When The Capital Bled: Reconstructing the Anti-Sikh Pogrom in Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi

The year of 1984 has been one of the most turbulent ones in the history of India. It saw Operation Blue Star, assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh pogrom. It was not something that affected my life in a big way. The only thing I was told while growing up was that Indira Gandhi was a very powerful lady and India’s first woman prime minister. Instinctively, every 31st October, when there used to be a full page tribute to her, it used to inspire me.

Some specials in Outlook and India Today put her death in context. In the age of internet, I came face to face with more ‘specials’ online remembering Indira Gandhi’s assassination and its aftermath. But it was Amitav Ghosh’s story “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi” that first introduced me to the details of November 1984.

History textbooks do not mention this and newspapers and magazines have specials that glorify Indira Gandhi mostly. There are some that explain the massacre (that I found during the course of my research for this essay) but nothing explains the gravity of those three days. Possibly, this absence is ensured in order to make sure no one community is instigated further because of a troublesome past; or because the massacre was extremely politically motivated. Nothing can be said for sure but what is clear is that this event’s history is available only in bits and pieces.

This is where memory steps in and allows us to create a parallel history that resists its obliteration from the official history. Literature coupled with oral history and people’s memories brings out the silences that exist in the official history.


“I have done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do” (Tully 2).
– Beant Singh [after assassinating Indira Gandhi].

What happened in 1984 was a culmination of the events that started when the demand for a separate Sikh state was made. 1977 saw the creation and subsequent rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale was a violent fundamentalist whose focus was the establishment of Khalsa Raj. His speeches were charged and fired up the youth in Punjab who believed him as he spoke in the rustic language that appealed to them. Khushwant Singh, Indian novelist, politician, lawyer and journalist, in his book My Bleeding Punjab, points out how “Bhindranwale not only preached hatred, he also preached violence” (Singh 52).

The period starting from 1981 marked a time of heavy turbulence in Punjab. Terrorism, as it has been called in all the books which have accounted it, was rampant in the region. Mrs. Suvercha Kapoor, whose parents live in Jalandhar, Punjab, recounts the violence in Punjab:

For…three years [from 1981] this militancy in Punjab had gained momentum…I remember on one such trip home [from Delhi to Punjab]…my husband came to see me off at the station and I sat in the train and he got the newspaper for me to read on the way and the headline said that some 200 people killed in the train…and you can imagine my plight, travelling in train. [In Jalandhar], in my mother’s house, we could hear gunshots at night…and there were accidents like bomb blasts and shootouts. [There was] this constant fear that something would happen to my father, something would happen to my brother…lips constantly moved in prayer…for three years we lived liked this…1

On October 6, 1983, President’s Rule was promulgated in Punjab but the situation remained the same. Killings and robberies continued on a daily basis and went on till 1984. On 6th June, 1984, the sacred Golden Temple was attacked by the army under Operation Blue Star in order to bring out the terrorists seeking shelter in the temple. It was a long drawn attack damaging the Akal Takht and many other parts of the temple itself. In this attack, Bhindranwale and most of his associates died. Their bodies were strewn all over in the basement of the Akal Takht (Nayar and Singh). The attack outraged Sikhs not only in Punjab but all over the world. Kuldip Nayar and Khushwant Singh write in their book The Tragedy of Punjab: “…that the Akal Takht was destroyed made a deep wound in the Sikh psyche; it had been the seat of their Gurus. That it was Bhindranwale who had defiled the seat of their shrine, making it a fortress and the refuge of killers, was forgotten.” (Nayar and Singh 127)

That Mrs. Gandhi life was at stake was also well known. She was asked to wear bullet proof jackets and was advised to not have Sikh bodyguards around her. On the morning of 31st October, she stepped out of her home without the bullet proof jacket and as she was walking out of the house into the compound, she was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. In fact, neither of them were supposed to be on duty that day but they managed to get themselves posted on the nearest security ring of the Prime Minister and assassinated her (Tully).


“Khoon ka badla khoon se lengey [We will avenge blood with blood].”
– Angry mobs as they killed Sikhs in Delhi.

