twiddled one thumbs

1984 anti-Sikh riots

The 1984 Anti-Sikh massacre took place in India after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh guards acting in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, in which the Indian Army attacked Sikh militants praying in the Harimandir Sahib, the holiest Sikh shrine, causing damage and subsequently outrage amongst Sikhs.

Over the next four days Sikhs were killed in retaliatory attacks led by Congress activists and sympathizers. The then Congress government was widely criticized for doing very little at the time, possibly acting as a conspirator, especially since voting lists were used to identify Sikh families. Then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, made an insensitive statement at Boat Club in New Delhi on November 19th 1984, on the birthday of Indira Gandhi, “Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”. His widow, Sonia Gandhi and current President of the Congress Party, officially apologized in 1998 for the events of November, 1984. The most affected regions were neighborhoods in Delhi.

Many ordinary Indians of different religious dispositions made significant efforts to hide and help Sikh families..

The Incident

On November 1, 1984, large mobs largely formed by supporters of the ruling Indian Congress party from suburbs of Delhi and bordering villages of Western Uttar Pradesh descended on eastern and central Delhi. Sultanpuri, Mangolpuri, Trilokpuri, and other Trans-Yamuna areas of Delhi were the worst affected. The mobs carried iron rods, knives, clubs, and combustible material, including kerosene. They used voters' lists to identify houses and business establishments owned by Sikhs one by one and of which the voters' lists were of course distributed to them by the politicians themselves. The mobsters swarmed into Sikh neighborhoods, arbitrarily killing any Sikh men they could find. Their shops and houses were ransacked and burned. In other incidents, armed mobs stopped buses and trains, in and around Delhi, pulling out Sikh passengers to be lynched or doused with kerosene and burnt.

Many historians have noted that these events should not be called riots, but be described as one sided pogrom or a crime against humanity. The Congress party still has its secular credentials questioned due to the incidents of 1984.


9:20 AM: Indira Gandhi.... shot by two of her sikh security guards at her residence, No. 1 Safdarjung Road, and rushed to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Around 10:50 AM: Indira Gandhi dies.

11:00 AM: All India Radio listeners learn that two security guards who shot Indira Gandhi were Sikhs.

4:00 PM: Rajiv Gandhi returns from West Bengal and reaches AIIMS. Stray incidents of attacks in and around that area.

5:30 PM: The motorcade of President Zail Singh, who returned from a foreign visit, was stoned as it approached AIIMS. Late Evening and Night: Mobs fanned out in different directions from AIIMS. The violence against Sikhs spread, starting in the neighboring constituency of Congress Councillor Arjun Das. The violence included destruction of Sikh properties and in VIP areas such as in the vicinity of Prithviraj Road.

Shortly after Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in, senior advocate and opposition leader, Ram Jethmalani, met Home Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao and urged him to take immediate steps to save Sikhs from further attacks. Delhi's Lt. Governor, P.G. Gavai and Police Commissioner, S.C. Tandon, visited some of the violence affected areas, but no precautionary follow-up action was initiated. It was also alleged that Rajiv Gandhi, obviously shaken at the loss of his mother, deliberately delayed in calling in the Army, a move which many believe could have saved the lives of many.

On the night of October 31st and morning of November 1st, several Congress leaders held meetings and mobilized support to launch a full scale assault against Delhi's Sikhs.

November 1, 1984 Several Congress leaders held meetings on the night of October 31 and morning of November 1, mobilizing their followers to attack Sikhs on a mass scale. The first killing of a Sikh reported from east Delhi in the early hours of November 1. About 9 am, armed mobs took over the streets of Delhi and launched a massacre. Everywhere the first targets were Gurdwaras, the holy temples of Sikhs, - to prevent Sikhs from collecting there and putting up a combined defense.

Mobs were armed with iron rods of a uniform size. Activist editor Madhu Kishwar saw some of the rods being distributed among the miscreants. Mobs also had an abundant supply of petrol and kerosene. Victims traced the source of kerosene to dealers belonging to the Congress party.

Every police station had strength of about 100 men and 50-60 weapons. Yet, no action was taken against miscreants in most places. The few places where the local police station took prompt measures against mobs, hardly any killings took place. Farsh Bazar and Karol Bagh are two such examples. But in other localities, the priority of the police, as it emerges from the statement of the then police commissioner S.C. Tandon before the Nanavati Commission, was to take action against Sikhs who dared to offer resistance. All the Sikhs who fired in self-defense were disarmed by the police and even arrested on trumped up charges.

