How Senior Congress Leaders Sanctioned The Organised Violence Against Sikhs In 1984

Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and confidante Arun Nehru (left) with the Indian president Giani Zail Singh outside AIIMS on 31 October 1984. ASHOK VAHIE
03 November, 2017

Exactly thirty-three years ago, Delhi witnessed one of the bloodiest and most brutal massacres since Partition—the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. The violence began after the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October that year. She was assassinated by two of her guards, both Sikh. Over the next three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi. Sikhs were also attacked in several other Indian cities, including Kanpur, Bokaro, Jabalpur and Rourkela.

In this excerpt from “Sins of Commission,” the cover story for our October 2014 issue, Hartosh Singh Bal examines how the violence against the Sikh community was organised in the aftermath of Gandhi’s death, and how it leads back to senior leaders of the Congress government in power at the time.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.’”

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.”

This is an extract from “Sins of Commission,” our October 2014 cover story, by Hartosh Singh Bal. The full story is available here.