Memories of 1984

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 bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart, on the New Delhi railway station platform. Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart on the New Delhi railway station platform (November 1984). Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.
(Photo via IndiaTV; links to source.)

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 was coming back from Bangalore after a meeting or lecture at NIMHANS. On board we were told that IG was shot. No more details. Till we landed death was not declared. I presumed it was a done deal but due to law and order situation no open declaration. But I did not realise the magnitude of reaction in the capital till I reached the arrival area when I saw a sardar gentleman , a co-passenger rushing back in with an expression I could not decipher then. __ and __ had come to pick me up. By then it was getting to be dusk. Our trip from Palam to AIIMS was slow because of the crowd on the road. We were stopped several times and each of us was checked. Did not still realize the seriousness of the situation till we saw Sikhs were being chased and some of the houses along the side of the road were burning. By then we guessed her death was declared and people had gone on a rampage. Worst was we neared and entered Aurobindo Marg. More arson and checks. Lathis were used on our car even after each of us. People on the street were also scared because of the crowd and the marauding gundas. They looked terrible. Every time we were stopped we were not sure what they would do. __ had a beard too. Probably our colour saved us. I was thinking of what what could have happened during partition. Gurudwara at Green Park was burning & also the houses nearby. We could enter campus with our identity cards. It took a while though. Campus was flooded with crowd. There was two or three mile queue of blood donors to donate blood. She was O negative a rare blood group. First few were O negative donors and then O positive lined up. __ also went to donate. But by then they stopped pouring in blood. In fact she was brought in dead,  later we came to know. But they had to go through the gestures to show the nation that she was still alive and we were doing our best to revive. Also because of the law and order situation.
We were not allowed out of the house for the next 2-3 days. There was shortage of food but managed all right with the help of neighbours. We shared whatever we had. Some of the families took care & protected the Sikh families from the neighbouring areas. Safdarjung enclave and other close by areas suffered a lot of violence and loss of properties. We kept hearing horrible stories of what was done to the Sikh families. We from south had never experienced or witnessed (to some extent) such violence and destruction. One or two of the faculty cut their hair at that time. But others kept on their beard and turbans. Most of the children had their hair cut. Campus life got back to a semblance of normalcy only after 10 days or so. We could still see and feel fear all around. Could also feel fear mixed with hatred. Do not blame them for that. Prices of food items had gone way high may be because people started hoarding excepting a long siege. Goondaism had continued for quite a while outside the campus. There was no law and order in place for quite a while.  Patient attendance was all time low.


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.


It was 1991, six year after the ’84 riots. I was in grade 11 in Kendriya Vidyalaya, RK Puram, Delhi and a new girl (Preeti – not real name) joined our class. First I could not recognize her but after a few days I realized that both of us were classmates back in primary school. Preeti’s father was in Army so they had moved to Punjab. When I realized this, excitedly I went to her and tried to help her recall that we were childhood friends. Unfortunately, her reaction was very mild…she just smiled. Preeti did not interact with any one of us. She preferred to sit at the desk that faced the window and she would just look outside the window. She barely smiled, laughed, or talked to anyone of us. Then we learnt from our teacher that she had lost her father and she was mourning. Then one day Preeti opened up to me…she said she wants to become an air hostess because that job pays well and she can start working right after finishing school. She said it was very important for her to find a well paying job at the earliest because she needs to help her mother with financial responsibilities. She has two siblings, younger to her, who need to be helped with school and other expenses. Preeti was the only girl I had met in my life who talked about taking up a job while still in school and that too for financial reasons. Most of us were from middle class families and we were “tutored” to not to talk about financial needs with friends or strangers. I felt a little uncomfortable when Preeti so frankly told me about her financial problems but we continued the conversation. Later, Preeti told me that they moved to Punjab because of the violence her family had to face. During the 1984 riots one night a mob chased her father to their house. In the courtyard of the house in front of her, her mother, and her siblings they brutally kicked him, punched him, and then hacked him to death. They helplessly stood there. Watched the brutal, gruesome, barbaric murder. She broke into tears… even after six years her wounds were still raw. For the first time in my life I had someone relate such a horrifying incident to me.
COMMENTING POLICY FOR THIS POST: Comments should be restricted to memories of that time only, please. You can also share links to the same. Thank you.



  1. says

    My mother, Maninder Kaur Sethi, aged 20 in 1984, and my late maternal grandmother, Rajinder Kaur Bhasin, aged 55 then, were lounging in their living room of a dilapidated Defense Colony house when the news flashed on Doordarshan, informing both about Indira Gandhi’s murder.
    Even after the undertaking of Operation Blue Star a few months earlier, they were among those that were less critical of Gandhi, perhaps because of their distance from Amritsar, and perhaps because, unlike those from East Punjab, our family had moved from Pakistan in 1947, and thereon lived among the veneer of the secularity that India’s independence offered. My grandfather at that time lived and worked in Kuwait, while the latter were left alone in Delhi–making an abode for themselves as burgeoning feminists. Gandhi, to them, was a juggernaut that they could look up to.
    On the day of Gandhi’s murder, they started their ambassador car, and treaded through the roads of Defense Colony, then passing through South Extension, until they reached AIMS where Gandhi’s body had been brought for examination. Both wanted to see history unfold in front of them. It was there that the rioters had gathered, with knuckles, tires, and hard sticks in their hands, ready to slaughter Sikh men and rape Sikh women. Both wore Sikh Karas in their hands, my grandmother also cloaked a small Kirpan under her Kameez, and both carried long, thick tresses on their heads–the first indication of somebody being a Sikh. They escaped before anybody could take a close glare into the window, left half oblique by the strong rays of the sun.
    When they returned to their neighborhood of Defense Colony, their Hindu neighbors, with whom they had also been family friends, pleaded them to find a protective shelter in their home. For that week, it was pretended for their house as locked and emptied of anyone inside, with the entire family residing in Kuwait. The rioters knew in which houses the Sikhs lives, which shops and businesses they owned, so when they asked the Hindu neighbors about my family, they told them that nobody lived there. It was become of them that my mother’s and grandmother’s physical entity remained sane, while emotionally, they became quite haphazard.
    Incidentally, my uncle was one of the doctors at AIMS who was first to examine Indira Gandhi’s dead body. At that time, he was a turbaned Sikh, with a heavy beard. His fellow doctors advised him to sneak a way out of the hospital, which he did before anybody could object him touching Gandhi’s body.
    My family, quite gratefully, was protected by the empathetic people of Delhi, the ones who understood the needlessness of violence and the dangers of prejudice. This is extremely important to point here because we must separate the government from their subjects, the former being a genocidal arch, the latter, like a helpless group whose opinions can be swayed through propaganda.
    Even today, I have extended family members who refuse to live in India because of what happened in 1984. They say that for an entire week they heard men, women, and children wailing in the pain from being raped, or being burned alive from kilometers away. We were ripped of our pride and respect.
    When I was in New York City in 2000, I attended a Sikh parade where men walked down the streets shouting, “Ban Ke Rahe Ga Khalistan.” Since there is a vast number of Sikh migrant population overseas, one cannot easily deny what they have to say. As a result, there is undeniable hatred at the heart of these problems; there are issues of jingoism, of legacy, of egoism, of power, of a gruesome rule, to be tackled. Sikhs will never forget the genocide of 1984, with an unfortunate possibility of overseas militarism lingering in the hope of full fermentation.

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