Mobs generally included teams attending to specific tasks. When shops were to be looted, the first team that gets into action would kill and remove all obstacles. The second team specialized in breaking locks. The third team would engage in looting. And the fourth team would set the place on fire.

Most of the mobs were led by Congress members, including those from affluent families. For instance, a Youth Congress leader called Satsangi led a mob in the posh Maharani Bagh. The worst affected areas were however far flung, low income colonies like Trilokpuri, Mongolpuri, Sultanpuri and Palam Colony.

The Congress leaders identified by the victims as organisers of the carnage include three MPs H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Dharam Dass Shastri and 10 councillors Arjan Dass, Ashok Kumar, Deep Chand, Sukhan Lal Sood, Ram Narayan Verma, D.R. Chhabbra, Bharat Singh, Vasudev, Dharam Singh and Mela Ram.

November 2, 1984: Curfew was in force throughout Delhi - but only on paper. The Army was also deployed throughout Delhi but nowhere was it effective because the police did not co-operate with the soldiers who were not empowered to open fire without the consent of senior police officers or executive magistrates. Meanwhile, mobs continued to rampage with the same ferocity.

November 3, 1984: It was only towards the evening of November 3 that the police and the Army acted in unison and the violence subsided immediately after that. Whatever violence took place the next two or three days was on a much smaller scale and rather sporadic.

Role of Delhi Police

Following excerpt is taken from Who Are The Guilty report published in November 1984 by Delhi based Human Rights organizations PUDR (People's Union For Democratic Rights) and PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties).

Role Of Police

All through the period from October 31 to November 4 - the heights of the riots the police all over the city uniformly betrayed a common behavioural pattern marked by (I) total absence from the scene; or (ii) a role of passive spectators or (iii) direct participation or abetment in the orgy of violence against the Sikhs. On November 1, when we toured the Lajpat Nagar area we found the police conspicuous by their absence while Sikh's shop were being set on fire and looted. Young people armed with swords, daggers, spears, steel trishuls and iron rods were ruling the roads. The only sign of police presence was a police jeep, which obstructed a peace procession brought out a few concerned citizens (who later organised themselves into the Nagarik Ekta manch) on the evening of November 1, When the procession was on its way to the Lajpat Nagar main market, a police inspector from the van stopped the procession, warned it not to proceed reminding its members that the city was under curfew and Section 144. When leaders of the procession wanted to know from the police inspector why the arsonists and rioters were not being dispersed if curfew was on, he gave no reply and warned instead that theprocessionists could go to the Lajpat Nagar market at their own risk. At the Lajpat Nagar market, leaders of the procession sought to pacify the mob by pointing out that innocent Sikhs were not responsible for Mrs. Gandhi's assassination and should be protected from the attacks. They raised the slogan : " Hindu-Sikh bhai bhai " As the crowd began to listen to the speeches made by the procession leaders, organised attempts were made by certain groups from among them to shout down the speakers, by raising the slogans :- "Indira Gandhi Zindabad" "Hindi Hindi bhai bhai". It is significant that wherever we went, we did not find any sign of mourning or grief on the faces of those who were participating in the looting and burning. Attempts of pacify them by the peace marchers were met with derisive laughter. Listening to their gleeful faces, one would have thought it was a festival, but for the arson and loot that was going on.

In the resettlement colonies, the police came out from their passive role and directly participated in the violence against the Sikhs. We were told by survivors that at the first signs of tension those who felt threatened personally went to the nearby police stations to seek their intervention. But the police did not respond. In Trilokpuri, the police reportedly accompanied the arsonists and provided them with diesel from their jeeps. The Station Hours Officer (SHO) of Kalyanpuri police station under which Trilokpuri falls, withdrew the constables who were on duty there when action against the SHO and his two colleagues by suspending and arresting them for a criminal negligence of duties. In Sultanpuri, the SHO, one Bhatti, is alleged to have killed two Sikhs and helped the mob in disarming those Sikhs who tried to resist the mob.

