The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of October 31 to November 4, 1984, in New Delhi

9 June, 2009
Baixas Lionel

The 1984 Delhi Anti-Sikh Pogrom refers to a four-day pogrom that took place in various parts of India’s capital, New Delhi, causing the death of nearly 3,000 Sikhs. It followed the assassination on October 31, 1984 of Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, by her two Sikh bodyguards, in revenge for Operation Blue Star. This event – probably the most deadly in the violent history of Delhi – remains highly controversial. Twenty-five years later, most of its instigators and perpetrators remain unpunished despite the claims of various survivors and human rights groups that the pogrom was orchestrated by officials of the Congress Party with the connivance of Delhi administration and police. Anti-Sikh violence was not restricted to Delhi but also took place in other Hindi-speaking heartland states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This case study nonetheless focuses on Delhi as the pattern of violence was set up there and then reproduced elsewhere.


A – Context

The relationship between the Sikh community of Punjab and the Indian central government had been marked by tension since India’s accession to independence on August 15, 1947. Considering themselves as the great losers and victims of the Partition of the British Raj , Sikhs have often interpreted the policies of the Indian national government as discriminatory and harmful to their faith and community. They resented the inclusion of Sikhs in the frame of the Hindu religion under article 25 of the 1950 Indian Constitution and were outraged by the central government’s refusal to grant their demand for the creation of a Punjabi Suba (a Punjabi-speaking province where Sikhs would be the majority) while similar demands were granted to other states in the frame of the linguistic reorganization of states’ boundaries during the mid-fifties. Started in 1950, the Punjabi Suba movement finally achieved its goal in 1966, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promulgated the tri-partition of the Indian Punjab between Punjab (where Sikhs represent nearly 60% of the population whereas they form only 2% of the national population), Haryana (gathering some Hindi-speaking districts) and Himachal Pradesh (getting adjacent Hindi-speaking districts). Then, first in 1973 and again in 1978, following the Emergency, New Delhi discarded and unduly stigmatized as secessionist the demands from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – the Sikh premier political party – contained in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. It requested decentralization of power, provincial autonomy, industrial development, better allocation of Punjab’s river waters, abolition of the ceiling for the recruitment of Sikhs in the Army, attribution of Chandigarh as capital of Punjab only (to this date Chandigarh is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and an Union territory), etc. It is during this period that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the head of the religious seminar Dam Dami Taksal, tapped into Sikh discontent and emerged as the iconic leader of the struggle against the «Hindu conspiracy» which was said to undermine the Sikh religion and community. During the early 1980s Punjab witnessed a rising confrontation when Hindu and Sikh civilians as well as police officers were hit by a wave of killings. It attributed by the Indian government to alleged Sikh militants. In 1982, at the time when the SAD was launching a popular and pacifist movement called Dharm Yudh Morcha , Bhindranwale moved with his followers to the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, in order to spread his message among the Sikhs of Punjab. Indira Gandhi who was worried by his rise, though it was allegedly sponsored by some of her close advisors such as Giani Zail Singh as a mean to weaken the SAD, ordered the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple Complex and capture Bhindranwale. The assault was called Operation Blue Star and took place on June 6, 1984. It resulted in the total destruction of the Akal Takht – the highest site of authority within Sikhism – as well as the library, which contained original copies of Sikhism’s most sacred texts. Moreover, Bhindranwale and most of his followers were killed. The Sikhs, whether supporters of Bhindranwale or not, were shocked by this attack on their most revered place of worship and outraged by the scale of violence. According to official accounts, Operation Blue Star caused 493 civilian deaths and 83 army casualties. But both eyewitnesses and scholars question this figure as thousands of pilgrims were within the Golden Temple Complex on the very day of the assault as it was, purposely or not, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Arjun. This event propelled a cycle of extreme violence, which lasted until 1995, between the Indian state forces and some Sikh armed militants fighting for an independent Sikh state in Punjab named Khalistan. While violence unleashed during the Khalistan movement was mostly concentrated in the Punjab, another event – the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, in retaliation for her sending the army to the Golden Temple – set off a second sequence of mass violence, this time in New Delhi, the capital of India. It lasted for four days and resulted in the death of nearly 3,000 Sikhs.


