Revisiting 1984 Riots

A few Pages from the old Diary

Sumanta Banerjee

Delhi, November 1
I'm woken up by a phone call from Aloke Mukhopadhya… a one-time radical student activist from the Calcutta of the late 1960s. He's now in Delhi heading an NGO called the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), providing medical care for the poor.

But now, he sounds terribly agitated on the phone, tells me of the massacre of Sikhs all over Delhi, and asks me to get ready in an hour: "I'm going to fetch you from your flat in Press Enclave in my jeep…and we'll be joined by Dinesh Mohan, Tapan Bose, Nandita Haksar, Rita Manchanda and other friends of yours…We have to go around and see what's happening…"

Aloke picks me up from my flat…and accompanied by other friends, we move through the city. We stop first at our friend Baljit Malik's house on Bhagwandas Road, to see if he's safe–because he is a Sikh. He comes out, but stops behind the barred gates of his bungalow, and waves us to assure us. But a band of rowdies on the opposite pavement jeers at us for talking to a Sikh..

We hurriedly organise a peace procession…calling friends from different parts of the city…and move towards Lajpat Nagar. We see young hooligans armed with swords, daggers, spears, steel trishuls and iron rods, ruling the roads, and looting shops of Sikhs. As we approach the Lajpat Nagar main market, a police inspector gets down from a van and stops our procession. He tells us that we can't proceed since the city is under curfew and Section 144. When we want to know from him why he's not dispersing the armed mob if curfew is on, he avoids replying , and tells us instead , that we can go to the market at our own risk… We move forward…

November 2, Friday
A day of meetings and peace processions…We frantically move from one place to another…visiting MPs, political leaders, government officers, pleading with them to take steps to stop the killings and arson, to bring in the army to put down the rioters…Our peace procession is joined by a few Opposition leaders from the socialist fold …Surendra Mohan, George Fernandes, and the rebel Arya Samaj monk Swami Agnivesh… We raise the slogan: "Hindu-Sikh bhai bhai", and we are confronted by a menacing crowd shouting: "Indira Gandhi Zindabad! Hindu-Hindu bhai bhai !" Swami Agnivesh steps out from our procession, and challenges the crowd , asking them -aren't they ashamed of their murderous behavior while claiming to be Hindus ? Faced with the sannyasi clad in saffron robes, the hoodlums retreat.

November 3, Saturday
Today is Mrs Indira Gandhi's funeral. The procession bearing her body will start from Teen Murti at 12.30 p.m. for Shanti Van where the funeral pyre will be lit at 4 p.m. Before all the paraphernalia begins, early in the morning, Aloke drives me in his jeep, followed by Dinesh, Nandita, Rita and others in their cars, beyond the Jamuna–the river which splits Delhi into two different parts–to a different world…

It's called the Trans-Jamuna area, dotted by colonies…. Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Mangolpuri... colonies which we had heard about from a distance, but never set our foot on… They have now captured newspaper headlines because of the mass killing of Sikhs there…

As we enter Block 32 of Trilokpuri, we are greeted by a strong stench of burnt bodies which are still rotting inside some of the houses. The entire lane is littered with burnt pieces of furniture, papers, scooters and piles of ash in the shape of human beings…dogs are on the prowl…

Our priority is to rescue those who are still surviving in those houses. Nandita Haksar leads us. A police constable comes us and threatens our friend Dinesh Mohan directing his rifle at him. Nandita immediately steps in, shouting at the constable, reminding him that she's a lawyer and starts quoting in English the clauses of the Indian Penal Code. The constable, flabbergasted by Nandita's torrent of legal expletives, gives way… allowing us to enter the slums and rescue the survivors!

