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When Delhi burnt

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Last updated on: February 15, 2005 15:13 IST

The Justice Nanavati Commission submitted its report on the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination to Home Minister Shivraj Patil last week.

Poonam Muttreja is one of the founders of Dastkar, the movement of Indian craftspeople. She co-founded the Nagrik Ekta Manch to help Sikhs victimised by the 1984 violence.

This is the first of a three-part series in which she recalls one of the most shameful phases in Independent India.

When I heard about Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination (on October 31, 1984), I switched on the radio. I heard one sentence repeatedly: her Sikh security guards had killed her. It bothered me. I feared that if the radio announcers kept repeating 'Sikh,' it would add to the tension. As it is, the insurgency was prevalent in Punjab at the time. Saying the guards were Sikh would aggravate the tense atmosphere, I felt.

I was shocked by the attack on Mrs Gandhi. A friend, Ravi Chopra, a well-known social activist, and I went to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where Mrs Gandhi had been rushed. We were told she is either dead or may soon die. We then went to Connaught Place where, outside a newspaper office, we heard her death being confirmed. A huge crowd had gathered. Someone in the crowd said, "The Sardars are distributing sweets."

Rumours create havoc in the mass psyche. Another rumour that started going around was that Sikhs had poisoned Delhi's water supply.

I was afraid that such rumours would spread and lead to violence. About four hours after Mrs Gandhi's death, we saw some people on the Safdarjung flyover in south Delhi stopping vehicles with Sikh occupants. I was living in the Munirka area, which is on the way to the airport. I alerted my Sikh neighbours. I told them to remain indoors.

The next day, November 1, my maid, who lived in Munirka Village, told me that the night before she had heard local goons and Congress workers talking about ways to take revenge. A little later, I saw a gang of hoodlums coming in our direction from Munirka Village. I asked them where they were going. They replied they were going to the Sikh-managed Guru Harikrishna Public School to avenge Mrs Gandhi's death.

I called a police officer from nearby Vasant Vihar and informed him about a gang on its way to burn a public school. I told him to rush to the spot and said I would stop the gang from damaging any property until the police arrived. The police came. But after talking to the gang leaders, they told me, "You are not assigned to maintain law and order." They asked me to go home.

Ten minutes later, I could see the police had left and the gang was marching on towards the school. I called Nandita Haksar, a well-known lawyer-activist, who lived in my area. Before we could reach the school, the mob had set the building on fire.

We brought the people from the building to my home. Because the Vasant Vihar police station officers were not cooperative, we went to the Hauz Khas police station. They said they were busy with security arrangements for Mrs Gandhi's funeral where many international dignitaries were expected.

Then the officer on duty asked me, "Are you a Hindu or not?" I was shocked. I could not believe the police could behave like that. I noted the name and designation of all the police officers.

Soon, Delhi was in flames. We learnt that a lot of looting was going on. We saw mobs on the streets, many of them harassing women.

The killing and looting had to be stopped. We desperately needed volunteers to express solidarity with the Sikh community.

We used to support the Opposition and fight the ruling Congress over many social issues. So we did not know anyone well in the Congress. We went to meet George Fernandes (later, defence minister in the Vajpayee government), who was then leader of many labour unions. He was not around. His party workers were not helpful. We also went to the Left unions' office. They were unable to spare their cadre. They were busy debating the political impact of the assassination and the political future of the country.

If you forget '84 riots, be ready for another one

We needed people to stop the violence. We were not afraid of confronting the rioters but we needed many more hands. Then we went to Swami Agnivesh, a prominent social activist. He came with us.

In the Lajpat Nagar area, large-scale looting was spreading. We were surrounded by the mob at one corner. Swami Agnivesh stood on a stool and asked people to exercise restraint precisely because they were Hindu. He said as true followers of Hinduism, which teaches tolerance, we should not loot or kill. The impact of a saffron-clad sadhu on that crowd was magical. Tempers cooled.

But by then the riots had spread wide. There was no way the police could handle it alone. As human rights activists, normally, we are against army action. But we hoped for the Indian Army to arrive that day. Many of us -- designer Rajeev Sethi, my husband Shiv Kumar, Ravi Chopra and numerous others -- were out on the streets of Delhi that day in 1984. We could not see anything but smoke.

Late at night on November 1, we got a call from Jahangirpuri. We witnessed a ghastly scene when we reached the area. Burnt hair of Sikhs, burnt bodies in their homes in the basti (slum). The magnitude and tragedy of the event hit us straight, in the face.

As told to Sheela Bhatt

Part II: 'It was not guilt; it was shame'

Poonam Muttreja