Blood-for-blood politics: From Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi

New Delhi, 31 October 1984

The stone whizzed through the late October air, tracing an arc that would be mirrored in history, and landed with a thud on the motorcade bearing President Zail Singh. A collective roar went up from the crowd that had gathered near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, waiting for word on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had been shot by her Sikh security guards that morning.

As surgeons at AIIMS worked on the lost cause of reviving Indira – or, more possibly, waited for a politically correct moment to announce news of her death – the crowd outside grew increasingly restive and combustible. As a 20-year-old journalism student who had sneaked into the sealed-off hospital on false pretences upon hearing of the shooting, I was caught up in the angry swells of blood-lust that were eddying around me.

Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge, the crowds chanted. Blood for blood.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards led to communal madness, the likes of which India hadn’t seen since Independence. Fox Photos/Getty Images

There had been no official word on the attempt on the Prime Minister’s life: the official electronic media Doordarshan and AIR, the only ones available in a pre-satellite TV and pre-Internet era – had collectively lost their tongue. In that information vacuum, rumours became the currency of Breaking News.

Someone said BBC had already reported that Indira was dead. (Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who was being groomed for prime ministership and was in West Bengal on that day, would say later that he first heard news of the shooting on BBC radio – not on All India Radio.)

Other rumours too did their mischievous rounds and served to inflame hotheads even further. Someone suggested that in parts of Punjab, where there had been widespread resentment over Indira Gandhi’s decision in June that year to send the Army into the Golden Temple to flush out Khalistani terrorists, Sikhs had celebrated the news of the shooting. No confirmation was deemed necessary: vendetta was a dish best consumed in blinding rage.

Into that hate-filled scene entered the president’s convoy. Returning from overseas, Zail Singh drove straight to AIIMS, but his convoy never made it. Faced with an angry mob of stone-pelters who would not even respect the president’s authority – and on the contrary would target him for being a Sikh – the convoy abruptly turned around and headed back to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Sikhs in lower stations in life weren’t so lucky. The riots started that same afternoon – and raged for four days. The mobs, with the active instigation of Congress leaders, were getting their blood-for-blood vendetta-lust sated. Rajiv Gandhi himself would, to his eternal shame, justify the violence later as the inevitable upheaval when a giant tree falls.

It was a time of communal madness, the likes of which India hadn’t seen since Independence. For those four days, mobs literally ruled the city, setting fire to entire residential colonies in Trilokpuri and selectively burning Sikh-owned residences and shops in other areas. Travelling by bus, we would be accosted by stick-wielding mobs looking for Sikhs to lynch in full public glare. “Koi sardar hai?” they would bellow.

But inside the bus, sanity – and compassion — prevailed; the few Sikhs who had foolishly ventured out of their homes would duck below the seats, and fellow-passengers (perhaps Hindu, perhaps Muslim, who knows?) would spontaneously provide camouflage.

Narendra Modi

The Modi-wadis continue to invoke the Godhra train burning as the prequel and a justification for the riots of 2002. In any case, their defence is summed up in one question: but what about 1984?

Years later, watching Aparna Sen’s film Mr and Mrs Iyer, set in an India traumatised by the 2002 Gujarat riots, I was struck by how unbelievably lacking in collective courage her characters – a busload of passengers – were. Confronted by a mob inflamed by Godhra-driven anti-Muslim blood-for-blood vendetta, the passengers put up not the faintest resistance when the mob picks out an elderly Muslim man to lynch.

Having personally lived through a similar setting in 1984, I can say with absolute certitude that even the feeblest human finds courage – and enormous, inexplicable strength of character — in such situations. If you won’t stand up in moments like that, however life-threatening the circumstances may be, can you face yourself in the mirror everyday for the rest of your life?

Today, of course, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, for which none of the top Congress instigators served prison time despite compelling evidence of their involvement, are little remembered – except as a counter-argument to be invoked whenever the Gujarat riots – and the question of Narendra Modi’s alleged culpability in them – come up.

To this day, Congress-wallahs scream bloody murder about the Gujarat riots, while being blissfully blind to their own parties’ bloodied hand from 1984. And in turn, the Modi-wadis continue to invoke the Godhra train burning as the prequel and a justification for the riots of 2002. In any case, their defence is summed up in one question: but what about 1984?

The politics of riots – be it by the Congress or the BJP — rides on such shameful false equivalences and elaborate justifications of blood-for-blood vendetta.

In both cases, the politics of riots proved enormously rewarding: Rajiv Gandhi was elected to power in December 1984 with a historic majority in Parliament for the Congress. Likewise, Modi has established himself as an unrivalled leader of Gujarat, largely on the strength of the communal consolidation he achieved, although in recent times, he has sought to tone down his strident Hindutva rhetoric.

At their core, however, there is nothing to distinguish between a political grouping that would defend communal madness by citing a prime minister’s assassination or another that invokes a terrorist outrage as its justification. Honestly, a plague on both their houses…