Anti-Sikh riots

Memories of a massacre

Print edition : January 18, 2019

Jagsher Singh and Nirpreet Kaur, two of the three chief witnesses who testified against Sajjan Kumar. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

(From left) Pappi Kaur, Bhagi Kaur and Lachmi Kaur at “widows colony” in Tilak Vihar, Delhi. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Survivors of the 1984 violence remain scarred forever by the experience, but the conviction and sentencing of Sajjan Kumar has brought them some consolation.

IT has been a long fight for the survivors of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, who have weathered court hearings and trials. Frontline spoke to some survivors, mostly women. Among them were two of the chief witnesses against Sajjan Kumar and also witnesses in other cases. Now in their sixties or early seventies, many are grandmothers. Some of them broke down as they recounted the carnage that happened between October 31 and November 3 in 1984.

Three hundred and forty people were killed in the Delhi Cantonment area alone. However, only 21 first information reports (FIRs) were registered, and just 15 of them pertained to deaths or murders. The High Court order of December 17 noted that only five bodies were recovered, and that too through the Army’s intervention. Thirty people were killed in Raj Nagar in south-west Delhi, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Delhi Cantonment police station.

One of the chief witnesses in the case against Sajjan Kumar was Jagsher Singh, a cousin of the prime prosecution witness Jagdish Kaur. Just 17 years old in 1984, he witnessed three of his brothers, all well-established contractors with the Indian Army, getting killed. They were all residents of Raj Nagar. Another brother who survived was also a prosecution witness. Jagsher also saw the mob entering Jagdish Kaur’s house and dragging out her husband and older son; both were killed.

Killers on the prowl

The High Court order observed that “in the normal scheme of things, there appeared to be ongoing large-scale efforts to suppress the cases against him [Sajjan Kumar] by not recording or registering them”. Jagsher Singh spoke to Frontline and explained why the case took as long as it did and why witnesses turned hostile: “Nothing happened on October 31. It was on November 1 that it all began. Some of our Hindu neighbours, including one Rajni, alerted us of the mayhem and told us to move into their homes. We went to their homes. One of our bikes had got left outside. I returned home to keep it in a safe place. It was then I noticed an aggressive crowd coming towards me. I rushed to Rajni’s house, but it was locked. I went to the house of Ram Avtar, another neighbour. I saw the crowd enter Jagdish Kaur’s home. They killed her husband and her son. Later, Jagdish Kaur, a lawyer and I retrieved the son’s body. Then I cut the hair of her younger son short so that he might be saved. In the night, I saw an Ambassador car coming and people shouting the slogan ‘Indira Gandhi amar rahe’. We were contractors for the Army and thought the Army had come to rescue us. It was Sajjan Kumar. He first quietened the crowd. He knew us. He asked for the ‘thekedaar’, our family. They attacked Rajni’s house, where my brothers were hiding on the third floor. Later in the night, she locked the house and left. But the crowd returned and broke into her house. They knew that people were hiding there. My elder brother jumped from the roof to escape and the crowd started shouting for him. I escaped through a kutcha road and found many people lying dead on the road. I reached the Army cantonment area and returned with one Major Yadav to get help for my brothers. I found two of my brothers lying one on top of the other, dead.

“Those who attacked us were local people and some outsiders. The police arrested Ram Avtar, who had in fact given us refuge. His brother came crying to me. I told the Sadar Bazaar police that Ram Avtar had saved us. He was a witness to the carnage but later turned hostile as he was afraid [of the consequences]. He even said that I did not live there. But I had photographic proof of our good relations with Ram Avtar. I gave them Major Yadav’s name, but they couldn’t locate him. He had become a colonel by then. Then they [the defence] produced him as a witness from their end, and he denied that he knew me. But I produced a letter that he wrote to me regarding some work. Then Rajni also denied that she knew us, or even that we were living there. But she was a teacher in Palam village and I told the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] about her. The police did precious little. The judiciary woke up, and that is why this conviction happened.”

Another witness account

Nirpreet Kaur, also an important witness in the case, was a teenager in 1984. She witnessed her father, Nirmal Singh, being killed on November 1. She recounted how on the evening of October 31 Balwan Khokhar, the local councillor, came home to ask her father, who ran a transport business, to employ his nephew. Nirmal Singh declined, saying that there was no requirement for an extra hand. When he expressed apprehensions about the safety of Sikhs, Khokhar assured him that Sajjan Kumar was his uncle and that nothing would happen to Nirmal Singh’s family. “My father was the president of the local gurdwara. The same night, we heard that the police had come to the gurdwara to protect it. But the very next morning, they were not to be seen. We heard a sloganeering crowd led by Balwan Khokhar. I thought I should save the Guru Granth Sahib, and my brother followed me. The crowd was being led by four to five people, all of whom I have named. One of them said: Kill the boy, he is the son of a snake,” Nirpreet said.

“They came to my house, and my father confronted Khokhar saying he had assured us of safety just the previous day. I was constantly at my father’s side. Then one of our vehicles was set afire. My father’s main concern was safety. There was a confrontation. We were surrounded from all sides but we were able to defend ourselves. Then Khokhar and others talked my father into a ‘compromise’. A policeman also advised us to compromise. My father went along with them. I ran after them, and then I saw a mob, and my father was handed over to it.

