The Massacre of the Sikhs
By Madhu Kishwar
First published in Manushi No. 25 (Nov-Dec 1984).
The communal riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s tragic death on 31 October 1984 were like the sudden eruption of a gigantic volcano. The ferocity of the explosion took by surprise both the victimized community as well as the community in whose name the vicious campaign of looting, arson, killing, burning, rape and molestation took place.
Most observers agree that the violence began as random attacks on individual Sikh men who were pounced upon in public places, on public transport and on the streets on 31 October. Some people attempted to pass off the day’s events as a reactive outburst of anger at the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two Sikh members of her security guard. But what happened over the next three days makes it impossible to dismiss those events as spontaneous expressions of outrage.
The series of attacks on Sikh homes, gurudwaras and commercial establishments which began on 1 November seems to have been the work of organized hoodlums who collected large mobs for systematic looting and killing. Broadly speaking, the attacks can be placed in three categories: (a) Looting and killing in middle and upper middle-class localities, such as Lajpat Nagar, Jangpura,
Defence Colony, Friends Colony, Maharani Bagh, Patel Nagar, Safdarjung Enclave, and Punjabi
Bagh. Here, houses, gurudwaras and shops were looted and burnt, and a large number of vehicles,
including buses, trucks, cars and scooters, were set ablaze. Some people were injured and others
killed. But, on the whole, relatively fewer lives were lost in middle and upper class colonies. (b) Systematic slaughter and rape that accompanied looting, arson and burning in the resettlement
colonies, slums and villages around the city. Most of the deaths occurred in areas like Trilokpuri,
Kalyanpuri, Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri, Nand Nagri, Palam village, Shakurpur and Gamri. Rows of
houses and huts were burnt down and hundreds of men and young boys were beaten, stabbed and
burnt to death. Many women were abducted and raped. A large number of persons are still reported
missing by their families. Houses and gurudwaras were looted and burnt down.
(c) Attacks on Sikh men and boys in the streets, trains, buses, markets and workplaces. Many of them
were brutally murdered. Some were burnt alive or thrown out of trains. Others escaped with injuries
of a more or less serious kind. This kind of attack seems to have been done at random-any man who
looked like a Sikh was made a target.
Most of my observations are based on tape-recorded interviews with men and women from some trans-Yamuna colonies, especially Trilokpuri. These were among the worst-hit areas in Delhi. Some other observations are based on what I saw happening in our neighbourhood, Lajpat Nagar, and on conversations with our neighbours, as well as with friends living in different middle-class colonies in the city. The pattern of murder and arson was similar in most parts of Delhi, in as far-flung places as Palam village, Mangolpuri, Kalyanpuri, and Bhogal. However, the intensity of violence was far more severe in poorer resettlement colonies than in middle-class areas.
* * * * * * * * *
Trilokpuri is one of those resettlement colonies which were brought into existence during the Emergency, when Sanjay Gandhi spearheaded slum-clearance drives in Delhi. Thousands of families were forcibly evicted from slums and unauthorized colonies in the city. They were transported to areas several miles away from the city proper, and were resettled there. Each evicted family was supposed to be given a small plot measuring 25 square yards, and also, in some cases, a loan to build a house. Thus were founded these
colonies of the city poor who had been evicted from the inner city slums and pavement dwellings where they lived earlier.
Even though, at that time, many people saw the evictions as cruelty inflicted on the city poor, the Congress (I) was able to convert the resettlement colonies into solid support bases and vote banks, because the evicted families slowly began to feel that their status had been considerably boosted since each of them now owned a piece of land and a pukka house, instead of living as formerly in unauthorized structures in slums. Many of the riot victims interviewed-people who were the original recipients of land- mentioned that they were very grateful to Indira Gandhi and to her party for this favour. However, many of these people sold off their allotments because the resettlement colonies are very far away from the city proper. Many lower middle-class families bought plots of land from the original allottees. Thus, today, the social composition of these colonies provides a rich mixture. For instance, one finds north Indians and south Indians, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs living side by side in a typical settlement colony like Trilokpuri.
The residents of these colonies have wide ranging occupations such as petty shopkeeping, business, domestic service, low-level government employment, Rickshaw-pulling, scooter-driving, peddling and artisanry. In normal times, there seems to be a good amount of intermingling and friendly feeling between neighbours of different communities, even among those who speak different languages. Yet the innate feelings about relative status are also pronounced.
