As Sikhs were being massacred in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Zail Singh stood by helplessly, Home Minister Narasimha Rao played cool.
The eminent band of Sikhs included two who are celebrated for their heroics in war – the country's only Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, and Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, the hero of the 1971 Bangladesh war. The other three were the noted writer Patwant Singh, diplomat Gurbachan Singh and Brig (retd) Sukhjit Singh, a scion of the Kapurthala royal family.
Of them, we spoke at length to Patwant Singh, Lt Gen Aurora and Arjan Singh, who is still alive. Gujral read out his diary entries to us. The story below is an abridged version of 1984: The Price of Inaction Revisited, written in the spirit which novelist Milan Kundera described as: “The struggle for power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
October 31, 9.18 am: Indira Gandhi is shot
At 10 am, author Patwant Singh heard Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been shot at by her Sikh guards. Despite running a fever, he got onto his feet and asked his secretary to call Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, diplomat Gurbachan Singh, and Brig (retd) Sukhjit Singh, all of them prominent Sikh citizens of Delhi.
To Arjan Singh, Patwant Singh said, “We must make our positions clear: Assassinations can’t and should never be a solution to political problems.” Arjan Singh asked him to prepare a draft statement for the Press. The five decided to meet at Patwant Singh’s 11, Amrita Shergill Marg residence at 3.30 pm. Their alacrity suggested they had a foreboding of what lay ahead. Arjan Singh said he would try to reach out to IK Gujral and invite him to their meeting.
The Gujrals were not at home. Unknown to Arjan Singh, Gujral and his wife were wending their way to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where Indira Gandhi had been taken after she was sprayed with bullets. Gujral was once a member of what was referred to as Gandhi’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, but had fallen out of favour after he decided to oppose Sanjay Gandhi’s attempt to censor the Press during the Emergency.
About his visit to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Gujral wrote in his diary:
“Reached AIIMS at 12.30 pm. We were taken to the eight floor where her body had been laid. [Godman] Dhirendra Brahmachari emerged from one of the rooms and whispered to Maneka [Gandhi], ‘She is dead’. Later, at the exit on the ground floor, [Union Minister P] Shiv Shankar confirmed the news.”
Her death was not made official, perhaps because her only surviving son, Rajiv Gandhi, was away in West Bengal. President Zail Singh, too, was abroad. There was, after all, the issue of succession to sort out.
At 3.30 pm, the eminent Sikhs began to discuss Patwant Singh’s draft of the statement. There was disagreement only on one count: Should a caveat be entered against the possibility of a backlash against the Sikh community? Aurora’s was the only contrarian voice – he felt there was no sign to fear attacks against Sikhs. He brought others around to his view. A call was made to The Indian Express editor George Varghese, requesting him to give their statement condemning the assassination of Indira Gandhi a prominent slot.
Perhaps Aurora would not have taken a contrarian position at 11, Amrita Shergill Marg had he known what was happening outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where a crowd had gathered. One man's turban was snatched and burnt. A Sikh was dragged out of his car and beaten.
Before Rajiv Gandhi returned to Delhi at 4 pm, and Zail Singh an hour later, just about every person in Delhi knew that Indira Gandhi was dead. The rumour mill was India’s social media then.
October 31, dusk: Disturbances spread
When President Zail Singh visited the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, stones were pelted at his cavalcade. It was done, according to police sources, by supporters of a Congress metropolitan councilor who was subsequently assassinated. This set off a competition among local Congress leaders. Sikhs and Sikh-owned properties in INA Market, Sarojini Nagar Market and South Extension in South Delhi were attacked.
Those at 11, Amrita Shergill Marg were oblivious to what had started unfolding on Delhi’s streets. At 6.30 pm, Arjan Singh’s car backed out of Patwant Singh’s residence and turned left from where Amrita Shergill Marg loops to join Lodhi Road. At the T-junction, two men rushed to him. One of them warned, “Sardarji, don’t take this route. Danga [rioting] has started.”
Twenty-five minutes later, at 6.55 pm, President Zail Singh administered the oath of office to Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister.
