The cycle stands have gone, the boundary walls are higher and new buildings have sprouted on what used to be open spaces. The only remaining evidence of the mob violence here 30 years ago is a star-shaped crack on the marble surface of a sidewall, made by bullets fired by Indian security personnel into Delhi’s Gurudwara Rakabganj on 1 November 1984.
On that day, a large mob of men gathered outside the Gurudwara to avenge the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, chief of the Congress party. She had been gunned down at her residence by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31. Spontaneous attacks on Sikhs started that same evening: some were beaten in the streets, some had their vehicles and shops attacked. Eyewitnesses state that Congress Party leaders and workers instigated several attacks in the city. In the subsequent three-day spree of mob beatings and burnings that followed the assassination, around 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone.
On a recent warm afternoon, Mukhtiar Singh stared thoughtfully at the white boundary wall of the Gurudwara that has been his home for most of his adult life. In 1983, Singh had taken up a clerical job at the nearby Gurudwara Bangla Sahib while he lived in Gurudwara Rakabganj. Today, he is an official in charge of providing religious information about the Sikh faith at Gurudwara Rakabganj. I found him sitting at his desk in a room called the “Kakkar Store” in the Gurudwara complex. Besides his job as the information manager, he appeared to be the go-to guy at the Gurudwara – his mobile phone kept buzzing with a torrent of queries ranging from the delivery of furniture to the number of swords for sale.
When I first asked him about the 1984 genocide, he politely but firmly refused to have the “same old conversation” which he described as “pointless”. “Look, you’ve come here to write a story. Now supposing you do all the work and then your editor tells you that it won’t run, then won’t you think many times before making the same effort again?” he asked. “I can keep talking about the riots but there will be no action taken in India.”
Some of the Sikh women working in the office also rebuked me for asking Singh to relive his old memories. The media, they said, had reported the story several times but no powerful person had gone to jail in the past three decades.
Eventually, Singh agreed to take a few minutes off from his continuously ringing mobile phone, and he tried to piece together a 30-year-old memory.
Singh is 57 years old now. As a 27-year-old, he had guarded the Gurudwara’s white boundary wall on that November day. “The wall was about four feet and there were none of these rods sticking up,” he said. “It sounds funny now but we could see their faces across the wall and they could see us the whole time.”
Dressed in a crisp blue shirt with neatly ironed pants, Singh agreed to pose for a photograph near the wall. “I’ve not come here [to the wall] for a long time,” he said while examining his own dapper image in my camera.
There is one other new thing here: a blue and white hoarding in the middle of the gurudwara complex marks the “site for November 1984 Sikh genocide memorial” and reads: “Token of remembrance, dedicated to November 1984 brothers, who had been killed and also the good Samaritans who risked their lives to save innocents in this genocide in Delhi and across India.”
Officials of the Gurudwara said that they had been seeking land to build a public memorial for the past 20 years from the Congress government. A decision was reached by the municipal corporation of Delhi to allocate land in a park in the Punjabi Bagh neighbourhood, but the state government postponed it. They finally grew tried of waiting for permission.
Gurudwara Rakabganj was chosen because it has the most space in Delhi for a memorial, which the management plans to build in the next six months.
Two Sikh men were killed at Gurudwara Rakabganj in the siege 30 years ago. Though many more were killed elsewhere, the attack here was stunning because of its location: its imposing marble structure is not tucked away in an obscure bylane of Delhi’s vast underbelly, which might have explained the police’s absence or the delayed response. The Gurudwara, one of the most for Sikhs in Delhi, with a history dating back to the 17th century, is situated near the Parliament and is about a kilometre-and-a-half away from the President of India’s house.
Singh had testified against Congress leaders Kamal Nath and Vasant Sathe about their , but the Nanavati Commission, instituted in 2000 to investigate the 1984 massacre, did not find enough evidence to recommend a police investigation against them in its 2005 report. Singh, whose testimony was not considered reliable by the commission, said that he has been repeating his story for the past few decades.
“Which country and which law takes such a long time to prosecute crimes, which were committed in broad daylight?” asks Singh. “After 30 years, all the riots have been reduced to is to give political benefit. When the BJP wants votes it will say that the Congress is to blame. One faction of Sikhs say that Congress is to blame while others says no. Who is talking in favour of India and for humanity?”
On the morning of 1 November 1984, Singh was among a handful of young Sikh men who took it upon themselves to guard the Gurudwara, where, he said, around 200 to 300 civilians were trapped because of the mob surrounding the Gurudwara. They were mostly family workers of the staffers and those who had come to pray in the morning.
Several mourners, heading to Teen Murti Bhawan to pay their last respects to the late prime minister, were crossing the Gurudwara on November 1. The mob around the Gurudwara began to swell after 10am. The men outside had stones and the Sikhs inside had stones and swords. When the mob broke down one wall of the Gurudwara around 11am, Singh and the others drove them out with stones.
“They came inside but we pushed them out again. Then, they dispersed and it was quiet for an hour. There was a road construction going on so they had plenty of stones. But we were quickly running out,” he said. “We were planning and thinking all the time what next…what next…how will we keep them out. We were prepared to fight to protect our home.”