There are significant variations among the Trilokpuri Sikhs. A large number of them, especially those most severely affected by the riots, are known as Labana Sikhs. These are not Punjabi Sikhs. They are migrants from Sikligarh in Sind, now part of Pakistan. They speak either Hindi or their own dialect, a language which is distinctly different from Punjabi. The traditional occupation of the community is weaving string cots and pounding rice. Few of the men still perform these jobs. Most of them have sVitched over to other occupations. A number of them drive scooters or pull cycle-rickshaws. Some work as porters at different railway stations. Others have taken to working as mechanics, carpenters and construction workers. A few have been to Gulf countries as skilled labourers.
Even though they do not call themselves Mazhabi Sikhs, they are considered low caste by other Sikhs. Makhan Bai of Trilokpuri summed up the distinction aptly. Referring to urban-based Sikhs, most of whom are involved in commerce, she said: ‘Punjabi Sikhs are Seths. We Labana Sikhs are labourers. Traditionally, we are charpai (string bed) makers.’ Differences are also visible even amongst the Labana Sikhs in this colony. Those who have entered some of the newer occupations such as scooter-driving or mechanical repair work are relatively better off. They have pukka houses and their own plots of land. They are an upwardly-mobile community. Many of them own television sets, tape-recorders and other such consumer goods. However, those who were not able to move into these new occupations are much poorer. Some of them live in illegally constructed huts in open spaces which are meant to be parks.
Labana Sikhs live together in clusters in blocks 30 and 32 of Trilokpuri. There are also some families scattered in other blocks. Labana Sikhs have a separate small gurudwara of their own. There is also a big gurudwara adjoining the main road in Trilokpuri. The Labana Sikh community seems to have very little connection with Punjab politics. Many of them are traditional Congress (I) supporters. That is one reason why they, like most Sikhs in Delhi, were totally surprised by the attack.
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More than 400 people were murdered in Trilokpuri alone. The largest member of deaths has so far been reported from the two blocks of Trilokpuri where the Labana Sikhs were concentrated. This is how Gulzar Singh, a resident of block 30 in Trilokpuri, describes the events of 1 November:
My house was the first to be burnt in Trilokpuri. I work for a tailor’s shop. I bring the material from the shop
every morning and stitch the garments at home. On 31 October, when I was on my way back from the shop, I
heard rumours that Indira Gandhi had died. But no one stopped me or tried to hurt me. I never imagined that
such a thing could happen to me. None of us were really prepared for what happened the next day.
At about 10 a.m. on 1 November, we heard a lot of noise and shouting. We climbed on the roofs of our houses
to see what was happening. We saw smoke rising from Noida colony and then we smelt human flesh burning.
In the meantime, we heard people say that the mob, having set fire to the main gurudwara, was now coming to
burn our Labana Sikh gurudwara. So we rushed and got together whatever weapons we had, and tried to save
the gurudwara. But even when the gurudwara was attacked, we thought there would be fighting for a short
while, and then the police would come and stop it. We never thought things would go so far. There has been
no atmosphere of conflict between Hindus and Sikhs in Trilokpuri.
Several men from our block went and hid in other lanes nearby. So we were not more than 500 men left to
defend the whole block as well as the gurudwara. About 50 of us stood on each side of the streets in our block.
The attackers came in a mob of about 4,000 strong, and began to attack the gurudwara. They were armed with
lathis. They began throwing bricks and stones at us. We also stoned them. See, my fingers are cut with
throwing bricks. Many of us got hurt. Heads were split open. The attackers far outnumbered us. Gradually, we
had to give up. They advanced and we began to retreat into our houses. They set fire to the gurudwara.
Then they began to attack our houses. We ran from one house to another, trying to save ourselves. They broke
into each house and carried away all our possessions on thelas. There were about four policemen watching this
looting campaign. They told us to put down our swords and not to worry. They said: ‘Nothing will happen to
you.’ Then they went away and left us to be killed.
Sajan Singh from block 32 adds that the attackers had three guns. The police kept telling the Sikhs to go into their houses, assuring them that peace would be restored. ‘We believed the police and we went in. That is
how they got us killed.’ He accuses the SHO of the area, one Tyagi, of having actively encouraged the attackers. Many others of the area also testify that they heard Tyagi tell the attackers: ‘You have three days to kill them. Do your job well. Do not leave a single man alive, otherwise I will have to suffer.’
Once the attempt at group defence broke down, the Sikhs were in a much more vulnerable position. Each man ran desperately to find for himself a hiding place from the mob. Gulzar Singh continues his narrative:
By the evening of 1 November, some peace was restored. The attackers left. They threatened that they would
return the next day and would take away the women. Several men died that day. About half a dozen died in
my presence. The attackers hit them with lathis and khurpis. They also managed to snatch some of our kirpans
and stabbed some of us with them. When they were looting and burning my house, they caught hold of me.
