1984 Anti-Sikh Riots: A History of Shame & Horror
A collective gasp of shock went through India on 10:50 in the morning of 31st October 1984, when Doordarshan reported the assassination and subsequent death of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
After the monetary stunned silence, the nation erupted into mayhem and retaliatory rage; All India radio reported, shortly afterward, that the Prime Minister’s assailants were two of her trusted Sikh bodyguards, and all hell broke loose for the unsuspecting Sikh community in Delhi and all across the nation.
History And Immediate Cause
The assassination of Indira Gandhi came shortly afterward, and in retaliation to, the Operation Blue Star, a massive program undertaken by the Congress Government against the Sikh militant groups that had set up headquarters in the Golden temple complex.
The Sikh militants demanded a separate state for the Sikh community, called Khalistan, and undertook to terrorize the population in an attempt to have their demand met. Their methods mainly comprised killing civilians and Congress officials. This was a period of huge unrest, during which the Punjab government was sacked, and President’s rule initiated in the state.
Following a widespread call for action, Indira Gandhi employed the Indian army to flush out the militants from the temple complex, an incident that resulted in extensive warfare between the two groups and a staggering civilian and army death toll.
Indira Gandhi’s Assassination
The massive death toll and damages made to the temple complex gave rise to widespread protests among the Sikh community in India and abroad, and matters came to a head with the Prime Minister’s assassination on 31st October 1984, by two Sikh members of her bodyguard, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, both of whom were sympathizers of the Khalistan movement.
The assassination, however, turned matters in a different direction; the Sikh community instantly became them most hated in a country already much divided by ethnic and communal mistrust. By the following day, anti-Sikh riots had erupted everywhere in the country. Delhi was the most affected, but pockets of violence were also seen in other parts of the country that had a significant Sikh population.
31st October: Preparation Phase
The pre-rioting activities began on the night of 31t October itself, with mobs being organized in different parts of Delhi and more than 40 cities across the country. Gathered masses, mostly consisting of illiterate people from lower income groups, and possibly henchmen of the Party leaders were gathered to receive money for alcohol and weapons like guns, swords, kerosene, and inflammable materials.
Isolated incidents of attacks on Sikhs started happening shortly after the news of the death was released, and President Zail Singh’s motorcade was stoned by a mob on his return from a foreign trip on the same day. By nightfall, the violence took a more organized form as equipped gangs began to spread out all over the city.
1st November: First Strike
1st of November saw the death of the first Sikh, leading the way to a staggering number of deaths within the community. The mob began to attack the Gurdwaras, and low-income neighborhoods such as Shahdara, Mongolpuri, Sultanpuri, and Geeta, among others, faced the brunt of the violence.
This was probably the last time in the next couple of days that the police took an active role in dominating the violence, with areas such as Karol Bagh, with better police protection, seeing little of the riot.
2nd November: Darkest Phase
By 2nd November, the riot itself took inhuman proportions with nothing to stop the rioters except a defensive action by the Sikhs and acts of mercy and compassion displayed by the other communities. Sikh men found it difficult to hide in the initial stages when news of the riot had not yet spread with clarity, and hopes of it being contained were still being harbored.
During this time, most of them could be easily recognized; the Sikh men wore their signature turban and long hair and beard, while the Sikh women wore their traditional dresses. The mob looted the homes of the Sikhs and the shops and other commercial property owned by them before burning the buildings to the ground.
Sikh men and women were pulled out into the streets by the hair and knives, stabbed, or hacked to death; some were burnt alive. Women were often gang-raped and then killed. Sikhs trying to escape or going back home were pulled down from busses and lynched.
Countless men and women fled from Delhi, but safety was hardly anywhere; although Delhi was the worst hit, riots had broken out in at least 40 cities across India. Sikh hurried to change their appearances; reports of men ditching their turban and long beards and women donning more homogenous clothes started to pour in.
Reports published after the riots had the death toll at least 2700 deaths as per government estimates; informal estimates report much higher figures. At least 20,000 Sikhs were estimated to have fled Delhi, and around 100 people were left destitute after their homes and belongings were looted and destroyed in the riots. At least 8000 people were killed or injured in other parts of the country.
3rd November: Closing Chapter
The riot finally came to an end on the 2nd of November, with the police in different parts of the country being stirred into action. Joint efforts of the Army and the police force were able to contain the violence, and incidences of looting, murder, and rape started to die down. It became relatively peaceful by evening, and by nightfall, heriot had officially come to an end in Delhi and elsewhere.
It stands as testimony to the ultimate goodness of human nature that a wide range of people, from diverse backgrounds, stood up to help the victimized community. After the riots subsided, reports came pouring in of Sikhs who had been saved by various means by their Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jain friends. People of all communities came forward to take no part in this senseless violation of human rights.
Investigation And Convictions
The subsequent inquiry into the riots failed to establish any one group as the instigator behind the event, although general consensus held the Indian National Congress and the Delhi police Force largely responsible for spreading the violence.
Congress Party Involvement
Later reports of the events, as recounted by eyewitnesses and insiders, highlighted the role played by various members of the Congress and the Delhi police. Especially incriminating reports from insiders and witnesses were released about several members of the Congress Party.
According to reports, the Party had started to amass the mob and distributing weapons, along with money for liquor, from the night of 31st October. The accused were further incriminated by the fact that certain steps taken by the mob could not have been possible without the support of party insiders.
