The scars have dimmed but the memories are vividly etched…
I was a journalist, who had just finished a year’s training at the Times of India and was confirmed as a sub-editor in the Illustrated Weekly of India. My first piece for the magazine was my personal experience. A Sikh and a staffer, I was to share the terror of a train journey on that fateful day.
There was a glint of madness in their eyes and murder etched across their faces. Ominous shouts and cries of ‘Koi Sardar hain? Goli se maar dalenge’ followed. We were all shocked into a state of stunned numbness.
We were a group of 20 Sikhs on our way to Delhi for a wedding. When we had boarded the Deluxe from Kolkata’s Howrah station on October 31, we had never imagined that death and destruction were in store for us.
It was 12.30 pm that we first heard that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been shot by her bodyguards and was in hospital. Our instant reaction was one of disbelief. The confirmed news of Mrs. Gandhi’s tragic assassination reached us over the radio at about 6.30 pm. And it was only then that we learnt that the two assailants were Sikhs. Every passenger irrespective of his religion was in a state of shocked silence. But not one had anticipated the disaster that awaited us at Ghaziabad.
The train reached Ghaziabad, two hours from Delhi at 11 am the next day. That was the beginning of two harrowing hours for us, when we were suspended between life and death. A bloodthirsty mob, almost like a pack of wolves hunting for prey, went from coach to coach in search of Sikhs.
In a frenzy of madness, the mob, armed with iron rods and knives, brutally dragged out Sikhs, burnt their turbans, hacked them to death and threw them across the tracks. Even the old and feeble were not spared. The barbaric mob, totally devoid of rationality, declared that women would be spared. But in what sense were they ‘spared’? What can be more torturous for women than seeing male members of their family brutally killed in front of their eyes?
The only Sardars who were spared were the six of us. And the credit goes to the innate goodness of the passengers in our coach. Before the train even halted at Ghaziabad, the hysterical mob had caught a glimpse of the sex turbaned Sikhs. One of whom was my father.
A fusillade of stones followed and the glass windows were smashed to bits. Shutters were hastily pulled down for protection. The police, we were told, could not control the wild mob and found it easier to turn their backs and walk away.
We had a ladies’ compartment and the other passengers in our coach, realising there was more trouble ahead, suggested that the Sardars in our group occupy it. At first, they were reluctant but we literally forced them in. I could well understand their discomfiture. It was ironic! Sardars who were historically known for their valour now had to protect themselves by hiding in a ladies’ compartment or else become victims of a hysterical horde. My mother and the mother of the bride-to-be were also pushed into the ladies’ compartment so that they could answer if any questions were asked.
The main doors of the coach were locked from inside. We waited with bated breath. The mob, hell-bent on destruction, was not to be deterred. They pounded on the heavy metal door for over 15 minutes. The incessant hammering was accompanied by threats to set the train on fire. One non-Sikh passenger shifted uncomfortably in his seat and felt that all of them would lose their lives if the door was not opened. But he was sternly reprimanded by the others who forcefully announced that under no circumstances would the door be opened.
But finally the mob broke open the door. Their violent mutilation of the train had only whetted their appetite for more destruction. The savage mob stormed into our coach and walked past the ladies’ compartment. But even before we could sigh with relief, they turned around and angrily demanded that the door of the ladies’ compartment be opened, so they could check for themselves.
But our nerves had reached breaking point. Yet we couldn’t lose our composure lest they suspect that something was amiss. My parents were inside. Yet my face could not betray any emotion. We tried to convince them that there were just panic-stricken women inside but the mob was adamant. They began to bang on the door. They seemed to grow suspicious at the sight of a large number of women outside the ladies’ compartment and pointing towards us, asked the other passengers, “Are these women travelling alone?” Even before I could bat an eyelid, a middle-aged Hindu replied, “No, they are with us.” Our fellow passengers couldn’t have been more cooperative.
The petrified screams of the two ladies from inside, our pleas and the persuasion of other passengers finally seemed to convince the mob that there were no Sardars. They retreated. After two hours of excruciating agony, we could almost collapse with sheer relief.
We hoped that conditions in Delhi would be better but sadly, no security arrangements had been made at the station. There were many Sardars stranded in the waiting room, while the women left the station to make arrangements for them. I left the station at 3 pm with the ladies in our group, while the Sardars with us, who were the only ones on the train to survive the ghastly disaster, waited at the station. They removed dead bodies from the train and assisted the injured. By 8 pm, we were successful in making arrangements for them to be safely ferried out of the station.
In a state of stupefied silence, I saw bodies of Sardars with rivulets of blood streaming down their faces, being unloaded from the train in which I had travelled. Brutally battered bodies of innocent Sikhs reached Delhi from other incoming trains as well. Innocent people who had done nothing, except for being Sikhs and travelling to Delhi on that fateful day!
THIRTY -TWO years later when as a family we talk of 1984, there is a sense of disbelief. My 85-year-old father, Jasmit Singh says, “It’s a second life for me. It brought back the horrors of Partition. I can’t forget that train journey. Those memories send a shiver down my spine. Yet it seems unreal. Could this have really happened? My grandchildren will never believe this: Sikhs, a community known for their courage and patriotism, were butchered like cattle while women and children trembled with fear.”
Truly, an ugly blotch in the history of Independent India!
My mother, 80-year-old Deesh Singh, who was one of the two ladies in the compartment, where the six turbaned men were made to hide, reminisces, “Even after three decades, the images have clarity. Initially two of us screamed as we had to convince the horde that we were just women inside the ladies compartment. But when we heard the thunderous anger in their voices as they searched for Sardars, the enormity of the situation and the gravity of the crisis overtook us. After which we were not pretending to scream; the shrieks just poured out. It seemed as though the world had come to an end.”
While under the Congress administration, Delhi burnt for over 3 days, the situation in Kolkata was different.
My brother, Dinendra, who had not accompanied us, was in his office in Kolkata when the news of the assassination reached him. He had not expected a backlash against our community. But only when news started percolating in about the mayhem in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, did some level of caution set in. “ My panic-stricken business partner refused to let me leave the office that day,” he recollects. “Finally, he decided that he would drive and I would lie on the rear seat. Stray incidents notwithstanding, Kolkata reported complete safety for the Sikhs, thanks to the firm intent of the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.
There are some who believed that the blood bath and the carnage were a spontaneous outpouring of grief. But members of the Sikh community disagree.
“This was a state sponsored massacre where the Congress party abused the government machinery to indulge in riots, murder and shameful looting. And then denied justice by protecting and shielding the culprits for decades,” adds Dinendra.
Tragically, 1984 had the support of a paralysed administration. There was no political will to douse the raging fire.
Painful memories return each year on October 31. And then again with an abiding faith in secular India, an inherently strong and resilient community marches on buoyantly with the business of living.
Payal Singh Mohanka lives in Kolkata, India