B – Instigators and Perpetrators

Contrary to what is commonly believed, this pogrom was not the result of a spontaneous reaction of the masses due to anger caused by the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was rather an organized, politically engineered action involving Congress politicians, Delhi police officers and Hindu civilians. As far as the decision-makers are concerned, it is difficult to provide sufficient evidence to incriminate officials from the central government that is Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister of India, and his cabinet. However, Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous comment on the pogroms, «when a mighty tree fall, the earth shall shake», as well as Home Minister Narasimha Rao’s inaction can be interpreted at least as passive acquiescence to the violence. The pogrom nonetheless seems not to be part of a conspiracy by the Indian government but was rather «organized for the government by forces which the government itself had created» (Van Dike, 1996: 206). In the final analysis, the mass-scale nature of the violence in such a short span of time implies that the attack might have been planned, possibly since Operation Blue Star (Kothari, 1985) and underlines the existence of an institutional riot structure (Brass, 2006 : 63-105) readily available in Delhi.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot at her residence, No. 1 Safdarjung Road, by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, at 9:15 AM on October 31, 1984. After the attack, she rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where she died from her injuries a couple of hours later. Following the announcement of her death on All India Radio (AIR), people started to gather around AIIMS during the afternoon. They were shouting heinous slogans such as «Khun ka badla, khun se lenge » («Blood for blood») or «Sardar Qaum Ke Ghaddar » («Sardars – another name for Sikh men – are the nation’s traitors») which were broadcasted all day through the state-owned TV chanel Doordarshan . Some scattered incidents occurred in and out of the area, particularly in the neighboring constituency of Congress Councilor, Arjun Dass. The car of President of India Giani Zail Singh, himself a Sikh, was stoned when he reached AIIMS around 5:20 PM. Some Sikhs were pulled out of cars and buses, beaten and their turban burnt. However, no killings occurred on that day, meaning that violence was a localized and spontaneous reaction of a mob angered at the death of Indira Gandhi.

Both the scale and nature of violence changed between October 31 and November 1. During this night, several Congress (I) –(I for Indira) senior and local leaders held meetings in order to mobilize their local supporters. They were highly instrumental in the instigation and organization of the pogrom. Some of them, such as Congress (I) Member of Parliament (MP) Sajjan Kumar and Congress (I) Trade Union Leader and Metropolitan Councilor Lalit Maken provided alcohol and money to rioters, encouraging them to perpetrate the killings. Rioters were also provided with free transportation from their locality in the outskirts of Delhi to the city. Trucks, tempos and other means of transportation, including Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses in South Delhi and even police vehicles, were extensively used to carry the mobsters to those areas of the city where Sikhs were concentrated. Congress (I) leaders supplied them with lathis (bamboo sticks), uniformed-size iron bars, knives, trishuls (trident), clubs, and highly inflammable substance such as kerosene. Because kerosene was far to expensive for the assailants to afford, it was provided by kerosene dealers belonging to the Congress (I), such as the president of Sultanpuri A/4 Block Brahmanand Gupta. Finally, they were also supplied with the names and addresses of Sikhs available from electoral and school registration as well as ration lists. This information had to be read by Congress (I) leaders to the mostly illiterate assailants.

