1984: When Delhi smelled of burning flesh

When Delhi smelled of burning flesh
It was dusk when my plane landed in Delhi. I remember that it was a typical early winter dusk with grit in the air and the scent of open fires. But there was something else as well and it took me a few moments to realise that what was different was the smoky haze that seemed to have found its way even into the airport’s arrivals lounge.

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When Delhi smelled of burning flesh

It was dusk when my plane landed in Delhi. I remember that it was a typical early winter dusk with grit in the air and the scent of open fires. But there was something else as well and it took me a few moments to realise that what was different was the smoky haze that seemed to have found its way even into the airport’s arrivals lounge. Passengers sniffed the air nervously. It could be a short circuit, I heard someone say. But when we came out it became clear that the smoke came from real fires. Big fires.

Outside the terminal was the longest taxi queue I had ever seen. Taxis came and went at such infrequent intervals that when one came I saw people begging each other to be allowed to share it. Some had given up and were standing on the highway flagging down private cars.

‘Why are there no taxis?’ I asked the pleasant-faced south Indian gentleman in the queue ahead of me.

‘They say it’s because most of the taxi drivers are Sikhs and they are not leaving their homes because there is violence in the city. They are burning Sikh properties is what my wife told me this morning when she called me in Bombay.’

You can live in a city all your life and not know it at all. I was to discover this in the next three days… That evening when I got home and heard that the house of Amarjit and Amrita, friends of my sister, had been burned down and that their little girl had barely escaped with her life because her nursery was set on fire while she was asleep in it, I was not so much shocked as overcome by a sense of unreality… Then someone else called to say that a retired General had died of a heart attack when a mob burned down his house in Greater Kailash. Then there were my own stories. My parents had been unable to leave their house because mobs had come hunting for Sikhs from both sides of the street in which they lived. If they had not been saved by a Hindu friend, who tore down the board on the gate with my father’s name on it before the mobs arrived, who knows what may have happened.

The next day the violence got worse and it was no longer safe for my sister to continue living in her house on Jantar Mantar Road. She took the children and moved to the house of a Hindu friend. On the way there she had to disguise her two boys as Hindus by making them wear caps and heard her older son tell his six-year-old brother, “Don’t take off your cap on the way or they’ll cut off your head.” … Other members of my family tried hiding in the home of a Hindu politician whom they thought they could trust, only to find that he had alerted the killers instead of protecting them.

Everyone I knew who had friends in political circles called them and told them what was happening in the city. They told them about the police refusing to register cases and the local administration doing absolutely nothing to protect citizens. But the new Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) did nothing. Not even when senior political leaders like Chandra Shekhar and Gandhiji’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, went to the Home Minister personally to urge him to call out the Army for help was anything done in those first three days of November to stop the violence.

What we suffered in more genteel parts of the city was nothing. It was from across the Yamuna, where ‘resettlement colonies’ now formed an endless landscape of shanties that the worst stories came. By the evening of the second day it was clear that we were talking about thousands being killed in the colonies across the river so it was that I went with a group of reporters to East Delhi. Rajat Sharma, not then a famous TV anchor, was among them.

We saw the first bodies as soon as we crossed the river. They looked at first like logs, piled one on top of the other and burning in a large, circular fire that was still smouldering. Sunlight glinting off a gold ring made me look closer and I noticed that what I had thought was a piece of wood was a human arm… We drove through empty streets and bazaars that smelled of burned flesh. There were so many bodies and burned cars that the municipality had given up trying to move them. Rajat said there was no point in picking them up anyway because the morgues were full. He had seen bodies piled up to the ceiling in a morgue that day. Police vans patrolled main roads but in the narrow lanes that led to bazaars and apartment buildings the killers wandered freely, exultant and cheerful…

We had heard that of the resettlement colonies the one that was worst affected was Trilokpuri because the police helped the killers by forcing Sikhs into their homes and then allowing the mobs to burn down their houses. So it was to Trilokpuri that we headed that morning. Trilokpuri is one of the wretchedly poor suburbs that grew out of the wasteland in which Delhi’s ‘slum dwellers’ were dumped when Sanjay Gandhi wanted to ‘beautify’ the city. There they built themselves one-room, windowless hovels. It was to resettlement colonies like Trilokpuri that new immigrants to the city came because an absence of low-cost housing made rents in more central parts of Delhi prohibitive.

