Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards on Oct.31, 1984. I was an 11-year-old schoolgirl in New Delhi. When the news trickled in, we were let off early from school. My sister and I walked home, where I promptly dived into an Enid Blyton book, and a lunch of aloo parathas and mango pickle. It is strange how these small details get etched in one’s mind when we often have lost more meaningful memories. As the day wore on, we heard that she had succumbed to her wounds. The evening news confirmed what everyone knew by then. The analysis of her controversial political career began, and for many, it was also a time for mourning. The backlash against the Sikhs had started brewing.
In those days, home was a central government colony in R.K. Puram. Our colony was two rows of flats facing each other with a small maidan in between. The colony was a microcosm of India; Punjabis, Telugus, Marwaris, UPiites, Malayalis, Tamilians, Bengalis – all co-existed peacefully, the children getting together every evening to play in the maidan. From learning to cycle (on a milkman’s unwieldy cycle), to playing hockey, and hopscotch, we kids tried everything together, sans hovering moms.
In any case, my mother with her brood of three kids, and a husband, who was always away on work, had no time to track us. During the cold winter months, we would come back from school to find the colony ladies sitting in the sun on string charpoys, knitting furiously, gossiping gaily. My mother was never a part of that, and sometimes I used to wonder why. I have realised today that both my parents were complete misfits in that government colony in Delhi, where we kids were very much at home. They were from Kerala, on the extreme south of the Indian peninsula, extremely well-read, their cultural moorings as different from Delhi as it was possible to imagine. Mismanagement of properties by family members had ensured that my father turned away from it all in disgust. It was my father’s stubbornness at holding down a cop’s job, which had landed my parents and us, in distant Delhi, where the weather and culture, were both so very alien.
Our neighbours in that colony often changed. Occasionally, there were those who refused to move even after retirement. They were given many notices and then forcibly evicted, all their belongings – furniture, vessels, mattresses, thrown out on the road along with the people. The kids watched wide-eyed but unperturbed. I like to think that these incidents in a way prepared us for what was to come after Mrs. Gandhi died.
The rumours started gradually. Like straws in the wind, they came into view and gently drifted away. Sikh bodyguards had shot Indira Gandhi, so the Hindus were taking revenge, the rumours said. We heard the adults talk about Sikh neighbourhoods and shops being ravaged. We heard about large-scale looting in the markets. No one believed them. But it was fear-mingled disbelief because we also heard that the Sikhs were taking revenge.
The Sikh community was omnipresent in Delhi. But during the time that Jarnail Bhindranwale held sway over the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, people had started looking at them with different eyes. We reveled in words like ‘mono sardar’ to denote Sikh men who had cut off their tresses, indicating that it had been done out of fear. My father, who was a CBI sleuth, used to visit Punjab to investigate cases often, in those days. If you remember, terrorism was rampant in Punjab in the early 1980s. Father would return from his long absences to tell us about Hindu families with Sikh kids, and of a gentle, Sikh daaba owner who used to keep his eatery open well into midnight so that my father and his colleagues would not miss dinner. ‘He slices extra malai (cream) and drops it into our lassi, my father would say appreciatively, while we kids would feel nauseous at the thought of that malai. My father was a tall, impressive figure of a man, and he used to tell us how he towered conspicuously above the devotees in the Golden Temple. I imagine, he with his cropped hair, must have stood out like a sore thumb – a Hindu – in that fast-festering environment.
But Bhindranwale was the one who caught our morbid imagination. We traded gory, imaginary details about the fate of Hindus caught by Bhindranwale and kept to be tortured in the Golden Temple. Yet, that didn’t colour our views about the Sikhs living with us and the Sikh children playing with us. Kids have the amazing ability to compartmentalise their lives.
When Operation Blue Star happened, and the Golden Temple was badly damaged in the crossfire between the militants and the Indian Army, there was widespread anger and disbelief among the Sikhs in Delhi. Mrs. Gandhi became instantly unpopular, and in a way, her assassination was almost inevitable. But what the Sikh community may not have expected was the brutal backlash against them in Delhi after her assassination.
That particular day is seared into my memory. Our colony had a market attached to it, as is the norm in Delhi. The market had all possible shops, including a Mother Dairy milk vending outlet, clothes stores, stationery shops, provisions stores, an electronics store, small daabas, and a very popular shop selling piping hot samosas and jalebis. Many of those stores and daabas were owned by Sikhs.
Mrs. Gandhi’s funeral was still a day or two away. That day, groups of people were talking furtively in our maidan. Many apprehensive glances were being thrown in the direction of the market. Something was surely afoot. A while later, I was leaning out of the balcony and saw a couple of men staggering out from the direction of the market carrying something heavy. A closer look revealed it to be TV sets! Just as I was wondering about it, a few more emerged, with clothes, pressure cookers, and more TV sets. Some of them were hollering, whooping, and running like the very devil was chasing them. Mobs, even small ones, acquire maniacal strength, and they collectively, even if only temporarily, lose their conscience and goodness. With horror I realised, these people were taking away looted goods. A chill ran up my spine at the thought that shops we patronised were being looted and vandalised. Unsettling noises from the market rent the air through that day. What if the mob decided to turn on the residents randomly? I was paralysed with fear. My father wasn’t around. I don’t recall seeing any policemen around, either. Did anyone try to call the police and report this vandalism? I don’t know. But I do know that the general, and oft-expressed feeling was, “Let the Sikhs pay. Didn’t they distribute sweets at news of Mrs.Gandhi’s death?”
By evening the Hindus in our colony started spreading rumours of truckloads of Sikhs coming our way, seeking vengeance. It was said they would poison the water tanks. It was said they would cut off heads with their kirpans. Rumour fed on rumour, fear gorged on fear. All the adults gathered, and strategies were planned. In the event of an attack, women and children it was decided, would take shelter in the first-floor flats and terraces, while men would patrol the colony. Someone suggested that chilli powder in mass quantities could be kept ready to counter the attackers. We listened to all this planning, shocked. I remember a spidery web of fear spreading inside me. The adults were too stressed and preoccupied to notice that children were actively eavesdropping. We looked at each other in utter terror.
Night came and went. The men patrolled the colony in turns, but no Sikh mobs came to our colony, not then, not later. It was just rumours. The looting of the Sikh shops continued through the next day, till there was nothing left of their shops. The losses the community suffered, the trauma they went through, the rest of us and the Indian state have a lot to answer for. I, for my part, am selfishly thankful that I didn’t see anyone being burnt or killed, only shops being looted, which was traumatic enough. More than 300 Sikhs – men, women and children were butchered in Trilokpuri Colony, while many more hundreds were slaughtered across rest of Delhi. The miasma of fear that hung about our colony and indeed, the rest of the city, must have been a nightmare for the Sikh community, and I wonder how, and if, they ever got over it. It was, and is, one of the most damnable chapters in our post-Independence history.
Slowly, things settled down, as they must. India’s love affair with the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, began. I remember my friends and I sending a long letter to the Prime Minister’s office, which ended with us requesting him for an autographed photo of his family! Of course, we didn’t get a reply, not even an acknowledgment, which rankled for a while. India’s obsession for Rajiv too did not last, but he did give us a great sense of hope, and new beginnings. Though, even he never attempted to ease the burden of what the Sikh community faced on those cataclysmic days.