Several residents of Loni Road in the trans-Jamuna area, who were camping at Shakarpur when we interviewed them on November 7, told us that the police announced on loudspeakers two or three times at night on November 1 that they would not be responsible for the safety of the Sikhs and that the latter must look after themselves. One women from the same area said she had seen a police jeep full of men and that the stoning of Sikh shops was conducted from the jeep. Another resident from the same road said that the police had incited the looting of a watch shop before it was burnt.

In Kotla Mubarkpur, a domestic worker told our team members that the police had encouraged the looting. Later they were reported to have said to the looters; " We gave you 36 hours. Had we given the Sikhs that amount of time, they would have killed every Hindu"/

In the Kingsway Camp, residents claimed that seventy percent of the loot was to be found in the police lines, suggesting that the police took a leading role in the plundering.

When after this destruction and murders, people went to complain and file FIR's the police in many areas refused to record their complaints, according to information gathered from the Hindu neighbours of the victims. A respected Sikh professional whose house was burned on 1st November was not able to register an F.I.R. despite all efforts. In Mangolpuri we were told, a police officer asked the Hindu complainants why they were protecting Sikhs and advised them to look after safety of Hindus. Typical was the experience of Dharam Raj Pawar and Rajvir Pawar - two residents of Ber Sarai - who on November 1, went to the sector IV R.K. Puram Police station to ask for protection of Sikh family (which till then was being sheltered by Hindu neighbours from impending attack by a mob led by a Congress-I man, Jagdish Tokas) The officer in charge of the police station reportedly told them that he could not offer any help. Two constables later said to them, " You being Jats should have killed those Sikhs. What are you doing here ? Don't you know a train has arrived from punjab carrying bodies of Massacred Hindus ?"

A few individual police officials who did try to intervene and stop the riots found their efforts frustrated primarily through lack of co-operation from the top. One senior officer told us that when on October 31 and November 1 be received reports about some 3000 to 3000 people moving around the city in scooters and motorcycles without helmets, he contacted the CID seeking information from them regarding the identity of these people. Till November 7, when we met him, he had not received any report from the CID.

While analysing the role of the police during the crucial period we can not afford to ignore the responsibility of those in position of authority at the top, namely the Home Ministry. The Home Minister, Mr. Narasimha Rao who was inducted in the new Cabinet by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi soon after Mrs. Gandhi's death, was enpowered in his capacity as a Home Minister to deploy the para-military forces (if the Delhi Police force was found to be inadequate or inefficient) to quell the violence that erupted following the announcement of Mrs. Gandhi's death. Mr Rao is not a new incumbent who is unaware of the procedural technicalities. We are left with the question : why did Mr. Rao, with his past experience as a Home Minister in the previous cabinet, fail to take the necessary steps and summon the forces available to him to nip in the bud the communal elements that organised the riots ?


Harjinder Singh Jinda, Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Ranjit Singh Gill of Khalistan Commando Force assassinated Lalit Maken (Member - Parliament of India and a leader of Congress (I) to take revenge of 1984 Anti Sikh Riots. Lalit Maken was killed on July 31 1985. In a 31-page booklet titled 'Who Are The Guilty', People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) listed 227 people who led the mobs, Lalit Maken's name was third on the list .

Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh Sukha also assassinated Congress (I) leader Arjan Dass because of his involvement in 1984 Anti-Sikh riots. Arjan Dass's name appeared in various affidavits submitted by Sikh victims to the Nanavati Commission which was headed by Justice G.T. Nanavati, retired Judge of the Supreme Court of India .

Commission(s) of Enquiry

Numerous commissions have been setup to investigate the riots, however, many of the primary accused were acquitted or never charge-sheeted. Ten commissions and committees have till now inquired into the riots. The most recent commission on the riots, headed by Justice G.T. Nanavati submitted its 185-page report to the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil on February 9, 2005 and the report was tabled in Parliament on August 8, 2005. The commissions below are listed in the order they were formed.

Marwah Commission

This commission was appointed in November 1984. Ved Marwah, Additional Commissioner of Police, was assigned the job of enquiring into the role of the police during the carnage of November 1984. Many of the accused officers of Delhi Police went to Delhi High Court. As Ved Marwah completed his inquiry towards the middle of 1985, he was abruptly directed by the Home Ministy not to proceed further Complete records of the Marwah Commission were taken over by the government and were later transferred to the Misra Commission. However, the most important part of the record, namely the handwritten notes of Mr Marwah, which contained important information, were not transferred to the Misra Commission.