They burnt part of my hair and cut part of it before I managed to break free.
I saved myself by hiding in my brother’s house which is in a Hindu street. For one day and two nights, my
brother and I hid under a double bed. On 2 November, a group of men came and began to search each house
for Sardars. My wife says three men were caught and killed in the neighbouring house. The attackers turned
everyone out of the house and searched it. We were.hiding behind boxes and bags under the bed. They kicked
the boxes and thought there was no one there. Another minute and we would have been finished.
On 3 November, the military came and my wife told them to rescue us. That is how we reached the relief
camp. One of my brothers was found by the attacke’rs and killed the previous day. They threw him down from
the roof of his house and broke his spine. Then they burnt him alive. Many women were molested and
abducted. I saw a jeep-load of women being carried away to village Chilla.
Most others who survived had been through similar experiences. The attackers would kill every Sikh male in sight, then would leave for a while, but would return again to search Sikh houses and neighbours’ houses to finish off those men who were still in hiding.
Sajan Singh, who works as a porter at Nizamuddin railway station, and lives in block 32 Trilokpuri, saved himself by hiding in his house. He took refuge in a small aperture where cow-dung cakes were stored for fuel. The attackers came in repeated waves into his house and looted everything they could find. He says he had Rs 12,000 in cash, a television set, a radio, a tape-recorder, utensils, eight quilts, blankets and other household goods, many of which were being stored up as dowries for his four daughters. At night, the attackers came with torches to search for men who were still hiding. Sajan got his children to bring him a pair of scissors and a stick. He cut off his long hair and beard while he was hiding under the cow-dung cakes. Then, he says:
When the next wave came, I picked up a stick and mingled with the mob. All night, I shouted anti-Sikh
slogans like ‘Kill the Sardars ‘ That is how I saved myself. At 6 a.m., I somehow managed to slip away and
came to Nizamuddin railway station. There, the other porters gave me shelter and consoled me. I did not know
what had befallen my family. On 6 November, I came to Farash Bazar relief camp and found them there. My
sister had been raped; the other women and children were safe.
Many others were less fortunate. One old man, Gurcharan Singh, also from block 32, lost all the three young men of his family. He had only one son, aged about 17, and two nephews, aged 20 and 22. All four men stayed in hiding for two days and one night. Finally, the door of the house was broken open. The four men had already clipped their beards and cut off their long hair. They came out and pleaded to be spared now that they were like Hindus. But the rioters caught hold of the three young men, threw them on their own string beds, covered them with mattresses and quilts, then poured kerosene over them and set them on fire in Gurcharan Singh’s presence. Gurcharan Singh was beaten up. He and his aged wife, who is a TB patient, are in the relief camp, despairing over the loss of their three sons, and rendered destitute. Many of these one-sided battles continued for hours on end. The woman neighbour of a victimized family in Shakurpur described the attack:
The mob came here on the night of 31 October, and the fighting continued until 2 November. The attackers
began by stopping vehicles-to check if there were Sikhs in them. Electricity failed in this area, in the houses as
well as on the streets. The extreme darkness at night heightened the terror. The attacks on houses and
gurudwaras started around 9-30 a.m. on 1 November. They came and started stoning the house of our
neighbour, Santokh Singh. The family stayed quiet. The attackers were hesitant to enter the house because
they were afraid of possible resistance. People are generally afraid of Sikhs, you know. Finally, one of the men
tried to break into the house. The men of the family hit him with a sword and his hand got slightly cut. This
frightened the crowd and they retreated for a while. Then they slowly collected more men and returned. Now
there were about 1000 men. They dragged some furniture and wood that was lying in Santokh Singh’s
courtyard, piled it up around the house, and set the house on fire. Then, the four men of the family came out
with swords in their hands. The attackers immediately ran away. They did not want to take any risk. They
were armed only with lathis and kerosene. But they soon advanced again and started stoning the house from
all sides. The house was now burning. The four men of the family ran for their lives. One went to the house of
a neighbour who cut his hair, gave him shelter and later smuggled him out of the colony. The youngest son
was pounced upon on the road, hit with lathis and burnt to.death. Another son is missing. We do not know
what happened to him. Most probably, he was murdered by the same group. After some time the police came
and took away the old father and the women to a camp. They have not yet arrested anyone.
So murderous were the attacks throughout the city that most of the men who fell into the hands of the mobs did not survive. The number of injured men was very small in comparison to the numbers killed.
