On 31 October 1984 as I sat down to watch a repeat favourite of a British show of mine called ‘The Good Life’, the news came on and advised that India’s Prime Minister has just been assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. I sat there in shock and awe as the tears flowed freely thinking of my beloved India and my friends that lived there. Eva was still at work at the time so I decided to get on the phone and ring the Kapoor and Gupta families I knew, as well as other friends. They were all in shock and I was told a very sad story from the Kapoor family, that one of their Sikh friends, Balhaar, who I only met once when I was there had shouted out “You bastard!” and a blow fell on his neck. His turban came off. Clutching his turban and crouching, he forced his way through as more blows rained down upon his back. He managed to stumble into an auto-rickshaw, pleading with the driver to take him away. Apparently, he wasn’t hurt, just badly shaken. He told my friend, “I understand that the blows I received were a manifestation of grief turned into anger, and mourning expressed as assault. It was unfocused, not directed at him personally but at a Sikh who was somehow responsible for the death of Indira Gandhi, the country’s mother.”
On the news it said that, “Indira Gandhi was on her way to be interviewed by British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. She was walking through the garden of the Prime Minister’s Residence at No. 1, Safdarjung Road in New Delhi towards the neighbouring 1 Akbar Road office when she passed a wicket gate guarded by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. The two opened fire. Beant Singh is apparently one of Gandhi’s favorite guards, whom she had known for ten years and the other assassin, Satwant Singh, was twenty two years old when the assassination occurred and had been assigned to Gandhi’s guard just five months before the assassination.”
The aftermath explained to me by a Sikh friend in England, “I have never before or since experienced what we felt for the next three days: a sense of being hunted. I was the enemy in my own country; some of my own countrymen were looking for me and my family. Unbeknown to us, mobs had been collected by senior members of the ruling Congress party and electoral lists were distributed so Sikh households could be identified. These mobs were already suffused with anger and were plied with alcohol, paid a thousand rupees each and given canisters of kerosene. The mob would surround a Sikh house and shout for all the males to step outside. The men would then have their legs broken before being doused with kerosene and set on fire, as the women and children watched. There was rape, there was looting but the primary aim of the mob was blood lust: “Khoon ka badla khoon.” The violence went for three days. About 8,000 Sikhs were killed in North India, with more than 3,000 in Delhi.”
I knew of this from reading the newspapers at the time but hearing a Sikh friend, Dr. Singh say these words years later was soul-shattering. He was able to leave the area on the morning of November 5th, hiding in the back of a Hindu friend’s car. He educated me a lot about this situation and told me that several thousand of the widows and children from the carnage were rehoused in what is now known as the ‘Widow Colony’. The women were in state of severe mourning, the children were neglected and left to their own devices. All around they could see people who had killed their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers; the killers safe in the knowledge that they were beyond the law.
“It was the most horrific site I have ever seen.” He told me.
Dr. Singh offered to provide free medical care to all families and out went his surgical career, in came a weekly round of collecting medicine from friends and holding a makeshift clinic at weekends. When not gathering aid, he spent his time with a human rights organisation collecting evidence against the politicians who had led the killer mobs. His team that he set up worked with those families for close to eighteen years. Every official inquiry exonerated the perpetrators, dismissing robust evidence on the flimsiest of grounds. He decided to move to London in 1992, disheartened and vowing never to return. Apparently, just recently, he heard from Sikh friends that returned to the Widow Colony, found it was a tale of sorrow, resilience and a sense of permanent defeat. They met some of those who used to attend the clinic that he set up and worked at. On the surface the survivors showing incredible resilience amongst incredible odds, having had to rebuild their lives, but dig a little deeper and you will discover lives haunted by the events of 1984. Many widows have died prematurely and many young men have drifted into alcohol, drugs, petty crime and, in some cases, committed suicide. The shiny new India will be forever tarnished by its unwillingness to do justice for these people.