Sins of Commission

How nine official inquiries obscured the truth of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence

A mob beats a Sikh man. Over three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed across Delhi in largely organised violence. ASHOK VAHIE
A mob beats a Sikh man. Over three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed across Delhi in largely organised violence. ASHOK VAHIE
01 October, 2014

ON WEDNESDAY, 31 October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her guards, both Sikh. In the ensuing violence, which lasted roughly three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi. Sikhs were also attacked in several other Indian cities, including Kanpur, Bokaro, Jabalpur and Rourkela. It remains one of the bloodiest and most brutal episodes of communal violence in independent India.

Over the next two decades, nine commissions of inquiry were instituted. Seven of these investigated specific aspects of the tragedy, such as the death count, which was officially established by the Ahuja Committee in 1987. Two of the panels—the Ranganath Misra Commission, constituted in 1985, and the Justice GT Nanavati Commission, whose final report was published in 2005—were required to look at the violence in its entirety.

The reports of those two commissions still make for startling reading. Each recorded testimonies from numerous victims and witnesses, and took depositions from some of those accused, including police officers who had been on duty in badly affected areas. Yet there is not just a complete mismatch between the testimonies recorded and the conclusions reached—the commissions’ own observations contradict their findings.

For thirty years, it has been persistently claimed—partly on the basis of these findings—that the violence following Gandhi’s death was an unplanned outpouring of grief. But the records of these commissions clearly establish one thing that damns such conclusions: the condemnable but largely spontaneous violence of 31 October transformed into an orchestrated massacre that continued from the 1st to the 3rd of November.

For many years, survivors, witnesses and observers have suspected that the violence was orchestrated by the highest echelons of the Congress party. Cases have been brought against some Congress leaders—notably Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler—but so far no senior politician or police officer has been sentenced.

Fresh evidence that figures in this piece suggests the orders for the violence came from the member of parliament Arun Nehru, a cousin and confidante of Indira Gandhi’s son and successor Rajiv. While this evidence is indirect testimony, it is strengthened by a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence available in the Misra and Nanavati reports. It also suggests that the conspiracy that led to the organised violence and the disjuncture between the commissions’ records and their findings are not two separate aspects of the tragedy—one followed from the other.

[ I ]

SHORTLY AFTER 9 AM, Indira Gandhi stepped out of her house at 1 Safdarjung Road to walk to her office in an adjacent bungalow, where Peter Ustinov was waiting with a television crew to interview her. A head constable was to heel, holding aloft an umbrella to protect Gandhi from the sun. Another policeman, her personal attendant, and her personal secretary, RK Dhawan, followed.

The gate separating the bungalows was manned by two Sikh jawans, who had coordinated to be on the same shift. Beant Singh, armed with his service revolver, had exchanged duties with another policeman. Knowing a latrine was located near the gate, Satwant Singh, armed with a semi-automatic carbine, had stationed himself there by claiming he was suffering from dysentery.

A week earlier, both men had partaken of amrit, in a Sikh ceremony usually reserved for the most faithful. Their fervour was a direct consequence of Operation Bluestar. In the first half of 1984, Sikh militancy, fostered largely by competitive politics between the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, and guided by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, had taken a brutal turn. Between 1 January and 3 June, nearly three hundred people—Sikhs and Hindus—had been killed in Punjab. Gandhi then directed the army to launch Operation Bluestar to flush Bhindranwale and his cohort out from their stronghold in Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex. At least seven hundred people were killed; according to conservative estimates, roughly 350 were civilians, unwitting targets of an ill-conceived operation. By the end of the assault, on 6 June, the Akal Takht, one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, was a smoking ruin. Even Sikhs who had been critical of Bhindranwale were aghast at the army action.

As Gandhi approached the gate, Beant and Satwant opened fire—five shots from Beant’s revolver, 25 from Satwant’s carbine. As soon as she fell to the ground, both men dropped their weapons, and were taken into custody. Gandhi was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she was declared dead later that day.

The two unarmed and no longer belligerent jawans were detained by personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Force in a guardroom, where they soon suffered grievous gunshot wounds. While Satwant was badly injured, Beant died. (Satwant was executed by hanging four and a half years later.)

BY 4.30 PM, the president of India, Giani Zail Singh, was back in the country, having hurried to Delhi from a state visit to North Yemen. From the airport, he travelled by convoy directly to AIIMS. His press secretary, Tarlochan Singh, was in one of the cars. Near the Kamal Cinema crossing, roughly a kilometre from the hospital, Tarlochan saw a crowd of about twenty people. “They were carrying sticks and lighted torches,” he told the Nanavati commission in December 2001. The cars ahead of his own passed the mob, seemingly without incident, but his vehicle was attacked. “They broke the glasses of my car and wanted to throw lighted torches on it. On my instructions, the driver drove the car fast and that is how I could save myself.”