* * * * * * * * *
Most people in Trilokpuri said that though their immediate neighbours were not amongst the attackers, a fair number of rioters were from other parts of the same colony. They identified these men as Chamars, Sansis, Musalmans and Gujjars. They said the last named had been specially brought in for the attack that morning from Chilla, an adjoining village. Many eyewitnesses confirm that the attackers were not so much a frenzied mob as a set of men who had a task to perform and went about it in an unhurried manner. They behaved as if certain that they need not fear intervention by the police or anyone else. When their initial attacks were repulsed, they retired temporarily but returned again and again in waves until they had done exactly what they meant to do - killed the men and boys, raped women, looted property and burnt houses. This is noteworthy because in ordinary, more spontaneous riots, the number of people injured is usually observed to be far higher than the number killed. The nature of the attack confirms that there was a deliberate plan to kill as many Sikh men as possible; hence nothing was left to chance. That also explains why the victims were first hit or stabbed and then doused with kerosene or petrol and burnt. This left no possibility of their survival.
According to careful unofficial estimates, more than 2500 men were murdered in different parts of Delhi ;between 31 October and 3 November.
; Initially the government gave a figure of 650 for those killed but later admitted that 3000 Sikhs were murdered in those three days
in Delhi alone.
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There were few cases of women being killed except when they got trapped in houses which were set on fire. Almost all the women interviewed described how men and young boys were the targets of the violence. They were dragged out of the houses, attacked with stones and rods, and set on fire. In Trilokpuri, many women said that the attackers did not allow any Woman to remain inside her own home once the attack on individual homes started. The attackers wanted to prevent the women from helping the men to hide or from providing assistance to those who were in hiding. Throughout this period, many of the women were on the streets.
When women tried to protect the men of their families, they were given a few blows and forcibly separated from the men. Even when they clung to these men, trying to save them, they were hardly ever attacked the way men were. I have not yet heard of a case of any woman being assaulted and then burnt to death by the mob. However, many women were injured when they tried to intervene and protect men, or when they were molested and raped. A number of women and girls also died when the gangs burnt down their houses while they remained inside.
The instances described above are somewhat unusual. For instance, when Dalit bastis and homes in villages are burnt and attacked, women are prominent among the victims. When I asked why the killing was so selective, I got a uniform answer from most people interviewed: They wanted to wipe out the men so that families would be left without earning members. Also, now they need not fear retaliation even if we have to go back and live in the same colony.’ Though this may not provide a complete explanation, the effect has been exactly that which the women describe.
In many cases, families tried to save male adolescents and little boys by dressing them up as girls and tying their hair in loose hanging plaits. Sometimes neighbours pointed out these disguised boys to the attackers. When such boys were caught, they were pounced upon by the crowd and set on fire. However, a few, especially very young ones, did manage to escape death by assuming this guise.
Fifteen-year-old Sukhpal Singh is one of the few older boys of Trilokpuri who was able to escape by dressing as a girl. His family lives in block 19 but on that fateful morning, his parents sent him to his sister’s house in block 30 because they felt he would be safer in the latter area where Sikhs lived together in a larger cluster. Sukhpal’s brother-in-law sought shelter in a Sikh house but he was turned out. The mob caught him on the second floor of a house, threw him down and burnt him alive. Sukhpal Singh’s sister dressed him up
in girl’s clothes and braided his long hair. Somehow, he managed to escape attention and discovery.
In most camps, there is a disproportionately large number of women and children. Among boys, most of those who managed to escape were little ones. According to figures collected by the Nagrik Ekta Manch volunteer Java Jaitley, out of about 539 families housed in Farash Bazar camp, there are 210 widows. Families which have lost all adult male members are the ones most afraid of going back to the colonies where they formerly lived. Most do not want to go back even to reclaim their plots of land, and would rather be settled elsewhere.
Even though women were seldom killed, they were subjected to other forms of torture, terror and humiliation. This part of the story also makes familiar reading for anyone who has gone through accounts of riots, communal clashes and wars. Gurdip Kaur, a 45-year-old woman from block 32, Trilokpuri, told a typical story. Her husband and three sons were brutally murdered in front of her. Her husband used to run a small shop in the locality. Her eldest son, Bhajan Singh, worked in the railway station, the second in a radio repair shop and the third as a scooter driver. She says:
On the morning of 1 November, when Indira Mata’s body was brought to Teen Murti, everyone was watching
television. Since 8 a.m. they had been showing the homage being paid to her dead body. At about noon, my
children said: ‘Mother, please make some food. We are hungry.’ I had not cooked that day and I told them:
‘Son, everyone is mourning. She was our mother, too. She helped us to settle here. So I don’t feel like lighting
the fire today.’ Soon after this the attack started. Three of the men ran out and were set on fire. My youngest
son stayed in the house with me. He shaved off his beard and cut his hair. But they came into the house. Those
young boys, 14 and 16 years old, began to drag my son out even though he was hiding behind me. They tore
my clothes and stripped me naked in front of my son. When these young boys began to rape me, my son began
to cry and said: ‘Elder brothers, don’t do this. She is like your mother just as she is my mother.’ But they raped
me right there, in front of my son, in my house. They were young boys, maybe eight of them. When one of
them raped me, I said: ‘My child, never mind. Do what you like. But remember, I have given birth to children.
