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From 1984 to 2020: A tale of two ‘riots’

For survivors of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the targeted violence of the Delhi riots of 2020 triggers painful memories

An affected family during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
An affected family during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

The images of burnt cars, plumes of smoke engulfing the Delhi sky and men throwing petrol bombs at shrines that played out on social media from north-east Delhi this week triggered painful memories of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 for Santokh Singh. He was barely 5 then but the scenes of violence are still etched in his mind.

“(The violence over the last few days) looks like a replay of the 1984 violence against Sikhs," says Singh, who lives and works as a driver in Tilak Vihar in west Delhi.

About 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi were killed in violence soon after former prime minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her two Sikh security guards on 31 October 1984.

“The two differences between the violence of 1984 and that of 2020 are that Sikhs were targeted then, Muslims are being targeted now; it was the Congress at the helm then, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is at the helm now," says Singh. Singh adds that he is disappointed the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government also did not do much initially. “A loss of life is a loss, nothing can compensate it," he says.

Just like the anti-Sikh violence in 1984, when men in the age group of 20-50 were targeted, this time too most of the dead are men from the same age bracket.

Singh recalls his father, a rickshaw-puller, who was burnt alive along with three others in a locked house in Sultanpuri, where he was hiding from the rioters. “Our slum was burnt down but we escaped. My father ran away from work to reach home but he never reached," he says. “There was no help from the police or the administration to locate him."

Residents leaving their locality during the recent violence in north-east Delhi
Residents leaving their locality during the recent violence in north-east Delhi (Photo: Reuters)

This week, the desperate calling out for help by victims of the ongoing violence in areas of north-east Delhi reportedly went unanswered. More than 35 people have been killed since violence broke out on 23 February. The Delhi police has come under criticism for not doing enough.

Supreme Court lawyer Tajinder Pal Singh Nalwa, 54, from Janakpuri in west Delhi, who lost his cousin and a friend in 1984, refuses to term the ongoing violence “riots", just as he never termed the 1984 violence “riots". “The state was a mute spectator when mobsters attacked people then, it’s exactly the same now," says Nalwa, who had turned 18 soon after the riots broke out in 1984.

Indeed, there are similarities with the 1984 violence, says human rights activist Gautam Navlakha. In 1984, attackers, mostly young men “armed with swords, daggers, spears, steel trishuls (tridents) and iron rods were ruling the roads", according to a fact-finding report jointly prepared by civil society organizations People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). The report added that these men shouted provocative slogans.

This time, slogan-shouting attackers have been armed with hammers, sickles and axes, even guns. And there are casualties on all sides.

Navlakha, who was part of the fact-finding team of PUCL-PUDR in 1984, says: “Even in 1984, the police were either absent or present only in few numbers or played a partisan role in helping the mobsters, just as they are doing now."

Navlakha adds that the genesis of the current spell of violence is different. “One must not forget the range of events that happened before this violence"—the crackdown on protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Jamia Millia Islamia, the attack in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the molestation of Gargi College students. Additionally, there were hate speeches by former Delhi MLA and BJP leader Kapil Mishra ahead of the Delhi assembly elections earlier this month that the Bharatiya Janata Party lost.

Navlakha sees the visit of national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval to the violence-hit areas as a sign that the police machinery has collapsed. “Mobsters can move freely and with impunity only when they have the sanction of powers that be. The Union home ministry controls this police force, which seems unable to catch the mobsters.... It is organized violence, not sporadic."

The PUCL-PUDR report on the 1984 violence noted that it was “far from being a spontaneous expression of ‘madness’ and of ‘popular grief and anger’ at Indira Gandhi’s assassination", as suggested by the authorities. It was, rather, “the outcome of a well-organised plan marked by acts of both deliberate commissions and omissions by important politicians of the Congress (I) at the top and by authorities in the administration." For years, Congress politicians have been blamed for inciting mobs. It was only in December 2018 that one of them, Sajjan Kumar, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Delhi high court.

According to media reports, the families of victims of the current violence have blamed the “incendiary" speech by Mishra for the violence. In a video posted on social media, Mishra had given a three-day ultimatum to Delhi police to clear roads in the Jaffrabad and Chand Bagh areas of north-east Delhi where protests against CAA were taking place. He had said, “We would not even listen to you if the roads are not vacated."

Over three days starting 23 February, the rioters took over roads, killing, burning property and looting. In 1984, the attackers had set Sikh homes, shops and gurdwaras on fire.One of the most brutal tactics was to “garland" Sikh men with tyres and set them alight.

As the images played on the mobile phone of 57-year-old Harbans Kaur of Mangolpuri in north-west Delhi, she was reminded of the attackers of 1984 too.

Singh recalls that his fearful mother made him don his sister’s white dress, and tied his hair into two plaits, in an effort to save him. “There was no other way, perhaps, that my mother could have saved me," he says.

Harminder Kaur of Tilak Vihar, who lost her brother to the 1984 violence, says the wounds have not healed. “The landscape of Delhi has changed over three decades, with the newly built Metros and flyovers. On the surface, it looks like Delhi has changed a lot. But sadly, nothing has changed as far as the vulnerability of the minorities is concerned. They still live in fear," she says.

Singh says nobody really remembers the families once the violence ends. “They keep picking up pieces of their scattered lives. Questions remain unanswered forever. I still don’t know what happened to my father’s body," says Singh.

Nalwa says the only ray of hope each time is that people from every community also step forward to help their neighbours. “It is this attitude of people which keep us going," says Nalwa.

Sonia Sarkar is a journalist covering south and south-east Asia.

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