An ambulance carrying Indira Gandhi’s body exits AIIMS. ASHOK VAHIE

Tarlochan’s driver changed course and headed for Rashtrapati Bhavan. Later that evening, after the president had also reached the estate, Tarlochan said he was “informed by the Security Officer that the President’s car was also attacked near the main crossing near AIIMS but the President’s police escort was able to drive that crowd away.” By 8 pm, the president’s staff had started receiving calls from Sikhs “in different parts of the city that riots had broken out and Sikhs were being attacked,” he added. “We then approached the President and apprised him about the information which we have received. He told us that he had also received two or three calls regarding attacks on Sikhs.”

In its summary of that day’s violence, the Nanavati commission wrote that the “first sign of such public resentment resulting in an angry outburst in Delhi” came around 2.30 pm, “when the public suspected that Smt. Indira Gandhi had succumbed to her injuries and started assaulting passersby Sikhs.” Further violence was noted around 5 pm, “when the cars in the entourage of President Giani Zail Singh were stoned at AIIMS.” At 6 pm, Gandhi’s death was announced on All India Radio. Soon after, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister.

Around the same time, “crowds had gathered in several parts of Delhi and become violent,” the Nanavati commission wrote.

The Sikhs were beaten and their vehicles were burnt. Till then, the attacks were made by persons who had collected on the roads to know what had happened and what was happening. They were stray incidents and the attacks were not at all organised. The mobs till then were not armed with weapons or inflammable materials. With whatever that became handy, they manhandled Sikhs and burnt their vehicles. There were stray incidents of damaging houses or shops of the Sikhs.

At this stage, it was clear that Sikhs were being collectively targeted, and the Delhi administration, headed by the lieutenant governor, PG Gavai, would have been justified in deploying additional forces to avert the violence. In and around the capital, the army typically maintained one infantry brigade and one artillery brigade; it could also call on whatever limited manpower was available at the Rajputana Rifles’ regimental training centre. General AS Vaidya, the Chief of the Army Staff at the time, later told the Misra commission that an additional brigade of sixteen hundred soldiers had been ordered to move from Meerut to Delhi at 10.30 am on 31 October, and that it reached the capital before midnight. The Delhi area’s commanding officer, Major General JS Jamwal, told the commission that the total number of available soldiers was 6,100. Just under half were “available for field duty,” he said, while the remaining 3,100 were either “used for controlling movements at Teenmurti Bhavan, where the body of the late Prime Minister was lying in state,” or were posted along the route from there to Shakti Sthal, where Gandhi was to be cremated. Vaidya said he gave Jamwal his consent to immediately extend military assistance to the Delhi administration if asked for.

But no one did. The Delhi Police commissioner, Subhash Tandon, told the Misra commission that there were not enough army personnel in Delhi to draw on, but this was plainly wrong; the commission itself found that his contention was entirely “without basis.” If troops had been called in on the morning of 1 November 1984, the commission concluded, “5,000 Army jawans divided into columns and moving into the streets properly armed would not have brought about the death of at least 2,000 people.” In other words, at least two thousand lives were lost because the Delhi administration chose not to deploy the army.

OVERNIGHT, the violence in Delhi transformed. The Nanavati commission found that from the morning of 1 November the “nature and intensity of the attacks changed. After about 10 am on that day slogans like ‘Khoon-Ka-Badla-Khoon Se Lenge’”—blood for blood—“were raised by the mobs” that were soon operating across the city. “Rumours were circulated which had the effect of inciting people against the Sikhs and prompt them to take revenge.” One of these rumours was that Sikhs had poisoned Delhi’s drinking water, another that every train coming in from Punjab was freighted with dozens of dead bodies of non-Sikhs. “This was an out and out lie,” the Misra commission found, “but was intended to create the necessary panic and bring about the proper mood in the people constituting the mobs to react against the Sikhs.”

The mobs were well organised. According to evidence admitted by the Nanavati commission, “at some places the mobs indulging in violent attacks had come in DTC buses,” or other vehicles belonging to the state transport corporation. The attackers “either came armed with weapons and inflammable materials like kerosene, petrol and some white powder or were supplied with such materials soon after they were taken to the localities where the Sikhs were to be attacked.” (The powder is likely to have been white phosphorous, a volatile substance not stocked in most households or ordinary shops. How an industrial quantity of this substance suddenly became available to mobs in Delhi was not investigated.)

Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and confidante Arun Nehru (left) with the Indian president Giani Zail Singh outside AIIMS on 31 October 1984. ASHOK VAHIE

The commission also acknowledged evidence that on the previous evening, “either meetings were held or the persons who could organise attacks were contacted and were given instructions to kill Sikhs and loot their houses and shops. The attacks were made in a systematic manner and without much fear of the police; almost suggesting that they were assured that they would not be harmed while committing those acts and even thereafter.”

One means of murder was common in neighbourhoods across the city:

Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases, tyres were put around the necks and then were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some case, white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter. This was a common pattern which was followed by the big mobs which had played havoc in certain areas.

Sikh-owned shops in these localities were “identified, looted and burnt. Thus, what had initially started as an angry outburst became an organised carnage.”

It seems clear from these observations that on the night of 31 October, instructions were issued on how Sikhs were to be killed, along with assurances that the police would not interfere. That disparate groups of rioters in different parts of Delhi spontaneously decided to string their victims with tyres and burn them alive is implausible. It is far more likely that orders to carry this out issued from a single point of command.

In March this year, in the course of reporting on Operation Bluestar, I met the former petroleum secretary Avtar Singh Gill at his residence in Sainik Farms, Delhi. During one conversation, he told me that Arun Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi’s close confidante, had sounded him out months before Bluestar about the possibility of the army invading the Golden Temple.

“As one of the few Sikhs in a senior position in the government—even though I was clean-shaven, he wanted to know my views,” Gill said, his back ramrod-straight. “He wanted to know how the community would react. It was not the first time he had spoken to me about Punjab, and he made no bones about his views. I remember him once telling me, with some pride, that he was a hawk. I told him such a move would be a blunder. Given the history of the Sikhs it would result in assassinations, and I remember using the plural.”

The mention of Nehru led Gill to relate his personal experience of the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s death. On 1 November, he went to his office. “Lalit Suri of Lalit Hotels, who used to come and see me often, dropped by. He was the errand boy for Rajiv Gandhi, and since he often needed some work done, he was close to me. He came to me in the ministry and said, ‘Clearance has been given by Arun Nehru for the killings in Delhi and the killings have started. The strategy is to catch Sikh youth, fling a tyre over their heads, douse them with kerosene and set them on fire. This will calm the anger of the Hindus.’”

Suri, Gill continued, “told me that I should be careful even though my name is not on the voters’ list, the Delhi gurdwara voters’ list. ‘They have been provided this list. This will last for three days. It has started today; it will end on the third.’”

Connaught Place, Delhi. The Nanavati commission stated that instructions were given “to kill Sikhs and loot their houses and shops.” ASHOK VAHIE

Gill then told me an anecdote that captured something of the paranoia of that week. “On the third day, which was the day of Indira Gandhi’s cremation, when people were paying last respects to her body lying in state—on that evening Lalit Suri sent a man to me in a car from the PMO.” The man from the Prime Minister’s Office “told me, ‘Suri has said you still have not been there, it is evening, you must go.’ When I asked why, the man said, ‘It is all being recorded on TV cameras,’ and Suri sahib has sent him to fetch me. He took me in the car to where Mrs Gandhi was lying in state. When I reached home, my wife told me she had seen me on TV circling the body.”

That Arun Nehru had a role in the violence has long been widely rumoured, but Gill’s statement marks the first time a senior government official has put the accusation on record. His story offers the first coherent explanation for the nature of the violence in Delhi. Perhaps the closest parallel to this is an allegation made by the murdered Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya. Pandya claimed that on 27 February 2002—the day a train carriage filled with Hindu pilgrims was burned at Godhra, Gujarat—Narendra Modi, then the state’s chief minister, held a meeting at his official bungalow in which he specifically instructed senior bureaucrats and police officers to allow people to “vent their frustration.” Over the last decade, a great deal of effort has gone into dismissing Pandya’s testimony, yet no other explanation has emerged for the inaction of the Gujarat Police during the violence that then swept Ahmedabad. Similarly, no more cogent, credible explanation has emerged for the events of early November 1984.

A detail in Gill’s story also helps solve one piece of a long-standing puzzle. The lawyer HS Phoolka has been at the forefront of the legal battle to secure justice for the victims of the 1984 violence. When I told him about my conversation with Gill, he immediately seized upon the mention of the gurdwara voters’ lists, which contain the names of people eligible to vote in elections to the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. “We had always wondered how government voters’ lists were sufficient to tell a Sikh from anyone with the last name Singh,” Phoolka said. “But, of course, the ease with which Sikh houses were identified would make sense if gurdwara voters’ lists were available.”

