The 1984 Anti Sikh Riots
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Published: Thu, 27 Apr 2017
The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots began following the assassination of the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, by her two Sikh bodyguards. The assassination came in revenge for Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to order the army to attack the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine located in the city of Amritsar. The Prime Minister’s order, code-named Operation Blue Star, was an apparent attempt to flush out ‘terrorists’ who had barricaded themselves within the temple walls. As a result of the army attack, many buildings within the Golden Temple complex were desecrated and innocent pilgrims were killed. What followed the assassination of the PM on October 31, 1984 to November 3, 1984, was the massacre of close to 3000 Sikhs on the streets of Delhi. Many Sikh men were burnt alive, women were gang-raped and local Sikh temples were destroyed in a country where Sikhs only make up 2% of the population.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the ‘1984 Anti-Sikh riots’ were in fact a pre-planned genocide. Further, it will be shown that the violence against Sikhs was orchestrated by key government officials of the ruling Congress party, as well as Delhi police officials. It is widely accepted that the massacre against Sikhs in New Delhi, India was simply an act of sporadic communal violence caused by the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The government of India also recognizes the massacres as a riot. A riot is defined as a turbulent disturbance caused by a group or crowd of people. This description however, fails to capture the brutality and methodology through which the crimes were committed. This paper will begin by discussing the patterns of violence that occurred and examine the role of the ruling Congress party in the massacres. This will be followed by examining the role of the police in instigating and participating in the massacre. Finally, the definition of genocide according to the United Nations will be discussed. The violence of 1984 will be shown to fit the criteria of genocide.
Following the assassination, Indira Gandhi’s body was quickly rushed to the AIIMS hospital. This is the site where violence first erupted against the Sikh people. Crowds began to gather outside of the hospital chanting slogans such like “Khoon ka Badla Khoon Se,” which translates to “Blood for Blood” and “Sardar Gaddar Hai” or “Sikhs are traitors.” The President of India, Giani Zail Singh who was himself a Sikh, arrived at the scene with stones being thrown at his envoy. A Hindu witness to the events outside AIIMS, DP Gulati testified before the Nanavati Commission, that the mob outside the hospital was led by local Congress Party councilor, Arjan Das  . However, affidavits and police records from October 31st show that violence against Sikhs did not result in any deaths and was confined only to the area around the hospital where Indira Gandhi’s body was kept.
It was the night of October 31st and the early morning of November 1st that leaders of India’s ruling Congress Party organized and put into action with their local supporters a meticulous plan to massacre the Sikhs of Delhi. Both senior and local Congress leaders held meetings with the aim of mobilizing their local supporter to begin the carnage against the Sikhs. This also explains why the systematic killing of Sikhs did not begin until a day after the assassination of the Prime Minister. According to Indian political analyst Rajni Kothari, the Congress was known to mobilize networks of organized gangs for political rallies and as means for intimidating opponents. These same networks were sought to gather assailants in order to perpetuate the massacres against the Sikhs.
The planning of the attacks was so pre-planned and systematic that the Congress party was able to effectively use many of the state’s resources to facilitate the carnage. In many instances, Delhi Transportation Company (DTC) buses were used to transport perpetrators directly to areas where Sikhs lived. For example, Satbir Rai, a Youth Congress leader, brought buses full of assailants to attack Guru Harkrishan Public School. This is Sikh high school was burnt to ground and looted by the assailants.
