Assassination: When Delhi Burned: BBC Radio 4 31st October 2014 11 am

This is a guest post from Prof. Swaran Singh on understanding conflict, violence and what happens to victims in one tragedy. It does not make for comfortable reading, but holds lessons for us to prevent future incidents and to promote justice and reconciliation. Watch out for the programme on BBC Radio 4, 31st October, 11.00am.

Assassination: When Delhi Burned
It is 30 years since Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on 31st October 1984. Few outside India know about the events leading up to her death. And fewer still know about the thousands who died in the following 72 hours. I was there.

I was a young trainee surgeon from a middle class Delhi background, interested in rock and roll, beer and cricket. Punjab to the north was fractured by violence between Sikh militants and Government forces. People like me who argued that both sides were committing atrocities were shouted down by a polarised society. I was frustrated and distressed, but life in Delhi carried on. All that changed at 9.20am on 31st October 1984.

That morning I walked into the ward and the normally deferential clerk snarled at me: tum haramzadoon ney maar diya madam ko (you bastards have killed madam). I couldn’t comprehend his tone or the content of what he was saying. I turned to a nurse and said: “Did you hear that? He swore at me”. She said: “Haven’t you heard? Mrs Gandhi has been shot by her Sikh bodyguards. She is being brought to AIIMS” (All India Institute of Medical Sciences).

AIIMS was our big neighbour and rival, just across the road. That is where the VIPs went. Our hospital served the poor, the dispossessed and those without political or economic clout. I rushed to AIIMS, which was already seething with a mass of humanity. People spoke in hushed whispers, the crowd swarmed anxiously, senior government figures arrived with blaring alarms, police and security guards were everywhere. There was an ominous foreboding in the humid air.

A colleague approached and whispered: “It is not safe for Sikhs. Please leave”. The gates were blocked by teeming crowds. As I squeezed my way through, someone shouted “you bastards” and a blow fell on my neck. My turban came off. Clutching my turban and crouching, I forced my way through as more blows rained on my back. I managed to stumble into an autorickshaw, pleading with the driver to take me away.

I wasn’t hurt, just badly shaken. The blows I received were a manifestation of grief turned into anger, and mourning expressed as assault. It was unfocused, not directed at me personally but at a Sikh who was somehow responsible for the death of the country’s mother.

The killings started late that evening. National television had a continuous broadcast of footage of Mrs Gandhi’s body, surrounded by crowds shouting “khoon ka badla khoon” (seek blood for blood). The Wikepedia entry states that the first Sikh was killed on 1st November 1984 ( I know of an elderly Sikh man who was killed on 31st October around 9 pm. Truth is hard to establish in a state of total anarchy.

Khoon ka badla khoon – on and on it went, repeated over and over again and broadcast to the nation. Along with rumours- trains were arriving from Punjab with all Hindu passengers killed by Sikhs; Sikhs were celebrating and distributing sweets; Sikhs had poisoned the water supply of Delhi. Two police officers from our local police station went around our colony with a megaphone: “Don’t drink water. The Sikhs have poisoned it.” I challenged one of them: “Do you think taps know the religion of a household? Would Delhi Sikhs be able to avoid being poisoned? What nonsense is this?” One of them pushed me aside.

Our residential area had a large number of Sikh families and a dominant Hindu population from the opposition, Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Elders from the Hindu and Sikh community convened a meeting at the local temple. Our Hindu neighbours reassured us that they would protect us. Street patrols were formed, and young people placed on rooftops around the colony to look out for approaching mobs. We patrolled the area with whatever weapons we could find: hockey sticks, cricket bats, tennis rackets, axes, broomsticks. My father had a ceremonial Sikh sword, four feet long, but blunt and useless. I walked with it unsheathed, unsure whether I would have the nerve to ever use it. We could see fires raging in the distance. We heard that Sikhs were being killed in large numbers, but there was no way to find out. We dared not leave.

I have never before or since experienced what we felt for the next three days: a sense of being hunted. I was the enemy in my own country; some of my countrymen were looking for me and my family.

Unbeknown to us, mobs had been collected by senior members of the ruling Congress party. Electoral lists were distributed so Sikh households could be identified. The mobs, already suffused with anger were plied with alcohol, paid a thousand rupees each, and given canisters of kerosene. A pack would surround a Sikh house and shout for all males to step outside. The men would then have their legs broken before being doused with petrol and set on fire, as the women and children watched. There was rape and looting too, but the primary aim of the mob was bloodlust. Khoon ka badla khoon.

The violence continued for three days. About 8000 Sikhs were killed in North India, with over 3000 in Delhi. I was able to leave the area on the morning of 4th November, hiding in the back of Hindu friend’s car as we went looking for a family we knew a few miles away. The streets were deserted and the family had fled. We found a badly burnt girl, barely 15 and barely alive, and tried to get her admitted to a local hospital. The A&E Consultant refused to admit her. We found that a relief camp had been set up. We left her there. I don’t know if she survived.

Several thousand of the widows and children from the carnage were rehoused in a housing block, now known as the Widow’s Colony ( The women were in state of perpetual mourning, the children neglected and left to their own devices. All around they could see people who had killed their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers; the killers safe in the knowledge that they were beyond the law.

Along with some friends, we started visiting the colony, initially just to play with the children and give them some comfort. We met in a playground in a park. But the children, terrified of strangers, wouldn’t attend. So I offered to provide free medical care to all families who would send the children to the play area. Out went my surgical career, in came a weekly round of collecting medicine from friends and holding a makeshift clinic at weekends. When not gathering aid, I spent my time with a human rights organisation collecting evidence against the politicians who had led the killer mobs.

We worked with the families for about two years. Every official inquiry exonerated the perpetrators, dismissing robust evidence on the flimsiest of grounds ( I decided to become a psychiatrist and moved to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab where the cycle of violence between the Sikh militants and the government continued. I left India in 1990, disheartened and vowing never to return.

A few weeks ago I returned to the Widows colony along with a BBC team including a presenter who had been visiting Delhi as a child when his Indian family home was attacked by a mob. What we found is a tale of sorrow, resilience and a sense of permanent defeat. On the surface the survivors have rebuilt their lives, but dig a little deeper and you discover lives haunted by these events. Many widows have died prematurely, and many young men have drifted into alcohol, drugs, petty crime and in some cases committed suicide. The shiny new India is tarnished by her unwillingness to do justice for these people. This documentary charts our journey back.

Professor Swaran Singh

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