By Joydeep Gupta, New Delhi, Nov 3 : Three days, 3,000 Sikhs – days that still haunt Delhi Police officials who admit their failures and even complicity but even 25 years later will not go on record on the pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi when marauders had a free run of the city.
The aftermath of the assassination on Oct 31, 1984,, when an estimated 3,000 Sikhs were killed from Nov 1 to Nov 3, were days of such ignominy that lips are still sealed — even for officials who have long retired and are out of the system. On the evening of Nov 3, the army was called out, signalling an end to the frenzy of murder and mayhem and underscoring that effective police action could have stemmed the violence.
The silence has not dulled the memories or the realisation of their complicity in the violence.
“The guilty have not been punished,” said an officer who is now very high in the police hierarchy here. “And I’m not talking about the politicians.
“I am talking of the police officers in charge of various districts who did not do their duty, who let the mobs rule, burn Sikh dwellings and property and kill members of the community.”
Two senior Delhi Police officers had their careers ruined by those days in October-November 1984 – then police commissioner S.C. Tandon and H.D. Pillai, the man who was in charge of the security department. The men who killed Indira Gandhi – Satwant Singh and Beant Singh – were part of Pillai’s team. Various inquiry committees found him guilty of not screening the men well enough. Tandon took the overall rap.
But that was where the buck stopped. The deputy commissioners in charge of various police districts – there were six then – got away with very little stain in their career records. This despite the fact that Sikhs had been looted and killed all over the capital. The night after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a third floor terrace in Connaught Circus showed 13 fires burning in the city.
“I remember I was shaving when I got the news that Mrs Gandhi had been shot,” said a recently retired police officer who was still unwilling to be identified. “I rushed to AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where the then prime minister’s body was taken).
“There was chaos at the crossing in front of AIIMS (there was no flyover then). People were throwing stones at cars. Soon the president (Zail Singh, a Sikh) came there and they started throwing stones at his car. I rushed with my men and escorted his car inside.
“Then I got a message on the wireless, asking me not to take action against the men outside who had thrown stones at the president’s car. To this day, I don’t know who sent the order, but the caller had all the right credentials for someone speaking from the PCR (police control room). I was so disgusted I didn’t go outside the AIIMS campus most of the day. Anyway, there was plenty to do there, with all the VIPs coming in.”
Delhi started burning the same evening at the start of the anti-Sikh pogrom that went on till the army stepped in. The arson was selective. In areas like Kotla Mubarakpur of south Delhi, where Hindu and Sikh businessmen have had shops cheek by jowl for decades, Sikh shops were systematically targeted, obviously by someone who knew the area very well.
First there was looting, then arson, then death. The worst were in areas like Trilokpuri in east Delhi. The next afternoon, an inspector posted in the area had told this correspondent: “I couldn’t stand and see it any more. People were being dragged out of their homes and killed, while we had been told not to do anything.”
Now retired, that erstwhile inspector still would not say who had told him not to do anything. “Let it go,” he pleaded. “Why do you want to reopen old wounds?”
Outside a lane in Kingsway Camp, North Delhi, in the afternoon of Nov 3, 1984, a group of men deflated all four tyres of this correspondent’s car. They didn’t want a report on the way they had looted and burnt Sikh houses in the lane. The car was sheltered in the nearest police station.
The sub-inspector who had helped park the car is a senior officer today. “I wish I had caught those b…s,” he says now. “But we couldn’t have, you know. We were not allowed.”