At 9.30 am on October 31, 1984, Mrs Indira Gandhi, iron-willed and iron-fisted Prime Minister of India, famously described by her aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit as “the only man in her Cabinet”, was assassinated at her 1, Safdarjung Road residence. The assassins, both Sikhs, were Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, two of the guards who were meant to protect her. Satwant Singh was arrested; Beant Singh was shot dead by the other guards.
Satwant Singh later told investigators that he and Beant Singh had assassinated Mrs Gandhi to avenge the desecration of Harmandir Saheb and destruction of the Akal Takht in ‘Operation Blue Star’, the Army action of June 5-7, 1984. Mrs Gandhi had ordered the military operation to flush out Khalistani terrorists, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had made the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar into their headquarters.
‘Operation Blue Star’ was a military success but a political disaster. The objective of ‘flushing out’ the Khalistanis was achieved, but at a huge price. According to the White Paper published by the Government of India, 493 people, including terrorists (200 in the Akal Takht alone), were killed.
The ‘official’ toll was far less than what foreign agencies and newspapers reported: 1,000. BBC journalist Mark Tully, in his book Amritsar – Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, placed the death toll at 2,093. Eyewitnesses said at least 8,000 were killed. The ‘White Paper’ said 83 soldiers had died in the three-day-long action. This figure, too, remains disputed.
The backlash was hideous, and beyond what had been anticipated, alienating the Sikh masses at home and abroad (Khalistanis in Canada plotted and executed the bombing of Emperor Kanishka, Air India’s Montreal-London-Delhi Flight 182, killing all 329 people aboard the aircraft on June 23, 1985) and fuelling the Khalistani movement which was finally crushed in the early-1990s, thanks to the then Punjab Police chief KPS Gill. But the restoration of peace in Punjab is another story.
On January 6, 1989, Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, who had been held guilty of conspiracy in the crime but pleaded his innocence till the end, were executed at Tihar Jail.
That, in brief, is the story of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. But there’s a longer story to be told – that of what followed the deed.
Twenty-eight years is a long time. Public memory is notoriously short and it is unlikely those who have come of age in these 28 years would know of the terrible pogrom that left at least 4,733 Sikhs dead, most of them slaughtered in Delhi, retribution massacres carried out by Congress thugs led by Congress leaders, among them Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar.
It would, therefore, be in order to recall the chain of events lest we be persuaded to believe that nothing of consequence happened by a remorseless Congress which is quick to point its blood-stained finger at others, without realising there are millions of fingers that point to it for the horrendous crime committed by its foot soldiers in the guise of ‘avenging’ their leader’s death.
So, here is the story of how thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered; in Delhi alone, 2,733 Sikhs were burned alive, butchered or beaten to death. Women were raped while their terrified families and children pleaded for mercy, little or none of which was shown by the Congress goons. In one of the numerous such incidents, a woman was gang-raped in front of her 17-year-old son; before leaving, the marauders torched the boy.
For three days and four nights the killing and pillaging continued without the police, the civil administration and the Union Government, which was then in direct charge of Delhi, lifting a finger in admonishment. The Congress was in power and could have prevented the violence, but the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, his Home Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, indeed the entire Council of Ministers, twiddled their thumbs.
Even as street dogs gorged on charred corpses and wailing women, clutching children too frightened to cry, fled mobs armed with iron rods, staves and gallons of kerosene, AIR and Doordarshan kept on broadcasting blood-curdling slogans like “Khoon ka badla khoon se lengey” (We shall avenge blood with blood) raised by Congress workers grieving over their dear departed leader.
Mrs Gandhi was assassinated at 9.30 am, but her death was ‘officially’ confirmed at 6 pm, after due diligence had been exercised to ensure Rajiv Gandhi’s succession. By then, reports of stray incidents of violence against Sikhs, including the stoning of President Zail Singh’s car, had started trickling in at various police stations.
