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That horror 21 years ago

By Payal Singh Mohanka
Last updated on: October 31, 2005 11:55 IST

Today, 21 years ago, two Sikh bodyguards assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her death unleashed the horrific killings of Sikhs and riots that resulted in over 3,000 deaths. Payal Singh Mohanka, a Sikh journalist, was travelling in a train with her family that day. She recounts what happened in the journey between Kolkata and New Delhi.

November 1, 1984: An eyewitness account

There was a glint of madness in their eyes and murder etched across their faces. Ominous shouts and cries of "Koi Sardar hai? Goli se maar dalenge" (Is there any Sikh? We will shoot him) followed. We were all shocked into a state of stunned numbness.

I was a journalist working with a leading magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India. A Sikh myself, I was travelling with a group of 20 Sikh friends and family members to Delhi for a wedding. When we boarded the train from Calcutta at 10 am on October 31, 1984 we had never imagined that death and destruction were in store for us.

It was at 12.30 pm that we first heard that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been shot by her bodyguards and was in hospital. Our instant reaction was one of disbelief. The confirmed news of Mrs Gandhi's assassination reached us over the radio at about 6.30 pm. And it was only then that we learnt that the two assailants were Sikhs.

See you at three thousand

Every passenger, irrespective of his or her religion, was in a state of shocked silence. But not one anticipated the disaster that awaited us at Ghaziabad. The train reached Ghaziabad (two hours from Delhi) at 11 am the next day.

That was the beginning of two harrowing hours for us, when we were suspended between life and death. A bloodthirsty mob, almost like a pack of hungry wolves hunting for prey, went from coach to coach in search of Sikhs. In a frenzy of madness the mob, armed with iron rods and knives, brutally dragged out Sikhs, burnt their turbans, hacked them to death and threw them across the tracks.

Even the old and feeble were not spared. However, the mob, devoid of rationality, declared that women would be spared. But in what sense were they spared? After all, what could be more torturous for women than seeing male members of their family hacked to death in front of their eyes?

The only Sikhs who were spared were the six with us. And all because of the concern and cooperation of the passengers in our coach. Before the train even halted at Ghaziabad, the hysterical mob had caught a glimpse of the six Sikh men with us.

A fusillade of stones followed and the glass windows were smashed to bits. Shutters were hastily put down for protection. The police, we were told, could not control the wild mob and so they just turned their backs and walked away. We had a ladies' compartment and the other passengers in our coach, realising there was more trouble ahead, suggested that the Sikh men in our group occupy it.

At first, they were reluctant but we literally forced them to stay inside. It was ironic. Sikhs, who were historically known for their valour, now had to protect themselves by hiding in a ladies' compartment. Two ladies were sent into the ladies' compartment so they could answer if any questions were asked. The main doors of the coach were locked from inside and we waited with bated breath. The mob was not to be deterred. Then it began.

They pounded on the heavy metal door for over 15 minutes. The incessant pounding was accompanied by threats to set the train on fire. One non-Sikh passenger shifted uncomfortably in his seat and felt that all of them would lose their lives, but he was sternly reprimanded by the others who declared that under no circumstances would the door be opened.

But the mob finally broke open the door. Their violent mutilation of the train had only whetted their appetite for more destruction. The mob stormed into our coach and walked past the ladies' compartment. But before we could even sigh with relief, they turned around and demanded that the door of the ladies' compartment be opened, so they could check it.

By now, our nerves had reached breaking point. We tried to convince them but the mob was adamant and began to bang on the door. They seemed to grow suspicious at the sight of a number of women outside the ladies' compartment and pointing towards us asked the other passengers, "Are these women travelling alone?"

"No, they are with us," came the quick reply. The other passengers couldn't have been more cooperative. The petrified screams of the two ladies from inside, our pleas and the persuasion of the other passengers finally seemed to convince the mob that there were no Sikhs inside. The mob retreated.

We hoped that conditions in Delhi would be better. But no security arrangements had been made at the station. As a result there were more than 500 Sikh men stranded in the waiting room, while the women left the station to make arrangements for them.

I left the station at 3 pm with the women in our group, while the Sikh men with us -- who were the only ones on the train to survive the disaster -- waited at the station. They removed dead bodies from the train and assisted the injured. By 8 pm we had been successful in making arrangements for them to be taken out of the station.

In a state of stupefied silence, I saw bodies of Sikhs, with rivulets of blood streaming down their faces, being unloaded from the train in which I had travelled. Brutally battered bodies of Sikhs reached Delhi from other incoming trains as well. Innocent people who had done nothing wrong except for being Sikhs and travelling towards Delhi on that fateful day.

That was 21 years ago.

Part II: The mayhem after the assassination

Payal Singh Mohanka is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. This article first appeared in the Round Table Journal of Commonwealth Affairs.

Payal Singh Mohanka