It was just after Diwali and Mrs. Ravinder Kaur was serving kheer made out of left over sweets to her father-in-law in their house in Janakpuri when the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination came. ““The Prime Minister is dead, I don’t want to eat anything,” he said”, recalls Mrs. Kaur. She still managed to force feed him but there was a larger problem looming. “I opened the windows to find a sardarji being beaten up by the mobs. I came inside to tell Daddyji about it but before I could say anything, stones started getting pelted at our house. I locked the doors but they broke our gate and set fire outside in the lawns,” she says.

Mrs. Kaur, along with her family and a few months old daughter, fled to safety after dousing the fire off and settled in their neighbour’s backyard. The mob then proceeded to set their entire house on fire.

Sikh bodyguards had killed the prime minister and Hindus were out on carnage against every Sikh in the city. While the violence was most prevalent in Delhi, other parts of the country were not spared either. Khushwant Singh recalls his own experience, “…I understood what words like pogrom, holocaust and genocide really meant. I was no longer a member of an over-privileged community but of one which was the object of dire hate” (Singh 94).

The loss of lives is estimated to be at 2,717 by the government out of which 2,150 were in Delhi and almost all of them were Sikhs (Tully). However, the unofficial estimate goes up to 6,000 with at least 50,000 Sikhs in refugee camps (Singh).


“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
– Joseph Stalin

Before delving into how 1984 is remembered through memory, it is important to understand how the carnage has been constructed in public memory through official history. This was the time before breaking news became a phenomenon and only a handful of houses had television sets, the rest getting by through radio or newspapers. Most people heard the news of the assassination from local news agencies and the External Services of the BBC because AIR did not get the permission to air the news until 6 pm.

Doordarshan only showed clips of the Teen Murti Bhawan in Delhi, where the slain prime minister’s body lay. Doordarshan also showed clips of some people at the same place shouting slogans like “Indira Gandhi Amar Rahey” (long live Indira Gandhi) and “khoon ka badla khoon se lengey” (blood will be avenged with blood).

The two human rights NGOs, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the People Union for Civil Liberties together published a report Who are the Guilty? wherein they laid bare the role of media in the anti-Sikh pogroms. The report elaborates on how the media named the religion of the bodyguards in spite of knowing that naming could aggravate tension:

The first day’s evening bulletins (October 31) brought out by different newspaper establishments stated that there were “two Sikhs and one clean shaven Sikh” among the assailants. The reporters did not clarify whether the news was from official or unofficial sources. Nor was it clear how a “clean shaven Sikh” could be identified as a Sikh. In later reports the next day and the following days, we were told that only two assailants – both Sikhs were involved. What happened to the earlier reported third one? No newspaper has yet followed up the discrepancy…should the media have described the assailants immediately as Sikhs? Given the background of the Punjab situation, such mentioning of a community by name was bound to excite communal passions and inflame communal hatred (Who Are The Guilty?).

ABC News, on the other hand, showed extreme mob violence and carnage and gave a somewhat true picture of the city at that time – burning buses and homes, mobs shouting deadly slogans (“blood for blood”) and people being killed and injured – unlike our national news channel (ABC News). Even newspapers mentioned how two Sikh bodyguards had gunned the prime minister down. The Times of India sub-headline read “Sikh security men pump bullet in chest, abdomen.” The constant reinforcement of the involvement of Sikhs in the assassination and their image as ‘terrorists’ in the past few years erased any love that existed between the two communities.

An ‘official’ rendering of the event gives the timeline of events – assassination, massacre, intervention of the army and the death toll. The event recurs through specials once a year or through the court cases pending on the perpetrators of the violence. The newspaper Times of India and magazine India Today have special websites that lead us through the timeline of events in 1984 and some personal stories.

That the government did not and still does not want the incident to stay in public memory is evident in the A-rating given to the film Amu (2005). Shonali Bose’s film Amu is about a girl, Kaju, who is back in New Delhi after 15 years. Her mother, Keya Roy has told her that she had been adopted through an agency and lived in a certain village but when Amu goes to the said village she is unable to recollect anything. However, when she goes to another village in Delhi, she gets flashbacks. She starts interrogating her family, the people in the second village and her mother. She is aided by Kabir, a boy she meets at a party whose father is a government servant. She gradually learns about the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and it is finally revealed that her family died in the massacre after which she was adopted by Keya who saved Kaju, then Amu, after her real mother committed suicide because she could not live with the horror of losing her son and husband. It is also revealed that Kabir’s father was also involved in the riots.

