By Rajni Kothari

The savagery of mass killings at Delhi following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination continues to haunt the conscience of all those who happen to have a conscience, in Delhi, and outside. Despite all the fact finding reports, first hand eyewitness accounts and some extremely candid and searching analyses, the question one constantly keeps coming across is: ‘‘But how did it happen, on such a scale, with so much ferocity, over so many days, in so many places and yet all following a pattern that was so strikingly similar?’”? The question keeps recurring even now. The temptation either to dismiss it as a spontaneous outburst of communal passion and frenzy, or to dramatize it as some grand conspiracy hatched by a few people after the assassination, does not help explain the reality which, on careful perusal of the evidence that has surfaces so far, appears to be more complex, though not necessarily more sobering.

The evidence points to something much more long drawn out, built over time by a variety of factors and actors. Triggered-off after the assassination, no doubt, but also pointing to dress rehearsals for reprisal and vendetta before that. All of it culminating, when it did finally happen, in a classic regime of terror facilitated by a complete breakdown of the civil order throughout the length and breadth of the country’s capital. It is necessary to take the various factors into account and identify the generic process through which a relatively stable and safe place for the Sikhs like Delhi degenerated into one of extreme brutality and barbarism.

First, it is necessary to remind ourselves of some macro developments in the country as a whole that are pertinent in explaining why the factors immediately responsible for the massacre in Delhi and elsewhere could be so effective. For a long time now we have seen a striking erosion of institutional safeguards against raw instincts and primitive conflicts breaking out in the open and, what is worse, being taken advantage of by individual and interests out to an undermine the delicate balance of this highly complex and plural society. A long period of decay of institutions that were designed to mediate between contending interests the sway of paranoid personalities unwilling to share power and privilege, and the operation of a mindless electoral calculus whose only aim has been survival in power by any means, had produced a massive vacuum in the country’s political structure. A large part of this vacuum has been filled in by both communal and criminal forces which have found it easy to subvert the constitutional and secular political process.

The main victims of this process of displacing democratic policies by a politics of violence and terror have been on the one hand the poor and the underprivileged like dalits and adivasis and on the other, the religious minorities, in particular the Muslims and of late the Sikhs.

The second important fact to remember is that there has been built over a long time now, in Delhi and elsewhere, both an infrastructure and a technology of terror, especially since the days of the Emergency, Jagmohan’s Delhi (with full support and backing of Sanjay Gandhi) was built on bulldozing slums and squatter tenements, forcing their residents outside the margins of the city, in the process destroying their community basis and making them available for recruitment to all kinds of jobs. For the rabblerousing rallies at 1, Safdarjung Road and elsewhere, for storm trooping into courts and commissions of inquiry, and whenever the need arose, for threatening, intimidating and attacking any target group. It is from these outer fringes now heavily populated Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Mongolpuri, Nand Nagri and Shakarpur that both the ‘‘goonda”’ leaders and the more numerous lumpens came to mount the violence and carnage. It is these goonda leaders and their mercenaries that carried out most of the killings and arson. What happened in Delhi in early November was not a communal “riot”? Like any other. It was instead a criminal hatchet job carried out by known perpetrators of lumpenized terror for which the terrain and the infrastructure were already laid out.

 Such a readymade structure and process of coercing the public towards desired ends had earlier been used for legitimizing populist postures and pretenses. On this basis, a ‘‘winning coalition’” between the rural poor, the religious minorities and the lower castes all over India and the Brahmins of North had been forced. It worked quite well throughout the seventies (with the exception of the 1977 election) and while it led to a very large concentration of power in one family and to a massive buildup of both corruption and criminalization, it at least preserved the broad secular character of the Indian State. With the sudden change of electoral strategy of the Congress (I) in early 1983, following growing unpopularity and based on a sustained stirring of Hindu communalism for consolidating the massive Hindu vote particularly in the northern ‘‘heartland”’ but also elsewhere, the character of the Indian state also changed suddenly.

This consolidation was realized along two parallel but independent streams. First, through confrontation with Muslim opinion, by scrapping Congress’s long standing relationship with the national Conference in Jammu and Kashmir during the 1983 state election, unceremoniously toppling the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984, providing both overt and covert support to the Shiv Sena in the BombayBhiwandi riots, raising the scare of threats from Pakistan, and entering into an “‘understanding’’ with the R.S.S. And _ second, through manipulating the whole Punjab problem, by transforming it into a SikhHindu problem deliberately allowing it to deteriorate to such a pass that Operation Blustar became “‘inevitable,’’ and by producing an antiSikh ferment among the Hindus, especially in the North. To the already potent armory of corruption and criminalization was now added communalism. With this, the nature of the Indian State was completely transformed.