Misra Commission of Enquiry

Misra commission was appointed in May 1985. Justice Rangnath Misra, was a sitting judge of the Supreme Court of India. Justice Misra submitted his report in August 1986 and the report was made public six months thereafter in February 1987. In his report, Justice Misra stated that it was not part of his terms of reference to identify any person and recommended the formation of three committees. There was only one term of reference to this commission, i.e. whether the violence was organised? The commission and its report has been heavily criticized as biased and a miscarriage of justice.

Kapur Mittal Committee

Kapur Mittal Committee was appointed in February 1987 on the recommendation of the Misra Commission to inquire into the role of the police, which the Marwah Commission had almost completed in 1985 itself, when the government asked that committee to wind up and not proceed further. After almost two years, this committee was appointed for the same purpose. This committee consisted of Justice Dalip Kapur and Mrs Kusum Mittal, retired Secretary of Uttar Pradesh. It submitted its report in 1990. Seventy-two police officers were identified for their connivance or gross negligence. The committee recommended forthwith dismissal of 30 police officers out of 72. However, till date, not a single police officer has been awarded any kind of punishment.

Jain Banerjee Committee

This committee was recommended by the Misra Commission for recommending registration of cases. It consisted of Justice M.L. Jain, former Judge of the Delhi High Court and Mr A.K. Banerjee, retired Inspector General of Police. The Misra Commission held in its report that a large number of cases had not been registered and wherever the victims named political leaders or police officers, cases were not registered against them. This committee recommended registration of cases against Mr Sajjan Kumar in August 1987, but no case was registered. In November 1987 many press reports appeared for not registering cases in spite of the recommendation of the committee. In December 1987, one of the co-accused along with Sajjan Kumar, namely Mr Brahmanand Gupta filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court and obtained a stay against this committee. The government did not oppose the stay. The Citizens Justice Committee filed an application for vacating the stay. Ultimately, the writ petition was decided in August 1989 and the high court quashed the appointment of this committee. An appeal was filed by the Citizens Justice Committee in the Supreme Court of India.

Potti Rosha Committee

Potti Rosha Committee was appointed in March 1990, by the V.P. Singh government, as a successor to the Jain Banerjee Committee. In August 1990, Potti-Rosha issued recommendations for filing cases based on affidavits victims of the violence had submitted. There was one against Sajjan Kumar. A CBI team went to Kumar's home to file the charges; his supporters locked them up and threatened them harm if they persisted in their designs on their leader. As a result of this intimidation, when Potti-Rosha's term expired in September 1990, Potti and Rosha decided to disband their inquiry.

Jain Aggarwal Committee

The committee was appointed in December 1990 as a successor to the Potti Rosha Committee. It consisted of Justice J.D. Jain, retired Judge of the Delhi High Court and Mr D.K. Aggarwal, retired DGP of Uttar Pradesh. This committee recommended registration of cases against H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharamdas Shastri and Jagdish Tytler. The Committee also suggested setting up of two - three Special Investigating Teams in the Delhi Police under a Deputy Commissioner of Police and the overall supervision by the Additional Commissioner of Police, In-charge - CID and also to review the work-load of the three Special Courts set up to deal with October - November 1984 riots cases exclusively so that these cases could be taken up on day-to-day basis. The question of appointment of Special Prosecutors to deal with October - November 1984 riots cases exclusively was also discussed. This committee was wound up in August 1993. However, the cases recommended by this committee were not even registered by the police.

Ahuja Committee

Ahuja Committee was the third committee recommended by the Misra Commission to ascertain the total number of killings in Delhi. This committee submitted its report in August 1987 and gave a figure of 2,733 as the number of Sikhs killed in Delhi alone.

Dhillon Committee

Dhillon Committee headed by Mr Gurdial Singh Dhillon was appointed in 1985 to recommend measures for the rehabilitation of the victims. This committee submitted its report by the end of 1985. One of the major recommendations of this Committee was that the business establishments, which had insurance cover, but whose insurance claims were not settled by insurance companies on the technical ground that riot was not covered under insurance, should be paid compensation under the directions of the government. This committee recommended that since all insurance companies were nationalised, they be directed to pay the claims. However, the government did not accept this recommendation and as a result insurance claims were rejected by all insurance companies throughout the country.