Not only did Congress (I) leaders organize meetings to gather perpetrators, distribute weapons and identify targets, but also some even acted as direct leaders for the mob Besides the three names mentioned earlier, the names of Congress (I) officials accused of leading mobs and inciting mobsters to kill Sikhs that can be read in most of the affidavits filed by victims and survivors are the following: Dharam Dass Shastri, Jagdish Tytler, H.K.L Bhagat, Balwan Khokhar, Kamal Nath, brothers Tek Chand and Rajinder Sharma, Dr. Ashok, Shyam Singh Tyagi and Bhoop Singh Tyagi. The attacks started simultaneously in various parts of the citybetween 8:00 and 10:00 AM on November 1. The first targets in the localities populated by Sikhs were the Sikh Gurudwara (places of worship). The Shri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptural canon) was desecrated by attackers who urinated on it and then burnt down the Gurudwaras . Sikh properties were targeted as well as symbols of the Sikh faith. Turbans, uncut hair and beards were the next target, meaning that members of the community were directly attacked. The modus operandi of killings was meticulous, systematic and reproduced everywhere across the city. Assailants raided previously identified Sikh households, grabbed the men and pulled them out. They started by tearing off their turbans, beat them with iron nods and/or knives and finally neck-laced them with a tire, which was set on fire. The bodies or remnants were left on the spot before being collected three days later in order to hide the scale of killings (Grewal, 2007: 167). Afterwards, the properties were looted and set on fire. Women and children were generally spared though some were also killed and many of them gang-raped, often in front of their relatives. The Sikhs who were seen by the mobs in the streets were mercilessly chased and killed through the same technique. The Congress (I) leaders who led the mobs were often assisted on the ground by gang leaders drawn from the underworld of the J.J. (jhuggi-jhonpri or «huts and shacks») colonies. These colonies later renamed resettlement colonies were set up by the Congress at the time of the Emergency in order to relocate people living in slums outside the city centre. The colonies became an important vote bank of the party. Local politicians started to use local criminals for political rallies and in order to intimidate opponents. These gangs provided the local Congress leaders with mostly poor and illiterate mercenaries ready to perpetrate the carnage. Some backward castes of Jats and Gujjars and Schedule castes men such as Bhangis from the urban villages around Delhi also participated in the massacre, mostly driven by the desire to loot and by their hatred of the well-off Sikhs of Delhi’s posh areas. Killing, looting and arson went on unabated the entire day and even increased on November 2. The crowd stopped trains to pull out Sikh passengers pulled kill them. The day after, violence tended to decrease in the centre of Delhi but remained massive in the resettlement colonies. Finally, by November 4, law and order was almost restored despite some episodic attacks.

The Delhi police was not only conspicuous by its absence but also eventually encouraged and even indulged in violence. More police was in charge of Indira Gandhi’s funeral procession than of the security of Sikhs. Although the city was placed under curfew, neither police nor army was there to enforce it. The army was deployed only on the afternoon of November 1 but abstained from using fire against rioters. In some cases, police and rioters were actually working hand in hand as expressed by this slogan: «Police hamare saath hai » («The police is with us»). Other slogans, this time of extermination, were also shouted on that day: «Maar Deo Salon Ko » («Kill the bastards»), «Sikhon do mar do aur loot lo » («Kill the Sikhs and rob them») and «Sardar koi bhi nahin bachne pai » («Don’t let any Sardar escape»). The police even disarmed Sikhs who tried to protect themselves and their relatives by force. These were either handed over to mobsters or sent back home unprotected, when the police did not kill them immediately. Moreover, the police refused to record people’s complaints and FIRs (First Information Reports) after the pogrom. When it was done, it was in such a manner that the reports were useless for prosecution. With regards to the prosecution, the Nanavati Commission report had already stated: «There is ample material to show that no proper investigation was done by the police even in those cases which were registered by it. In fact, the complaint of many witnesses is that their complaints or statements were not taken by the police and on the basis thereof separate offences were not registered against the assailants whom they had named. Even while taking their statements, the police had told them not to mention names of the assailants and only speak about the losses caused to them. There is also material to show that the police did not note down the name of the assailants who were influential persons [Jagdish Tytler and Balwan Khokhar]». The police also contributed to the spreading of rumors, therefore aggravating the situation. The first rumor to be spread in order to stir up the desire of revenge of Hindus was that Sikhs were dancing Bhangra , setting off firecrackers, and distributing sweets when they heard the news of Indira Gandhi’s death. Phone calls by police officials and touring police vans with loudspeakers broadcasted the fake rumors that Sikhs had poisoned the water supply and that a train had arrived from Punjab full of dead Hindus. Once violence unleashed itself, other rumors were disseminated according to which crowds of Sikhs were creating havoc in the city and urging Hindus to defend themselves.