As we got closer to Trilokpuri’s narrow alleys, we fell silent. The windows of the car were open and the smell of burned human flesh was so strong we had to cover our mouths and noses. Packs of street dogs foraged in what seemed to be piles of burned garbage. It took us a while to realize that it was bits of human bodies that they were retrieving. I saw a dog chewing at a child’s arm. In silence, we parked our car in a street in which every house had been burned and wandered through the roofless husks that remained. In every house there were communal pyres and half-burned bodies.

The day before Mrs Indira Gandhi’s funeral the violence stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Army trucks appeared in areas where the massacres had taken place and in minutes the mobs vanished. The killers went back to being tailors and carpenters, butchers and political workers. Nobody was punished, no questions asked. Most Indians believed that the Sikhs deserved to be punished as became evident from the massive mandate they gave Rajiv in the election that was to follow. Rajiv Gandhi reflected this mood when some weeks after his mother’s funeral he justified the violence. “When a big tree falls,” he said, “the earth shakes.”

It took Atal Bihari Vajpayee to refute this extraordinarily insensitive comment by responding that Rajiv was a child and did not understand that it is when the earth shakes that trees fall.

(Excerpted from the blockbuster book Durbar by Tavleen Singh. Published by Hachette India.)

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions. Information, facts or opinions shared by the Author do not reflect the views of Niti Central and Niti Central is not responsible or liable for the same. The Author is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000444889911 Nandu Rockss

    It was a big mistake by Atal ji but what Rajiv Gandhi has done he would have gone to hell.

  • Rohit

    This was a pogrom sponsored by the ruling party. And disagree with Tavleen, Hindus might have voted for Rajeev out of sympathy, certainly not for justifying the bloodletting. It was the ruling party mobs that managed the violence with anti-socials also making the most, not Hindus. This was a pogrom, not a Hindu-Sikh riot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1248946121 Ssdinesh Gopal

    guilty should be punished…… sooner the better…..

  • Bong

    “… Other members of my family tried hiding in the home of a Hindu politician whom they thought they could trust, only to find that he had alerted the killers instead of protecting them.”

    Wonder who this scumbag is/was, and if he ever felt any shame.

    I was in Pathankot those days, which is a Hindu majority town in Punjab, and the Sikhs there were understandably scared. I know of an RSS man who spent a couple of days on the rooftop of a Sikh house guarding it with a gun (with more hope than ammo, since he hadn’t a single cartridge). I had some work in the neighbourhood and saw them all sitting in the sun on the roof, listening to the BBC. That RSS guy confided that he hadn’t a round of ammo on him but hoped to muster help from his contacts in case anything happened. I told him to count me in. As it happened, there wasn’t any violence in Pathankot except for the torching of a jathedar’s truck one night; and the rumours had it that the jathedar’s own son had done it to collect any compensation, the truck being old and prone to breakdowns.

  • sree

    With all respect most of the people are not aware of the 84 episodes especially in south states. Media try their best to keep this issue away from our discussion. Even i came to know this only after reading the national papers through online. And you know how people vote in this country. It is not the issues but their castes and religion convert as votes.

  • Rajalakshmi

    Rohit is right. It was not a riot but POGROM.

    India under congress has been “one artificial nation state held together by brute police force”.

    What is this phrase called “sympathy wave”? Why do we still keep shedding tears over deaths of indira & rajiv gandhi??

  • Anil Dubey

    No point reliving the scars of 1984 , a tragic episode in our national history.Depicting the graphic details will open festering wounds afresh. The nation is indebted to the Sikh community for their contribution in nation building and this is the only truth that needs reiteration. I have no clue of what was the genesis of the Khalistan movement when average Sikhs are held in high esteem by common Indians.Let the idea of India take center stage and journos have a role to play in this and not to pursue divisive agendas.

    • Ram Lubhaya

      Read Durbar. You will know the genesis of the Khalistan movement too.

  • Vinod Tuli

    I may add. Popular Eng News Reader on DD Komal GB Singh’s House near GK II was burnt. 1971 War Hero Lt Gen JS Arora was advised and he spent a night at IK Gujral’s House in Maharani Bagh.