Ordinary electoral rolls may have been accessible or familiar to local Congress leaders, but low-level politicians would have had no reason to keep copies of the DSGMC lists, which were of no use in election campaigns. That these lists were obtained from local gurdwaras after the violence began is also inconceivable. However, Phoolka had reason to believe that the lists were available to people in the higher ranks of the regime. “When we were collating material to present before the Misra commission, we were told by some people in the intelligence community that shortly before Operation Bluestar, fearing a reaction from the Sikhs of Delhi, detailed information on the community had been gathered by the government,” he said. “Unfortunately, we were not able to get any independent evidence.”

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.”

Vehicles burn near the AIIMS crossing in Delhi, where President Zail Singh’s convoy was attacked after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. ASHOK VAHIE

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.

OFFICIALLY, Delhi’s police commissioner, Subhash Tandon, did not learn of what transpired in Trilokpuri, in Tyagi’s presence, until 8 pm on 2 November. Deposing before the Misra commission in early April 1986, Tandon said that he received a report at police headquarters around 6 pm that “a riot had taken place at Trilokpuri, and dead bodies were lying on the scene.” Tandon said he directed a colleague to make inquiries. “He came back after about two hours and confirmed that Sikhs had been massacred in Trilokpuri.”

The report that apparently first alerted Tandon to the violence came not from Tyagi or another member of the police force, but from a group of journalists. On 1 November, Mohan Singh—a Trilokpuri resident and brother to two men already murdered—got someone to cut his hair, escaped from the neighbourhood, and went to the nearest police station. “I begged the police for help,” he told the commission, “but on the contrary they beat me with canes and turned me out of the police station.” Mohan next went to police headquarters, “but when they came to know that I was a Sikh, they turned me out.” It was then that Mohan went to the offices of the Indian Express group newspaper Jansatta, and eventually spoke with several reporters.

Rahul Bedi was one of the reporters. His deposition, made before the Misra commission in August 1985, takes up Mohan’s story. According to Bedi, Mohan claimed that “over 300 people had been massacred by mobs in his Block Number 32.” Bedi heard this at 11.30 am on 2 November; by 2 pm, he, along with his Indian Express colleague Joseph Maliakan and the Jansatta reporter Alok Tomar, made their way to the neighbourhood. His deposition states, “About 300 yards away from Block 32 we found our path blocked by several hundred strong mob.”

Before we could reach them, two policemen, one Head Constable and a Constable, riding a motor cycle, burst through the crowd, coming from the direction of Block 32 headed towards us. I flagged the motor cycle to a halt and asked the Head Constable driving it whether any killings had taken place in Block No.32. The policeman said that there was “Shanti” in Block 32. On further probing, he admitted that “only” two people had been killed, no more.

This was nearly 12 hours after eight truckloads of bodies had been removed from the neighbourhood, according to Tejinder Singh’s testimony.

Bedi, Maliakan and Tomar then went to the Kalyanpuri station and asked the duty officer the same question. The duty officer also said that “shanti” prevailed, and no deaths had been reported. Outside, a truck parked nearby attracted the journalists’ attention:

on closer inspection we found the back of the vehicle littered with three bodies, charred beyond recognition, and a half-charred, barely alive Sikh Youth lying atop them. In his quasi-consciousness, the man told us that he was from Punjab and had come visiting relatives in Trilokpuri. In the early hours of the same morning, a rampaging mob, he said, had killed his hosts, and set him alight after pouring kerosene oil on his body. He had been brought to the police station around 11 AM, about four hours before we spoke to him. He had lain there ever since.

At 6 pm, Bedi told the commission, he saw Soor Veer Singh Tyagi, accompanied by two constables, arriving at Trilokpuri. Tyagi claimed that he had “radioed his senior officer” about the massacre. Bedi continued, “Soor Veer Singh, walking over the sea of hundreds of charred and mutilated bodies in Block 32, told me, ‘the Mussalmans are responsible for this.’ No other police force arrived for the one hour I was in Block 32, helping shocked riot victims to safety.”

Bedi and Maliakan returned to Trilokpuri on the morning of 3 November. According to Bedi, they found “two bodies smouldering just inside the entrance to the colony. On returning 45 minutes later, after a visit to Block 32, we found two more bodies added onto the pile.”

THE STORY THAT BEDI subsequently wrote ran in the Indian Express, one of the few newspapers to cover the massacre credibly.

