A short collection of memories of Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.
With the thirty-year anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom around the corner, Hartosh Singh Bal’s Caravan article “Sins of Commission” is worth reading in full. It describes all that happened then, and all that has happened since – thirty years, nine commissions of inquiry, zero justice.
I was in Delhi back then, and have been trying to recall my memories of those days. I decided to ask others to share their memories as well, and put all the accounts together into this blog post. I’m not sure what I hope to accomplish with it; I just know that it’s important to remember all this — “the struggle of memory against forgetting”, to use Milan Kundera’s famous quote.
The memories follow below; each numbered account is from a different person.
In 1984 I was 11 and I lived on the AIIMS campus. The day of the assassination was a Wednesday and all us kids were called out in the middle of the morning for an assembly of sorts, and then marched to our buses to go home. I don’t think they told us what had happened. I remember hordes of people blocking the way near AIIMS, so our bus had to take a detour via Hauz Khas. I think they dropped us off near the second AIIMS gate, that’s how I got home. My two most vivid memories are of seeing two adults like I had never seen them before – the first was a school teacher, Mrs. __, panicking/taking charge on the bus (“NO we are NOT taking that route”). The second was in the later days – the days of the organised violence – a good friend of my parents had come over to visit – and she was just weeping. Both these women were tough as nails, real forces of nature – I was used to seeing them as “rocks”. It really shook me up and scared me to see them like that.
One incident in 1984 during the riots, which I will never forget. I was 12 then and I had a classmate who used to live in the next street to mine. We used to be good friends, played together and went to school together. He was a Sikh, and was from a nice normal family. His father was in the air force. When the riots happened, we did not see the family for sometime. They must have gone into hiding for their safety. It was quite a big shock when I met him again. He had no turban and his hair was cut. The family fearing his safety had decided to cut his hair. I was still a child, but being a Hindu, somewhere we felt guilty about this event. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for his family. I also remember the paranoia, groups of neighbours patrolling in the nights, and someone panicked and raised a false alarm that the Sikhs were coming to attack.
I remember a very proud old Sikh neighbour coming to our house for protection. I remember thinking how scared he looked and how different from his normal self. I remember my dad trying to explain why Indira was gunned down by her own bodyguards. I remember my dad being stopped in his car by a mob because he wore a silver ‘Kara’ on his wrist. Most of all I remember an all pervading sense of fear and sombreness in my house when my parents would watch the tv.
I was staying with my grandparents in Defence Colony on the day/day after Indira Gandhi was assassinated (don’t remember when exactly) and we had a Sikh tenant on the 1st floor. Things were not too amicable with them at that point of time as they had refused to leave the premises after their tenancy had expired. When we heard of the riots happening , my grandfather went and got the lady to our house on the ground floor and she spent the night with us (her husband had expired recently and their kids were out of station). By about 8.30 in the evening a colony patrol was formed with all the retired defence officers taking turns throughout the night to patrol the colony. Thankfully, the mobs didn’t venture into Def Col. All of us stayed glued to the tv/radio till we dozed off.
I remember going for a walk with my parents one evening and being stopped by an old Sikh man. He told my father to go back home and that the Sikhs were being attacked further down that road. I remember us running back home. That night we were on the roof of our house looking at smoke of burning houses around us. We couldn’t switch on the lights inside and my dad went out to our letter box to break the glass that had “Singh” painted on it. I remember a military truck coming to get us the next day and my parents looking around the house wondering what to pack and what to leave. We stayed at the Hostel of TAFS in subroto park for the next few days, can’t remember how many, there were other families from the air force as well. We had meals with students and slept in big halls with mattresses in the floor, don’t remember much else. Came back home to see nothing had changed inside the house. But a lot changed inside us for a very long time.
I remember crossing the basketball courts from senior to junior school to share my lunch with Mrs __ when we heard the news. The scary thing is that a group of us walked back home alone after school shut down without realizing the gravity of the situation or what was to come. Going home we climbed the rooftop of Pragati vihar complex and saw that Delhi was burning all around us and the police forces were making rounds and socializing curfew hours. And when we got back to school a couple of our classmates had to lose their turbans.
Remember 1984 quite distinctly. We were in school when __’s father came early to pick his kids up and told me the news. Soon thereafter school shut early. At home, my grandmother presciently asked us to go and buy food and stocks to last some days. First the stark images and moments from October 31st onwards. One, a few trails of black smoke around our house. And though there was no attack on our lane the smoke was close enough for the ashes to fall on our terrace – bits of burnt paper is what I recall. Two, young men – not Sikh, clearly looters – running down our lane with hangers and other small odds and ends. Three, visiting the next door and very posh Maharani Bagh neighbourhood (in South Delhi) and seeing several houses burnt. Four, being told how my father, then in the government, going to the airport to pick up a Sikh friend and then driving him through the riots in a government vehicle, shielding him when necessary. Five, seeing the house of a neighbour and friend in another block where the fans were molten blobs. The friends weren’t Sikh but their landlord was – the attackers it seems got confused with the name plates and meticulously only attacked the ground floor.
A neighbouring family, Sikhs, came over and stayed with us for a couple of days. We were just fortunate that there was no attack on our lane, and as far as recall in the next lane as well. But all around us the situation was bad. From nearby Ashram and the congested Sunlight colony we heard stories of brutal attacks. Our nearby gurudwara, a simple, humble, peaceful little place then, was gutted. This was just about two or three hundred metres from our house. We later went there for kar seva. It took years and years for the Gurudwara to be fully done (of course it’s much grander now).
About 3-4 days after Indira Gandhi’s assassination came an exciting moment for me as a kid. Roughly the time the attacks were subsiding, we had Army APCs rolling down our lane. The damage to the roads lasted many months, just how serious it was to have the Army roll down civilian areas was beginning to sink in.