Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review – When a Tree Shook Delhi

When humans assume carnal form in their thoughts and actions, the notion that is foisted on one and all yields atrocious consequences. Authored by journalist Manoj Mitta along with lawyer H S Phoolka, ‘When a tree shook Delhi’ traces the causes and after math of the anti-Sikh riots that broke out in 1984 in the wake of assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

It was on October 31, 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh guards who had taken vows to reinstate the Sikh pride believed to have been denigrated in the wake of the recent Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple, Amritsar at the behest of Mrs. Gandhi. From November 1, 1984 onwards the country witnessed another reign of genocide in which ethnic cleansing was directed at the turbaned community to vent out the anger of those miffed at the assassination. In the capital city of Delhi alone, as many as 3000 Sikhs were massacred, children were orphaned and their women were raped.  Police chose to play the role of mute spectators while the killing spree continued unabatedly for four days. Subsequent inquiry conducted under the purview of the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission did little to placate the woes of those whose lives had been devastated by the riots. Justice Nanavati Commission fared slightly better though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to admit in 2005 that the truth is yet to be retrieved even after the passage of twenty-one years.

Was it possible to nip the riots right in its bud? The instances quoted in the book seem to suggest that if the police hadn’t colluded with murky politicians of the ruling Congress party the catastrophe could have been averted. It all started on October 31, 1984 when the cavalcade of President Zail Singh was on its way to AIIMS where the body of bullet-ridden Indira Gandhi lay. As a group of hooligans hurled their attack towards the President’s troupe with anti-Sikh slogans filling the zephyr of the ambience, Mr. Singh made a hair breadth escape; this instance being quoted in a testimony before the Nanavati Commission by Tarlochan Singh, Zail Singh’s press secretary in 1984. Gross incongruities that were to become order of day soon were still in its nascent stage as suggested by an affidavit filed before the Misra Commission by Kuldip Singh, a resident of the Safdarjung Enclave who was present in AIIMS on October 31 owing to his mother-in-law’s treatment that was going on in the same duration. Kuldip affirmed that till that time not a leaf seemed to be ruffled with many Sikhs also marking their presence at AIIMS expressing their grief and mourning for the unfortunate incident.

How a few sparks here and there were converted into incinerating flames can be understood by looking through the series of events that were inflicted on the city in the form of vicious cycle delivering its malfeasance one after another. In an essay titled ‘The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi’ published in The New Yorker in 1995 writer Amitav Ghosh then employed at the Delhi University cites the incident whereby he had just boarded a bus from the Connaught Place to the Safdarjung area, as the bus made its way towards AIIMS a Sardar present in the bus felt pangs of anxiety, in a brief moment of fear he chose to hide underneath a seat. As the group of men who held steel rods and bicycle chain in their hands drew close and were whisked away with the driver and passengers confirming to them that there wasn’t any Sikh among them in the bus; one wonders where were the men in Khaki who should’ve taken some action in the wake of hoodlums trying to create unrest in the city and threatening fellow citizens hailing from a particular community.

Block 11 of Kalyanpuri and Block 32 of Trilokpuri, two residential colonies of Delhi inhabited by Sikhs belonging to low and medium wage earners, these two localities of men and women were transformed into graveyards of burnt and mutilating bodies in a span of few hours as the surging mob of rioters assumed role of individuals gone berserk. When the Sikhs of Block 11 of Kalyanpuri decided to protect themselves and pick up the cudgels against the rambunctious mob, chief of the Kalyanpuri police station, Soor Veer Singh Tyagi barged in with few constables and urged the Sikhs to surrender their weapons under the pretext of measure to liquidate the situation. No sooner the naïve Sikhs handed over their only means of protection than the rioters under the leadership of Dr. Ashok Gupta, representative of Kalyanpuri in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi burst into the Sikh ghetto and lay down mounds of Sikh bodies in a duration of few hours, their tactic of disarmament followed by attack working out wonders for them. More grotesque incidents erupted in Block 32 of Trilokpuri as accounted for by journo, Rahul Bedi and Joseph Malaikan of The Indian Express and Alok Tomar of Jansatta. With the scribes being stopped by the attackers to enter the neighborhood from either entrance, they made their way to the Kalyanpuri police station that had its jurisdiction over Trilokpuri to inform that they in fact smelled the rat out there. The reporters were rebuffed from the police station only to bump into a truck in the vicinity that was garnering horded of flies and had charred bodies of few Sikhs. While 400 Sikhs were brutally killed in Trilokpuri, as many as 1,234 out of 2, 733 Sikhs were killed in East Delhi alone.

Women were among the worst affected in this carnage as they succumbed to the fury of the mobsters, and lost their chastity in the backdrop of their men already being devoured by bunches of lusty and loutish hound dogs. 31 females were abducted from Trilokpuri and held captive for 24-hours in a nearby Chilla village. In a mind-numbing incident being published in a limited-circulation magazine ‘Manushi’ that brought forth the heart wrenching tale of Gurdip Kaur, then 45-years-old who was resident of Trilokpuri and was raped by teenage boys in front of her own son who was burnt alive. While the lady was being ripped off her honor she called out the boys that even they had made their appearance on this Earth through the same passage, her only grief being that she could not save her son as she didn’t have a shred of clothing on her body. The worst thing to have recrudesced is the hard-hitting fact that rape cases have not been reported officially till date and compensations have been offered thereafter to those who have suffered loss of life and property.

With such a beastly attack being waged against the Sikhs by the Congress mercenaries namely HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and Kamal Nath; then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi in his infamous speech at Boat Club, Delhi instead of paying his and his party’s due condolence chose to remark that when a might tree does fall, its repercussions are bound to be felt. How very insensitive when a thousand of your brethren have left for their heavenly abode just a fortnight ago. It was due to sincere and unrelenting efforts of lawyer like HS Phoolka who appeared as the vanguard of justice for the victims firstly through the Citizens Justice Committee and later on the Carnage Justice Committee that yielded to some sort of relief for those who suffered and scarred for an entire lifetime. The machinations of the perpetrators didn’t end with the riots they bloomed in full spring as they tried to impede legal proceedings. For every affidavit filed on behalf of the victims there was a matching number of what Justice Ranganath referred to as ‘Anti-victim’ affidavits that were farcical and tried to pull the charade in an utmost manner.

This opprobrium that eventually turned out to be a blot on the Indian state compels one to think if a wall needs to be resurrected between those in power and those belonging to the aegis of the democratic institutions. Internecine outcome of the bonhomie between the ruling party and those entrusted with the responsibility of saving and guarding the lives of the general public would have never occurred if the President for that matter was not reduced to being a an addled individual synonymous with a rubber-stamp. As many still believe that, had India dealt with 1984 riots more seriously, the Godhra carnage would have perhaps not taken place, a bloody massacre preying on another minority community yet again. 


  1. A sad incident in India's history indeed. I remember reading a short story in my regional language many years ago, based on these events, where a small Sikh boy goes out to buy some milk for his baby sister. Riots break out suddenly and the story ends with the boy caught amidst some hooligans. It was a heart-breaking read and I still remember it...

  2. @Anne John, thnx buddy 4 ur comment. I was always aware of this brutal incident yet it was after flipping through this book that i was apprised of its grotesque nature.

  3. I am planning to buy this book and this article has convinced me that my money won't be wasted. Thanks..