Narula Committee

Narula Committee was appointed in December 1993 by the Madan Lal Khurana government in Delhi. One of the recommendations of the Narula Committee was to convince the Central Government to grant sanction in this matter. Mr. Khurana took up the matter with the Central Government and in the middle of 1994, the Central Government decided that the matter did not fall within its purview and sent the case to the Lt. Governor of Delhi. It took two years for the Narasimha Rao Government to decide that it did not fall within Centre's purview. Narasimha Rao Government further delayed the case. This committee submitted its report in January 1994 and recommended the registration of cases against H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Ultimately, despite the delay by the Central government, the CBI was able to file the charge sheet in December 1994.

The Nanavati Commission

Nanavati Commission was appointed by a unanimous resolution passed in the Rajya Sabha. This commission was headed by Justice G.T. Nanavati, retired Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The commission submitted its report in February 2004. The Commission claimed evidence against congressmen Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and H.K.L. Bhagat for instigating the mobs to violence. The Commission also held the then police commissioner S.C. Tandon directly responsible for the riots. There was widespread protest against the report as it did not mention clearly the role of Tytler and other Congressmen in the riots. It finally led to the resignation of Jagdish Tytler from the Union Cabinet. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (who ironically is a Sikh himself) also apologised to the Sikhs for the riots, few days after the report was tabled in the Parliament.

Reopening of 1984 Riot Cases against Jagdish Tytler

India's Central Bureau of Investigation closed all cases against Jagdish Tytler in November 2007 for his alleged criminal conspiracy to engineer riots against Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. CBI submitted a report to the Delhi court which stated that no evidence or witness was found to corroborate the allegations against Tytler of leading murderous mobs during 1984 It was also alleged in the court that then member of Indian Parliament Jagdish Tytler was complaining to his supporters about relatively "small" number of sikhs killed in his parliamentary constituency Delhi Sadar, which in his opinion had undermined his position in the ruling Indian National Congress party of India

However in December 2007, certain witnesse, Jasbir Singh, who is living in California, appeared on several private television news channels in India, and stated he were never contacted by Central Bureau of Investigation. India's main opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanded an explanation from the minister in-charge of CBI in Indian Parliament. However, Minister of State for Personnel Suresh Pachouri, who is in-charge of department of CBI, and was present in the parliament session refused to make a statement.

On December 18-th 2007, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of Delhi court Mr. Sanjeev Jain, who had earlier dismissed the case after CBI submitted a misleading report in his court; ordered India's Central Bureau of Investigation to reopen cases relating to 1984 Anti-Sikh riots against Jagdish Tytler.


  • I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany. (Khushwant Singh)
  • Criminally led hoodlums killed Sikhs, looted or burnt homes and properties while the police twiddled their thumbs. (India Today, November 15, 1984)
  • I was told,‘You appoint another committee to identify the people but HKL Bhagat is not involved.’ (Advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka)

Cultural References

The Delhi riots were the core subject of the film Amu (2005)


External links

Further reading

  • Jaskaran Kaur, Barbara Crossette. Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 riots of Sikhs in India. London: Nectar, 2004.
  • 1984 Truth & Justice. 1984 Sikhs' Kristallnacht 16-page report, 2007
  • Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants. University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0-8122-1592-3.
  • Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. A Sea Of Orange: Writings on the Sikhs and India. Xlibris Corporation, ISBN 1-4010-2857-8
  • Ram Narayan Kumar et al. Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2003.
  • Joyce Pettigrew. The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence. Zed Books Ltd., 1995.
  • Anurag Singh. Giani Kirpal Singh’s Eye-Witness Account of Operation Bluestar. 1999.
  • Patwant Singh. The Sikhs. New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Harnik Deol. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. London: Routledge, 2000
  • Mark Tully. Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle. ISBN 0-224-02328-4.
  • Ranbir Singh Sandhu. Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Ohio: SERF, 1999.
  • Iqbal Singh. Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis. New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986.
  • Paul Brass. Language, Religion and Politics in North India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
  • PUCL report "Who Are The Guilty.'' Link to report.
  • H S Phoolka and Manoj Datta. "When a tree shook Delhi."

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