Millennium Post

The other pogrom

As Delhi witnessed an unprecedented amount of lawlessness, at least since Independence, in the wake of assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, there were a few things that distinctly stood out. While the mob targeted every Sikh in sight, from the first citizen, the then president Jail Singh, to the last man standing (the poor refugees still living in post-Partition resettlement colonies), there were stark differences in the governmental responses to the respective incidents of violence. Singh was saved by his personal bodyguards, while as per government records, around 3,000 people, mostly Sikh refugees, were systematically butchered. Yet Delhi police stood as a mute spectator, openly shielding and staging the killings of turban-wearers in the city for over three days (31 October – 3 November 1984).

‘I was at AIIMS, when the cavalcade of Jail Singh reached the hospital to see the body of Indira Gandhi at around 4.45 pm on 31 October, 1984. The windowpanes of the president’s official car were smashed and one of his bodyguards received head injuries. I managed to take their pictures,’ said Ashok Vahie (65), veteran photo journalist, as he showed this reporter some of the haunting images. Vahie was then a Press Information Bureau photojournalist. The first person account of this incident was recorded by Tarlochan Singh, the then press secretary of the president, before GT Nanavati Commission in 2002. ‘None of the armed miscreants, who dared to attack the first citizen of the country, was apprehended,’ submitted Tarlochan Singh to the commission. Then police commissioner of Delhi, Subhash Tondon, submitted his statement to the commission on 23 April, 2002, ‘I had instructed Chandra Prakash, DCP of the area, as I had not witnessed the attack. I did not ask him thereafter as to who the assailants were,’ This passing of the buck and one-line phrase, ‘I could do nothing,’ is the common rejoinder uniting almost every senior police officer of Delhi police before the 18 commissions and committees constituted to probe the riots so far.

Soon, former president Singh was forced to turn away from AIIMS by the mob, where huge number of police and paramilitary forces were deployed. ‘This incident reveals that why the calls of the president, who is the titular head of state, the first citizen and the supreme commander of armed forces, were not answered. Why he could do nothing but kept helplessly calling the prime minister’s office (PMO), police, and the lieutenant governor till his phone went out of order,’ said Gurucharan Singh Babbar, then freelance journalist and now editor-in-chief of The Sikh Times. The attack on the cavalcade of the president took place near Kamal Cinema intersection, about a kilometre from AIIMS. While the car in which he was travelling escaped unscathed, the car at the end of the cavalcade and one of his security guards was injured, says eminent lawyer HS Phoolka in his book When a Tree Shook Delhi. The miscreants tried to set it on fire by flinging torches inside the car through its broken windows. Almost all the cabinet ministers of the central government, Delhi police commissioner, senior Congress leaders, including Rajeev Gandhi, along with police and paramilitary forces were present at AIIMS on 31 October 1984.

Incidentally, after the attack on the president a mob of around 25 persons gathered at AIIMS circle and started torching vehicles of Sikhs and their shops. Vahie also showed the photo that he had clicked of the first mob that assembled at the AIIMS circle. ‘Some incidences of violence were reported in the city but they were not organised and killings were not reported till this mob spread in three directions with full support of the police and engaged in arson and rioting,’ said Phoolka. He supported his claim with call records made to the fire brigade as police stations themselves didn’t maintain records of the calls made to them. The records show that the first call made to police fire department came at 5.32 pm on 31 October. ‘The mob did not allow the fire to be extinguished,’ said the fire department record, according to which the mob at AIIMS gradually swelled and proceeded towards three directions – Defence Colony, RK Puram and Prithvi Raj Road. A total of 24 calls are mentioned in the records of fire department till 9 pm on that day. Testifying before the Nanawati Commission Jagjit Singh, an activist of the trade union wing of the ruling Congress, said, ‘A little before the attack on the president, several leaders of the ruling Congress such as HKL Bhagat, Lali Maken, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Das Shastri and Ajay Dass left AIIMS in quick succession within a span of ten minutes.’ It is these leaders who are blamed for staging the killings of the Sikhs, and except for Sajjan Kumar who is still under trial, the rest have died their natural deaths.

‘A mob came, looted and torched our shops in Mukherjee Nagar. We rushed to police but then ACP of the area, Sandeep Kashyap, ordered the policemen to beat me and other youths who were present. We were then packed into a bus, but a Hindu advocate who was our family friend, saved me from their clutches,’ said Babek Singh Matta, who was 22 years old then. ‘They were not locals, but were brought in vehicles from elsewhere. We were looted, our relatives murdered in full public view. The police kept provoking them,’ he added. Amid such lawlessness, the only turban-wearing Sikh who was not attacked was Buta Singh. Incidentally, in almost all the pictures clicked by Vahie, he is seen standing beside the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Not surprisingly, he has never been quoted by any inquiry commission over making frantic calls to the police to save any member of his family or community.