The rioters that were gathered were also provided transportation to areas where Sikhs resided using Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses and even some police vehicles. Most of the rioters were from poor and uneducated backgrounds that joined the mobs with the intention of looting Sikh homes. Member of Parliament (MP) Sajjan Kumar and Congress Trade Union Leader Lalit were seen distributing 100 rupee bills and liquor to assailants as a form of bribery. On the morning of November 1st, Sajjan Kumar was seen handing out iron rods from a parked truck to around 130 people. The MP gave orders to the mob to kill any Sikhs in sight, steal their properties and burn their houses. Later, that same morning, Kumar was seen organizing a mob in a park near the Sultanpuri section of the city. Moti Singh, a Sikh and former Congress party member, witnessed this meeting from his rooftop. In his affidavit, Moti narrates what he heard M.P. Sajjan Kumar saying; “Whoever kills the sons of the snakes, I will reward them. Whoever kills Roshan Singh [son of Moti Singh] and Bagh Singh will get 5000 rupees each and 1000 rupees each for killing any other Sikhs. You can collect these prizes on November 3 from my personal assistant Jai Chand Jamadar”. Moti goes on to describe how there were two police officers present at this meeting. These same officers, SHO Bhatti and a constable, attacked Moti’s house the next morning and shot his son, Rohan, in cold blood, and then murdered his two grandsons as they rushed to save their father.
According to the affidavit of Bhagwani Bai, Member of Parliament Sajjan Kumar killed both of her sons in front of her. Another MP and Minister HKL Bhagat was also seen leading mobs. Gurmeet Singh witnessed Bhagat come out of his car on November 1st and scolded police officers for not ‘killing all of the Sikhs’. Dr. Ashok, a Congress Counselor representing the Kalyapuri section of Delhi, was seen instigating a mob and watching passively as two Sikhs were burnt alive. He told assailants that they should kill Sikhs without fear and also encouraged the looting of their properties.
Senior Congress political leaders who owned petrol pumps provided mobs with kerosene, which was in turn used to burn Sikhs alive. The use of kerosene as the principle weapon during the genocide demonstrates assailants and organizers intent to kill and not simply injure their victims. Brahmanand Gupta, a Congress leader, was seen personally providing mobs with oil. Witnesses say that cars and motorcycles were constantly supplying kerosene to the mobs. Even auto-rickshaws were scene arriving with tins of kerosene and other inflammable material such as jute-sacks in order to replenish supplies for the mobs. Subsequent investigations of burnt Sikh business revealed that combustible chemical substances were also used, whose provision required large-scale coordination. This illustrates the extent of organization and strategy behind the attacks against the Sikhs.
Besides distributing weapons, Congress party officials also provided mobs with voter lists, school registration lists and ration lists of houses, establishments and businesses belonging to Sikh people. The night of October 31st, assailments marked off the houses and businesses of Sikhs so it would be easier to identity them once the massacres began the next day. These lists were used as a tracking system to check who had been killed and who was left to attack. This is illustrated by the story of Amar Singh, a Sikh who survived the carnage. He escaped by arranging for two Hindu friends to announce that he was dead and drag his body through the streets. Soon after, around 20 assailants reached his neighbor’s house demanding they see his dead body. His neighbor told the mob that an unknown group of people had taken his body. Immediately, one person from the mob showed the neighbor the list exclaiming that Amar Singh’s name has not been cut off from the list and therefore it was not possible for the body to be taken away. The mob proceeded to search the house but luckily could not locate Amar, who was hiding in the bathroom. It is clear that the mobs were a mission to eliminate all Sikhs that were mentioned on those lists.
The mobs also attacked Sikh temples, known as gurdwaras. 131 Sikh temples were attacked and desecrated by the government-supported mobs. Many eyewitness accounts stated that the gangs defiled the holy Sikh scripture known as the Guru Granth Sahib by urinating on it or burning it with cigarettes. The desecration of the holy book itself leaves a very painful mark on a Sikh’s psyche. Balwant Singh, a priest at a gurduwara, which was attacked in the Shalimar Bagh section of Delhi describes the pain of seeing Sikh places of worship ravaged: “We don’t mind so much for ourselves. I could have been martyredâ€¦I don’t mind the fact that my house was looted. After all, it was the Parmatma[God] who gave it to me. But what I could not bear was that [H]e who had given everything to me should himself be trampled upon by the looters, that [H]e should be insulted and defiled with urine.”
