Book excerpt from '1984 The Anti-Sikh Violence and After': Close encounter

By Sanjay Suri

Editor's note: It has been three decades since the country encountered the horror of the anti-Sikh riots in the winter of 1984. The chilling account of events is still fresh in the memories of those who witnessed the violence that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her bodyguards on 31 October 1984. Sanjay Suri, the then crime reporter with The Indian Express, was a first-hand observer to all that transpired – the massacre, the police choosing to look away, the political party in power decreeing deaths, and more. His book, 1984 The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, is a riveting account of facts that went unnoticed and recollections that are both gripping and disturbing.

The following is an excerpt from the book, 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After:

It was the afternoon of the second day after the assassination, 2 November, and killings had been taking place on the night of 31 October, all day on 1 November, that night, and again on 2 November. We were getting to hear of more killings from people here and there—we still had no word from the police on just what was happening and where. We asked, of course, because through the wireless the police were closest to getting the full picture of the violence. But the police were switched off from any communication with media—they were switched off policing itself. The police knew of most of the attacks on Sikhs through their wireless network but by way of action they produced almost nothing; by way of communication absolutely nothing.

The worst massacre at Trilokpuri came to light because Mohan Singh escaped to come to our office at The Indian Express to tell us about it. The next day we began to hear about mass killings in Sultanpuri, another of those resettlement colonies that had been launched during the years of the Emergency (1975–77) by Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay. I could again find no photographer to accompany me to Sultanpuri.

But our chief editor, B.G. Verghese, made an exceptional provision: he made an office car available. That was a relief, but it came with a catch: the office could not find a driver willing to go out into the city. The office never would give us cars without a driver, but that one day it did. I was given a noisy old Ambassador that I would have to drive myself.

A full team of us set out. I was joined by fellow reporter Ashwini Sarin, another reporter I knew as Joshi from the Hindi newspaper Jansatta of the Express group, and Sevanti Ninan, then special writer at the Express. Ashwini Sarin sat on the front seat with me, Sevanti and Joshi were at the back, a seating arrangement that was to have consequences. My little reporter’s pad and pen were in my shirt pocket—unfortunately prominent as it later was to turn out.

 Book excerpt from 1984 The Anti-Sikh Violence and After: Close encounter It was a fairly quick drive across to Sultanpuri, we noted along the way how little traffic there still was. The fear that had gripped the city was not letting go so soon; almost everyone stayed home. But empty streets still looked better than roads with looters running wild—along that route the looters seemed to have retreated. A few people were about, but among them no Sikh was to be seen.

Once we got to Sultanpuri, discovering where the killings had taken place turned out to be simple enough. A couple of people on the roadside told us of the streets we should head to. Another pointed to a particular street that he said had seen the worst. I drove in that direction.

A chill gripped me as I turned off the road in the direction of that street. I saw a little park on the side of the road I was turning away from that looked extraordinarily tidy. It looked like it had just been swept clean. The sight struck me as unnatural. It wasn’t a grassy park, just sort of fenced ground with perhaps a cement bench or two in it. A broom had left fresh lines over the soil.

It didn’t look like it had been swept so strenuously by some enthusiastic municipal sweepers going about their daily job. The city had shut down, why would some exceptionally dedicated municipal man go about doing a routine job so carefully? I didn’t reason this out at that moment, it wasn’t such logic that brought unease; it was just an awful feeling. The freshly swept ground looked scary, the lines on the soil from the broom ominous. There was nobody in the park.

I turned into a narrow street as directed by the resident who had pointed to the scene of the killings. The street was for practical purposes one-way because it wasn’t wide enough for more. It didn’t look like a street used much to a car coming along at all. Who among those families crowding those poor little two-room tenements could think of owning a car those days? There was no movement on the street at all, it looked ghostly but for a bunch of men mostly in white kurtas and pajamas standing in the middle of it further down. The men, perhaps about a dozen of them, maybe up to twenty or so, stood still watching our approaching car.

I had to stop the car as I approached them, they were in the way. They knew we were journalists, the car had ‘Press’ written on the windscreen. I lowered the window and asked if the Sikh residents there were all right. All was well, they said, all was peaceful. They spoke in emphatic unison, many of them rushed to say there had been no trouble at all. Again, like the sight of that park across the road, it wasn’t anything definite I could point to, but the collective reassurance sounded more disturbing than reassuring.

This group looked different from just people you might find on a street in Delhi. They certainly were different from the people we had spoken to along the way who had given us directions and pointed to killings down this street. This was a well-knit group, they spoke as one, standing amidst the silence all around us. They told us firmly we should leave.