For instance, on the 31st and the days that followed, the mob carried voters’ lists, school registration forms, and ration lists to identify and pull out Sikhs from their homes going back to the same location to lynch as-of-yet unharmed Sikhs whose names they had not crossed off the list.
In yet further incriminating evidence, certain reports emerged of the mob having used inflammatory materials other than kerosene which would require large-scale cooperation to amass.
The media collected reports from witnesses about several issues that pointed fingers of accusation toward the Congress Party. For instance, in a report published by the Time magazine, it was stated that no step was taken by the Delhi police as the rioters continued to loot, kill, and rape.
It was further reported in the magazine, as per reports collected from a human rights organization Ensaaf, that despite complaints and reports from various eyewitnesses and names being submitted, the government did not take any action against the perpetrators of the violence, and in fact, actively tried to cover up incriminating evidence.
The investigation into the riots conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation, although sporadic, was extremely beneficial in identifying the culprits of the riots. A report from the CBI incriminated several Congress Party members as playing an active role in instigating violence and providing the mob with weapons, notable among them being local Congress party member Amit Kumar, trade union leader Lalit Makhen, and Member of Parliament Sajjan Kumar.
All three were reported to have organized the mob on the night of the 31st, handing out money for liquor and distributing weapons. The CBI report also contained eyewitness quotes referring to Amit Kumar inciting the mob to “attack Sikhs, kill them, and loot and burn their properties.” He was also reported to have promised monetary rewards to any person who killed Sikhs, both eminent and civilian.
However, Congress party involvement in the riots extended beyond nominal motivation. Eyewitnesses stated that the organized nature of the pogrom was even more emphasized by the fact that rioters were seen traveling from location to location n motorcycles, supplying kerosene to groups where supply had dwindled.
This linked the riot more securely to the Congress Party since some of the leaders were owners of filling stations, although this could not be provided as conclusive proof of their involvement. Among them were Brahmanand Gupta, the A-4 Block President of the Congress Party, and P.K. Tripathi, local Congress party leader in Bokaro.
The supply of kerosene and other inflammable objects took almost businesslike proportions as auto-rickshaws and other vehicles were hired to carry the material to rioting regions.
Role of The Police
The Delhi police played a significant role in the riots. According to a report published in The Tribune, corroborated by reports in the Time magazine, the police turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the incidents happening around them. In multiple cases, the police were seen playing an active role in distinguishing Sikhs and handing them over to the rioting public, if not taking part in the massacre actively themselves.
Horrific reports of the police lashing out against Sikhs that tried to defend themselves and their families were released. Although the Indian Army was deployed in routing regions, they could do nothing since the police would not cooperate, and the Army does not have the jurisdiction to open fore or control the mob without express permission from the local police.
After the Riots
The Congress-headed government faced widespread criticism following the riots due to its inactivity and possible implication in the riots. The involvement was implicated on various levels, with even Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s son and the next Prime Minister, allegedly having implied that such events were to be expected when a ‘big tree’ fell.
The government was widely accused of doing nothing to punish the perpetrators but taking a strict stance against the Sikhs who had resorted to violence in an attempt to defend themselves against attack. Upon investigation, a joint report was published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and People’s Union for Democratic Rights, plainly calling the riots an organized crime perpetrated by the administration and Congress Party hotshots.
The riots created unrest that was to continue for days afterward. For starters, it undermined the issue that started it all: more and more of the youth were seen joining the Khalistan movement, leading to the assassination of Lalit Maken and Arjan Dass, by sympathizers of the Khalistan movement.
The government set up ten commissions to investigate the riots, namely, the Nanavati Commission, the Marwah Commission, the Misrah Commission, the Jain Banerjee Committee, the Jain Aggarwal Committee, the Kapur Mittal Committee, the Narula Committee, the Ahuja Committee, the Dhillon Committee, and the Potti Rosha Committee.
Different sentences were meted out to the 442 rioters who were convicted in the subsequent investigations, among whom Sajjan Kumar was acquitted of mass protests from the Sikh community. The incident also attracted international attention, with the Ontario Legislature condemning the incident as genocide.
Impact on The President
Then President Zail Singh, himself a Sikh and a member of the Congress Party, received pressures to resign following the riots. He did not concede to them for fear of adverse effects. He went on to elect Rajiv Gandhi, the sole surviving son of Indira Gandhi, as the next Prime Minister of India.
The 1984 riots continue to be a matter of abject shame to the country; as the Delhi High Court aid in 2009, despite being the world’s largest democracy, India’ failure to control the unrest among its own population in the capital city of the country ‘makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the world polity.
The riots have seen been portrayed in popular media, although the censor board has not always been very kind to the films, thanks to the sensitiveness of the issue. The film Amu, for instance, required extensive cuts and removal of all reference to the riot in order to be released publicly. A number of Punjabi and Bollywood films have been made portraying different aspects of the riots.
Like any other riot, the saddest fact of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 remains, to this day, the death and destitution of hundreds of innocent civilians. A great number of Sikhs had opposed against the anarchy led by the members of the Khalistan militant group, but their lives were not spared either.
The fault of a single insurgent group and their sympathizers was soon broadened to include every person who happened to share the same religious faith, leading to the death or destitution of hundreds of Sikhs who were as shocked and moved by the death of the Prime Minister as any other.