In a recent interview with the Mumbai Mirror, Shonali Bose said, “[The film] got an ‘A’ even though it has no sex or violence, because the censor board, under Anupam Kher, argued that young people shouldn’t know a history better buried” (Bose). Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi’s dismissive remark on the massacre, “when a big tree falls, the Earth about it shakes” (Singh 96), also indicates the state‘s cavalier attitude towards the massacres, as something of little importance. This attempt at a systematic erasure of history then gives way to the other means through which we can sustain an event – memory.


“…words are, after all, all we have” (Butalia 360).
– Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence.

Mr Mohan Lal was returning to his home in Gurgaon from Paschim Vihar on the evening of 1sr November when he found out that there was no public transport. “I started at around four pm…[and] did not get a single auto/bus on the road. I started walking [towards the Delhi Cantt Railway Station]. After walking down to around 3 kms I got an auto rickshaw…[i]n auto, while I was passing through the lanes from Raja Garden, Tilak Nagar and Maya Puri, I could see many houses under fire, many bodies lying on the road in a pool of blood or burning”2. Mr. Lal continues with his experience of the same day, “I was waiting at Delhi Cantt railway station when an express train bound for Ahmedabad reached. All of a sudden a bunch of people came and started searching for the Sikhs in the train. Unfortunately one Sikh was seen by the group. They pulled him out of the train but he was able to go back and locked himself inside the toilet of the coach. The group broke open the toilet door and started beating him with rods in their hand…the man started running to escape but few people from the mob put some inflammable liquid on him and put him on fire. The train started moving and the man kept running along the train while he was on fire…until he fell down and became unconscious…in the train I boarded, it was stopped at every station between Delhi Cantt and Gurgaon and a mob was there, searching for the Sikhs passengers.”

It is interesting to note that the mob which was responsible for all this violence had less to do with Indira Gandhi’s death and more with the activities that they were assigned to do. The mob consisted of people from the lower stratum of society, mainly “sweepers, cobblers, day-labourers or beggars from shanty towns or villagers whose agricultural lands had been [taken]” (Singh 93) and they were aged between 12 and 30. They were more concerned with the loot that they could get after ransacking the homes of innocent Sikhs – killing was just a side fun game (Singh).

“It was the jamna-paar area that was the most affected,” remembers Kaur. “My parents used to live there and were scared for their lives. The Sikh families were pulled out of their homes, beaten and then tires put around their neck with their hands behind their backs until they burned to death.” In Amu, the protagonist Kaju is also a victim from Trilokpuri, one of the worst hit areas. Kaju’s real father is killed by mobs while he screams “what have I done?” Kaju runs after her mother who goes to look for policemen and leaves her brother unattended. The mob kills her father and burns down the house, killing her brother along with it.

Mrs. Kapoor recalls the situation in her slightly upper class locality Green Park as stable. “A lot of killings happened in East and West Delhi where there was a lot of concentration of Sikh families. Out here in South Delhi the situation did not get very bad. Even then, the one Sikh family in our locality did not get out for 2-3 days, not even to fetch milk. South Delhi was quite peaceful,” she says. The elite of the city did feel protected in a way. In his story Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi, Amitav Ghosh narrates his experience as he stayed at his Bengali friend’s house in Safdurjung. The neighbouring Sikh family of Mr. Bawa did not move until the mobs were dangerously close and until the friend’s family dragged them to their house. In spite of the shouts outside, Mrs. and Mr. Bawa remained calm as they spoke to Mrs. Sen about the most trivial of things nonchalantly.

Lodi Colony in central Delhi also did not experience much carnage. A resident there who does not wish to be named related how only a couple of Sikh shops were burnt down. “It was mainly the poor who were targeted, the rich found their way out. Areas like Jahangirpuri, Trilokpuri, Khichdipur and Mangolpuri were targeted,” he says. The Nanavati Commission reports less to no carnage in the south and central Delhi areas.