It is these ‘‘macro’’ developments that had set the stage for whatever happened in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and elsewhere. They provided sanction and legitimacy for those who indulged in communal violence and torture, those higher-ups who prepared the groundwork for and “planned” it, as well as those who merrily looked on, or deliberately stood by or asked others to stand by. Without this generalized sanction of violence and murder against an identified and designated target, such a gruesome carnage carried out according to set patterns would just not have been possible. It also explains why those at the helm of affairs did so little to arrest the madness. For they were part of the ‘pattern.’

It is within this framework of understanding that other, more proximate, factors need to be gauged in explaining this; unprecedented, still unbelievable crime against a whole people. Three clusters of such factors are important and fall in pattern with the ‘macro’ situation described above.

First, there were well worked out and relatively well coordinated logistics and technique. Almost everywhere where killings took place, there was first a mob attack, with iron rods rendering the victims unconscious after which kerosene, petrol and other combustible fuels were used to burn the bodies. In case of trucks the attempt was to set them ablaze through piercing the fuel tanks, burning fully both the truck and the driver. In the case of shops and buildings there was greater use of charred rags and combustible chemicals in powder form. Taking Delhi and Bhopal together and probably other places too, the extent to which “chemical warfare’’ has been waged on one’s own people is terribly frightening.

All this called for a massive supply of fuel of all kinds in large parts of the city. There is clear evidence that this was planned and coordinated. So was identifying the location of colonies, households, shops and establishments; this too was systematically carried out. There was evidence of men on scooters locating the places followed by mobs who carried out the killings and the arson, in many areas supervised by higher-ups moving in ambassador cars from one place to another. The use of incendiary slogans (Khoon ka badla khoon) charged the atmosphere.

Wireless relays to ‘‘control rooms’? And loudspeakers were also in evidence but only in posh colonies. The brutal killings were much more in the poorer colonies where women were on the whole spared but were forced to witness in full the torturous methods pulling out of limbs and eyes, tearing off hair, beards being set on fire, piercing of bowels and kidneys with sharp weapons through which their menfolk were put to death. Iven Fera, who has reported this aspect of the best, sums it up well: “certain images had to be burned into the psyche.”’

It is quite clear that all this could not have been accomplished, and both the synchronization of logistics and the striking similarity of technique cannot be explained, but for there being a large measure of advance planning and rehearsing. Evidence from various sources is mounting that soon after Operation Blue star and the extremist response thereto in parts of Punjab, a plan of retaliation by identifying Sikh targets ranging from households to commercial establishments to gurdwaras had been undertaken, including the planning of logistics and the techniques to be employed. Both a psychology and a technology of revenge had thus been blueprinted before the assassination provided the moment to carry it out. It is not surprising, then, that the concept made its way into the mind of the new Prime Minister who gave vent to it in his first public appearance after the assassination (on the occasion of his mother’s birthday).

Second, and almost as important as the coordinated killings and arson, were the conditions that permitted and in parts catalyzed such an understanding. Perhaps the most outstanding and notorious of these was the concentration of all bandobast at Teen Murti around the body of Indira Gandhi which was kept on for more than three days, and along the security route from Palam airport to Teen Murti to protect world dignitaries while thousands were being killed, robbed and raped in large parts of the city. There were no police officers to be seen in these areas as most of them were found huddled together with their senior officers at Teen Murti. So were the contingents of paramilitary and armed forces, many of whom had been brought in from outside Delhi, presumably to help the authorities to control the riots.

The contrast was so shameful, so abominal. On the one side lay one body, deliberately uncreated for three days, only to be accorded a royal cremation with Vedic mantras, chandan and ghee. On the other side there was no one even to lift the bodies of several hundred for two and, at places, three days. When finally, after umpteen phone calls and appeals, the bodies were lifted, it was only for mass dumping! These too were murdered like that other one at Teen Murti and ironically their bodies too lay uncreated for two or three days. But what a contrast and what a direct relationship between the contrasting parties all attention to one, complete neglect of the others. Dozens of appeals were made to police headquarters, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and the Delhi Administration, but to no avail. It looked as if the body of the slain Indira Gandhi was itself taking “revenge’ ’on the Sikhs at large. (The body was kept on the television screen for many more days and reappeared from time to time through the election). With most of the officers out of reach, all one could see were small groups of low ranking police either looking on at the carnage or actively encouraging or even participating in it.