“One Ishwar Chand Sharaabi then doused my father with kerosene, but no one had a matchbox. A policeman named Kaushik taunted that they couldn’t set even one person on fire. They tried to set my father on fire more than once. He jumped into a nullah to douse the flames. But he could not escape as the mob spotted him. He was 45 years old. One Hindu family saved me. When I came home, my house was burning, the police were watching, and my mother was lying unconscious. I learnt that my brothers were made to wear frocks and had been rescued. I accompanied some jawans in a jeep to help identify other families in Palam Colony. It was in Manglapuri where we heard Sajjan Kumar speak at a rally saying that not a single Sikh should be spared and even Hindus who saved any Sikhs would be killed.” What she says corroborates the statement of Jagdish Kaur, who also heard Sajjan Kumar making this exhortation. The statement of neither Nirpreet Kaur nor her mother was ever recorded by the police. Her statement was first recorded in 2009.

Nirpreet Kaur recalled how difficult it was to file an FIR: “Whenever we mentioned his [Sajjan Kumar’s] name, they would not register an FIR. We suffered many troubles because of that. One wing commander who saved us was killed in mysterious circumstances. I left Delhi for Gurdaspur in Punjab. I joined the Sikh Students Federation. But both my mother and I were arrested under TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act] in 1986. I was jailed for nine years. I got discharged in all the cases. I completed my studies while I was in jail and graduated in mathematics. I was let down by even my own relatives. I suffered a lot. No one was speaking to me because of my arrest under TADA. I got married and have three children, one of whom is adopted.” After a while, she asked: “Do you think he [Sajjan Kumar] will appeal? I think he will.”

And so he did, on December 22, after his appeal for an extension of time for surrender was refused by the High Court.

Tucked in one corner of Tilak Nagar in West Delhi is Tilak Vihar, which has a colony called the “widows colony”. No one knows exactly how many “widows” reside there, but the colony is easily identifiable as one where women who lost their husbands in the 1984 riots live. Many of them were relocated from lower-income group areas such as Trilokpuri, Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri—all resettlement areas where low-income groups of non-Jat Sikhs and non-Punjabi Sikhs lived. The Sikligars were blacksmiths who polished swords. In Trilokpuri, the rioters targeted two blocks inhabited by Dalit and backward caste Sikhs, many of whom had been resettled there from other parts of Delhi. The carnage here was among the worst in the capital. Men and young boys were targeted in particular. There were innumerable stories of mothers dressing up boys in frocks and plaiting their hair to pass them off as girls. Most of them were killed.

‘Not easy to forget’

Bhagi Kaur, Pappi Kaur and Lachmi Kaur are now residents of the “widows colony”. “We are not witnesses. But we go each time there is a hearing. Any time there can be an attack on the witnesses. It is not easy to forget what had happened,” said Bhagi Kaur, who in 1984 was in Block 32 in Trilokpuri. Eleven members of her family were killed, including her four brothers and her husband, who was a coolie at the New Delhi Railway Station. Later, one of her sons committed suicide at the age of 22.

Most of the women from the resettlement areas were given government jobs and quarters in Tilak Vihar. “It was during Indira Gandhi’s rule when we were shifted to Trilokpuri and given pucca homes. There were four lanes, all inhabited by Sikhs,” Bhagi Kaur said. She also said something that is not talked about: “Unhone jananiyon he saath bahut galat kaam kiya. Kya hum kabhie bhoolenge [they did wrong things to women, can we ever forget that]?” Unsurprisingly, no complaints were registered by the women.

Various inquiry commissions and also the High Court order observed that the police showed extreme negligence when it came to the registering of even the murder cases. Lachmi Kaur, Bhagi’s sister-in-law, said she was 29 years old in 1984. “Najaayaj hua,” she said, meaning that the violence was unwarranted. She observed that it was a hopeless situation if the government, which is expected to protect people, itself carried out a pogrom. “We had a future. Our children had a future. All that was taken away from us, for no fault of ours,” she said. She recalled how one Shanti Kaur, from the Siklighar caste, went mad and hanged herself after four of her sons were killed. “I will educate my grandchildren for sure. I was unable to do that for my own children,” she said.

Pappi Kaur, a weaver’s daughter and Bhagi’s niece, was 15 in 1984. She said the survivors heaved a sigh of relief on November 3 when the military arrived. “It was not a riot, it was a carnage,” she said. Another survivor, Jagjeet Kaur, was only five years old when she lost her father in the riots. The eldest of three sisters, she is now a permanent resident in the cramped quarters of Tilak Vihar. “I lost my childhood. No one is going to return that,” she said.

One of the witnesses who had identified former Minister H.K.L. Bhagat of the Congress in a riot case in East Delhi was Darshan Kaur, who had shifted from Tilak Vihar to Raghubir Nagar. (Bhagat, who was indicted by the Nanavati Commission, died in 2005.) Darshan Kaur, 20 years old then, was a resident of Block 32, which bore the brunt of the violence. She broke down as she narrated how 12 members of her family were killed. “We had no TV. My sister-in-law, who had a television set, saw the news on Doordarshan. The mob started attacking from November 1. They were throwing Campa [cola] bottles at Sikhs. I thought H.K.L. Bhagat was there to save us. I recognised him, short and wearing dark glasses. I cannot forget how the mob dragged my husband out by the hair. The women suffered other indignities, which have not come out. We stayed hidden in a neighbour’s house. He was a Sansi and a liquor dealer, but he helped us women and children. Open loot by miscreants, including policemen, was taking place,” she said.

Until 2017, no special investigation team was constituted to investigate the 1984 riots. While the Bharatiya Janata Party government sought to take credit for doing this, survivors wondered why this was not done as soon as the BJP formed the government at the Centre in 2014.

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