1984 anti-Sikh riots: what a young army officer saw

“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.

  1. January 31, 2014 -

    some of our blackest days……

  2. February 1, 2014 -

    What a mad time it was. The Nation in frenzy against the most loyal and patriotic community. Mine is a divided family which saw the madness of Partition; yet both my father and me have had the greatest friends from the Sikh community and I continue to value their friendship to the day. There cannot be more loyal and loving friends. Yet, what madness befell that they of all people had to be victimized. Army officers every where made valiant efforts to save their Sikh friends. Our regrets and misfortune that so many of them suffered. What satisfaction rioters get from targeting innocent people not remotely connected with any act of violence is something no psychologist appears to be able to explain.

  3. February 1, 2014 -

    I too was in Delhi during the 1984 riots. It was mindless act of brutal killing and ruthless violence by people living in nearby hamlets. Delhi has several hamlets in an around colonies. And here mostly are people who have been living here for generations and less fortunate migrants. I would not like to name any particular community, but this was done out of hatred and bitterness for all the terrorism that had been plaguing few northern states. It was a time-bomb that exploded and there is no justification for it. Hooligans and looters made things worse by spreading arson with a sole purpose of plundering. While many people in the neighborhood protected the vulnerable, there were some who turned a blind eye to the killing. This showed that there is a devil lurking inside many of us waiting to pounce. Yes there were politicians involved in inciting the violence and there was the government that stepped in and contained the violence by bringing in the army. It was the darkest day for Delhi. The Mumbai riots and the Gujarat riots were not sporadic when compared to Delhi riots. While one was a communal clash the other was a planned backlash. All three riots have shown that we have evil residing within us and whatever religion we may follow needs spiritual retrospection

  4. February 1, 2014 -

    Anti Sikh Riots were worse than Godhra

  5. February 2, 2014 -

    Being disabled in war, I was in Delhi, living in Saket at that Time. The crowds reached Saket at approx 9 AM and were only going to houses of Sikhs living in the Area. Gp Capt Lakhanpal and a few of us, Serving and retired Officers, got our hockey sticks and whatever weapons we had and stood by the houses of the Sikhs, preventing any harm coming to them. Unfortunately some immediate neighbours of these Sikh families looted the houses. The Head Priest of the Gurudwara in Saket was attacked and badly injured. I saw him lying in front of the Gurudwara on the road. I picked him up much to the chagrin of a few so called Hindus, living in front of the Gurudwara and took him to AIIMS for treatment. I was warned that I would be attacked. On returning home, I rang up Brig Brar, my coursemate commanding Rajputana Rifles and asked for a few men and gave him the address where they should meet me. He sent them to Lajpat Nagar, where I could place them in houses of Sikh friends and those known to me. At the same time, my wife and I learnt that our daughter, with a few female students, studying in NID Ahmedabad, had left for Delhi, without telling the NID Authorities. Immediately, with the help of Army Headquarters, duty officer, I contacted the then Corp Commander of X Corps at Mathura, then Lt Gen V N Sharma (Later General and COAS), who immediately sent a party to the Mathura Railway Station to intercept these young girl students.Unfortunately the train in which they were travelling had left for Delhi. The Girls narrated the horrors they witnessed and how they had locked their compartment from the inside. Early the next morning, around 4 AM, I received a phone call from a Major, who was at Nizamuddin Railway station that a young girl, professing to me my daughter was at the station with a group of girls. I told him to keep them safe and though there was a Curfew then, I drove to the station and was able to take all the girls to their homes and brought back my daughter. These were horrific days.

  6. February 7, 2014 -

    That year was one of the darkest in our history. In Oct-Nov 1984 I was attending the Senior Command course at College of Combat in Mhow. After Indira Gandhi's assassination we were quarantined within the premises and Mhow town was placed out of bounds. On 31Oct-01Nov, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, we all could sense a distinct chasm within the Officers Mess. While most of us somberly watched Doordarshan, which was ceaselessly beaming visuals of the late PM's funeral arrangements, her role in creation of Bangladesh etc, there was a smaller group at the Bar, seemingly unconcerned and even boisterous that is so typical at any Fauji Bar. Around 02 Nov onwards when news started trickling in through BBC and other channels, the mood turned gloomy all around. Lack of any authentic news was exacerbating our anguish and helplessness. There was a sullen silence all around, with everyone keeping one's thoughts to oneself in that hyper-sensitive situation. Many of us actually wept that night with a mixed feeling of pain, anger, and disgust at the turn of events and their far-reaching consequences for the country. That night I penned the following few lines, which reflected my anguish, confusion, and despair. I must be too naïve, Not to understand,Why a mother must die, For reproaching an errant child.I must be too naïve, Not to realize,Each era leads its Christ to the Cross, Or a Socrates to the hemlock,Always they have paid the price, In trying to reform the misguided, By shedding their very lifeblood. I must be too naïve,Not to appreciate,Adorning of a mother’s bier, With many an innocent’s severed head.Offerings of their tears and blood, Like incense on the funeral fire.Tribute of her zealous sons, To her cherished ideals. I must be too naïve, Not to know,That religions get sustenance, Through narrow beliefs and hatred.How else can they flourish? Save by turning the sane into fanatic zealots. How many more, How much longer,Must we endure these Holy wars?If religion itself has turned a curse,Then into the Heaven of atheism, Father,Let our country awake.

  7. February 10, 2014 -

    The mob ruled and continues to rule. India is a majoritarian, sociometric kleptocracy without equity, equality under law, rule of law or even universal primary and secondary education. Sixty Six Years of Neta-Babu Quota-Corruption Raj!

  8. February 15, 2014 -

    Tragic reckless and inhumane reaction .