An hour or two after sunset, Deputy Commissioner (South Delhi) Chandra Prakash felt that the situation in Delhi was teetering out of control. He suggested to Additional Commissioner (New Delhi Range) Gautam Kaul that a curfew be imposed and the Army be called in. In a subsequent memorandum to the Union Home Ministry, Prakash wrote,
“Kaul turned down my recommendation stating that a meeting had already taken place sometime earlier in the Prime Minister’s house, where the Home Minister was also present, and a decision had been taken not to impose curfew and call out the Army at that stage.”
The Home Minister then was PV Narasimha Rao, who was to become Prime Minister seven years later. The Delhi Police reported to him. Chandra Prakash, ironically, was later indicted by inquiry commissions for failing to control the 1984 riots.
At night, the violence spread to North Delhi. A dry fruits shop was broken into and looted. However, the mob was dispersed and a police officer took the cash box into his custody. Later, a string of timber merchant shops in Pili Kothi area in Central Delhi were set ablaze. The police found local Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders instigating the mob.
November 1, forenoon: Planned carnage
Between 9 am and 11 am, mobs began to raid Delhi’s residential colonies where Sikhs were concentrated. Killings and rapes occurred, as did looting and burning. The Delhi Police was paralysed. It seemed as if diabolical souls had kept awake the previous night scripting and choreographing the dance of death that Delhi watched helplessly – but also, at places, with cannibalistic ecstasy.
Hearing about the carnage, Gujral placed a call to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zail Singh promptly came on the line. About their conversation, Gujral wrote in his diary:
“He sounded pathetic and pleaded helplessness. He requested me to visit different parts of Delhi and seek governmental assistance.”
Gujral called Delhi’s Lt Governor, PG Gavai, at 11 am. Gujral’s entry read:
“I suggested the Army should be called in. Gavai says it will cause panic. I replied, ‘You are talking of not causing panic, but the whole city is already burning.’”
However, another version claimed that Gavai had indeed asked for the Army to be summoned the previous evening but was overruled by the Home Ministry. It corroborates Chandra Prakash’s memorandum, belying the recent claims of those who allege it was the Prime Minister’s Office, not PV Narasimha Rao, who was overseeing the affairs of Delhi in those traumatic hours.
Meanwhile, diplomat Gurbachan Singh had managed to secure a 12.05 pm appointment with Zail Singh. It was decided they would assemble at 11, Amrita Shergill Marg. When Aurora sat in his car at his New Friends Colony residence, his driver cautioned him against venturing out. But the man who had brought Pakistan to its knees in 1971 was firm in his resolve, unmindful of a mob that had begun to surround a gurdwara there. They took another route out of New Friends Colony, counted among Delhi’s spiffy colonies, and then sped to their destination.
Just 15 km away, a mob had surrounded Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Old Delhi, where hundreds of Sikhs had taken refuge. The mob started to launch sallies from both the Chandni Chowk and Red Fort sides of the gurdwara. The jathedars (community leaders) in the gurdwara, too, got into position. Separating the assailants from defenders was a small contingent of policemen led by Deputy Commissioner Maxwell Pereira. He ordered his men to fire. The mob dispersed. One person died, hundreds of lives were saved.
By contrast, a strong 500-mob was allowed to go on the rampage in Trilokpuri Resettlement Colony in East Delhi, where the first Sikh victim was a scooterist who was burnt alive. A college lecturer sought the help of two police constables posted at a gurdwara in Block 36. They walked away. The gurdwara was attacked.
November 1, 12.05 pm: The President shrugs
The eminent group of five Sikhs trooped into Rashtrapati Bhavan for their appointment. They were agitated. They narrated to the President the horrific scenes unfolding on the streets of Delhi. Zail Singh heard them silently. Aurora suggested to the President that he should address the nation on radio and television. Patwant Singh complained that Doordarshan was allowing the provocative slogans being shouted at Teen Murti House – where the body of Indira Gandhi lay in state – to filter through. The President remained mum.
Aurora suggested, “Why don’t you call the Army?” The President said he did not have the powers to do so. A livid Patwant Singh remarked, “When the nation is burning the President has to intervene.” Arjan Singh coaxed Zail Singh to speak to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. To their shock, he replied, “He is too busy. When I go to Teen Murti House I will try to talk to him.”