C – Victims

The victims of this pogrom were all members of one particular religious minority: the Sikhs. Sikhs, particularly males, are easily recognizable due to their distinctive appearance, and so are there places of worship. According to the 1981 census, they were 393,921 Sikhs in Delhi, representing 6.33% of the population (Misra, 1974: 14). In October 1984, the Sikh population approximated 500,000, that is 7.5% of the total population, while Hindus made up 83% of the population of Delhi. Most of Sikhs were migrants from West Punjab who settled in Delhi at the time of Partition. Before that their population amounted to only 1.2% (Harlock, 2007: 115). Tilak Nagar in the north of Delhi has the most important concentration of Sikhs: approximately 300,000 of its 450,000 inhabitants (ibid.: 115). Others clusters of Sikhs could be found in the resettlement colonies east of Jamuna river and north of the city. While the Sikh population increased in Delhi, going up from 290,000 in 1971 to 550,000 in 2001, their actual percentage decreased from 7.2% to 4% of the city’s population. The decrease was particularly pronounced during the decade between 1981 and 1991 (Grewal, 2007: 16). Besides, although Sikhs formed a small and decreasing majority (59 %) in the state of Punjab (ibid.: 16), they represent barely 2% of India’s population, meaning nearly 20 million people (Census of India, 2001).

Delhi’s Sikhs are streaming from every cross-sections of socio-economic classes – weavers, potters, construction workers, small and big business entrepreneurs, educated elite, military personnel, white- and blue-collar employees, wholesalers, retailers and transporters. They are present in every part of Delhi but can be seen increasingly when one leaves the urban and wealthy centre in direction of the poor margins of the city. The class angle of killings was particularly significant. It is actually in the farthest outskirts of Delhi that violence was the most extreme and deadly. The worst affected areas were the resettlement colonies of East, West and North Delhi such as Trilokpuri, Kalyanpur, and Mangalpuri, but the middle class neighborhoods of Connaught Place, Vasant Vihar, Maharani Bagh, New Friends Colony, Lodhi Colony, and Hauz Khas were not spared. However, there, more looting than killing took place.

The first official estimate of casualties in Delhi was of only 325 killed (including 46 Hindus). The Hindustan Times reported these numbers on November 11, 1984. However, three years later, the official death toll was said to be 2,733, leaving over 1,300 widows and 4,000 orphans (Kaur, 2006: 5). Besides, more than 50,000 Sikhs also left Delhi after the pogrom. The Sikh victims in Delhi had actually nothing to do neither with the militancy in Punjab nor with the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Quite on the contrary, many of them had even been close supporters of the Congress. Among Sikhs, victims were carefully discriminated against on the basis of gender and class. The main targets were the low class Sikh males between 20 and 50 years of age of the poor East Delhi Trans-Jamuna localities. This gendered profiled targeting means that the mobsters were willing to attack Sikh male procreators and Sikh families’ bread-winners. Women were also subjected to violence, mainly in the form of rape. Particularly aimed at was the honor of families by showing the incapacity of Sikh males to protect their women which were aimed at. The survivors, mainly widows, orphans and old people, went to relief camps, Gurudwaras and relatives’ house but the Indian state refused to take adequate measures to provide relief to survivors.


