1984: October 31 to November 1 Tragedy And More Tragedy
The memory of 1984 riots had been buried under the avalanche of vociferous orchestration of 2002 riots in Gujarat and concerted effort of many to have Narendra Modi indicted for it. In fact the 2002
riots provided a full-time lucrative occupation for some and a cottage industry to many others.
Then suddenly like a revolving door, 1984 riots turned to the front and hit the headlines while 2002 riots were put on hold, all this courtesy Rahul Gandhi. In his much derided interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now, when asked about 1o84 and 2002 riots he said that while the government in 1984 tried its best to curb violence, in 2002 in Gujarat Narendra Modi, then chief minister, abetted and aided the rioters.
I do not know what happened in Gujarat in 2002 as I was not then in India. So one can, neither deny nor endorse Gandhi’s statement. But in 1984, I was here and covering the incidents. It had all begun like this:
At about 10.30 in the morning of October 31, 1984, I heard that three assassins attacked Indira Gandhi. This was flashed on the Hindustan Times Spot News Board. At about 11 am V.S. Tripathi, then Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister Office, called me to telephone Vijay Dhar in Srinagar to come to Delhi immediately. He said there was only one Public Telephone on the ninth floor of the Block in AIIMS—where I presumed Mrs Gandhi was—and no confidential calls could be made. No mobiles were available then. I was Editor Probe and Tripathi asked me to call Dhar as he knew I was close to him and secondly, he trusted me.
I asked my Special Correspondent Naresh Kumar, young, very responsible and wiry, to go to AIIMS and be there to see what was going on. At about 4.30, Kumar called me and in seemingly state of panic said he was calling from a public booth. He said, “Vijay I am rushing home.” Surprised why he was leaving, he replied with greater nervousness, “You don’t know what’s happening. I had gone to South Extension for some snacks. There I saw number of two-wheelers lying on the road, some half burnt and one had a part of turban entangled in the rear wheel.
“And then I looked towards a lane which has shops of electric goods and paints, most belonging to Sikhs and quite a few them were on fire. I can’t risk staying any longer. Sorry, I am going.” He put down the phone.
This is when I received a call from a Sikh caller who said he was in Patel Nagar. “I am calling all newspapers seeking help. Our lives are in danger. My relatives rang up to warn that mobs are moving around burning houses and shops of Sikhs”
I told him to call the police. He said no one is picking up the phone. A neighbour of ours had gone to the police station but except one sentry no one was there. He said he was helpless and couldn’t do anything.”
At about 5.30 I asked my photographer to take a camera and no bag and also asked the Assistant Editor Ajit Parmar to come along with me. “We are going to AIIMS. Let’s see what’s happening. Naresh has gone home, he was in panic.”
I picked the Office car, an Ambassador, although not very old but it was already a vintage jalopy. When we reached South Extension, I realized why Naresh had panicked. From one end to the other end of the shopping buildings, we counted about 20 odd two-wheelers. One helmet with blood spots was lying on the road.
No police patrol car or police officers on motorbikes, were anywhere to be seen. I was amazed that, with so much rioting, no one was around to control the situation or restore law and order.
We looked toward side roads, and in quite a few of them, we could see smoke spiralling upwards. All shops were closed and not a soul was to be seen. The whole area seemed to be a ghost suburb. The uncanny silence was unnerving and I told Parmar “I hope the car’s tyres do not burst.”
We saw a few scooters along the road. But it was all quiet by the time we were at the Institute. The whole area around the Block where Mrs Gandhi was, was cordoned off by a rope. Our cameraman, full of guile which develops in his tribe, suggested that we go to the rear of the Block. I saw one policeman, who seemed half asleep, standing near the cordon.
I told Ajit to move forward with confidence and lift the rope and I would go in. The policeman, half asleep did not stop us, in fact he saluted and we went across to the lawn in front of the Block. There I saw two Congress leaders, whom I did not recognize, they must have been minor ones, positioned there to carry out orders. There were about 10 or 15 urchin looking boys.
By then it was known that Mrs Gandhi had succumbed to the bullet injuries. We did not know what to do so we just strolled around. At about 5.30 or 6.00 pm, we saw President Zail Singh’s car come in. The urchins came alive and as far as I recall, a few small stones were thrown towards the car.
The President returned soon after and we learnt from the news on the car radio, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister.
At about 9pm. Mrs Gandhi’s body was brought down, with Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru and two others whose names I don’t remember. After that we left. Roads were totally deserted and no patrol car was to be seen. It seemed everyone had gone home. But we saw more signs of burning scooters and also saw a burnt car. This time we saw a big television shop in South Extension on fire.
There was an eerie silence all round even while going through past Defence Colony, we did not see any lights in any of the houses. It was on the Moolchand/Greater Kailash flyover we spotted a Fiat car ahead of us and the driver was a Sikh and a lady was sitting by his side. A few boys with some kind of thorny branches were trying to open the door. Noticing us a few ran towards our car and asked us to give some petro so that they could burn some houses and shops. But bless the old jalopy, its meter for petrol remained at zero even if the tank might be full. I told them I have hardly any petrol left and we were not sure if we could reach home. They checked and told us to pass through. AS I started, I told to Ajit signal the Sikh driver to accelerate, just put his foot on the accelature. Luckily, he understood and accelerated. The boys jumped aside and the Fiat was gone.
We wondered from AIIMS to Greater Kailash about eight miles, there was no trace of policemen.
The following morning, we witnessed a bizarre scene. While going to our office, on Tolstoy Marg leading to Barakhamba Road, at the intersection of Janpath and Tolstoy Marg, there were about 20 policemen and a SHO or a sub-inspector. WE saw on the Tolstoy Marg going towards Jantar Mantar, a sikh squatting on the pavement and four men hitting his head with bricks. We pointed this to the officers, who told us to do our work and leave policing to them. On reaching office, I called the police commissioner whose name I don’t remember. He expressed his inability to do anything as he was not able to reach either Fotedar or RK Dhawan.
When I reached home in Greater Kailash-1, I saw everyone from the houses were spilled over on the road. It was past midnight. I saw my landlady’s brother (Hindu) and his wife (Sikh) standing in the first floor balcony. I asked the husband to come down and join me and we would go to the nearby very big Gurudwara. The wife caught hold of her husband and said he won’t go, if you want to die, go.
Anyway I drove there and to my surprise I found a young ACP with about 30 armed policemen. The ACP told me that over 1000 Sikhs were inside and the rumour was that they would attack in retaliation. So they were there. Why didn’t the police save the Sikh who was being badgered on the Tolstoy Marg? The fact is that everyone was in vengeful mood.
A few months later, the late former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar told me that at that time he was just MP and living in South Avenue. Sitting in his hut, he had built, he said “We were all fooled when Rajiv said when a banyan tree falls earth shakes. True Mrs Gandhi was a tall leader. But
later he said we, the seasoned politicians, it dawned on us that while thousands died, there was no curfew imposed, no lathi-charge or tear gas was resorted to.
This I suppose summed up the 1984 riots.
By Vijay Dutt