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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Remembering the carnage - 22 years later

Release Date: 10/31/06
News Source: Indo-Asian News Service (link 1, link 2)

The 22nd anniversary of the assassination of Indira Gandhi - widely regarded as one of India's greatest prime ministers - on Oct 31 must also be a requiem for over 3,000 Sikhs who died in the pogrom following her premeditated killing.

The wave of what surely must be called ethnic cleansing that raged unchecked for nearly three days across the country after Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of Oct 31, 1984, ended only with her funeral with the state's blood-lust satiated and some semblance of order in worst affected Delhi restored.

And while unbridled chaos and mayhem proliferated unimpeded across the capital, the casual slaughter of some 350 Sikhs including women and children in the trans-Yamuna resettlement Trilokpuri colony was without doubt the most brutal.

The charred and hacked remains of the hundreds that perished in Trilokpuri's Block 32 on the smoky and dank Nov 2 evening eloquently depicted an unbelievable tale of slaughter which, about a quarter of a century later, still haunts my memories that time has not dimmed.

The carnage took place uninterrupted in two narrow alleyways not more than 150 yards long with one-roomed tenements on either side lasting over 48 hours with the murderers never ever caught taking breaks for meals before returning and resuming their senseless slaughter.

Both lanes were littered with bodies and body parts besides hair brutally hacked off, forcing people to walk precariously on tiptoe.

It was impossible to place one's foot flat on the ground for fear of stepping on either a hacked limb or a dead person.

The entire area was awash with blood, some of it coagulated over which flies laconically buzzed. It could not even flow down the drains, inefficient at the best of times, as they too were now choked with human remains.

It all began on the morning of Nov 2 around 11.30 a.m. when along with my Indian Express colleague Joseph Maliakan we heard of the Trilopuri massacre - then ongoing - from a Mohan Singh, who had shaved his head and face only hours before and took shelter in our office canteen.

A dazed Singh, who had somehow managed to escape the pogrom under the cover of darkness, blandly told us his incredulous tale of some 300 Sikhs having been killed in Trilokpuri's Block 32.

The victims were poor, low caste Sikhs who wove string beds.

Shortly afterwards, along with Maliakan and Alok Tomar of Jansatta, we rushed to Trilokpuri and on arrival at the re-settlement colony, established by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency in the mid-1970's, found the entrance blocked by massive concrete pipes and lathi-wielding men atop them standing guard.

Some 300 yards from Block 32 we found our path blocked by a huge mob; and before we could reach them two policemen astride a motorcycle burst through the crowd coming from the direction we were headed.

We flagged the motorcycle to a halt and asked the head constable driving it whether any killings had taken place in Block 32.

Smiling sardonically he said 'shanti' prevailed. On insistent quizzing he admitted that two people had been killed in Block 32.

As we proceeded down the narrow road towards Block 32, our car was blocked by the mob that turned nasty and began stoning us.

A spokesman for the crowd, a short vicious-looking man dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, told us to leave or be prepared to 'face the consequences'.

Block 32, he simply said, was out of bounds.

Hurriedly backing out under a barrage of rocks we headed for the nearby Kalyanpuri police station and asked the duty officer whether any trouble had been reported from Trilokpuri's Block 32.

He too echoed what his motorcycle borne colleagues had said - the area was calm, 'shanti' prevailed and no deaths had been reported from the police station's area of responsibility.

A truck parked nearby attracted our attention. On closer inspection we found three charred bodies in the back and a half-burnt Sikh youngster lying on top.

In his quasi-conscious state the man told us he was from Punjab and had come visiting relatives in Trilokpuri.

A few hours earlier he said a rampaging mob armed with lathis and machetes had killed his hosts and set him on fire after dousing his body with kerosene. He had been brought to the police station, placed on top of the dead bodies and had lain there for the past six hours.

He died soon after, we later learnt.

But when the three bodies in the truck and the half-alive Sikh were pointed out to the station duty officer he denied all knowledge of them saying they would be dealt with by Saheb, the station house officer who was away in some other part of Delhi and would return later in the evening.

Desperate to get help we combed the area and were met by an army patrol commanded by a Sikh colonel, a part of the detail summoned from Meerut in aid of civil authority, who assured us that he would dispatch help to the beleaguered Block 32.

We returned to Block 32 only to discover that no troops had arrived.

Later we came to know that though the army had officially been summoned a day after Indira Gandhi's murder to maintain order, it was chaos - or they were not deployed.

None of the army units summoned from cantonments around the capital were provided help, guidance or logistic direction by the local authorities. Neither was the army issued shoot-to-kill orders to quell restive bloodthirsty mobs till after Gandhi's funeral pyre was lit Nov 3.

Thereafter within hours the army restored order although for days there were cases we investigated which revealed that the local authorities had deliberately kept soldiers in the dark about pockets of Sikh refugees still fighting for survival across parts of east Delhi.

However, after pleading in vain with many military convoys to intercede and stop the Trilokpuri killings, we arrived at police headquarters around 5 p.m. and informed Additional Commissioner of Police Nikhil Kumar, who later retired as head of the National Security Guard, of the goings-on in the east Delhi colony.

To our chagrin and amazement he asserted that he was a 'mere guest' artist. Other police officers including those in charge of the Trilokpuri district also expressed indifference and their inability to help.

On returning to Trilokpuri an hour later in darkness we found the local station house officer and two constables surveying the sea of Sikh bodies surrounded by thousands of people.

The most frightening part, which still sends a chill up my spine after 22 years, was the total and complete silence that hung over the area.

Not a sound emanated from anyone as in the light of a few hurricane lanterns we walked wordlessly down the alleyway littered with bodies.

Halfway down was a polio-afflicted young woman holding a child in dumb silence all emotion having drained from her.

Her blank, uncomprehending eyes looked at us sightlessly in what we took to be a plea for help.

Quietly we lifted her and the child and handed them over to the police posse never to see them again.

A faint whimper from inside the same house led us to a young Sikh whose stomach had been slashed open two days earlier. He had managed somehow to tie a turban around his gaping wound, crawl under a pile of bodies and survive.

All that the handsome scooter rickshaw driver wanted was water. He died hours later.

A three-year old girl, stepping over the bodies of her father and three brothers and countless others lying in the street clung helplessly to one of us pleading mutely for help.

'Please take me home,' she quietly said standing knee-deep in corpses in what was the only room of her house.

That the police arrived over 24 hours after the Trilokpuri massacre was revealed by the Indian Express Nov 3, the day of Gandhi's funeral. There was nothing or no one left to protect.

In the intervening years all of us eyewitnesses deposed before the innumerable inquiry commissions into the 1984 killings. But none of the guilty was punished.

(Rahul Bedi, as the then correspondent of Indian Express, was the first to reach Trilokpuri that bore the brunt of the anti-Sikh carnage. He can be reached at shahji@spectranet.com)

© 2006 Indo-Asian News Service


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