At many other papers, editors seemed to have made up their minds about the violence before their reporters could do their job. “Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, rationalised the violence: the Hindu cup of patience, he wrote, had become full to the brim,” Khushwant Singh wrote in Outlook on the twentieth anniversary of the massacre. “NC Menon, who succeeded me as editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote of how Sikhs had ‘clawed their way to prosperity’ and well nigh had it coming to them.”

Phoolka told me that much of the subsequent cover-up became possible because the media, led by editors such as this, largely abdicated its role during and after the violence. This is among the more significant differences between the 1984 killings and the violence in Gujarat in 2002; while no institution of the Indian state seemed to have learned from the past, the media responded very differently in 2002. The impact of private news channels on this response was particularly evident.

Outside Gurdwara Rakabganj, where a mob allegedly led by the Congressman Kamal Nath burned two Sikhs to death. ASHOK VAHIE

In 1984, the country’s only television coverage was provided by Doordarshan. Even the Misra commission acknowledged that the state-controlled broadcaster may have made matters worse. After Indira Gandhi’s body was taken to Teen Murti Bhavan on 1 November, “live telecast arrangement had been made covering the dead body lying in state,” the commission noted. That morning, a group of people walking past the body “did raise the shout ‘khoon ka badla khoon’. Since the live telecast arrangements had then been working, the crowd along with the shout did come on the TV and their shout was heard.”

The channel’s director general explained to the commission that the “officers of the Doordarshan never apprehended that a crowd paying respect to the departed leader would raise such a shout which on account of the live program would get televised. The moment this was realised the live telecast arrangement was switched off.” When he played a recording of the broadcast, however, “the Commission found that the shout had been repeated for 18 times spread over 37 seconds.”

[ II ]

EIGHT WEEKS AFTER THE MASSACRE IN DELHI, India went to the polls, returning the largest electoral mandate in the country’s history to date.

The Congress leadership had been preparing for the general elections for months. From early on, cracking down on Sikh militancy was a focus of their strategy. According to RK Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s private secretary, Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru and Arun Singh (another adviser to the prime minister) had all agreed that a successful army operation against Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale would easily win them the vote.

During that year’s monsoon, a Congress advertising campaign was conceived that is still remembered for its chilling cynicism. In a special edition of Outlook marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1984, the advertising executive Ajit Balakrishnan told the story of how the campaign was developed. Rajiv Gandhi had “shanghaied his friends Arun Singh and Arun Nehru into the Party to help improve the party’s fast dwindling chances in the imminent Lok Sabha Elections.” Singh and Nehru had worked at companies for which Balakrishnan’s firm, Rediffusion, “had just done feted ad campaigns,” he continued. “So, when our clients were called to Delhi, we were as well.”

Balakrishnan went on to discuss several of the print ads that were created.

“Will your groceries list, in the future, include acid bulbs, iron rods, daggers?” asked the first ad. Ordinary citizens, we argued, need to arm themselves only when governments become weak. Vote for Congress.

“Will the country’s border finally move to your doorstep?” asked the next, casting an eye on the raging separatist movements. Would you soon look uneasily at your neighbour just because he belongs to another community? Vote for Congress and vote for unity, otherwise it is a vote for separatism.

By the end of the monsoon, the ads were apparently finalised, but not yet published. Then Indira Gandhi was assassinated. “Suddenly the words we had crafted many, many months ago started ringing even truer than when we wrote them,” Balakrishnan recounted.

Elections were called soon afterwards. The ad campaign ran as it was first created many months before that; in an amazing turn of events, reality had caught up with it. And this reality, grimmer than we ever imagined, heightened the nuances of the words and pictures we had used and gave them an urgency we had not seen when we created them.

I was struck by his failure to acknowledge the horror this campaign provoked among most Sikhs. In August this year, I contacted Balakrishnan, who is now the head of and the chairman of the board of governors of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, to ask him about the campaign. I hoped this might yield some insight into the thinking of the men who enjoyed Rajiv Gandhi’s confidence in 1984. Balakrishnan requested that I send him my questions over email. Among other things, I asked:

Much of the campaign seemed to have been in place before the massacre of the Sikh in 1984, was the campaign tuned or re-adapted after those events?

In fact, was there any discussion on the thrust of the campaign after the massacres?

In your piece in Outlook you did not mention the controversial ad asking whether you could trust your taxi driver with what seemed to be the accompanying silhouette of a Sikh. When was this conceived?

Your article written 25 years after the events still seems to consider the ad campaign the landmark in electioneering in this country, but has little to say about its problematic aspects. Many such as me (and I was only 17 then) were horrified by the tenor of the campaign which, whatever its intent, came across as targeting an entire community. Is this an assessment you disregard entirely?