In addition to attacking the gurdwaras, mobs also purposely targeted Sikh articles of faith. Assailants forcibly cut off the hair of Sikh men before executing them. Hair are to be kept unshorn according to Sikh discipline, therefore these victims were completely humiliated before being killed. A Financial Times reporter found two elderly gentlemen in their 60’s and 70’s, who had been severely assaulted with their hair forcefully cut off, on the premises of one of the temples. In many instances, the mobs would knock off the turbans of Sikhs, which is seen as sign of grave dishonor, and then use the turbans to tie up their hands before putting a tire on their neck and burning them alive.
The mobs also used sexual violence in targeting Sikhs. In many cases the daughters and wives of Sikh men were gang-raped by the mobs. The story of Gurdip Kaur, a female survivor of the genocide, sheds light into the barbarity of the sexual violence that occurred. The mob first killed her husband and three eldest sons. They then proceeded to gang-rape Gurdip in front of her youngest son. After witnessing the devastation that occurred on his mother, the youngest son was also slaughtered. According to Gurdip Kaur, most Sikh women in her locality were gang-raped. The age of the victims ranged from as young as 9 year old girls to 80 year old women. Dr. H.K Bhavenkar, a medical officer at the Guru Nanak Hospital in Delhi, saw 13 cases of gang-rape of girls between the ages of 16 and 20. In his affidavit, Dr. Bhavenkar noted that these girls had been raped under the instructions of prominent Congress leader, Shiv Mangal Singh. In many cases elderly Sikh women were raped in front of their families. There were also reports of women being abducted and taken to the homes of assailants as well as being left naked on the streets. Padmi Kaur, in her affidavit, described how a mob broke into her house and took hold of her daughter, Naina Kaur. They ripped off her clothes, broke her hands and legs and then kidnapped her. She was confined to the assailant’s home for 3 days, during which time she was repeatedly sexually assaulted. Victims and witnesses also reported Congress block leaders like Brahmanand Gupta were directing the rapists. Sexual violence was used as method of suppressing the people. It was used as method of bringing societal shame and keep victims silenced. This is why many rape cases went unreported, as well. It was believed that no man would marry a girl who had been ‘dishonored’.
The police also played a significant role in aiding the massacres in one form or another. Senior police officials ordered their subordinates to ignore attacks against Sikhs. Police were also ordered to disarm Sikhs so that they would be more vulnerable to attack. Culprits were released from prison with intention of them participating in riots. The records of the violence were manipulated in order to destroy evidence of the massacres and prevent perpetrators from being convicted. Through the 4 days of genocide the police was fully capable of intervening and stopping the violence, however chose to stand and in some cases even aiding the mobs. In one case, a senior Delhi police officer admitted that the police stood by and watched while mobs burnt down the house of Sawaran Singh and killed his family inside. This was only 200 yards away from the police station. The police were on patrol in that area, however they made no arrests and did not open fire. Instead they chose to remain completely passive. The telephone numbers for relief and emergencies on television did not work. When victims went to the police stations themselves, they were told that they had received instructions not to help or save Sikhs. Journalist Monish Suri of the Indian Express, reported that when he went to Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, one of the main Sikh temples in the city, he saw Additional Commissioner of Police Gautam Kaul standing on one side while Congress leader Kamal Nath led a mob of 4000 people outside. When the mob charged the temple gates, Commissioner Kaul simply stepped aside and watched as the mob burnt several Sikhs alive inside. In many cases when Sikhs asked for help, the police responded by insulting them. When the secretary of a gurdwara, which was in flames, in South Delhi, Sikhs in the area called the police asking for help, the police replied by saying “Isn’t what’s happening the right thing? Just wait, you’ll be burned, too.”