This child came into the world by this same path.’
After they had taken my honour, they left. I took my son out with me and made him sit among the women but
they came and dragged him away. They took him to the street corner, hit him with lathis, sprinkled kerosene
over him, and burnt him alive. I tried to save him but they struck me with knives and broke my arm. At that
time, I was completely naked. I somehow managed to get hold of an old sheet which I had wrapped around
myself. But that could easily be pulled away unless I held on tight to it with my arms. It inhibited my physical
movements. If I had had even one piece of clothing on my body, I would have gone and thrown myself over
my son and tried to save him. I would have done anything to save at least one young man of my family. Not
one of the four is left.
According to Gurdip Kaur, hardly any woman in her neighbourhood was spared the humiliation she underwent. She said even nine- and ten-year-old girls were raped. She was an eyewitness to many such rapes. The attackers first emptied the houses of men who were burnt alive. After that, they dragged the women inside the ransacked houses and gang-raped them. Not many women would openly admit this fact because, as Gurdip Kaur says: The unmarried girls will have to stay unmarried all their lives if they admit that they have been dishonoured. No one would marry such a girl.’ Therefore, most families do not openly
acknowledge the rapes.
I asked Gurdip Kaur why she had come forward to narrate her experience. I also aske/i her whether she wanted me to publish her statement. She categorically said she wanted her statement to be published: Those women in whose homes there are one or more surviving men cannot make a public statement because they will be dishonouring those men. I have no one [no male member of the family] left. My daughter has also been widowed. She has two children. My daughter-in-law, who has three children, has also been widowed. Another daughter-in-law was married only one and a half months ago and has also been widowed. I have nothing left. That is why I want to give my statement.’
In fact, many other families whose adult men had all been killed similarly felt that there was ‘no one left in the family’. At times, when people said that all their children (bacchey) had been killed, they were actually
referring only to their sons. I had specifically to enquire about surviving daughters, whose lives did not count in the same way.
Indra Bai narrates:
At about 4 p.m., after they had murdered all the Sikh men they could get hold of in our block, they asked the
women to come out of the houses. They said: ‘Now your men are dead. Come out and sit together or else we
will kill you, too.’
We women all huddled together and they offered us some water. As we were drinking water, they began
dragging off whichever girl they liked. Each girl was taken away by a gang of 10 or 12 boys, many of them ‘in
iheir teens. They would take her to the nearby masjid, gang-rape her, and send her back after a few hours.
Some never returned. Those who did were in a pitiable condition and without a stitch of clothing. One young
girl said 15 men climbed on her.
Gurdip Kaur and many other women from Trilokpuri whom I interviewed at Balasaheb gurudwara and at Farash Bazar camp also talked about several women who had been abducted by gangsters and taken to Chilla village which is dominated by Gujjars, some of whom were supposed to have led the attacking gangs. On 3 November, the military brought some of these women back from Chilla. But many of them were untraceable at the time I interviewed these families. They were very worried that these women had either been murdered or were still being held captive.
Rajjo Bai, another old woman from the same neighbourhood, who had sought shelter in Balasaheb gurudwara in Ashram, had a similar story to tell. Two of her sons were killed in her presence. One who was hiding in a hut is still missing. All three sons were rickshaw pullers. She got separated from her two daughters-in-law who were probably abducted. The daughters-in-law were found much later at the Farash Bazar camp but Rajjo’s 24-year-old daughter, who had had to be left behind in the house because she was
disabled, could riot be traced. Nanki Bai, also from Trilokpuri, was distraught when she asked us to look for her daughter, Koshala Bai, who had been snatched away from her. She says:
All night, the attacks continued. My husband was hiding in a trunk. They dragged him out and cut him to
pieces. Another 16-year-old boy was killed in front of my eyes. He was carrying a small child in his arms.
They killed the child, too.
We women were forced to come out of our houses and sit in a group outside. I was trying to hide my daughter.
I put a child in her lap and dishevelled her hair so that she would look older. But finally one of our own
neighbours pointed her out to these men. They began to drag her away. We tried to save her. I pleaded with
them. My son came in the way and they hit him with a sword. He lost his finger. I could not look at his hand. I
just wrapped it in my veil.