At the time this article went to press, repeated requests for answers remained unsuccessful.

On 19 November 1984, Rajiv Gandhi addressed a rally at the Boat Club near Delhi’s India Gate to commemorate his mother’s birth anniversary. During his speech, he made a statement about Indira’s assassination that came to characterise the state’s entire response to the subsequent massacre: “When a big tree falls, the whole earth shakes.” A month later, the Congress swept the Lok Sabha polls, and Rajiv returned triumphantly to the prime minister’s office. From this point, the processes designed to provide justice for massacre victims were used instead to suppress it.

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.”

Young Sikhs at AIIMS. The records of two official commissions clearly establish that the condemnable but largely spontaneous violence of 31 October transformed into an orchestrated massacre that continued from the 1st to the 3rd of November. ASHOK VAHIE

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.

The official reason for closing the Marwah inquiry in May 1985 was that a body was being set up under the Commission of Inquiry Act. This new commission, constituted that same month, was mandated to “inquire into the allegations in regard to the incidents of organised violence which took place in Delhi following the assassination of the late Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi.” This was the Misra commission, whose report was submitted to the government in August 1986 and made public the following February.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the Misra commission was procedurally biased. Police officials and administrators were allowed to depose in camera; even lawyers representing the victims were barred from attending—let alone examining the witnesses. According to Phoolka, neither the lawyers nor the media at large learned of these depositions until long after they took place.

There was also a concerted effort to manufacture testimony favourable to policemen. In an affidavit, a Kalyanpuri resident named Parsa Singh said he was summoned to Soor Veer Singh Tyagi’s police station:

I had cordial relations with Mr Tyagi. He told me, “I had helped you a number of times and I had good relations with you. I am very sorry for what happened during November but I am quite innocent and you should help me.” I replied that “You know very well that on 1st November, 1984 when the mob came, your men took away guns from our people and when the mob attacked us and we tried to thwart their attack, you fired on us and you personally pointed your revolver on my chest and told me to go away from there, else you will shoot me. Out of fear we ran away. You instigated people to set our houses on fire and our property was looted. We could barely save our lives, you arrested us and involved us in false cases. How can you ask us to help you now.”

The affidavit continues, “Tyagi said that he had not done anything on his own. He had orders to do so from above. When I told him that he was the officer on the spot and he had done everything, he replied that he was helpless then, he had orders from his officer. Mr Jatav and Dr Ashok”—Hukum Chand Jatav and Ashok Gupta, a Congress politician and Kalyanpuri’s municipal representative—“was consistently putting pressure on him and even the Central Government Minister, Sh. HKL Bhagat was pressurising them.” Parsa Singh said he was summoned to the Kalyanpuri police station three or four days before his hearing; other witnesses and victims gave similar accounts. This suggests that police officials were obtaining information from the commission about the dates on which those who might testify against them would appear. But the affidavits were filed despite these threatening acts.

Bhagat’s role in directing the violence was corroborated by the affidavit of Sukhan Singh Saini, a Hindu vegetable vendor. On the night of 31 October, around 8 pm, Saini saw a crowd standing opposite the house of a man named Shyam Singh Tyagi:

I recognise all of them. I know Shri H.K.L. Bhagat very well since I have gone to his kothi many a times and he is a Minister. Seeing Bhagat Ji, I stopped there and saw that Bhagat Ji was pulling bundles of notes out of his pockets and was giving the same to Bhoop Singh Tyagi and was saying that, “keep these two thousand rupees for liquor and do as I have told you.” He further added, “You need not worry at all. I will look after everything.” I went home.

The next day, Saini saw Shyam Singh Tyagi, Bhoop Singh Tyagi and several other members of the meeting in a mob at the Daryaganj vegetable market, “beating up the Sardars and burning them.”

While putting the affidavits of victims and witnesses on the record, the Misra commission chose to ignore the intimidation and violence that Bhagat and those close to him had ordered. The commission’s conclusions note that attempts were made to contact witnesses, but make no further comment or recommendation on this point.

Bhagat, a former mayor of Delhi, was the most powerful of the Congress leaders explicitly accused of a role in the violence before any of the commissions. Some people, mostly non-Sikhs, submitted affidavits in support of him, and these the commission “pressed into service.” One of the men who submitted such an affidavit was Balwinder Singh. In 1989, Singh organised a function at which Bhagat was accorded a saropa, a Sikh ceremonial honour. Singh’s son, Arvinder Singh Lovely, is today the head of the Congress in Delhi.

