Thirty-three years ago today, Delhi was the site of one of the bloodiest and most brutal massacres since Partition—the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. The violence began after the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October that year. She was assassinated by two of her guards, both Sikh. Over the next three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi. Sikhs were also attacked in several other Indian cities, including Kanpur, Bokaro, Jabalpur and Rourkela. For the past three decades, many have repeatedly claimed that these killings were a consequence of the spontaneous outpouring of grief, and not an organised act of violence. This claim has been bolstered by the reports of the various commissions that were instituted through these years to investigate the tragedy, in particular, the Nanavati Commission and the Ranganath Misra Commission.
In “Sins of Commission,” the cover story of the October 2014 issue of The Caravan, Hartosh Singh Bal outlined how these commissions obscured the truth of the violence. Bal wrote that not only was there a “complete mismatch” between the testimonies recorded and the conclusions reached, the commissions’ observations contradicted their own findings. He added: “The records of these commissions clearly establish one thing … the condemnable but largely spontaneous violence of 31 October transformed into an orchestrated massacre that continued from the 1st to the 3rd of November.”
In the following extract from the story, Bal describes how, looking at some records submitted to the commissions, it becomes clear that the Delhi Police abetted the targeted massacre of Sikhs.
That the Delhi Police abetted the attacks is strongly supported by the record of the massacre in Trilokpuri, Delhi’s worst-affected neighbourhood. Here, over the course of three days, more than three hundred people were slaughtered in Block 32, an area roughly 250 by 250 metres. Scores of women were gang-raped, in incidents that remain the least reported part of the tragedy; none of the commissions recorded this aspect of the violence in any but the most cursory fashion.
Of the three hundred witness affidavits placed on record before the Misra commission, over thirty were from Trilokpuri. The vast majority of these substantiate the assessment that the violence was largely systematic. The most comprehensive came from Tejinder Singh, a 37-year-old resident of Block 29 who was attacked during the massacre:
On 1-11-84 at about 10–11 AM, I came to know that the mob has attacked the Gurdwara in Block No.36 and has set that on fire. At that time, lot of smoke was seen coming from the Gurdwara and lot of noise was heard. …
At about 11:30 AM, when the mob came in our direction, it was shouting slogans, “Indira your name will live forever. Kill the Sikhs. Sikhs are traitors. Avenge Blood with Blood. Burn the houses of the Sardars.” When the mob advanced towards the Gurdwara in 32 Block, then some Sikhs tried to stop the mob. The mob started throwing bottles and some bomb-like objects after being lighted, which burst with a big bang. The mob was throwing bottles and bombs and also stones on the Sardars. From the other side only stones were being returned. Even then the mob could not pick up courage to advance further towards the Gurdwara in Sector-32.
According to Tejinder, the confrontation continued until after 3 pm, when a local havildar, Rajbir, arrived on the scene with some fellow policeman:
I know Rajbir and I can identify him. Rajbir signalled to Sardars that they should go back to their homes. He also fired a few rounds and this created a sense of fear in the minds of Sardars. The policemen insisted that the Sardars hand over their ‘Kirpans’ to them as they would protect them once they go to their houses …
As soon as the Sardars went back to their houses the mob advanced and taking the Kirpans from the police, which police had snatched from the Sikhs, attacked the Sardars and about 4:00 PM the slaughter of the Sardars started.
If the police party had not helped the mob at that juncture, Sardars would have successfully resisted the mob and would have saved themselves from the mob.
In its conclusions, the Misra commission partially acknowledged the implications of such testimony. “There is enough material on record to show that at many places, the police had taken away their arms or other articles with which they could have defended themselves against the attacks by mobs,” it noted. “After they were persuaded to go inside their houses on assurances that they would be well-protected, attacks on them had started. All this could not have happened if it was merely a spontaneous reaction of the angry public.”