They took Koshala to the masjid. I don’t know what happened to her. At about 4 a.m., when we were driven
out of the colony, she called out to me from the roof of the masjid. She was screaming to me: ‘Mummy, mujhe
lechal, mujhe lechal, Mummy’[take me with you]. But how could Mummy take her? They beat her because
she called to me. I don’t know where she is now.
Later, I met Koshala in the Farash Bazar camp and told her that her mother was in Balasaheb gurudwara. She confirmed her mother’s account and added that her father’s eyes had been gouged out before he was killed. But she did not say that she had been raped. She merely said: They slapped me and beat me and struck me with a knife. They tore up my clothes.’
The rapists made no distinction between old and young women. In Nand Nagri, an 80-year-old woman informed a social worker that she had been raped. In Trilokpuri, several cases were reported of old women who were gang-raped in front of their family members. As in all such situations, the major purpose of these rapes seems to have been to inflict humiliation and to destroy the victims’ morale altogether. Mancha Devi,
about 55, says she was gang-raped. Four men of her family, including her son-in-law and her nephew, were murdered.
When I tried to intervene to save the children, several of those men grabbed me. Some tore my clothes, some
climbed on top of me. What can I tell you, sister? Some raped me, some bit me all over my body, and some
tore off my clothes. All this happened around 11 p.m. in my own house. I don’t know how many men there
were. The whole house was full of them. About a dozen raped me. After that, they caught hold of some young
girls outside. My old husband and one nine-year-old son are the only ones left in my family. Whom shall I
depend on in my old age? What can this nine-year-old do?
Most of these rapes took place while the bodies of husbands, sons or brothers of these women were still smouldering in their presence, and their homes had thus been converted into cremation grounds. Baby Bai, a young bride, aged around 20, was also gang-raped. She was married barely a year ago. Her husband was a rickshaw puller, and sometimes worked as a scooter driver. She says:
There were six members in our family. The three men, my husband and my two brothers-in-law, were
murdered. Now only three women are left. My house was attacked at about 4 p.m. and the fighting continued
until next morning. My husband was first beaten and then burnt to death. I was sitting and crying when a big
group of men came and dragged me away. They took me to the nearby huts in front of block 32, and raped me.
They tore off all my clothes. They bit and scratched me. They took me at 10 p.m. and released me at about 3
a.m. When I came back, I was absolutely naked, just as one is when one comes out of the mother’s womb.
They took away all my jewellery-earrings, a gold chain, bangles, nose ring and anklets. They left without
giving me anything to cover myself. On the road, I found someone’s old sheet. I wrapped myself in it and
walked up to Chilla village. There, I borrowed some clothes from my relatives.
Pyari Bai, aged about 70, has also lost all the male members of her family-three sons, a grandson, two sons-in-law and two nephews. Most of the men in her family used to weave string beds for a living and one was a rickshaw puller. Her daughter-in-law, who is several months pregnant, was dragged inside the house and raped. Pyari Bai too says that not even old women or little girls were spared.
Even though it was widely known that these attacks had been going on unabated since 1 November, the government neither provided the victims with any physical protection nor made any arrangements for them to be evacuated until the worst was over.
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Most of the women, especially those who had some surviving male members in their family, were not willing to say they had been raped although most of them did talk about the abduction and rape of women in general. They were pressurized into staying silent about their personal experience not only by the threat of social ostracism within their own community, such as being abandoned by husbands or not finding husbands if unmarried; other outside pressures played an important role, too.
Gurdip Kaur narrated how the raped women in Farash Bazar camp were prevented from getting even a routine medical examination and registering a complaint. A few women did come forward to get their cases registered. Some of the doctors of the medical relief team also confirmed that several such women had come to them, but since rape cases are considered medico-legal cases for which special evidentiary procedures have to be followed, the women had to be referred to a hospital by the government doctor who was posted at the camp. This, however, did not happen. Gurdip Kaur said: ‘Most of the women who went to register a case were young, unmarried women. Four of them were sent into the doctor’s room. I was asked to wait outside. The women who went inside were intimidated by those in charge and were warned not to undergo the medical examination. They were told that hands would be shoved up their vaginas and much else would be done to them. They, being young and inexperienced, got frightened, and did not insist on a medical examination. Hence no case was registered.’ Gurdip Kaur regrets that she was not allowed to be with them to encourage them. She says she heard that H.K.L. Bhagat was coming to Farash Bazar camp. She tried to give him her statement but could not meet him.