The commission dealt with the evidence against Bhagat by dismissing it. “In quite a number of affidavits there was allegation that Shri H.K.L. Bhagat, Minister in Smt. Gandhi’s cabinet and continued in Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, insinuated the non-Sikhs to take revenge on the Sikhs as two of their people had murdered Smt Gandhi,” the commission wrote. Citing 16 instances of specific allegations, it argued:

Excepting a handful of affidavits where it has been alleged that Shri Bhagat had come to meetings along with some other local Congress (I) leaders in the night of the 31st October or in the morning of the 1st November, and in a few affidavits alleging distribution of money by him to boost up riots, the allegations are not very positive or specific…

The evidence regarding what transpired at the meeting is scanty.

IF BHAGAT WAS NOT INDICTED even in the face of overwhelming evidence, there was little chance that any other senior figure in the Congress would be charged. Seeking to justify the initial violence after the assassination, the Misra commission termed it “natural.” Misra wrote, “According to the Indian tradition a lady cannot be killed and she is said to be Avadhya.”

Sikhs are reputed for their valour and valiance. When two of the Sikh guards drawn from the police and meant for providing security to the late Prime Minister opened fire on her and she succumbed to the injuries thus sustained, a sense of universal anguish was a natural reaction. The Commission, therefore, accepts the submission advanced before it that the incidents against the Sikhs an October 31, 1984, started as a natural reaction to the situation and at that stage there was no organised attempt to cause or spread violence by rioting directed against the Sikhs.

Misra then considered the subsequent massacre:

the cause for the attacks on Sikhs from 01/11/1984 had not remained the same. Taking advantage of the anger of the public, other forces had moved in to exploit the situation. Large number of affidavits indicate that local Congress (I) leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking the Sikhs.

But for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of the Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.

Even after making this observation, and citing compelling evidence that the violence was highly organised and systematic, the commission chose to absolve senior Congressmen and place the blame on local leaders.

This conclusion does not stand up to scrutiny. It’s improbable that local leaders acting independently would all have devised the same method of violence. The commission provided no cogent explanation for how mobs across the city arrived at Sikh homes equipped with tyres and ample kerosene, and settled on exactly the same means of killing  Sikhs and burning their bodies. There is also no explanation for why, in cities such as Bokaro and Kanpur where violence also took place, this uniformity was absent.

The commission went so far as to argue that senior Congress leaders could not have organised the massacre because, if they had, the violence would have been even more severe:

If the party in power or a minister or well placed person had masterminded or organised the riot, the same would had taken even a more serious turn. It is the case of all parties before the Commission that in certain area there was no trouble of any noticeable degree and two reasons have been advanced for such a situation—(i) effectiveness of the local police; and (ii) raising of combined defence of the local residents. If the Congress (I) party or a powerful force in the party played any role, neither of these two elements could have functioned in the manner each of them has been ascribed.

The commission’s final conclusion was that the “change in the pattern from spontaneous reaction to organised riots was the outcome of the take over of the command of the situation by anti-social elements.”

It is said that Satan too has a process and when taking to satanic activities the anti-social elements took to their organised process. This is how—and in this sense—violence in Delhi was indeed organised but such organisation was not by any political party or a definite group of persons but by the anti-social elements which as will be shown in another part of this report is quite a formidable and powerful element in the Indian capital.

But no clarification was forthcoming of who or what these anti-social elements were.

After heading the commission, Ranganath Misra went on to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In 1993, following his retirement, he was appointed the first head of the National Human Rights Commission. Five years later, the Congress, then in the opposition, nominated him to the Rajya Sabha.

WHEN THE MISRA COMMISSION wound down, in 1986, it recommended that three other commissions be set up—to ascertain the final death toll, to look at the charges of police negligence, and to re-examine cases that had not been registered or properly investigated. The least controversial of these, headed by the Delhi home secretary RK Ahuja, arrived at the conservative but largely uncontested figure of 2,733 dead.

Matters at the two other commissions were more complicated from their inception. 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.

The third follow-up inquiry, initiated in February 1987, was headed by the Jain–Banerjee committee. The body was meant to consider the registration of cases against politicians. That September, it instructed the police to register a murder case against the former Congress member of parliament Sajjan Kumar. But another man accused in the same case, Brahmanand Gupta, obtained from the Delhi High Court a stay order on the committee’s recommendations. In October 1989, the High Court upheld Gupta’s petition, and effectively disbanded the committee.

Five months later, the Delhi administration appointed a new body, under different terms of notification, to fulfil the function of the Jain–Banerjee committee. This body, the Poti–Rosha committee, recommended action on thirty or so affidavits—including registering a case against Kumar.