We return from the funeral pyres of Sikhs of Trans-Jamuna to a capital preparing for the ceremonial funeral of a prime minister....We huddle together and plan the next course of action–first, how to rescue the Sikh families who are still alive and trapped in the Trans-Jamuna colonies and other areas of Delhi; second, how to compel the administration to suppress the rioters. We go to the house of the Janata Party leader Chandrasekhar, and request him to lead us in a deputation to appeal to the new prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to put a stop to the carnage. The Chandrasekhar, whom I used to know in the late 1960s as a rebel Congressman, a Young Turk in the Congress party, today turns out to be a funk. He dismisses us by folding his hands and pleading: "I cannot do it. I don't want to be accused of ruining the late Prime Minister's funeral."

Finally, we gather at the Lajpat Bhawan grounds near Lady Sri Ram College, and decide to set up our own network …Nagrik Ekta Manch (Citizens' United Forum), organizing relief for the survivors… and linking human rights groups like the PUDR (People's Union for Democratic Rights) and PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) to prepare a report and track down the culprits who organized the genocide….

November-end, 1984, Delhi
At a press conference in Delhi, we release our report entitled 'Who Are the Guilty?' describing the anti-Sikh genocide, and naming the Congress leaders who presided over it. It is well-attended by reporters of the mainstream press–but the next morning we find that our report has been totally blacked out from the newspapers. So much for press freedom under the Rajiv Gandhi regime!

Another Saturday…. Dehradun, March 16, 2002
I'm on my desk top computer this time… in our village home in Dehradun…far away from the riots in Gujarat, about which I'm writing an article for ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY….. But though far away, both in space and time, the script is the same… the same characters, scenes and events that occupied the scenario of Delhi in November, eighteen years ago. The characters are familiar … arsonists and killers, armed with swords and guns, but this time with a different target: the Muslims… and with a different slogan: 'Narendra Modi zindabad !'… The scenes are a replica of the Trans-Jamuna colony massacre of November 1984…the `banality of evil,' as Hannah Arendt described the age old tradition of mass killings…the same sadistic pleasure of the killers in setting their victims on fire and watching them suffer…followed by the same spree of looting by the respectable middle class men and women who gather on the scene after the killing… After scratching my head for a suitable title for my article on Gujarat, I finally settle down on "When the 'Silent Majority' Backs a 'Violent Minority'."

April 20, Saturday, 2002
It's more than a month now after the Gujarat carnage…. But nothing moves the conscience of our polity… or citizens.

"April is the cruellest month." But what sort of lilacs am I breeding from the dead land?

May, 2002
Finally, a chance to visit Gujarat… As usual, investigating the aftermath of the bloodbath (…what intrigues me is that human rights activists like us who arrive on the scene much later, have always escaped the direct assaults suffered by the victims…can we ever share their sufferings?) …We meet the refugees in the camps….listen to the survivors narrating their nightmares… echoes of the same voices that I heard in 1984, from Bhogal, Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri….

Hyderabad, December 2019–February 2020
Now that I live in Hyderabad , my only association with Delhi is through newspapers and TV channels. Since December 15 last year, I've been reading with growing interest, reports about the women's sit-in at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi in protest against the (CAA) Citizenship Amendment Act, and watching the face of the octogenarian Bilkis Dadi leading the 'dharna', her smile breaking out from her wrinkles. It has begun to attract hundreds of men and women from all communities to congregate over there during the last two months. I am feeling enervated. Delhi's citizens are rising up against the Modi regime, while their government run by Arvind Kejriwal is cowering under it!

February 23, 2020
I'm alarmed by a news report of a speech by the BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who is urging his followers to forcibly remove the anti-CAA protestors from Shaheen Bagh.

February 24, 2020
I hear news of Hindu mobsters attacking and killing Muslims in north-east Delhi.

February 27, 2020
For the last three days, I have been reading newspapers, and looking at TV visuals… hearing Hindu mobs raising slogans "Har Har Modi!… Modi-ji, kaat do in mullon ko" (cut those Muslims into pieces).

How long, oh how long, can I continue to listen to these murderous voices…. reverberating from the streets of Delhi of 1984, and the slums of Gujarat of 2002?

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020