In a moment, I thought I saw why. Down the street behind them a door had opened a crack, a hand was calling out to us. I thought it might be a Sikh, though I could not see this immediately. I told the men we would drive up, find a place to reverse and then head back. They stepped aside. I drove on towards that door down that street where the hand had appeared. I stopped outside. Hiding behind that door that had been opened a crack, stood a frail Sikh man, almost quaking on his feet. He had cut his hair and his beard, quite obviously only recently.

He begged for help. He said hundreds of Sikhs had been killed on that street and around the night before. If we couldn’t find someone to rescue them, he said ‘those people’ would finish the rest of them that night. By ‘those people’ he meant the men on the street we had encountered on our way. He had gestured towards them, he knew they were there, he knew who they were. The years since those days have erased all sorts of details from memory. They haven’t erased that look in his eyes. The eyes looked like he was some prey being hunted.

It had been ‘those people’ down the street who had been telling us all was well, that we should turn around and leave. The significance of some of what happened that day sank in only later. It became clear that the man behind the door was speaking of that single, definite group we had encountered—he was not speaking of angry people generally, nor of neighbours. It was that bunch that he described as the killers. That could no doubt mean the men standing on that street at that moment, and others like them who may have joined them.

I said we would find help and stepped back into the car. I could see that bunch of men still standing in the middle of the street, they had turned around to stare at us now the opposite way. I drove a little further, found a place to turn the car around on a side street, and headed back the way we had come. The men were waiting for us. They didn’t look like they were about to move.

They blocked the way, and I had to stop the car. The minute I did, they rushed us from both sides. One pulled open the door to my side, threw a punch my way, and made a grab for my shirt pocket which had my reporter pad. He snatched the pad away, tearing my shirt. The men crowded around the car, they shouted that we were liars, that we were making trouble. Ashwini Sarin by my side was trying to calm them down, but failed.

Bizarrely, in the middle of all this, I saw the Jansatta reporter on the back seat pushing desperately against the back of the front seat, as if to push the car out of that spot. Fear does strange things. Even at that moment I could summon a fleeting sense of physics over the Jansatta reporter’s efforts.

All this happened in a flash. Sevanti Ninan was to the left on the rear street. One man pulled open her door, and made a grab as if to pull her from the car. She struggled to close the door, away from the man’s grabbing hand. He snatched away the reporter pad she had with her. At that moment I decided to make a break for it.

The car engine was running. I pushed up the gear lever and hit the accelerator. A man ahead tried to block us, I wasn’t going to stop for him. He pulled away just in time, I think the right-side fender brushed past him. I remember thinking I could not stop, even if I had to run him over. Some of the men ran after us as we drove off, the rest stood shouting abuse on that still street. Soon we were out of that side street and into the safety of the bigger road by that park.

Did these men later attack the man who had spoken to us? Sickeningly, I never came to know for sure one way or another. But I know that if they had, nobody was around to stop them. The Sikh in that home told us that killings had been going on down those streets night and day. But not a policeman was to be seen there. The first SOS we could send out was only on return to the office, where I called all the senior officers I could. I appealed desperately for the army to be deployed immediately in Sultanpuri, and in any case before nightfall. I did so with a sense of inadequacy; who could be sure anyone would listen? But there was nothing else to do. We could think of doing no more in the face of a massacre that had taken place, and in the face of another massacre that seemed imminent.

I was told by a police officer that the army had been deployed in Sultanpuri later that evening. I doubt my calls had anything to do with that though. The army was being deployed in several areas that evening, and the police would have known centrally through wireless about the killings in that area—the death toll on just those streets we had visited was later confirmed, even in police reports, to have run into hundreds.

Word of army deployment in Sultanpuri had given me some uneasy hope but not absolute reassurance. The following day I was told that the army had imposed some sort of curfew and had begun patrolling the area. An officer told me no more killings took place there that night. But I could not be sure; I could not say even whether this officer would know for sure.

Who were those men in white kurta-pajamas down that street? From what appeared then, and from what emerged later, three things stand out: one, they were among the killers; two, they got away with the killings; and three, they were Congress party men.

On what evidence do I say this? I couldn’t produce photocopies of some Congress party membership cards that they may have been carrying—and of course they wouldn’t be carrying any such. I couldn’t match their photographs with some register at a Congress office had such a record existed that I could access; I couldn’t pick them out in an identification parade. I never came to know their names, their addresses. What I did come to know was what everyone I spoke to told me on a follow-up visit—that it was members of the Congress party who had killed on those streets; that it was members of the Congress party who had set upon our car. Word of that car incident too seems to have spread in the area. Neighbours remained unseen, but it seems enough were seeing. No one I spoke to had any doubt who these men were. The Sikhs in the refugee camps who had fled Sultanpuri told me this, as did just about every non-Sikh I spoke to in that area who was prepared to say anything at all.

Excerpted with permission from 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, Sanjay Suri, HarperCollins India

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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2015 08:33:23 IST