|Riots: Delhi, 1984|
There were bursts of violence in different parts of India as news spread of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, on October 31, 1984. But nowhere was the violence as organised and ruthless as in the Capital. In Delhi, the entire Sikh community was targeted and made to pay dearly for the acts of the two who had killed the Congress stalwart and Prime Minister. Thousands of Sikhs lost their lives, homes and means of livelihood in the Delhi riots
Charanjeet Singh was four years old when rioters broke into their home and killed his parents. Hiding under the bed with his brother, sisters and grandmother, he saw his father and mother being beaten mercilessly and burned alive. Today, 19 years later, Charanjeet, 23, and his siblings continue to fight for a normal life in spite of the social, financial and emotional handicaps that life has dealt them
I was just four at the time. We had a large plot of land in Baljeet Nagar, a Sikh colony, and a comfortable house. There was a gurdwara some distance from our house. Most Sikhs in the area lived near it. My earliest memory is of an announcement over loudspeakers: there was trouble in town, those who wanted shelter should rush to the gurdwara. By the time we understood, it was too late to make it to the gurdwara. We were not close enough. The loudspeaker continued to blare out news that Sikhs were being killed. In a panic, my father bolted the door and shut all the windows. He pushed me and my siblings — my elder brother and sister and my infant sister — under the cot. He then tried to fit my mother and grandmother in there as well.
By this time, the rioters had reached our door. Some of them banged violently at the door. Some others, meanwhile, had climbed onto our roof. They broke into our house through the roof. I am not sure, but I think there were four or five of them. They unbolted the door and dragged my father out. We were frozen under the bed, unable to even scream. From where we were, we could see them thrashing him mercilessly, hitting him with stones, and as he lay there bleeding profusely, they poured kerosene on him and set him on fire. He didn’t stand a chance. He was burned alive. I can still see it all as if it had happened just a few hours ago. His blue clothes. The fire. The screaming. My younger sister, mercifully, was too young to know what was happening. But for the rest of us there was no respite. And nothing has changed.
I remember my mother starting to scream from her hiding place. She could not take it any more. The rioters, finished with my father, turned their attention to her. They pulled my mother out by her hair. They beat her and kicked her, and pulled out her hair. Then they set her on fire as well.
Even today, in spite of our best attempts, we have no idea what happened to my parents’ bodies. We do not know if they were cremated or buried.
The world has never been the same for me since. People I trusted, people I called ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, were either actively inciting the attackers or were silent spectators. Once our parents were dead, they ransacked our house and took everything we had. We waited under the bed till things went quiet. A long while later, we left the house, trying to stay out of sight, went to the gurdwara and hid there.
Eventually, my grandmother brought us here after many days in hiding. She never entirely recovered from the shock. Most of the money we got as compensation was spent on her treatment. She was our only surrogate parent, and we don’t know what we would have done without her. She finally passed away in 1998. As long as she was alive, we used to get a pension of Rs 1,000. When she died, even that stopped.
Now, it’s just the four of us. The three of us, actually. We got my elder sister married earlier this year. It was not easy to find a groom who would marry her without a dowry. Finally, we met my brother-in-law and he agreed to marry her, expecting nothing more than the ‘three clothes’ she wore.
The irony of the situation is that all prospective bridegrooms seem to think we have a lot of money. They say, "You got a compensation of Rs 3 lakh. Where is that? We want our wife’s share of that as dowry." They demand refrigerators and motorbikes. Even without a dowry, arranging a marriage is expensive business. We have taken loans of almost Rs 50,000. How are we ever going to pay it back? And there’s still our younger sister, who is now 19. We have to get her married too.
Then there is the cost of our own education. My brother and I have always been reasonably good students and took up private tuition for children when we were very young ourselves so that we could continue our education. I am now a final year undergraduate, and my brother has finished his graduation. Our younger sister is in class twelve. I say this with pride because I see other young men and women our age. They have not been able to cope with what they had to go through. Drug abuse is rampant in our colony. Most young people are not interested in an education. Our elders are all out of home, eking out whatever meagre living they can manage, and most youngsters turn into wastrels.
At the end of the day, we have no guarantee that our education will give us better lives. I cannot escape the feeling that we are branded in some manner, living as we do in Tilak Vihar.
