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The assassination of Indira Gandhi: I was there

On 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was killed by her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination sparked four days of riots that left more than 8,000 Indian Sikhs dead in revenge attacks. Professor Swaran Singh, Warwick Medical School, was a trainee surgeon in Delhi at the time. Ahead of a BBC Radio 4 documentary to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s death, in which Swaran revisits India with the BBC’s Bobby Friction, Swaran shares his first-hand experience and photos from this tragic moment in India’s history.

Professor Swaran Singh, Warwick Medical School

It is 30 years since Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984. Few outside India know about the events leading up to her death. And fewer still know about the thousands who died in the following 72 hours. I was there.

I was a young trainee surgeon from a middle class Delhi background, interested in rock and roll, beer and cricket. Punjab to the north was fractured by violence between Sikh militants and government forces. People like me, who argued that both sides were committing atrocities, were shouted down by a polarised society. I was frustrated and distressed, but life in Delhi carried on. All that changed at 9.20am on 31 October 1984.

That morning I walked into the ward and the normally deferential clerk snarled at me: “Tum haramzadoon ney maar diya madam ko” (“You bastards have killed madam.”).

I couldn’t comprehend his tone or the content of what he was saying. I turned to a nurse: “Did you hear that? He swore at me”. She said: “Haven’t you heard? Indira Gandhi has been shot by her Sikh bodyguards. She is being brought to AIIMS”.

AIIMS, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, was our big neighbour and where the VIPs went. Our hospital served the poor, the dispossessed and those without political or economic clout. I rushed to AIIMS, which was already seething with a mass of humanity. People spoke in hushed whispers, the crowd swarmed anxiously, senior government figures arrived with blaring alarms, police and security guards were everywhere. There was an ominous foreboding in the humid air.

A colleague approached and whispered: “It is not safe for Sikhs. Please leave”. The gates were blocked by teeming crowds. As I squeezed my way through, someone shouted “you bastards” and a blow fell on my neck. My turban came off. Clutching my turban and crouching, I forced my way through as more blows rained down upon my back. I managed to stumble into an auto-rickshaw, pleading with the driver to take me away.

I wasn’t hurt, just badly shaken. The blows I received were a manifestation of grief turned into anger, and mourning expressed as assault. It was unfocused, not directed at me personally but at a Sikh who was somehow responsible for the death of Indira Gandhi, the country’s mother.

The killings started late that evening. National television had a continuous broadcast of footage of Indira Gandhi’s body, surrounded by crowds shouting “Khoon ka badla khoon” (“Seek blood for blood”). The Wikipedia entry for the riots states that the first Sikh was killed on 1 November 1984. I know of an elderly Sikh man who was killed on 31 October around 9 pm. Truth is hard to establish in a state of total anarchy.

“Khoon ka badla khoon” – on and on it went, repeated over and over again and broadcast to the nation. Rumour was rife; trains were arriving from Punjab with the Hindu passengers having all been killed by the Sikhs onboard; Sikhs were celebrating and distributing sweets; Sikhs had poisoned the water supply of Delhi.

Two police officers, from my local police station, went around our colony with a megaphone: “Don't drink water. The Sikhs have poisoned it.” I challenged them: “Do you think taps know the religion of a household? Would Delhi Sikhs be able to avoid being poisoned? What nonsense is this?” One of them pushed me aside.

Our residential area had a large number of Sikh families and a dominant Hindu population. Elders from the Hindu and Sikh communities convened a meeting at the local temple. Our Hindu neighbours reassured us that they would protect us. Street patrols were formed and young people were placed on rooftops to look out for approaching mobs. We patrolled the area with whatever weapons we could find: hockey sticks, cricket bats, tennis rackets, axes, broomsticks. My father had a ceremonial Sikh sword, four feet long, but it was blunt and useless. I walked with it unsheathed, unsure whether I would have the nerve to ever use it. We could see fires raging in the distance. We heard that Sikhs were being killed in large numbers, but there was no way to find out.

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. Electoral lists were distributed so Sikh households could be identified. The mobs, already suffused with anger, 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 bloodlust: “Khoon ka badla khoon”.

The violence continued for three days. About 8,000 Sikhs were killed in North India, with more than 3,000 in Delhi. I was able to leave the area on the morning of 4 November, hiding in the back of a Hindu friend’s car. We went looking for a family we knew a few miles away but the streets were deserted and the family had fled. We found a badly burnt girl, she was around 15 and barely alive; we tried to get her admitted to a local hospital but the A&E consultant refused to admit her. We found a relief camp and left her there. To this day, I don’t know if she survived.

Swaran Singh re-visits India

Several thousand of the widows and children from the carnage were rehoused in what is now known as the Widow Colony. A film is available that explores the widows’ stories. The women were in state of perpetual mourning, the children 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.

Along with some friends, I started visiting the colony, initially just to play with the children and to give them some comfort. We met in a playground in a park. But the children, terrified of strangers, wouldn’t attend. So I offered to provide free medical care to all families who would send the children to the play area. Out went my surgical career, in came a weekly round of collecting medicine from friends and holding a makeshift clinic at weekends. When not gathering aid, I spent my time with a human rights organisation collecting evidence against the politicians who had led the killer mobs.

Swaran Singh re-visits India

We worked with those families for about two years. Every official inquiry exonerated the perpetrators, dismissing robust evidence on the flimsiest of grounds. I decided to become a psychiatrist and moved to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. Here the cycle of violence between the Sikh militants and the government continued. I left India in 1990, disheartened and vowing never to return.

A few weeks ago I returned to the Widow Colony, along with a BBC documentary team. What we found is a tale of sorrow, resilience and a sense of permanent defeat. We met some of those who used to attend the clinic. On the surface the survivors have rebuilt their lives but dig a little deeper and you 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, have committed suicide. The shiny new India is tarnished by its unwillingness to do justice for these people.

Assassination: When Delhi Burned, featuring Professor Swaran Singh and Bobby Friction, will be broadcast on BBC radio at various times from Friday 31 October:

  • Radio 4 on Friday 31 October (11am GMT)
  • BBC Asian Network on Friday 31 October (5pm GMT)
  • BBC World Service on Wed 5 November (Please check local listings for times)
  • The broadcast will also be available online, via the BBC iPlayer.

Swaran SinghSwaran Singh is a Professor at Warwick Medical School, a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation and Trust Hub Lead at the Mental Health Research Network Heart of England Hub. After training as a surgeon, Professor Singh became interested in mental health following involvement with human rights groups working with children traumatised by the ethnic violence in New Delhi. He trained as a psychiatrist and moved to the UK in 1991. His research has mainly been health services orientated, focussing on early psychosis, somatisation, and deliberate self-harm, cultural and ethnic factors in mental illness, mental health law, transitions and medical education.