Even worse then ignoring its duty to protect its citizens, the police in fact aided the mobs in the massacres by disarming Sikhs so that they would not be even capable of defending themselves. In Gurbachan Singhs’s affidavit, he mentions that when Sikhs were able to resist mobs in he Mongolpuri area of Delhi, the assailents retreated to the local Congress party office. The local Congress leaders then immediately reached the police station to complain about the armed Sikhs. The police then went to Mongolpuri and first disarmed the Sikhs and then arrested them. They were then sent back to their houses defenseless and were all killed by the mobs. A similar incident occurred in Palam Colony, where Sikh were able to defend themselves and drive a group of assailents away. Two hours later, a police van came and confiscated the Sikh’s weapons. An hour later, the mob returned only to begin looting and killing the now defenseless Sikhs. The police directly perpetuated the mob violence. When Sikhs did defend themselves with licensed firearms or other weapons, the authorities would often arrest them, beat them and file false charges against them. Harbans Singh, a Sikh inspector in the Delhi police at the time, found that messages being relayed to the police regarding Sikhs defending themselves would be accompanied by commands to take action against them. However, no commands were given and no action was taken when reports came to the station regarding mobs killing Sikhs. What is perhaps most shocking about the role of the police in the genocide is that in many cases, they themselves directly participated in the killings. Sohan Singh, a survivor, reported that as he was trying to escape the wrath of a mob with his family, 3 jeeps full of police officers approached them and stared firing.
The police was also responsible for spreading false rumors about Sikhs in order further motivate mobs and to create a sense of fear amongst the general Indian population against the minority group. On November 1st, in the Mangolpuri section of Delhi, witnesses saw police vans driving through neighborhood streets announcing that Sikhs had poisoned Delhi’s water supply. In the Shahdra district, police spread rumors that Sikhs in Punjab had begun murdering Hindus, and were sending trains full of dead Hindu bodies to Delhi. Another rumor spread in the New Friends Colony section of the city that Sikhs were gathering together in the local gurdwara, and taking up arms with the intention of killing Hindus in the colony. All these rumors were baseless, however, they were successful in fueling more mob violence and creating an Anti-Sikh feeling in the localities in which they were spread.
The police also tried to systematically destroy all the evidence of the crimes committed. The police would often refuse to record complaints Sikhs came with regarding the attacks, and would instead destroy or manipulate potential opportunities for gathering evidence against those responsible for the attacks. Indian law requires all police officers to record any complaint against an offense that comes to them in the form of a First Person Report or FRI. Failure to do so results in undermining the legal force for that particular case in the court system. When Gurbachan Singh, a priest at the Sarai Rohila Sikh temple, went to the police to tell them that he has witnessed a mob kill five to six Sikhs on November 1st, the police refused to register an FIR by saying that many such cases have happened with other Sikhs, as well. Others, like Sham Singh, were illegally detained by the police for 5 days for simply insisting on filing an FIR. He was only released after he agreed to a sign a document that he himself did not read. Senior police officers instructed their subordinates to only file a certain number of FIRs rather than one FIR for each crime reported. Amrik Bhullar, a police officer stationed at Patel Nagar during the massacre, told the Nanavati Commission that he was told file a 115 complaints he had received into one FIR by a senior police official. The Misra Commission, which was set up the government in 1985, found that only 228 FIRs were registered during the three days of the massacre in which 2733 death are officially recognized. This does not include the other cases of rape, robbery and destruction of property that also occurred. In the FIRs that were registered, the police protected political leaders as well as other high level officials by not recording names of culprits even if the complainant was able to identify them as participating in the violence. For example, Sardul Singh Kalsy went to file an FIR against Congress leaders Ram Nath Singh, Dr. P.C. Mishra, and Shukla, all of whom he had witnessed leading mob violence. The police however, omitted the names of the leaders in actual report. In another shocking case, when Sardool Singh went to report his complaint at the Shahdara police station, he named 11 people he identified in the mobs. The police inspector at the station, Tulsi Das, immediately called some of those 11 people to the station and in their presence forced Sardool Singh to sign on paper that he had nothing against those individuals. It is clear from the above cases that the police had no fear of any consequences that could result from their actions and such behavior could only be allowed to occur if sanctioned by highest authorities of the Delhi administration.