D – Witnesses

The main witnesses of this pogrom are the survivors, mainly Sikh women, children and old people. Their personal experiences and recollections of the violence are presented in the thousands of affidavits they filed. These affidavits were used by the various commissions set up after the pogrom and in charge of inquiring about it. Many of these are now available for consultation through the following link:

The survivors’ personal accounts and those of relatives of victims were also collected by human rights activists and published in their reports such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights’ Who are the Guilty? (See Annex 2) and Citizens for Democracy’s Truth about Delhi Violence . Some reporters also provided first-hand accounts of the killings. Rahul Kuldip Bedi and Joseph Maliakan of The Indian Express were the first journalists to enter Trilokpuri, where the most gruesome massacre occurred on November 2. Eminent novelists such as Amitav Ghosh in his The Ghost of Indira Gandhi and Khuswant Singh, himself a Sikh, also wrote about what they had witnessed during the pogrom.

Scholars also played an important role in collecting the memories of survivors. Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar conducted several interviews with survivors for their book The Delhi Riots (Chakravarti & Haksar, 1987). Veena Das worked on the experience of the survivors of Sultanpuri from November 5, 1984 till July 1985 (Das, 1990). More recently Jyoti Grewal (Grewal, 2007) and Angela Harlock (Harlock, 2007) have conducted interviews with survivors, mostly women, in Tilak Vihar, also known as the Widows’ Colony since many widows were relocated there.


E – Memories

The memory of the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi is rather characterized by its absence than by its presence. The commissions set up to inquire about the events have mainly contributed to impose silence rather than remembrance by whitewashing the Congress officials. In August 2005, following the reception of Nanavati Commission’s report, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, apologized to the Sikh community as well as to the Indian nation for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom: «On behalf of our government [United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-government led by the Congress], on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place… I have no hesitation in apologizing to the Sikh community. I apologize not only to the Sikh community but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution… we as a united nation can ensure that such a ghastly even is never repeated in India’s future.» (Manmohan Singh, 2005) Although an apology can be interpreted as an expression of accountability, if not culpability, the fact that Manmohan Singh never refers to the role played by the Congress deprived it of all its meaning. Moreover, he rejected remembrance of the killings and advised the survivors to bury their memories and move on: «By reliving that, by reminding us again and again you do not promote the cause of national integration, of strengthening our nation sense for security» (ibid.).

The guardians of the memory of November 1984 are primarily the Sikh widows and their children. The numerous widows located in Tilak Vihar are commonly referred to as ‘Chaurasiye ‘ or 84-ers, hence conferring a new kind of collective identity to the survivors of the pogrom. Interestingly, the traumatic experience of the survivors is often mediated by the memory of the Partition massacres of 1947. 1984 is conceived as the Second Migration, an intra-national one this time, towards Punjab, the first being in 1947. Both are deemed unforgettable and at the same time unspeakable of. But what is for Sikhs the most unbearable is the feeling of injustice and hopelessness fed by the 24 years of impunity for perpetrators of the carnage. While the only response of the Indian state is to provide survivors with financial compensation, what Sikhs ask for is the prosecution of instigators and perpetrators. This implies that justice must come first. Only then can an appeased memory be born.

In recent years, a few movies and documentaries dealing with the pogrom were released such as Amu directed by Shonali Bose in 2005, 1984 Sikhs’ Kristallnacht edited by Parvinder Singh in 2004 and The Widow Colony – India’s Unsettled Settlement directed by Harpreet Kaur. The year 2007 also witnessed the consecutive publication of two books on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, respectively Jyoti Grewal’s Betrayed by the State and Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka’s When a Tree Shook Delhi . This renewed interest in the event is however not received in the same manner by victims who feels that it only serves the interests of scholars, journalists and activists, hence changing nothing about their plight. The main legacy of this pogrom among Sikhs is thus a strong sense of fear, humiliation, bitterness and alienation towards Hindus.