One Congress campaign ad asked whether people could trust their taxi driver. It featured what appeared to be the silhouette of a Sikh. ASHOK VAHIE

The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee runs a website called Carnage ’84, which is maintained by HS Phoolka. According to the site, when a Central Bureau of Investigation team tried to arrest Kumar, “they were themselves locked up in his house till his lawyer, RK Anand, obtained ‘anticipatory bail’ from the high court.” The committee chairs subsequently suspended the inquiry and quit. A third committee was constituted with the same aims, and further cases were registered against Sajjan Kumar. Finally, HKL Bhagat, too, was indicted.

Sajjan Kumar and his fellow Congressman Jagdish Tytler are still under trial. Their cases are now being heard in the Supreme Court. HKL Bhagat was never convicted; in 2003, he was deemed unfit to stand trial due to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 2009. Other senior Congressmen—including Kamal Nath, the United Progressive Alliance government’s minister of commerce between 2004 and 2009—have never faced investigation. According to testimonies recorded by the Misra commission, Nath led a mob at Gurdwara Rakabganj, within sight of Parliament House, where two Sikhs were burned to death.

IN MAY 2000, there was a final opportunity to arrive at the truth when the GT Nanavati Commission was appointed by the newly elected National Democratic Alliance government. The first term of reference for the body was that it would “inquire into the causes and course of the criminal violence and riots targeting members of the Sikh community which took place in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and other parts of the country on 31st October, 1984 and thereafter.”

GT Nanavati was a problematic choice to head the commission. In 1998, he was part of a two-member Supreme Court bench that commuted the death sentence of the convicted murderer Kishori Lal to life imprisonment. Lal is often referred to as “the butcher of Trilokpuri” for his role in the 1984 killings. In the judgement, Nanavati and his colleague wrote:

We may notice that the acts attributed to the mob of which the appellant was a member at the relevant time cannot be stated to be a result of any organised systematic activity leading to genocide. Perhaps, we can visualise that to the extent there was unlawful assembly and to the extent that the mob wanted to teach a stern lesson to the Sikhs there was some organisation; but in that design, they did not consider that women and children should be annihilated which is a redeeming feature.

It is difficult to follow the Supreme Court’s logic that killing only the male members of a family mitigates the crime of murder. The judgement suggests that Nanavati had made up his mind about the events of 1984 before the commission was ever constituted. If he had already concluded that the violence in Trilokpuri was not organised, more evidence, and from other neighbourhoods in Delhi, was unlikely to change his mind.

In its 2005 report, the Nanavati commission effectively retraced the steps taken by the Misra commission twenty years earlier, and followed much the same reasoning. Like that previous body, the Nanavati commission, in its conclusions, contradicted the evidence placed before it:

Some of the affidavits filed before the Commission generally state that the Congress Leaders/Workers were behind these riots. In Part-III of this report, the Commission has referred to some of the incidents wherein some named Congress(I) Leaders/Workers had taken part. No other person or organisation apart from anti-social elements to some extent, is alleged to have taken part in those incidents. Smt. Indira Gandhi was a Congress (I) Leader. The slogans which were raised during the riots also indicate that some of the persons who constituted the mobs were Congress (I) workers or sympathisers.

According to the commission, there was simply no evidence that “Shri Rajiv Gandhi or any other high ranking Congress (I) Leader had suggested or organised attacks on Sikhs. Whatever acts were done, were done by the local Congress (I) leaders and workers, and they appear to have done so for their personal political reasons.”

Neither commission reconciled the contradictions in its account of the violence, and neither gave due consideration to evidence that went against its conclusions. Both bodies’ reports found that the carnage—organised through meetings that ensured police cooperation and a uniform method of murder across Delhi—was the result of uncoordinated acts by local Congress workers.

The 1984 massacres are a clear case of violence organised against a community by a political party for electoral gain. But the facts have never been subjected to an honest, independent inquiry. The Misra and the Nanavati commissions sidestepped the question of a larger conspiracy. If the conspiracy had been properly investigated, it is likely that testimony such as Avtar Gill’s statement about Arun Nehru would have come to light much earlier.

The failure of these inquiries, after thirty years and nine commissions, indicates that the Indian state is not institutionally equipped to ensure justice for victims of communal violence. If justice remains impossible for the victims of 1984, when the violence took place in the national capital and where the evidence is so ample, it seems likely that justice will continue to elude the vast majority of such victims anywhere in the country.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Central Police Reserve Force personnel arrived to restore order in Trilokpuri, Delhi, on 3 October 1984. They arrived on 3 November. The Caravan regrets the error.