A Darkness Unforgotten
As charred bodies lay in hundreds, it was the utter silence that was haunting
The Denial of party election tickets to Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar is little recompense to the over 3,000 Sikhs who died in the pogrom following then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984. The wave of ethnic cleansing that raged unchecked for nearly three days across the country after Mrs Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31 ended in Delhi only with her funeral, the state’s crazed blood lust satiated at last.
Whilst unbridled chaos and mayhem spread unchecked across the Capital, the casual slaughter of some 350 Sikhs, including women and children in the trans-Yamuna Trilokpuri resettlement colony, was without doubt the most brutal. The charred and hacked remains of the hundreds that perished in Trilokpuri’s Block 32 on a smoky and dank November 2 evening bore silent testimony to an unbelievable orgy of slaughter which, over two decades later, still haunts my memories. Time has not made them fade.
The massacre took place in two narrow alleyways not more than 150 yards long, with one-roomed tenements on either side. It lasted over 48 hours, with the murderers — who go unpunished to this day — even taking breaks for meals before returning to resume their mad slaughter.
Both lanes were littered with bodies with body parts and hair brutally hacked off, forcing people to walk on tiptoe. It was impossible to place one’s foot fully on the ground for one would step on either a hacked limb or a dead person.
The entire area was awash with blood, some liquid, some clotted. Blood-gorged flies buzzed lazily, sated. The blood did not flow down the drains, as they too were now choked with human body parts.
It all began on the morning of November 2 around 11.30 am when my colleague from Indian Express, Joseph Maliakan, and I heard of the Trilokpuri massacre — then ongoing — from Mohan Singh who had shaved his head and face only hours before to save himself and had fled, taking refuge in our office canteen. A dazed Singh, who had somehow managed to escape the pogrom under cover of darkness, blandly told us that 300 Sikhs had been killed in Trilokpuri’s Block 32. These houses, we learnt later, were occupied by poor, low-caste Sikhs who wove string beds.
Shortly after, along with Maliakan and Alok Tomar of Jansatta, I rushed to Trilokpuri and, on arrival at the re-settlement colony — which was established by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency in the mid-1970s — found the entrance blocked by massive concrete pipes, with lathiwielding men atop them.
At about 300 yards from Block 32, we found our path blocked by a huge mob. Before we could reach them, two policemen astride a motorcycle burst through the crowd, coming from the direction we were headed. We flagged the motorcycle to a halt and asked the head constable driving it whether any killings had taken place in Block 32.
Smiling sardonically he told us that “shanti” (peace) prevailed. On persistent questioning, he admitted that two people had been killed in Block 32. As we proceeded down the narrow road towards Block 32, our car was blocked by the mob. It turned nasty and began stoning us. A spokesman for the crowd, a short, vicious looking man dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, told us to leave or be prepared to “face the consequences”. Block 32 was out of bounds, he said flatly.
Hurriedly backing out under a barrage of rocks, we headed for the nearby Kalyanpuri police station and asked the duty officer whether any trouble had been reported from Trilokpuri’s Block 32. He too echoed what his motorcycleborne colleagues had said, that the area was calm, that shanti prevailed and that no deaths had been reported from the police station’s area of responsibility.
A truck parked nearby attracted our attention. On closer inspection we found three charred bodies in the back and a half-burnt Sikh youngster lying on top, still alive. In his quasiconscious state the man told us he was from Punjab and had come visiting relatives in Trilokpuri. He said that a few hours earlier, a rampaging mob armed with lathis and machetes had killed his hosts and set him on fire after dousing his body with kerosene. He had been brought to the police station, placed on top of the dead bodies, and had lain there for the past six hours. He died a horrible death soon after, we later learnt.
When the three bodies in the truck and the grievously burnt yet still living Sikh were pointed out to the station duty officer, he denied all knowledge of them, saying they would be dealt with by “Saheb”, the Station House Officer, who was “away in Delhi on routine business and would return later in the evening”.
Desperate to get help, we combed the area and were met by an army patrol commanded by a Sikh colonel, part of the detail summoned from Meerut to bolster civil authority who assured us that he would dispatch help to the beleaguered Block 32. We returned to Block 32 only to discover that no troops had arrived.
Later we came to know that though the army had officially been summoned a day after Mrs Gandhi’s killing to maintain order, it was merely token deployment as none of the units summoned from cantonments around the Capital were provided necessary help, guidance or logistical direction by the local authorities.
The army was not issued shoot-to-kill orders to quell the blood-thirsty mobs till after Mrs Gandhi’s funeral pyre was lit on November 3, despite claims to the contrary by officials, which were dutifully headlined by newspapers.
Once those orders were given, the army restored order within hours, although for many days there were cases we investigated which revealed that the local authorities had deliberately concealed reports of pockets of Sikh refugees still fighting for survival across many east Delhi neighbourhoods.
After pleading in vain with many military convoys to intercede and stop the Trilokpuri killings, we arrived at the Police Headquarters around 5 pm and informed Additional Commissioner of Police Nikhil Kumar (who later retired as head of the National Security Guard) of the goings-on in the east Delhi colony.
To our chagrin and amazement, he asserted that he was a “mere guest artist” at Police Headquarters and only tasked with manning Commissioner SC Tandon’s telephone line. All our pleadings to Kumar — now an MP from Bihar — to do something about the Trilokpuri killings were insouciantly brushed off. Other senior police officers including those in charge of the Trilokpuri district also expressed indifference and their inability to help.
On returning to Trilokpuri an hour later in the darkness we found the local Station House Officer and two constables surveying the sea of dead Sikh bodies, surrounded by thousands of people.
The most frightening part, the part that still sends a chill up my spine after 25 years, was the pall of utter silence that shrouded the area.
NOT A sound emanated from anyone as, by the light of a few hurricane lanterns, we walked dazed and wordlessly down the alleyway littered with bodies. Halfway down was a young polio-afflicted woman holding a child in dumb silence, all emotion drained from her. Her blank, uncomprehending eyes looked at us sightlessly in what we took to be a plea for help. Quietly, we lifted her and the child and handed them over to the police party, never to see them again.
In darkness, a three-year-old girl, stepping over the bodies of her father and three brothers, said quietly, ‘Please take me home’
A faint whimper from inside the same house led us to a young Sikh whose stomach had been slashed open two days earlier. He had managed somehow to tie a turban around his gaping wound, crawl under a pile of bodies and survive. All that the handsome scooter rickshaw driver wanted was water. He died hours later before he could reach a hospital.
A three-year old girl, stepping over the bodies of her father and three brothers amid countless others lying in the street clung helplessly to one of us, pleading for help. “Please take me home,” she quietly said, standing knee-deep in corpses in what was the only room of her house.
Police arrived in force more than 24 hours after the Trilokpuri massacre was revealed by the Indian Express on November 3, the day of Mrs Gandhi’s funeral.
By the time they got there, there was nothing to protect. And no one.
In the 25 years since then, we eyewitnesses deposed before innumerable inquiry commissions, culminating with the one headed by Justice Nanavati. However, not one of those really guilty ever ended up being punished for the state-sanctioned pogrom of 1984.