The behavior of the police in the riots was not all of one stream. Part of it was no doubt due to the social composition of the police in Delhi most of whose lower cadres are drawn from Haryana Jats who have all along been antiSikh. But part of it was also due to the increasing estrangement between civil authority and the police that have been growing in large parts of the country and over many years result in mounting lack of trust in the ordinary police and increasing resort to paramilitary forces and the Army. This was expressed forcefully by everyone from the Home Secretary to the then

Prime Minister before the Army action in Amritsar and was repeated again in Delhi when Rajiv Gandhi is reported to have told opposition leaders that the police was incapable of handling the situation and ‘‘we must wait for the army.” Yet another element in the situation was the known complicity in the riots of politicians at various levels, many of whom, especially at pradkan and lower levels, have for long been in league with the police in “‘fixing”’ this or that individual or group. In short, official hostility and lack of trust at one level, official, complicity at another and official incitement at yet another got combined to produce the horror of the very guardians of law and order becoming part of the reign of terror unpleased on the Sikhs. It is this combination that proved deadly, fact that cannot be explained by any general theory of police brutality.

The complicity of the politicians was partly a result of yet another aspect of the political culture left behind by Sanjay and Indira Gandhi. Most of the politicians in Delhi were “Sanja goons.’ The moment Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in, they decided to go on a rampage and create such a massive ‘“‘mandate’’ for themselves by proving themselves indispensable if the coming elections were to be won. The ‘gambit worked, except for ‘‘dispensable” like Dharam Das Shastri and Saijan Kumar. It certainly worked in the case of H. K. L. Bhagat, that villainofthe piece. And it worked in the case of Jagdish Tytler and of Lalit Maken.

To all this must be added an economic factor: The Sikhs were among the better off and affluent strata. Even where they started off as very poor they had prospered more than their Hindu counterparts, in the process attracting a sense of discomfort and inferiority among the latter. Culturally too, they are perceived to be exploitative and dominant, cussed and ill-bred, vulgar and brutish.

These and other factors were exploited by Indira Gandhi after her grand shift of strategy from populist appeal to the minorities and the poor to a straight communal appeal to the Hindus, especially in North India and, most malignant of all, in Delhi. But it was present then too.

All this is by no means to say that the Hindu community in Delhi generally took part in the riots. In fact the Sikhs have themselves vouched for the fact that they received protection from their Hindu neighbors in so many places, a fact that held back the fires of extremism from spreading in Punjab and elsewhere. While to some extent this may be due to tact and practical sense among the Sikhs (who have nothing to gain by spreading stories about their Hindu neighbors with whom they have to continue to live), there is little doubt that the Hindus did come to their rescue at many places, in some cases even at the risk of inviting the wrath of rioters, or that the bulk of the killings was carried out by hoodlums and hired people under the guidance of ‘‘goonda’’ leaders. And yet it is also the case that without a large degree of overt and covert support from the community, the miscreants could not have carried out their mission so quickly and so successfully. There is enough evidence of ordinary middle class youth engaging in looting and arson, or just looking on, or simply shutting themselves in their homes when large scale killing and burning took place, or later justifying and even exhibiting pleasure and glee at the fact that the Sikhs had been finally given their due and punished, all of which adds up to a large measure of support for the so called ‘‘riots’’ from the Hindus.

Since then, a number of ‘goonda’ elements in the residential colonies have been identified by a variety of investigations. Many of these are Congress (I) workers and officeholders. The role of senior politicians has also been well established. All of this goes to prove that the big Hindu backlash that had its finale in the elections to the Lok Sabha had first raised its ugly head in Delhi and elsewhere after the assassination.

Nor did this virus leave the very top of the establishment the new Prime Minister and his immediate aides — free from playing the same game. The more one thinks about it, and examine the evidence, the more it becomes clear that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi must also take the blame for the bloody revenge that took place following his mother’s assassination. He knew it, he allowed it and condoned it, in deed he took great advantage of it. He was told this was good politics. And he accepted the advice.

It is this whole complex of factors that lay behind this ““worst communal holocaust since Independence.” The fact that there is no one simple explanation. Like the theory of a spontaneous communal riot or of a single planned conspiracy hatched after the assassination, but a far more long drawn out process does not make the antiSikh carnage any less horrendous. If anything, it makes it worse. For it points to a more generalized incidence of brutal communal violence and widespread sanction for it over a longer period of time than is recognized by a majority of Indians including those living in Delhi.

(Courtesy the Sikh Review)

Article extracted from this publication >> May 24, 1985