The President suggested that they should speak to Home Minister Rao. A presidential aide was asked to put in a call to him, but was told that Rao was in a meeting. The Cabinet Secretary was telephoned. An official came on the line. Aurora introduced himself. The official said, “General, it is too dangerous for a Sikh to venture out. I don’t know where the Cabinet Secretary is.”
Angry and disconsolate, they sat there with Zail Singh, wondering what to do next, when at 1.15 pm the President’s press secretary Tarlochan Singh rushed in with the news that the Home Ministry had decided to requisition the Army. But the mobs were on a killing spree. Residential blocks in Jahangirpuri in North Delhi had already been gutted, hundreds of Sikhs massacred. Posh South Delhi colonies were not spared either. In East Delhi, the mob had moved from Block 36 to Block 32 of Trilokpuri.
Back from Rashtrapati Bhavan, Patwant Singh and Aurora were joined by Gujral at 11, Amrita Shergill Marg. The trio decided to barge in at the 9, Motilal Nehru Marg residence of Home Minister Narasimha Rao.
November 1, afternoon: Rao plays cool
The trio was amazed at how relaxed Rao looked. He told them, “The Army will be here in the evening.”
Lt Gen Aurora asked, “How will it be deployed?” An unflappable Rao said, “The [Army] Area commander will meet the Lt Governor for this purpose.”
Aurora shot back angrily, “You have called the Army 30 hours too late.”
He then advised Rao: “Your first task should be to set up a Joint Control Room to coordinate between the police and the Army.” Unflustered, Rao said, “I will look into it.” The meeting ended. For a man who had been a minister for so long, it does, in hindsight, seem surprising that Rao would not have known the procedure that is followed when the Army is called to assist civilian authority.
Even as Rao played cool, five rows comprising 190 houses in Block 32 of Trilokpuri were reduced to ashes. Only five men survived. The estimated death toll: 450 dead. Women were raped and killed, a few abducted and taken to a nearby village.
In the evening, Army units began moving into Delhi. Unknown to Aurora, two soldiers were positioned at his residence in New Friends Colony by an Army officer who came to know that was where the hero of the Bangladesh war lived.
However, Aurora did not return home, persuaded as he had been by the Gujrals to spend the night at their place. Gujral recorded in his diary:
“Delhi is burning. There are reports of trains arriving with corpses. It is like 1947. Gen Aurora spent the night with us. The hero of 1971 could not sleep in his own house in Delhi.”
November 2, morning: The Army is in control
At the sight of the Army on Delhi's streets, the marauders did not venture out in South Delhi, though the killing continued in Trilokpuri, Mongolpuri and other trans-Yamuna colonies. Two Indian Express reporters went to Police Control Room to inform them about the massacres in Trilokpuri. They were laughed out of the room.
The relative calm elsewhere in Delhi prompted people to inquire about the well-being of their relatives and friends. Patwant Singh was surprised to find commentator Romesh Thapar and Swedish Charge d’ Affairs Rolf Gauffin at his door. Gauffin said, “Delhi isn’t safe. We have come to evacuate you to the Embassy.” He turned down the offer.
For the next few days, men, women and students began to work in relief camps. Civil rights groups began to document eyewitness accounts to prepare their reports, which eventually named the leaders who spearheaded or incited mobs to attack Sikhs. Thirty-two years later, most of the masterminds of the attacks remain unpunished.
Ten days later, Aurora, Arjan Singh and Gujral requested Congress minister Rajesh Pilot to arrange a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. After waiting at Pilot’s residence for two hours, they received a message: “If you want to condole with Rajiv Gandhi, the meeting can be held immediately.”
To the messenger, Aurora said, “Obviously, we want to condole. But we also want to tell him about the misery the Sikhs had to undergo and about the necessity of punishing the guilty.”
The meeting was cancelled. The powerful were not willing to listen to the woes of the people. This was also true of the 1992-’93 Mumbai riots, and the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
This article was first published on Scroll.in