  • A

    Thanks Tavleen, for telling the world what really happened. In 1984 television was not widespread, there were few means of communication, those were the days when one used to wait a full day by phoneside if one wanted to call another city (STD). Most news even in those days was propaganda, and we got lots of it after Indira died. There were magazines that were going gaga over Rajeev, stating how popular he was with the so-called “youth”, and of course he was the natural successor to his mother. In small cities and towns, people used to swallow this hook, line and sinker. Add to this the fact that the literacy levels were abysmal in those days, they are better now, but only in the cities and towns, in villages one can find the dynasty loyalists still who don’t understand what democracy is. I know these are the reasons why Rajiv had a major victory in 1984.

    A reader says not to open old wounds, but I disagree. It is a shame that the perpetrators of this heinous crime against humanity are still walking free after all these years instead of being served capital punishment. That some of them are government ministers should tell us about the character of this government.

  • Vishnu Kumar Agarwal

    I living in Trans yamuna DDA colony Yamuna Vihar saw the worst & was saddened; tried to save my neighbor sikh family: all were saved but house was burnt. Sikh family hid in my house for 3 days as my guest. I delivered all family members at PS Golalpuri. I also questioned a Sikh SI in uniform & on duty ‘why he is unconcerned for safety of sikh? SI told him even his small arm had been taken back by SHO & he fear for his own life. He was unable to help. The sikh family was shifted to Camp at Nanaksar Gurudawara where again I repeatedly visited to see safety to my friend. Despite my all pleading and financial help, the family migrated to Punjab. My friend Mr. Labh Singh Khera was the Secretary of the Yamuna Vihar Gurudawara Sabha.

  • Anil Dubey

    I have no desire to revisit that sad moments of history. I have not read Durbar(which a review describes as a collection of drawing room gossips in elite circles)but was grown up enough back then to ascertain facts and make my own opinion about events. Yes, it’s a shame that there has been no justice for the victims of the anti-Sikh riots and it should be pursued painstakingly to its logical end.My short point-the idea of India is a still born even after so many years of its existence.I want to see it fructify in my lifetime. But it is not going to happen till the pseudo secularists of Congress are dead and buried.Even the most erudite have completely got it wrong -the true import of secularism!

  • Rajalakshmi

    @Anil Dubey ,

    You are WRONG. Lot of Indians do not know the VIOLENCE perpetrated by congress Establishment. Just as many idiots of India still continue to worship indira gandhi as some “great woman leader”.

    Congress has always been notorious for its ruthlessness & THUGGERY. BJP could not accomplish much as the mainstream media & educational institutions etc have long come under the malicious spell of churchianity & pseudo secularism. Evangelicals have ALREADY gobbled up a lot of land , its resources & MIND SPACE within HINDUS’ INDIA. And Vajpayees & Advanis are not Kaanchi Shankaracharyas to have a FIRM KNOWLEDGE over Vedas.

    I had written how bollywood’s Dharmendra & Mithun Chakraborthy REFUSED to part with minimum paise asked for by an ORPHANED SIKH young boy aged 10 as he wanted to buy a loaf of bread & a cup of tea. Both bollywood billionaires called the boy a (sic) “traitor”. These were diligently deleted by various Indian bloggers. Who were more lachrymose towards Tasleema Nasrin & Wafa Sultan of Syria.

  • Mohammed Imran

    Sympathy to my fellow sikhs. Why do these things happen. How can a common person turn into a beast, i mean cmon who could kill a child.

  • M Patel

    Anti-Sikh riots is an excellent stick to beat congress; However, We should not forget the big picture. Sikh Establishment (i.e. Akali, Akal Takht, SGPC & even Congress in early days) fomented Khalistani terrorism and sliently or vocally justified regular massacre of Hindus in punjab. Even today, Badal is seen defending Bhuller.

    Check wikipedia, Hindus being pulled out of trains & buses and shot dead is a recurring theme. Without this backdrop, Riots would be very difficult to engineer.

  • Hitesh Mahant

    Only a party like Congress, ruthless, can allow the culprits to go unpunished and their PM can make such vague comments..the SADDEST episode for the Nation, worst after independence..it can happen in India, the Nation of Buddha & Mahavir..It gave rememberence of rule of Dhananand of Maurya Era..in 1984.. :-(