What the commission failed to comment on, or adequately investigate, was testimony that the police actively collaborated in the violence, directing the mobs towards their victims. Around midnight on 2 November, Tejinder’s affidavit says, a drunken mob arrived in Block 29:
Most of the persons had daggers in their hands. One of the miscreants was about to attack me with his dagger but I was saved by the intervention of one Muslim by the name of Nissar. The majority of the persons in the mob were locals. …
This mob continued with their nefarious activities throughout the night. They broke the shutters of the shops in Block 29. They would also go to other Blocks and if they could lay their hands on any scooter they will bring that to the chowk and set that on fire. During this period, I saw the police jeep pass through this area a number of times inciting the mob who would intensify their work of looting, arson and killing.
The police would also inform these miscreants of some Sardars who had concealed themselves in some houses in Block 32 and getting the tip from police the mob would go to 32 Block and come back after killing those Sardars.
Between midnight and 4 am on the morning of 2 November, Tejinder said, “police removed truckloads of the dead bodies of Sikhs of Blocks 30 and 32. I had seen eight such truckloads being taken by the police.” His testimony continued:
Throughout 2-11-84 the mob continued to roam about carrying sticks and bars. At about 11 PM, one Muslim acquaintance of mine came to my house and warned me that it was no longer possible for them to protect me and I should look after myself. In a short while, the mob attacked my house once again and caught me. They were cutting my long hair when the police jeep suddenly appeared and the policemen shouted to the mob that they should run away from there as men of the CRP are entering the area. Hearing this, the miscreants took to their heels and thus my life was saved. A part of my house was being used for running a small shop. Some goods I had saved earlier and some were looted by the mob.
About half an hour after midnight on the morning of 3 November, Central Reserve Police forces finally arrived in the area. “They arrested some men of the mob who were carrying daggers and swords,” Tejinder said. “They also sent some trucks to carry the dead bodies and also to rescue some Sardars who were still alive and had concealed themselves in some places and sent them to relief camps.”
Halvidar Rajbir and his fellow constables were only the most junior of the officials involved in the organised violence. During the monsoon of 1985, HS Phoolka came into contact with Soor Veer Singh Tyagi, the officer in charge of the Kalyanpuri police station, which then had jurisdiction over Trilokpuri. In When a Tree Shook Delhi, a 2007 book co-authored with the journalist Manoj Mitta, Phoolka writes, “I got to meet Tyagi because while I was collecting affidavits from the riot victims, he too was doing the same, except that he was doing it for an entirely different purpose—to save his skin.” With the help of victims from the area, who told Tyagi that they were prepared to submit favourable testimony, Phoolka carried out a sting operation:
My pretence of being the lawyer of those victims from Kalyanpuri was evidently convincing. Tyagi really opened up in a bid to convince me that he had been made a scapegoat. In a sensational disclosure, he said that the massacre was the result of a conspiracy hatched on the evening of 31 October in Bhagat’s house. According to Tyagi, it was a secret meeting attended by police officers from east Delhi, including Jatav. The decision conveyed to officials down the line was to let killings take place and then erase all traces of the crime.
Bhagat was HKL Bhagat, the Congress member of parliament for East Delhi. Later that year, he was made the minister of information and broadcasting under Rajiv Gandhi. Jatav was Hukum Chand Jatav, the Additional Commissioner of Police for Delhi’s north, central and east districts.
Phoolka’s account continues:
Tyagi lamented that though several police stations saw extensive killings, he was the only one to have got into trouble, and that was because of one vital mistake on his part. He failed to dispose off the dead bodies. In other places, most of the corpses were either reduced to ashes or dumped elsewhere. Tyagi’s explanations for allowing bodies to pile up in Block 32 of Trilokpuri was that there were simply too many of them in the locality. When Jatav told him to dispose of the bodies, Tyagi said that some of the killings would have to be shown because of the sheer scale of the massacre in that locality. His reply, according to Tyagi, annoyed Jatav, who later suspended the SHO.
Phoolka told me he had made an attempt to record this conversation, but the tape machine caught only his words, and he no longer had the cassette. He added, “How were we to know when all this started that thirty years later we would still be appearing in court to fight the cases?” But what Tyagi allegedly told Phoolka echoes Gill’s claims. Instructions for the violence seem to have filtered down from the top, both administratively and politically.
This is an extract from “Sins of Commission,” an October 2014 story by Hartosh Singh Bal. The full story is available here.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.