What SIT must look for?
For many, the decision of Delhi government to set up a special investigation team (SIT) to look into the 1984 riots 30 years after they took place, appears to be a futile exercise. But the man who first raised his voice publicly demanding justice, Gurucharan Singh Babbar, and the legal eagle HS Phoolka rubbish these arguments. ‘The evidence is scattered everywhere and we are still waiting for an impartial investigative team like SIT to collect it,’ contended the duo. Let’s present the evidence on which the Sikhs are banking even after 30 years of the most horrific riots of independent India.
The first line of clinching evidence hides behind the blank papers of daily police diary of almost all the 63 police stations in Delhi. They are sufficient to nail the station house officers (SHOs) of those police stations and put them behind bars. For instance, Nanawati Commission reported that 341 persons were killed and several shops and premises were burnt in Palam Colony police station. But the police record doesn’t mention even a single case of death or arson. ‘The then SHO and police personnel must be asked where those bodies have gone. Why they did not mention the records of dead bodies? Why their post-mortem was not conducted? How were they disposed of?’ asked Babbar. As this reporter was putting these questions before Phoolka, he candidly admitted it was a new point and asked his assistant to bring a copy of the Indian Penal Code. ‘These police officers must be tried under section 201 of IPC for destruction of evidence which gives a punishment of up to seven years for destruction of evidence,’ said Phoolka, directing his assistant to include this point in the terms of reference for the proposed SIT. Phoolka is the man to draft the terms of reference for the SIT being set up by Delhi government. Furthermore, section 297 of IPC makes a provision of up to one-year imprisonment plus fine for showing disrespect to dead bodies and denying them final rites as per their religious rituals. ‘Even the terrorists who were killed in the attack on Parliament were buried after their final rites as per their religion. But people killed during 1984 riots were treated worse than animals,’ said Babbar.
In reply to an RTI query by Babbar, DCP North District, Delhi police replied on 5 March, 2010, that the area had three police stations during 1984 riots and total 20 dead bodies were recovered. 

Three dead bodies were recovered in Bara Hindu Rao police station area and 17 in Sabji Mandi, while not a single body was found in Sadar Bazar area, states the RTI reply. Out of the three bodies recovered by BH Rao police, two were identified and handed over to their relatives after post-mortem in Civil Hospital and all were buried with the help of an NGO Sewa Samiti at Shanti Van cremation ground. The identified victims, Surjeet Singh and Jagdish, were among the few lucky Sikhs to get their final rites as per their religion but the bodies of most of the Sikhs were treated worse than dead animals, added Babbar. ‘The police did not maintain their records to address the calls of rioting in the area. Their records are blank,’ said Ved Prakash Marwah who succeeded Tondon to become Delhi’s police chief. ‘Please don’t irritate me, I don’t want to talk to you,’ replied Marwah when this reporter tried to pose some questions on who had asked him to stop the investigation into the riots. But it’s very clear if the SIT shows the courage to put forward some ‘irritating’ questions to all the police officers, SHOs, ACPs, DCPs posted in the city during the riots, who are still alive, truth will start tumbling out of the closet.

However, most of the files relating to riots have been destroyed but a lot of evidence is still buried in reports of various committees and commissions in the form of statements and annexes. ‘Most officers involved in the riots are either drawing pensions but some are still in service of Delhi police,’ said Babbar, handing over a list of 72 police personnel, from DCP to constables, who were found guilty by an inquiry committee, but no action was taken against them so far. It’s surprising that Delhi police, despite having a majority of Punjabi police officers at the helm when the riots happened, Delhi CP Tondon, ACP Ved Marwah who succeeded Tondon, DCP Ajay Chadda, besides lieutenant governor, PG Gavai, did nothing to bring the culprits to book. The list of 72 complicit officers identified by Kusum Mittal Committee also has a good number of Punjabi names at DCP, ACP and inspector levels. 
Three of the five politicians alleged to have staged the massacre were Pubjabis – Lalit Maken, Jagdish Tytler, and HKL Bhagat. Only Sajjan Kumar and Dharam Das Shashtri were locals. This is a tragedy of Delhi that has waited three decades for a closure. Hope the SIT helps heal the old wounds.
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