The physical violence that these women experienced is going to be buried in their hearts as their own ‘shame’. Several men of their community who were staying in the camp talked to me of these ‘dishonoured’ women, who had been forced to do a ‘wrong action’ and whose lives were now worthless. Thus, it seems very unlikely that these women will be treated even by their own community with any measure of the sympathy and understanding that the male victims of violence received.
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In Trilokpuri very few Sikh women work for a wage. Thus, the families who are left with no male members are also without wage-earners. Widowed women constitute the most vulnerable group amongst the surviving victims of the carnage. Many of them are illiterate or barely literate. Few have any skills at all. Very few have ever worked outside the house. Most of the women have several young children so that going out of the house for long hours to earn a living may not be feasible.
Thakari Bai, who is in her early twenties, is a typical example. Her husband worked as a coolie at the railway station and earned more than Rs 50 a day. She has three daughters, aged seven years, three years, and two months respectively. One of them is disabled and retarded. In tears, she told us that three of her brothers-in-law, who managed to survive by cutting their hair and hiding, do not wish to support her now. Already, they and their families have begun to ill-treat and quarrel with her, because they fear that she and her daughters will become a burden on them. She says her widowed mother, who lives in a Rajasthan village, is very poor. Her mother works as a labourer and often has not enough to eat. So Thakari Bai does not know where she will go if the relief camp forces her out without providing her with some means of livelihood and accommodation.
Several relief workers reported that fierce conflicts were erupting between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law over the question of who should receive the Rs 10,000 promised by the government as compensation for a dead man who was the son of one woman and husband of the other. Given the fact that neither wives nor mothers have any independent sources of income and can only look forward to destitution, the conflict appears to be inevitable.
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Much has been made of the so-called provocation offered by the Sikhs who came out with swords and kirpans, as at the Trilokpuri gurudwara. But all available eyewitness accounts confirm that swords were used, if at all, as a desperate measure of self-defence when no other help was available. Either the police were not present or, if present, were playing the role of passive onlookers or active abettors. We would also do well to remember that the Indian Penal Code gives citizens the right to use weapons in private self-defence of their lives and property against illegal attack. Specifically, it lays down that if in the course of such defence, even innocent people happen to get killed, the persons engaged in self-defence are not culpable for the deaths. Moreover, in many places, no defence whatsoever was offered, yet gurudwaras and homes did not escape destruction.
For instance, Vasan Singh of East Vinod Nagar, another trans-Yamuna colony, described how his neighbourhood was attacked. He said that on 1 November, at about 10 a.m., truckloads of men from nearby villages were on their way to Delhi. They were shouting anti-Sikh slogans. Some of them came down the highway and set on fire the gurudwara which is near the main road. None of the Sikhs in the colony dared go to the defence of the gurudwara. The police were present at this time, but remained inactive. The mob next went to the house of Niranjan Singh, a postmaster. They beat up the family, burnt the house and several members of the family, including children. Vasan Singh goes on: ‘We went and hid in the house of a Hindu neighbour. Every Sikh ran and sought shelter in Hindu homes but very few could save their lives.’
Despite all the rumours that have been set afloat, ever since Bhindranwale’s terrorist squads shot into prominence, about the ‘enormous supplies’ of arms that have been accumulated by the Sikh community, the facts that came to light from the accounts of the four days of violence are quite contrary to popular prejudice. Very few Sikhs had any arms to speak of. Even the major gurudwaras in Delhi which were strongly suspected of being storehouses for weapons and arsenals, had to give in to the attackers without much of a fight. There were hardly any non-Sikhs among those killed.
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An explanation frequently offered for the massacres is that anger and resentment against the Sikhs had been brewing ever since Bhindranwale’s gang began the indiscriminate murder of Hindus in Punjab, in pursuance of their demand for Khalistan, a separate nation-state for Sikhs, which might involve a forcible mass exodus of Hindus from Punjab, similar to that which look place from various areas when Pakistan came into existence. There is no denying that the manner in which the demand for Khalistan was being pursued in the previous two years or so had created a good deal of resentment against Bhindranwale among Hindus both in Punjab and outside. But the fact that one small gang of terrorists who happened to be Sikhs killed some Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab is no justification for the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs all over India-who had no connection with Punjab politics.
