the omnibus First Information Reports (FIR) recorded by the police after the riots. In these the police have clumped together several cases. So death in one family, killing in another and looting in the third have all been recorded in one information report. Such reports are not acceptable in a court of law. Judges who have sat for cases in courts have scolded the police for doing this. Omnibus FIRs have ensured that most of the cases against politicians lead to their acquittal. In all this, justice has become a distant dream for those whose family members were killed, and for them fights over the measly compensation from the government and hardships of everyday survival in between court hearings are a cold reality.
In the last 21 years, riot survivors are occasionally seen pasted on the inside pages of newspaper in India usually as men and women who cry for justice kneeling in front of the parliament or shouting behind a yellow police barricade. When the Nanavati Commission report was released their pictures and stories were shifted to page one. Nothing more is heard of them now. Perhaps, it is time for the affidavit writers to come to terms with the fact that justice is not a prerogative of the poor and helpless. While the official and unofficial accounts are contested, resident and the non-residents Indians are busy correcting each other on the terminology to be used for the 1984 violence these affidavit writers will have to resign to their fate and live with what has become of their lives.
On the morning of October 31, Indian Prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her two Sikh bodyguards. In the next four days around 3000 innocent Sikhs were massacred. The unwritten message in the killings was that Sikhs as a community had to be taught a lesson. Killings occurred primarily in the national capital Delhi, but a similar pattern of violence prevailed in most of North India including states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. What occurred in 1984 were not spontaneous riots between Hindus and Sikhs but a planned massacre and carnage of Sikhs by the state actors including police and Congress (I) politicians.
New ways of killings were used including pouring kerosene over males, putting a tyre around them and then setting them afire. While the target were all Sikh males, in some places women were raped. The killings continued in a systematic way for five days.
On the evening of October 31, the lootings and killings had started. According to one eyewitness two truckloads of men arrived at the site of the hospital where Mrs Gandhi was kept and stood around it waiting for orders. Local Congress party leaders aroused the crowd with a speech and raised the slogan khun ka badla, khun se lenge (blood for blood), and Indira Gandhi amar rahe (may Indira Gandhi remain immortal), and outside the hospital Congressmen instigated the crowd to attack a Sikh motorcycle policeman. Then they fanned out towards surrounding colonies. Where Sikhs were found they were pulled out of vehicles, beaten up, their vehicles set on fire and their houses and shops burnt. Congress leaders like HKL Bhagat who were present in the hospital scolded the crowds by saying, “What is the point of assembling here?” The implication was that the crowds were needed somewhere else. After Mrs Gandhi’s body was taken from the hospital to her residence, the police disappeared as if by an unseen signal clearly indicating to eyewitnesses their sanction of the violence already underway.
Day Two: November 1
The second day was the worst in terms of violence. The killing mobs followed a uniform pattern coming armed with iron rods, crowbars, kerosene, inflammable powder, and firearms apart from lathis. Congress leaders held a meeting on October 31 in which plans were finalized on exterminating the Sikhs . Congress party leaders like HKL Bhagat, and Sajjan Kumar carrying voters lists, ration cards and school registers pointed out to Sikh shops and houses in their constituencies and marked them with paint, Nazi style, prior to arrival of the crowd.
Some of the worst cases of arson, looting and slaughter occurred in Delhi in the Kalyanpuri colony, just 12 km from the police headquarters. On the night of November 1, 1984, more than 200 people died there. The final death roll, mostly constituting poor and semi-skilled male Sikhs, was 1,500. Block 32 of this colony has no surviving male Sikh. One after the other HKL Bhagat and his men dragged out Sikh men, poured kerosene on them and burnt them by putting tyres around them.
Sikh woman weeps after her husband was burned to death.
One such victim is Bhakti Kaur who lost twelve members of her family including her husband. When the rioting crowds came hunting for Sikh men, Bhakti Kaur tried to save her husband by hiding him under the bed. She recalls, “When they threw the torch light under the bed, he was lying under a quilt, as he could not sit under the bed. They saw him and said, “sardarji come out, come put.”
He folded his hands and said, “Brothers take from here whatever you want, but for the sake of my six children, please spare me.” When Bhakti Kaur’s husband went out he closed the door of the house to protect the rest of the family. “They beat him with bricks, he fell back on the bed and lost consciousness. Then people came in, some with iron rods, some with meat cutting knives. They butchered him mercilessly. He was screaming a lot. He was calling out to the children; he was calling me. But I could not understand what was happening….”
Bhakti continues, “Not only the father; our family has lost twelve male members—my father-in-law, his three sons, two grandsons, two son-in-law and another one is my sister’s son. A person who had 12 members of the family killed in one day, what will go in that person’s heart? All of you tell me. Can that person laugh, and live with happiness” .
Third Day: November 2
Killing and destruction increased. Crowds forcibly stopped trains in order that Sikh passengers could be murdered. Sikh passengers were beaten to death and set afire on the spot, sometimes while alive. The logic of burning the bodies was to remove all traces of identity from the victims. Cutting of hair and shaving off of the beard preceded the burning. Whenever Sikhs attempted self-defense, policemen disarmed and arrested them. The national media fanned public anger by telecasting mourners filling past Mrs Gandhi’s body lying in state. It telecast shouts of “khoon ka badla khoon” (blood for blood) reverberated. This helped create the general impression in public that Sikhs were to be punished.
Day Four: November 3 Being the day of Mrs Gandhi’s cremation, the national media covered the event in great detail. The cremation now foreshadowed the inevitable subsidence of the rioting. Armed forces by then, in addition to their ceremonial duties in connection with the funeral, were a visible presence in many parts of the city, doing a much better job of surveillance and riot control than the police.
Day Five: November 4
Around 50,000 Sikhs were in relief camps most of which were organized by voluntary organizations. While sporadic incidents of violence continued to occur, it had by and large dawned on the administration that the visible problems of displaced people, the refugees, the injured and the bereaved demanded relief. Figures of the total number of Sikhs killed began to surface in newspapers as estimates of those that had died, the havoc done, houses, vehicles and other property destroyed were published, confirmed and contested.
Relief camp organized by local Sikhs for victims rendered homeless, 1984.
The Spokesman, Chandigarh
1 Amiya Rao et al., Report to the Nation: Truths about Delhi Violence, New Delhi, 1985, page 2.
2 Bhakti Kaur, Speaking From the Guts: Memories of Communal Riots, pp. 4-8. This is an edited narrative of personal experience interviewed and transcribed by NGO SPARROW (Sound And Picture Archives for Research on Women).
Naunidhi Kaur is based in Toronto where she is working as a freelance journalist for television and print media.