Shortly after noon, Singh tried to stop an elderly father and his son, who looked like he was in his mid-twenties, from going outside to try and pacify the crowd. They were both burnt alive by the mob as Singh looked on helplessly.
“He went out in good faith to ask them to calm down. But they beat up that old man and someone put white powder on him. He began to burn. How could a son not rush out to save his father when he sees him burning? They beat him and burned him as well,” he said.
Singh said that he and a few others brought the bodies of the two men inside the Gurudwara. “I remember that the old man was half-burned withina minute or a minute-and-a-half of the white powder touching him. They were both suffering but they could not get any medical support. The father died first and then his son went two hours later,” he said.
The Sikh men moved to roll up the carpets and take down the drapes to reduce the chances of a fire spreading in the Gurudwara. When the mob just kept growing, Singh said that they decided to bring out the one gun that was available on the premises. It belonged to Gurdial Singh, the manager of the Gurudwara at the time. They fired into the air to scare off the crowd, which retreated on hearing the gunfire.
Singh said that they had to create the illusion of having several guns to keep the mob at bay. The young men stuck iron pipes under their shoulders to give the impression that they were gripping guns.
“We made four or five people pose with the iron pipes at different positions. We would shoot in the air from behind them so it would seem that armed men were in many spots,” he said. “We must have fired around 60 to 70 rounds from morning to afternoon. It was a good gun. It saved our lives.”
Singh said that the men inside also had to duck bullets – in response, security personnel stood on the cycle stands outside the boundary wall and began firing inside the Gurudwara.
The Sikh men held off the crowd for four to five hours until around 4pm, before 15 to 20 cars of police personnel arrived to lead the civilians and staffers out of the Gurudwara. “I still remember someone’s voice coming from outside over a loudspeaker [saying] that everyone had to stay in the same spot. If anyone moved then they would be shot.”
Once the Sikhs had been evacuated, the mob seems to have entered the Gurudwara. At the end, he said, the mob approached manager Gurdial Singh’s home, which was on the Gurudwara premises.They broke the locks of his house, hauled out his belongings and set them on fire at the doorstep, but the police did not stop the attack. “They did not hit anyone with their sticks, they did not shoot or say why are you making a ruckus,” he said.
Singh declined to go into too many details about his dealings with the Nanavati Commission, referring me instead to his lawyer. He had accused Vasant Sathe and Kamal Nath of being present in the crowd at Gurudwara Rakabganj. He also told the Commission that.
The Commission’s report said that Sathe had denied being present at the Gurudwara, and that Singh had only mentioned his presence for the first time 16 years after the fact.Singh told me that he recognised Sathe from the television channels, but the Commission concluded that Singh had the “wrong impression” about Sathe’s presence.
The Commission also said that Kamal Nath admitted his presence at the Gurudwara that day but his explanation of what he was doing at the Gurudwara was “vague,” and concluded that Singh was too far away from Nath to hear what the politician was saying to the mob. While the case against Nath hit a dead-end in India, he was by a US federal court in 2011 after the Sikhs for Justice group filed a case against him in New York.
This week, Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan was also by a Los Angeles federal court. The New York- based Sikhs for Justice group has accused Bachchan of raising the slogan “Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” (Blood for blood), calling for revenge after the prime minister was assassinated.
Jagdish Kaur, whose husband and son were killed by a mob, has been a key witness in the 1984 genocide case against Congress leader Sajjan Kumar. Kaur also says she saw Bachchan raise the slogan on television during a live broadcast on 31 October 1984 amidst the mourners around Indira Gandhi’s body at Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhawan.
“I remember that Rajiv Gandhi was standing on one side of her head and he [Bachchan] was on the other. I heard him say loudly ‘Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge’ two times. Some men in the crowd responded by saying ‘Chheetein inke ghar par padenge’ [the drops will fall on their house]. I saw it with my own eyes and I heard it with my own ears,” Kaur told me in a telephone interview.
Bachchan has denied the allegations. He wrote, “The Nehru-Gandhi family and our family have old ties from our city of origin, Allahabad. We have been together in each other’s hour of grief and joy, but to allege that I was a part of the crowd that incited them to raise anti-Sikh slogans is a preposterous and blatant lie.”
Kaur, who now lives in Amritsar, said that pursuing these cases in the United States is not a futile effort. “Anyone who watched Doordarshan that day saw him raising the slogan. But still no one in the country has taken action against him. When you can’t get justice in your own country then you are forced to go before another country and cry about the injustice that you are facing,” she said.
When I asked Mukhtiar Singh if the Sikh community has been able to move on after the genocide, he said, “Time heals wounds. People may want to move on from the terror but they cannot forget the death of their loved ones.”
Even today, 30 years later, he remains emotional and introspective about the genocide. “In America, there are Indians, Germans and French but if you talk to them, they will first say that they are Americans,” he said. “But today we are [still] voting over religion and caste. So how are we Indians?”