The help that was extended to the Sikhs also came from certain classes of the society. Mrs. Kapoor explained how her locality helped the Sikh family while they stayed locked up in their house by bringing them groceries and other items of need. Ghosh also says the same. He also talks about a protest in Lajpat Nagar led by Swami Agnivesh, Ravi Chopra and a few leaders from the opposition including Chandra Shekhar, against the massacre. He writes,“The group was painfully small by the standards of a city where crowds of several hundred thousands were routinely mustered for political rallies. Nevertheless, the members rose to their feet and marched.” He describes how the march was “…confronted with…an image of twentieth century urban horror: burned out cars…debris and rubble everywhere…” but they held their own (Ghosh 205)3. In contrast, Mrs. Kaur did not get any such welcome from her neighbour when she went to hide in their house. She says, “We were not called by them. We just climbed over the wall and hid there. They were also scared as mobs kept asking them if they had hidden someone. But it never felt as if they were welcoming us.” In Amu, the wife of the Sikh being butchered asks for help from the people around but they do not offer any. Mr. Lal also had a similar experience, “Public in the train as well as on the station just watched with indifference, not doing anything for the Sikh who was burning.”


“I do not have the power to intervene” (Nanavati 124).
– Then President Giani Zail Singh on being asked for help.

The complicity of the system in the riots is evident in every single narrative. The police, the politicians and even people, no one spared the Sikhs. It is most evident in Nirpreet Singh’s moving account in I Accuse…. Her family was able to hide inside after escaping from the mobs. A policeman then came to their house asking her father to come outside and make peace. When the duo went out, despite her mother’s insistence to not go out, the policeman handed him over to the mob which proceeded to beat him and set him on fire. When he was able to douse himself by jumping into a nearby nallah, people tied him up and more joined in. When he doused himself off the second time, a priest shouted that if they don’t kill him, “the sardar” would come back. This time when he was set on fire, he did not rise.

Victims have variously stated the presence of Congress leaders while the mob was rioting and have accused the leaders of inciting the mob. In Jarnail Singh’s book I Accuse…, Darshan Kaur recounts how the congress leader HKL Bhagat had provoked the mob: “Don’t leave a single Sardar. They are traitors. Kerosene, weapons, all are there. The police is with you. Crush the sardars”. In Amu, the ladies that Kaju and Karan encounter also spell the same tirade against the politicians. Many other witnesses have stated having seen Bhagat with the mobs, as mentioned in the Nanavati Commission report. Khushwant Singh too writes that on the night of 31st October, local Congress leaders and politicians “met to decide how to “teach the Sikhs a lesson they would never forget”” (Singh 91).

The police was as bad as anyone else. Ravinder Kaur remembers, “Our neighbor’s house was looted and especially the gold bangles that they had kept for their daughter’s wedding were looted. Police did absolutely nothing. They were just standing there, looking on as spectators.” In many places, where the victims thought that the police was there to protect them, they were in for a rude shock when they saw the police aiding the mob in their rioting or just not doing anything at all. Not only did the police help the mobs, they also refused to register FIRs in most cases. In the film, when Amu’s mother goes to look for help, the policemen chide her away and the politicians incite more violence in the mob which is ready with its share of arson.

Many texts mention Rahul Bedi’s account of Trilokpuri on the second day of the pogrom. Bedi, a journalist with the Indian Express, went to Trilokpuri on the second day and found out by residents that the slaughter had lasted for three hours but local police station told him that “nothing of consequence had happened.” When he asked about a lorry with charred decomposing bodies in it parked in the yard, a police officer said, “The Station House Officer Sahib knows about these deaths but he is in Delhi and will deal with them on his return.” Bedi also mentions how the armed forces were not helpful either, referring to the two army officers who were informed of the massacre but who did nothing to help. Another Air Force officer refused to help while a “second lieutenant on the city’s main ring road said, ‘I have no orders to intercede in any emergency’” (Tully 7).

