On 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister of India who had ordered Operation Bluestar on 3 June 1984, was assassinated by two of her guards, both of whom were Sikh. In the violence that followed for the next three days, 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi and attacked in several other cities across India. For the past three decades, it has been claimed that these killings were a consequence of the spontaneous outpouring of grief, and not an organised act of violence. It is a claim that is supported by the various commissions that were instituted through these years to investigate the tragedy. Among these committees was the Ranganath Misra Commission, which was set up in 1985 to look at the violence in its entirety. The testimonies recorded by the Misra commission blamed Kamal Nath, the United Progressive Alliance’s minister of commerce between 2004 and 2009, for instigating a mob at Gurudwara Rakabganj in Delhi, where two Sikhs were burned to death. Nath was never investigated and has always maintained that he had attempted to disperse the crowd, not encourage it. In this excerpt from Sanjay Suri’s book, 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, Suri—who was a reporter with The Indian Express at that time—recounts the events he saw unfolding at Gurudwara Rakabganj. According to Suri, Nath, a member of parliament then, led the mob that had gathered in the area and exercised complete control over them.
I wasn’t expecting to find Kamal Nath by the screaming crowd outside Rakab Ganj Sahib gurdwara, where two Sikhs had only just been burnt alive. But there he was, a little to a side, in bright white kurta-pajama, not far from the usual white Ambassador car with its mounted red light and mini flag post by the front bumper announcing its ministerial, or at least officially important, credentials.
The white of Kamal Nath’s kurta and pajama was standard for a Congress leader. Not exclusive to the Congress, of course, leaders do wear it as near-uniform on occasions where they wish to appear leader like in public. That day the white no doubt doubled appropriately as mourning dress. It was the afternoon of 1 November, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated the previous day. Her body lay for darshan in Teen Murti Bhavan close to Rakab Ganj gurdwara. Mourners had been filing past all morning crying ‘khoon ka badla khoon (blood for blood)’.
Rakab Ganj gurdwara was the nearest target from Teen Murti Bhavan where the cry for blood could be turned into action. There were certain to be Sikhs there, and there was the gurdwara itself to attack. At the gurdwara groups heading out from Teen Murti found the blood they had been crying for. Police indicate a wave of attacks on the gurdwara, and that someone within had fired to try to scare the attackers away. The firing in the air caused no reported injury. This was before I reached; when I arrived on my scooter, the crowd was advancing menacingly again towards the gurdwara.
But that wasn’t the only shocking sight. What stunned me was that alongside the screaming men advancing upon the gurdwara stood a neat formation of policemen watching the crowd. And in this neat formation they continued to stand. Screaming men were advancing again and again towards the gurdwara—and the policemen just stood there, in a disciplined and very static column.