The Indian government has labeled the events that took place in Delhi following the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a riot. It is clear from the discussion and description of the massacres above that this is a huge mischaracterization. By labeling the events of 1984 as a riot, the most brutal dimensions of the event are concealed. The United Nations, in Article 2 of the Genocide convention, defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” It is clear from the above discussion that members of Sikh community were killed and serious bodily as well as mental harm was inflicted. This fact alone fulfills one of the requirements in classifying genocide.
The other factor distinguishing genocide from mass murder is the element of intent. There must be intent to destroy a group based on their nationality, ethnicity, race or religious beliefs. The slogans of extermination that were raised by the mobs, speeches by political leaders calling for the elimination of Sikhs, the thousands of affidavits of survivors and witnesses describing the horrific events which occurred do signal a clear intent on the part of the perpetrators. Furthermore, the killings were methodical in nature and followed a clear pattern. After mobs burnt Sikhs alive, they would also return to the Sikh residences repeatedly to ensure that no one had survived. The distribution of government issued voter lists by Congress leaders to identify Sikhs is another indication of clear intent to specifically destroy the Sikh people. The systematic rape of Sikh women, the forced cutting of Sikh hair and the desecration of Sikh scriptures and temples is evidence of an attack on the biological, religious and cultural traditions of the Sikh population.
The matter of intent, however, is further complicated in the UN definition of genocide by the use of the phrase ‘in all or part’. This seems to imply that the crime of genocide at least requires the intention of destroying a substantial part of a particular group and the above discussion has proved that the Congress leaders as well as mobs wanted to destroy the Sikhs as a group.
From the discussion of the 1984 genocide above, three overall conclusions can be made from the sequence of events that transpired. First, the violence targeted a particular religious group, i.e. the Sikhs, with the intention of murdering and exterminating them. This is evidenced by slogans calling for death of all Sikhs, the repeated attacks on Sikh homes to ensure they were all dead, direct attacks on Sikh business and other properties, the desecration of Sikh temples as well as symbols of their faith and finally, the use of rape and sexual assault against Sikh women. Second, the police aided in instigating violence and directly participated in the killing as well. They also manipulated records and FIRs in order to protect politicians and others from prosecution. Third, there was a systematic implementation of the massacre, characterized by uniform methods of killing, the occurrence of public meetings the night before the beginning of the carnage where political figures distributed weapons to assailants, the identification of Sikh homes through voting lists, the spread of false rumors the organized transportation of mobs using public transit and the large-scale distribution of kerosene. We have seen that the events that transpired were not merely a riot but instead is more appropriately characterized as genocide and should universally recognized as such. The systematic manner of the killings can be compared to genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Khushwant Singh, a former Member of Parliament, Sikh scholar and a resident of Delhi during the carnage noted “I realized what Jews must have felt like in Nazi Germany. The killing assumed the proportion of a genocide of the Sikh community. For the first time I understood what words like pogrom, holocaust and genocide really meant. Sikh houses and shops were marked for destruction in much the same way as those of Jews in Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany.”
many characteristics of the November 1984 massacres compare to the
genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, such as the systematic manner
of killing, the use of lists to identify Sikhs, the attacks on Sikh religious symbols
and institutions, the organized transportation of assailants and distribution of
kerosene, and the slogans calling for the deaths of Sikhs, among other factors
discussed in detail in this report.
It is not necessary to intend to achieve the complete annihilation of a
group from every corner of the globe. None the less the crime of genocide
by its very nature requires the intentionto destroy at least a substantial part
of a particular group
he massacres also had a catastrophic impact on the Sikh community, with the
destruction of family units, leaving widows and orphans, and the destruction of
homes and businesses, forcing people to live for extended periods of time in
relief camps and leave Delhi for Punjab, as at least 50,000 Sikhs did.
Despite this, the slogans of
extermination, public speeches urging the elimination of Sikhs, over one
thousand contemporary affidavits of survivors and witnesses, government
committee reports, other police and government records, and survivors
themselves can provide evidence of intent, as discussed below.