That politicians were involved is evident due to the lack of official inquiry (inquiries were done by three separate groups) and people’s narratives. The perpetrators remain unpunished till today, two popular names being Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar.


“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”
― L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into more stories. But what these stories do here is reclaim their loss in the event through memory. Although the film Amu is about a girl in search of her past, it raises some deeper questions about the erasure and writing of history. At the personal level, Kaju’s childhood and past is erased and rewritten by her adoptive mother. She is given a new name, a new village and a new past. At the level of the event, there is a constant erasure of the memory of the event. Through Kaju/Amu, who is the prime witness in the destruction of her own family; through Karan, whose father is consciously and very openly protecting his son and himself from the memory of the event primarily because he himself was involved in the massacre and through Kaju’s mother and family who consciously try to keep her away from ‘that area’. When the flashbacks come to her, it is her memory’s way of fighting against the writers of her history.

The memories of the people are similarly trying to reclaim a past that is constantly being forgotten and left behind. Yes, these memories hold the potential to stir up more ethnic-clashes in a country whose people are provoked too easily but it is also necessary for people to know how ugly a few words of hate can get. Official records always remain strictly official offering statistics but memory maintains the humanity, or its lack thereof, in such an event.



1 All interviewees are above the age of 50.
2 The carnage began late night on October 31st but remained low scale. According to Citizens for Democracy report, the plans to massacre Sikhs on a large scale were made only at night at the behest of various Congress leaders (Singh 1992).
3 Keya Roy in Amu was also an upper middle class activist visiting the refugee camps.


“1984 Anti-Sikh Riots.” Times of India 2004. Web. <http://info.indiatimes.com/1984/>.
Amu. Dir. Shonali Bose. Perf. Konkana Sen Sharma, Brinda Karat, and Ankur Khanna. 2005. Film.
Bhattacharya, Roshmila. “Wrote the first draft after my son’s death: Director Shonali Bose on her latest film that wowed TIFF, and her previous film’s ‘A’ tag.” Mumbai Mirror 19 September 2014. Print.
Butalia, Urvashi. “Beginnings.” The Other Side of Silence. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998. 1-26. Print.
Butalia, Urvashi. “Memory.” The Other Side of Silence. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998. 347-371. Print.
Ghosh, Amitav. “Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi.” The Individual and Society: Essays, Stories and Poems. New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2006. 194-207. Print.
Kapoor, Suvercha. Personal Interview. September 2014.
Kaur, Ravinder. Personal Interview. September 2014.
Lal, Mohan. Personal Interview. September 2014.
Nanavati, G.T. Justice Nanavati Commission of Inquiry (1984 Anti-Sikh Riots). New Delhi: Published by Authority, 2005.
Nayar, Kuldip and Khushwant Singh. Tragedy of Punjab: Operation Blue Star and After. New Delhi: Vision Books Pvt. Ltd., 1984. Print.
“Nov.1, 1984: Chaos After Indira Ghandi’s Death.” ABC News. 1 November 1984. Television. Web. September 2014. <http://abcnews.go.com/Archives/video/nov-1984-chaos-indira-ghandis-death-12021174>.
People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Who Are The Guilty? New Delhi: Excellent Printing Services, 1984. Print.
Prasannarajan, S. “25 Years Since 1984.” India Today 2009. Web. <http://specials.indiatoday.com/common/bluestar/>.
“Quotes About Media.” GoodReads. n.d. Web. <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/media>.
“Quotes About Memories.” GoodReads. n.d. Web. <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/memories>.
Singh, Jarnail. I Accuse…. Mumbai: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.
Singh, Khushwant. My Bleeding Punjab. New Delhi: UBS Publishers Distributors Ltd., 1992. Print.
Tully, Mark. “The Assassination of a Prime Minister.” Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle. Satish Jacob and Mark Tully. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1985. 1-14.


Tarishi Verma is a post-graduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is interested in writing fiction, academically in media and culture theories and film-making, mostly documentaries. When not engrossed in class work readings, she can be found reading, singing, eating and missing Delhi. She loves sitting indoors, finishing submissions on time and is extremely OCD about her books. Loves Bollywood when not being sophisticated. She may be contacted at verma.tarishi@gmail.com.

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