“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
In November 1984, I was barely 18 months into the profession and was in that heady phase when one enjoys one’s work thoroughly. Those were–as Charles Dickens said–the best of times and the worst of times. India winning the Cricket World Cup in June 1983 brought immense joy to the country. But 1984 was something else.
Operation Blue Star, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, anti-Sikh riots and Bhopal gas tragedy, one after the other in the space of less than 6 months, brought nothing but misery. As a young desk hand on a young newspaper (The Sentinel), I had the opportunity to handle these events closely. Looking back, I vaguely remember being horrified by the violence in Delhi as reported by news agencies. There was no private TV news, only Doordarshan, remember in those days.
In later years, I read books and articles about the horrors that the Sikhs faced in the immediate aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. But nothing prepared me for what my friend retired Colonel Bhupinder Malhi has described below.
Bhupinder, was commissioned in 70 Armoured Regiment of the Indian Army. He left the Army some time in 2009-10. Being based in Assam in those years, I had never come across an eyewitness account of those horrible days in November 1984. Bhupinder has been kind to allow me to share his thoughts which he penned down this morning.
That the Sikhs as a community have largely overcome the scars of those horrific days and no longer appear to be bitter, is testimony to their large heartedness, but reflects very poorly on the perpetrators of brutal and–dare I say–mindless violence.
Read on and feel ashamed for the society we lived in and who knows continue to live in.
At least I feel so.
An eyewitness of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots
By Col (retd) Bhupinder Malhi
|A young Bhupinder Malhi|
We, a group of young Army Officers of Armoured Corps were on board Jhelum Express to attend Young Officers Course at Armoured Corps Centre and School (ACCS) at Ahmednagar and happen to witness anti Sikh riots from very close quarters.
I boarded AC 2 Tier of Jhelum Express at Ambala Cantt early morning on 01 Nov 1984 along with few other course mates of mine. By the time our train reached outer Delhi near Sabji Mandi area around 1000h we spotted that Delhi was burning. Lots of trucks were on fire and smoke could be seen rising from the buildings owned by Sikhs . When the train reached New Delhi Railway Station , we got down to enquire about the situation. We spotted many Sikhs lying injured on the platform and no one was willing to provide any first aid or help. We tried to help few of the injured but our train was immediately moved out of railway station. The train was forcibly stopped near Nizammudin Railway Station by an unruly mob. They started pulling out Sikhs from the train and there was a chaos all around. We all quickly put on our uniforms and got down to help the Sikhs. We managed to save a few but could not save majority of Sikhs as the mob was huge. We tried our best to douse the fire of many Sikhs who had been set on fire by putting cycle rubber tyres around them.
Some of us tried calling police using railway phone but there was no response. We also tried calling Army headquarters Duty Officer but could not reach them. We spotted a an injured Sikh who was thrown on the railway track and two of us rushed to help him but by the time we reached him, an approaching train overran him and we saw his body cut into pieces. We collected his body parts in a bed sheet and brought it to railway platform to be handed over to police .
The train moved a bit and was again stopped near Okhla slums . Another group of mob entered our AC 2 Tier compartment by breaking the window glass as there are no iron grills in AC compartment. The mob systematically started searching the compartment and started pulling out Sikhs out of the train. We tried to reason out with rioters and managed to save few fellow Sikhs. Unfortunately we could not save all. Capt Gill of 89 Armoured Regiment was stabbed at a distance of 1 ft from me in spite ofour best efforts we could not save him from the rioters. We requested rioters to spare his life as he was a soldier but the rioters argued that the person who killed Mrs Indira Gandhi was also a soldier.
We carried the dead body of Capt Gill along with us and handed over to Army authorities at Mathura Raliway station at night. Another Sikh officer named Sahota from GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force) was made to hide under the berth in our compartment . He was spotted by the mob and was killed there itself by hitting him with iron rods.
We were lucky to save my course mate Harinder (86 Armoured Regiment) who was being pulled out of the train but some of us held on to him and managed to free him from the clutches of death.
Another young officer from Artillery who was travelling with his newly wedded wife was saved by us by shaving his beard and shorning his hair.
We repeatedly requested railways authorities for help but no one was willing to oblige. On the contrary, one TTE was seen indicating to the mob about the location of Sikhs hiding in the compartments.
Two officers Yadav (75 Armoured Regiment) and AP Singh(9 Horse) managed to get hold of a 12 bore rifle which was being carried by a soldier proceeding on leave. They fired few rounds at the mob and mob retreated. They were awarded subsequently for this bravery.