Ordered their subordinates to ignore attacks against Sikhs;
ô°ƒ Ordered policemen to disarm Sikhs to increase their vulnerability to
ô°ƒ Systematically disabled and neutralized any officers who attempted to
deviate from the norm of police inaction and instigation;
ô°ƒ Released culprits; and
ô°ƒ Manipulated police records in order to destroy any paper trail of the
violence and protect criminals from the possibility of effective future
Media coverage was very restricted.
It should be noted that no where in this paper have the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity been labeled as ‘Hindus’. This is very much on purpose. This was not clash of Hindu vs. Sikh or Hindu mobs killing Sikhs. It was corrupt politicians who organized men. The perpetrators cannot be labeled by religion or race.
I realised what Jews must have felt like in Nazi Germany.
The killing assumed the proportion of a genocide of the Sikh
community. For the first time I understood what words like
pogrom, holocaust and genocide really meant. Sikh houses
and shops were marked for destruction in much the same
way as those of Jews in Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany.’ 20
KHUSHWANT SINGH, FORMER MEMBER OF THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT
Placing blame on the entire Sikh community, mobs
assaulted Sikhs, pulled them out of cars and off buses, and burned their turbans,
but no assailant killed a Sikh. Many people reported that their neighborhoods
were peaceful on October 31.187
During the night of October 31 and early morning of November 1,
Congress (I) party leaders met with their local supporters to implement their
plan to massacre Sikhs and distribute weapons and money.188 Congress (I)
Member of Parliament (MP) Sajjan Kumar and Congress (I) Trade Union Leader
and Metropolitan Councilor Lalit Maken paid 100 Rupees and distributed a
bottle of liquor to each assailant.189 Jagjit Singh of Kiran Garden witnessed a
meeting near his house around 8 a.m. where Sajjan Kumar distributed iron rods
from a parked truck to about 120 people. The MP instructed the mob to attack
Sikhs, kill them, and loot and burn their properties.190
First, the violence was completely onesided, showing that it was not a true communal riot. Second, armed mobs held complete control of the capital city of a powerful democracy for four days and were able to act with impunity. It affected not just ordinary Sikhs, but also top bureaucrats and businesspersons9. Third, there was a high degree of organization. Police systematically assisted the mobs. Rioters were provided voters’ lists, uniformsize rods, abundant supplies of fuel and inflammable powder, and governmentrun buses. Fourth, the uniformity in the sequence of events in Congressruled areas across India proves that the congress party masterminded them10. No deaths occurred on October 31, the day of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The killings began one day later11. Fifth, Hindu neighbors often sheltered Sikhs and in some cases helped organize a collective defence12. These facts prove that the riots were not a spontaneous reaction to the prime minister’s death. Sixth, after the riots, due to considerable antiSikh propaganda, voters overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Congress party despite allegations of its involvement. Seventh, the death toll was higher than in any communal riot in free India’s history
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi belonged to the Congress party and it is clear from the cases of violence already discussed above that senior political leaders, particularly of the ruling party were very much involved in the massacres that occurred. Senior Congress leaders were seen orchestrated mobs, providing assailants with weapons and kerosene and also coordinated police support. As discussed earlier, Congress leaders used the night of October 31st and the morning of November 1st to organize the genocide that would follow. This also explains why the systematic killing of Sikhs did not begin until a day after the assassination of the Prime Minister. According to Indian political analyst Rajni Kothari, the Congress was known to mobilize networks of organized gangs for political rallies and as means for intimidating opponents. These same networks were sought to gather assailants in order to perpetuate the massacres against the Sikhs. According to the affidavit of Bhagwani Bai, Member of Parliament Sajjan Kumar killed both of her sons in front of her. Another MP and Minister HKL Bhagat was also seen leading mobs. Gurmeet Singh witnessed Bhagat come out of his car on November 1st and scolded police officers for not ‘killing all of the Sikhs’. Dr. Ashok, a Congres Counselor representing the Kalyapuri section of Delhi, was seen instigating a mob and watching passively as two Sikhs were burnt alive. He told assailants that they should kill Sikhs without fear and also encouraged the looting of their properties.
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