Pappi Kaur and her family had rushed out for safety when they saw the rioters closing in. But the police made them return home. Then she saw her father being dragged out of their home, tortured and burned to death by men who claimed to be avenging the killing of Indira Gandhi. She saw the murderers dilly-dally with her uncle, then burn him too. She was six years old. As they rebuild their lives in the neglected and almost forgotten colony for widows of the 1984 riots, Pappi, 25, cannot help feeling bitter about the administration that let them down twice
I was very young in 1984. But how can I forget the day on which all the men of my family were ruthlessly murdered? At the time, we were staying in Chilla village, near Trilokpuri in east Delhi. My father came back early from work, looking very tense, and told us about the riots in the city, that people were killing Sikhs all over Delhi. But it was not as if he, or the neighbourhood, felt that everything around us would change in the next few hours.
We went up to the terrace and saw that our neighbourhood gurdwara had been set on fire. That was when we felt the first jolt of panic. The rioting was no longer ‘in the city’. It was coming nearer home. We decided to go to the gurdwara to protect it as best as we could. There was my father, his younger brother, my mother and grandmother and we, the children. On our way, we saw hordes of murderous-looking people and fierce fighting. The police stopped us and told us to return home.
We did, but that was a mistake. At home, we were sitting ducks. A mob broke down the wooden door of our house, dragged out all the menfolk one by one, beat them up and then set them on fire.
My father was first. We couldn’t see what happened, because they took him out of the house. Then it was his younger brother. He had shorn his hair. At first, they were willing to let him go. But then they changed their mind, dragged him out again, beat him up and set him on fire as well. The attackers did not even spare my poor old grandmother. They broke her arm and abused her. They told her that she should leave the neighbourhood immediately or they would kill all the children. I can still see their vicious faces. They were shouting, "Tune hamaari maa ko maara hai. Hum tujhe maarenge! You killed our mother (Indira Gandhi), we will kill you!" They put burning tyres around the necks of the Sikhs they were torturing before the slaughter, and shouted, "Dekho sardaar kaise naach rahe hain! Look how the Sikhs are dancing!"
My grandmother and mother ran away with the children. We hid in a wilderness, away from the residential colonies. For three days and nights, we stayed in hiding. On the fourth day, the army came in and took over from the police. That was the first time we felt safe.
Later, we were informed that we would be resettled and awarded compensation. It is true that we were given a one-time compensation. Widows were given jobs, but not near their homes. Their places of work were scattered all over Delhi. And they have to raise their families on the pittance they make in these ‘Class IV’ jobs. There is an area here in Tilak Vihar called the Widows’ Colony. It’s only for the widows of the 1984 riots. That’s where we were shunted. There was no other attempt to reach out to us in any way. Not one leader, from any community or political party, ever comes this way.
At 12, Sarabjeet Singh’s faith in human nature was shattered when he saw his father and uncle being tortured and burned to death by neighbours and friends. Now 31, he is convinced that the riots were planned, not spontaneous, and waits for justice for the murder of his parent and dear ones
I was 12 years old when my father was killed by rioters. We lived in Nangloi colony then. He was out on November 1, 1984 and heard of the riots from people in the streets. He rushed back home and told my mother and her brother about it. My uncle was at our place that day.
We had an auto-rickshaw, and tried to escape in it. We had hardly gone a mile or so when we saw a mob blocking our way. We had no option but to turn back. We rushed back home and shut ourselves in. They surrounded our house. They were calling out my father’s and uncle’s names. We could recognise those voices. These were people we knew and who knew us. It was difficult to believe that they would actually harm us. But they did. They broke down our door and dragged my father and uncle out of the house. One man held my father, while another ripped out his hair and beard. Then they doused him and my uncle with petrol and set fire to them.
The 1984 riots are, as far as I can see, different from all preceding and subsequent communal riots in India. There was no direct clash of people from different communities. The Sikhs were systematically killed in their own homes. The rioters had lists of all the Sikhs in particular areas, and were killing us and ticking off our names from their lists. Neighbours we had grown up with and had absolutely no animosity towards were calling us out by name and killing us.
In the midst of the panic, my mother was preparing to escape with me. I ran to my neighbour’s house. We were very close to them. I wanted them to keep the Guru Granth Sahib safe for me. I told them I would collect it from them later. But then, to my horror, they tore up the Granth Sahib in front of my eyes and urinated on it. But there is a God. Those men are dead today. What we could not do, God did.
I had no choice but to start working when I was just 14. I had to leave school. I drive an auto-rickshaw today. My whole life has been destroyed.
In 1984, thousands were killed to ‘avenge’ the death of one person. What about the murder of all these thousands? Indira Gandhi’s bodyguards were quickly put to death. What about my father’s murderers? In the past 18 years, there have been as many commissions, each one of them an eyewash. What has come of them?
I have only one thing to say: It took Udham Singh 20 years to kill General Dyer and avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. We can wait. We are waiting. That is the way we are.
As told to Ajitha G.S. and Arun Bhanot