Today, there seems to be a widespread belief, based on the desire to justify the recent riots, that Bhindranwale and his men killed only Hindus. But the fact, which ought to be well-known, is that Bhindranwale’s men killed Sikhs who opposed them with even greater fervour than they did Hindus. In fact,
Bhindranwale began, as do most terrorist groups, by hitting out at those members of his own community who opposed him. This was done with the intention of terrorizing his own community into silent submission. Yet this fact is meticulously ignored because it does not help fan the fires of communalism. Further, the sudden eruption of violence against Sikhs seems quite out of proportion to the extent of anger amongst Hindus. It is noteworthy that throughout the period when Sikhs, Nirankaris and Hindus were being killed in Punjab, there had been no retaliation whatsoever against Sikhs in Delhi or in other states. Even when some sections of the Akalis organized fairly aggressive processions in Delhi, no political group or set of Hindu militants reacted with violence or even as much as tried to obstruct the processions and rallies. The only clashes that occurred were with the police and the administrative machinery. There were no attacks on gurudwaras or on the homes of prominent Sikh or Akali leaders. It is even more noteworthy that in Punjab,
apart from select killings by small organized gangs of terrorists, there were no communal riots throughout the Bhindranwale period.
Hindus and Sikhs do not have a long history or tradition of conflict. The two communities not only share a common past and a common culture but even today, most Sikh families have Hindu relatives because it used to be a common practice for some Hindu parents in certain areas of Punjab to dedicate one son to the guru. Even today, marriages between Sikhs and Hindus are considered a normal practice. Many Hindus routinely visit gurudwaras and read the Granth Saheb with much devotion. The fact that all Punjabis use the word mona to indicate either a Hindu or a clean shaven Sikh shows that no rigid distinctions have been set up by the people of the two communties between themselves.
Many have tried to justify the violence by asserting that Sikhs ‘provoked’ an attack on themselves by celebrating Indira Gandhi’s killing. They are supposed to have distributed sweets at home and champagne
abroad as soon as they got the news. During these days, I have met hundreds of people who talk authoritatively about the distribution of sweets by Sikhs in celebration of Indira Gandhi’s killing, but when
questioned, not one of them could say that he or she saw this happen.
There is very little evidence that, barring a few stray cases, Sikhs in general ‘rejoiced’ at Mrs Gandhi’s death. For instance, the reality behind the rumour that Sikh students of Khalsa College, Delhi University, danced the bhangra is a fairly typical example of how facts are distorted beyond recognition. These students had been practising bhangra every day on their college lawn for over a month prior to Mrs Gandhi’s death. They
were preparing the dance as an item for the forthcoming winter festivals that are held in every college. On 31 October, they were practising as usual and stopped as soon as they got the news.
A friend tried to investigate the source of another rumour that a wealthy Sikh family in Janakpuri had distributed sweets and dry fruit soon after Mrs Gandhi’s death. They discovered that there had indeed been some distribution of sweets. This was done in honour of the coming Gurpurab. Traditionally, about 10 days before Guru Nanak’s birthday, which fell on 8 November in l984,prabbatpberis are organized in each area,
and it is customary for families to entertain the pheri participants with sweets and other refreshments. However, the most important point we need to remember is what Dharma Kumar said in her article in the Times of India: ‘If all the sweets in India had been distributed-that would not have justified the burning alive
of one single Sikh ‘
Surely, it was not only Sikhs who could be accused of not cancelling a routine ritual celebration such as this one after they heard of Mrs Gandhi’s death on the night of 31 October, when I was walking down the main road in our locality, I saw a wedding procession marching along in full pomp and show, complete with band music, dancing and lights. Nobody showed any concern that this Hindu wedding procession was going through the normal ritual.
In our own neighbourhood, where at least half the families are Sikhs, I saw no sign of celebrations or distributions of sweets. In fact, even on the morning of 31 October, when the news of the assassination came, I was really surprised to see everyone, both Hindu and Sikh, going about their business without any apparent sign of grief or frenzy. No one I talked to broke down when discussing the news even through most people felt sad that Mrs Gandhi’s life had ended so tragically.
Other rumourmongers point to the fact that many Sikhs did not celebrate Diwali in 1984 because they were mourning the army operation and the killing of Bhindranwale and other Sikhs in the Golden Temple in June. This is cited as proof that they are ‘anti-national’ and hence it is assumed that they must have rejoiced at Mrs Gandhi’s death.
First, it is not true that no Sikh celebrated Diwali. Some of the victims mentioned that new clothes and utensils bought by them for Diwali were destroyed in the attacks on their homes. Further, the argument itself is based on a bizarre logic of the kind that the government very often uses. Anyone who does not support every action and policy of the government automatically becomes an enemy of the nation. This way of thinking is based on an authoritarian ideology which seeks to deny the people the right to differ with the rulers and the right to mourn the tragic consequences of the rulers’ actions.
Another thing that is held against the Sikhs is that they felt outraged at the entry of the army into the Golden Temple. To say that all those who grieved at the desecration of the Temple were desirous of Indira Gandhi’s