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. 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.)

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Tavleen Singh

Tavleen Singh is an Indian columnist, political reporter and writer.