By the morning of November 1, hordes of men were on the rampage in south, east and west Delhi. They were armed with iron rods and carried old tyres and jerry cans filled with kerosene and petrol. Owners of petrol pumps and kerosene stores, beneficiaries of Congress largesse, provided petrol and kerosene free of cost. Some of the men went around on scooters and motorcycles, marking Sikh houses and business establishments with chalk for easy identification. They had been provided with electoral rolls to make their task easier.
By late afternoon that day, hundreds of taxis, trucks and shops owned by Sikhs had been set ablaze. By early evening, the murder, loot and rape began in right earnest. The worst butchery took place in Block 32 of Trilokpuri, a resettlement colony in east Delhi. The police either participated in the violence or merely watched from the sidelines.
Curfew was declared in south and central Delhi at 4 pm, and in east and west Delhi at 6 pm on November 1. But there was no attempt to enforce it. PV Narasimha Rao, the then Home Minister, remained unmoved by cries for help. In his affidavit to the Nanavati Commission of Inquiry, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, decorated hero of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, said, “The Home Minister was grossly negligent in his approach, which clearly reflected his connivance with perpetrators of the heinous crimes being committed against the Sikhs.”
The first deployment of the Army took place around 6 pm on November 1 in south and central Delhi, which were comparatively unaffected, but in the absence of navigators, which should have been provided by the police and the civil authorities, the jawans found themselves lost in unfamiliar roads and avenues.
The Army was deployed in east and west Delhi in the afternoon of November 2, more than 24 hours after the killings began. But, here, too, the jawans were at a loss because there were no navigators to show them the way through byzantine lanes.
In any event, there was little the Army could have done: Magistrates were ‘not available’ to give permission to fire on the mobs. This mandatory requirement was kept pending till Mrs Gandhi’s funeral was over. By then 1,026 Sikhs had been killed in east Delhi. Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were among Congress ‘leaders’ who, witnesses said, incited and led mobs. Both deny the allegation, but the evidence is overwhelming.
A report on the pogrom, jointly prepared by the PUCL and PUDR and published under the title, Who Are the Guilty? names both of them along with others. The report quotes well-known journalist Sudip Mazumdar:
“The Police Commissioner, SC Tandon was briefing the Press (about 10 Indian reporters and five foreign journalists) in his office on November 6, at 5 pm. A reporter asked him to comment on the large number of complaints about local Congress MPs and lightweights trying to pressure the police to get their men released. The Police Commissioner totally denied the allegation… Just as he finished uttering these words, Jagdish Tytler, Congress MP from Sadar constituency, barged into the Police Commissioner’s office along with three other followers and on the top of his voice demanded, ‘What is this Mr Tandon? You still have not done what I asked you to do?’ The reporters were amused, the Police Commissioner embarrassed. Tytler kept on shouting and a reporter asked the Police Commissioner to ask that ‘shouting man’ to wait outside since a Press conference was on. Tytler shouted at the reporter, ‘This is more important.’ The reporter told the Police Commissioner that if Tytler wanted to sit in the office he would be welcome, but a lot of questions regarding his involvement would also be asked and he was welcome to hear them. Tytler was fuming…”
The slaughter was not limited to Delhi, though. Sikhs were killed in Gurgaon, Kanpur, Bokaro, Indore and many other towns and cities in States ruled by the Congress. In a replay of the mayhem in Delhi, 26 Sikh soldiers were pulled out of trains and killed.
After quenching their thirst for blood, the mobs retreated to savour their ‘revenge’. The flames died and the winter air blew away the stench of death. Rajiv Gandhi’s Government issued a statement placing the death toll at 425!
Rajiv Gandhi had no qualms about justifying the carnage. “Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji,” Rajiv Gandhi said on November 19, 1984, even as thousands of families grieved for their loved ones killed by Congress hoodlums, “We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed India had been shaken. But when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”
Some riots? Only natural? Shake a little?
(This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in The Pioneer and rediff.com . The sequence of events has been reconstructed with the help of newspaper reports of those horrific days, reports of inquiry commissions, affidavits by victims, PUDR’s exhaustive report on the pogrom and oral history. All visuals have been sourced from various websites and were originally published in newspapers.)