When death ruled the streets of Delhi

M.R. Narayan Swamy


It was an accidental meeting with a Military Police officer that led us to the house of death in Delhi in 1984.

We had witnessed on the evening of Oct 31 the first bout of anti-Sikh violence that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination. We were near the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in south Delhi where the prime minister was declared dead after being shot by two Sikh bodyguards.

A mob fury against the Sikh community quickly enveloped the city, with frenzied supporters of known Congress politicians attacking innocent Sikhs and their property. Reporter Jagpreet Luthra and I saw a Sikh-owned bus set on fire and Sikh-owned shops getting looted at the Kidwai Nagar market, a stone's throw distance from AIIMS.

"Maro Sardaron ko!" The cries were chilling. The atmosphere was frightening. Police were nowhere in sight although they existed in hundreds near the AIIMS. In any case, they made no effort to stop anyone. Jagpreet quickly took off her 'kada' and put it in her purse. She didn't want anyone to know she was a Sikh.

It was the first time after the holocaust of 1947 that Sikh identity became an invitation to death.

But with the nation's focus riveted on Indira Gandhi's assassination per se, no one seemed to really know the extent and depth of the mounting violence against Sikhs. It was not the age of technology. Most journalists in most media houses were busy with political stories. But everyone knew something was gravely wrong.

It was close to Nov 1 noon that my UNI colleagues Dipanker De Sarkar, Rajiv Pande and I chanced upon the Military Police officer near the Delhi Cantonment railway station where a young Sikh lay dead, close to the tracks. The officer told us to visit the Delhi Police mortuary to know the full extent of the savagery. "Why are you wasting your time going around the city?"

Professionally, I am glad we acted on his advice.

As we entered the mortuary at Subzi Mandi, we saw a man bringing a pile of dismembered bodies on a wheelbarrow. He would later tell us that he picked them up near the New Delhi Railway Station. Placed all along the corridors of the mortuary were many more bodies - of Sikhs waylaid in various parts of the city and brutally killed, most of them not even knowing what their crime was.

If I recall right, I counted 172 or 173 bodies - in several rows, neatly placed one after the other.

That was when one of the policemen whispered, pointing to a large dimly lit room: "Go there and see."

What we saw was bone chilling. Piled up shabbily like a mini mountain - like sacks of food grain in a warehouse - were bodies after bodies, of men and women, most of the dress on the victims drenched in blood. Some bodies had no clothes. A strong stench hit us all. I recall Dipankar rushing out to throw up.

There was no way we could count how many bodies were stuffed there.

The doctor in charge of the mortuary, L.T. Ramani, calmly shared with us the statistics. The story we filed for UNI an hour later was the first to tell the world that hundreds - yes, hundreds - of Sikhs had been slaughtered in Delhi by Congress-sponsored mobs to avenge Indira Gandhi's assassination.

For three full days from the evening of Oct 31, killer mobs ruled Delhi. There was no area they spared, barring perhaps the very heart where VVIPs reside. The state simply withered away. People were pulled out of trains, buses and cars and set upon viciously. Many were beaten to death with any weapon that was available. Others were set on fire. Sikh shops, businesses and hotels were looted and torched. It was a festival of death that emptied Delhi's streets of Sikhs for days.

Published photographs of Sikhs celebrating Indira Gandhi's death in London only fuelled more violence.

By the time a bruised calm returned to the city, the damage had been done. Sikh pride had been irrevocably hurt. The Congress claims to secular values were in tatters. It was a national shame.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy is executive editor with IANS. The views expressed are personal.)