The 1984 Massacre: How Senior Leaders from the Congress Sanctioned the Organised Violence That Followed Indira Gandhi’s Death

Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and confidante Arun Nehru (left) with the Indian president Giani Zail Singh outside AIIMS on 31 October 1984. ASHOK VAHIE
30 October, 2015

On this day, a little over three decades ago, Indira Gandhi—then the prime minister of India—was shot dead by two Sikh jawans who were a part of her security arrangement. In this excerpt from his story Sins of Commission, which was published in our October 2014 issue, Hartosh Singh Bal examines the modus operandi through which violence against the Sikh community was organised in the aftermath of Gandhi’s death, and traces it back to senior leaders from the government at that time.

On Wednesday, 31 October 1984, 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. 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. 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.

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.

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.)

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.’”

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.”