1984: When the Delhi Police abetted an attack on another minority

Delhi was the site of one of the bloodiest and most brutal massacres since Partition—the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Then, too, the Delhi Police stood accused of aiding and abetting targeted violence against a minority community. ASHOK VAHIE
01 March, 2020

With Ved Prakash Surya, the deputy commissioner of police for northeast Delhi, standing beside him, the BJP leader Kapil Mishra delivered an incendiary speech at Maujpur Chowk, near Jaffrabad, on 23 February. Mishra warned that if the  sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at the Jaffrabad metro station was not cleared within three days, the matter would be taken out of the Delhi Police’s hands. Surya’s quiet presence besides a defiant Mishra seemed to send a clear message—the threat had the support of the Delhi Police.

The Hindu mobs of northeast Delhi did not wait three days. From the very next day, news broke of wide-scale violence in northeast Delhi neighbourhoods.  As Surya’s passive demeanour had foretold, videos surfaced of the Delhi Police either quietly watching as Hindu mobs attacked Muslim neighbourhoods, or of personnel participating in the attacks. In one particularly chilling video, members of the Delhi Police can be seen forcing five individuals, visibly severely injured and lying on the ground, to sing the national anthem.  Police personnel could be heard abusing the five men, taunting them with the word “azadi,” and urging them to sing better. On 27 February, one of the men, identified in news reports as Faizan, a resident of Kardampuri, died from his injuries.

This is not the first time that the Delhi Police stands accused of aiding and abetting targeted violence against the minority residents of the national capital. Delhi was the site of one of the bloodiest and most brutal massacres since Partition—the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984.  In “Sins of Commission,” the cover story of the October 2014 issue of The Caravan, Hartosh Singh Bal examined testimonies submitted to various commissions investigating the pogrom, and demonstrated how the Delhi Police’s active involvement in the massacre was indisputable.

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 [Ranganath] 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.”failed to comment on, or adequately investigate, was testimony that the police actively collaborated in the violence, directing the mobs towards their victims.

Halvindar 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.

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?”

SS Jog, now 87 years old, lives in Amravati, Maharashtra. In November 1984, Jog, an Indian Police Service officer of the Maharashtra cadre with an impeccable record, was called in to replace Subhash Tandon as commissioner of the Delhi Police.

In August this year, Jog spoke to me on the phone from Amravati. “When I took over after the assassination there were several problems with the force—law-and-order problems, operational problems,” Jog told me. “I needed to sort these out first.” He said he began by addressing administrative and communications problems. During the violence, the control room in each police district was receiving information, “but this was not being transmitted to the main control room. As a result, two hundred deaths had taken place of which the main control room had no information.”

Jog said the police also lacked important resources. “There was a shortage of wireless systems. We addressed that. There was a shortage of forces. Most of the policemen were from Haryana; they lived there and came to the city for the day. As a result, we did not have any stand-by forces when necessary.” Furthermore, the police had not adapted to a six-year-old command system. “There was still no realisation that police powers rested with the police,” Jog said. “The force would still wait for the magistrate to arrive and order that fire be opened. I reoriented their attitude and told them that even a head constable could order the opening of fire and nothing will happen—I will back him all the way.”

Jog instituted the first commission of inquiry into the massacre. To head the investigation, he chose his deputy, a Delhi Police officer named Ved Marwah.

“Ved Marwah was my number two,” Jog told me. “He had been in the Delhi Police for a long time and naturally I depended on him. I was a new man in Delhi and he was an old hand, so I depended on his advice.

“I deputed him to conduct an administrative inquiry into what had happened during the ’84 riots,” Jog continued. “There are two types of inquiries. One, administrative—to find out what went wrong with the police and the administration. Two, individual responsibility. Somebody had to do it and Marwah was assigned. I entrusted him with it.” Jog said that he had left Delhi by the time the inquiry was completed.

Marwah had a different account. When I spoke to him earlier that month, he told me that when the inquiry was approaching completion he was ordered to wind it down. The orders, he said, came from Jog.

When I mentioned this to Jog, his tone changed abruptly: “Is that what he said? Now I do not understand. Why are you asking me about things that happened 25 years ago? I do not remember anything now.” And he hung up the phone.

A two-member committee comprising a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Dalip Kapoor, and Kusum Lata Mittal, a retired secretary to the central government, was formed in February 1987 to investigate the roles of individual police officers. Despite this mandate, the government did not empower the committee to summon and examine officials. Under the circumstances, Kapoor felt he could not indict anyone. Mittal, however, submitted a separate report in 1990 based on affidavits and other material collected by the Misra commission.

Mittal’s report indicted 72 police officers, including six IPS officers. “In case action is initiated against delinquent officers, it should be by an outside agency,” Mittal wrote. “Departmental enquiries by officers of Delhi Police are not likely to yield any results.” Despite this categorical recommendation, only such inquiries were initiated.

Mittal also addressed the case of Soor Veer Singh Tyagi:

It is understood that some departmental proceedings have been initiated against Inspector Shoorvir Singh Tyagi. His attempts, to a great extent successful, in obtaining affidavits in his favour by browbeating the witnesses indicate that it is highly unlikely that any witness would have the courage of coming and giving evidence against him. Even after his suspension, it has been seen that the Police staff of Kalyanpuri, particularly Sub Inspector Manphool Singh, have been helping Shoorvir Singh Tyagi by bringing over persons to be pressurised to depose in his favour. However, this SHO is a living shame for any Police organisation and the best way to get rid of him in public interest would be to take action under Article 311(2)(b) of the Constitution. This would perhaps restore some confidence in the mind of public.

Article 311(2)(b) allows public servants to be dismissed from office without an inquiry when such a process is not viable. No further action was ever taken against Tyagi, who retired as an additional commissioner of police.

This is an excerpt from “Sins of Commission” an October 2014 cover story by Hartosh Singh Bal.