F – General Interpretations of the Facts

The official as well as popular or academic naming itself of the events tends to undermine and to distort the nature of the violence perpetrated in Delhi between November 1 and 4, 1984. The commonly used term of «riots» is a misnomer meant to reduce the violence to a simple and spontaneous outburst of grief and anger and to describe it as a conflict between ethnic and religious groups. Actually, the obviously orchestrated and evidently targeted nature of the violence, and also the fact that the Sikhs of Delhi could and indeed have barely retaliated, make it far more accurate to define it as a «pogrom».

The first kind of general interpretation given for this violence was that it was the result of a spontaneous outburst of popular anger and grief of Indian citizens over the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This ‘official narrative’ was particularly publicized by the Congress government. Indira Gandhi’s son and successor at the post of Prime Minister of India himself justified this stance when he stated that «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» (quoted in Negi, 2007). Moreover, another factor is often added to this interpretation according to which Sikhs had brought this violence on themselves, deserving «to be taught a lesson» because of violence perpetrated against Hindus by Sikh militants in Punjab during the previous years.

Another kind of general interpretation, though minor, is that it was essentially a law and order problem with a strong class base as it was members of lower castes who looted wealthy localities with the complicity of the police-criminals-politicians nexus (Van Dike, 1996: p. 204). There was an echo of this interpretation in the Misra Commission report of inquiry, which failed to prosecute anyone.

A last opposite general explanation put forward by most human rights organizations is that this pogrom «far from being spontaneous expressions of ‘madness’ and ‘grief and anger’ at Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination as made out by authorities, was rather the outcome of a well organized action marked by acts of both commissions and omissions on the part of important politicians of the Congress (I) at the top and by authorities in the administration» (PUCL-PUDR, 1984: 1). Citizens for Democracy even went further by stating that this pogrom was primarily meant «to arouse passion within the majority community – Hindu chauvinism – in order to consolidate Hindu votes in the election held on December 27, 1984, which was indeed massively won by the Congress (I) (Rao & al., 1985: 1).

However, it seems not enough to explain this pogrom only as ‘state-sponsored’ or in terms of a Congress’ conspiracy as this explanation is unable to account for the differentiated spatial structure of the violence (Das, 2005: 93). Das argued that only an analysis of the articulation between the spectacular events of collective violence and the everyday life in places where violence occurred can help us understand some phenomena. The question remains why in a locality such as Sultanpuri violence spread only in some areas and not all of them. As a result, the local structure of caste cleavages, kinship networks and economic relationships must be studied in order to understand why violence occurred where it had.


G – Legal and Judicial (In)Action

To this date and despite the establishment of three commissions and seven committees of inquiry in charge of investigating and probing various aspects of the pogrom, none of the main organizers of the pogrom have been prosecuted. The Indian judicial system failed to hold them accountable either on its own initiative or because of pressure by Congress party and governments. In spite of prolonged trials, only 13 persons have been convicted and one of them declared a proclaimed offender. Furthermore, some of the key instigators managed to go on with their political career. For instance, Kamal Nath, H.K.L Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler were all reelected in their respective constituency and were all given several cabinet minister positions.

After repeated refusals to set up a commission of inquiry, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi finally appointed in April 1985 Ranganath Misra, a judge of the Supreme Court, as head of a commission in charge of inquiring «into the allegations in regards to the incidents of organized violence which took place in Delhi following the assassination of the late Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi» and recommending «measures which may be adopted for prevention of recurrence of such incidents» (Misra, 1987: 1). A little earlier, a commission led by Ved Marwah, additional commissioner of police, had been appointed in November 1984 to inquire into the role of the police during the pogrom. It was then stalled by the Central government and its records were selectively passed on to the next commission when the Misra Commission was set up. The Misra Report concluded that violence had been spontaneous; a result of the grief caused by Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and blamed it on the «lower classes» of society, which it held responsible because of its increasing criminalization. It then exonerated senior police officers and politicians by putting the blame on the subordinate ranks of the police, which were only accused of indifference. Moreover, it added that if Congress (I) workers had indeed participated in the killings, it was not as party members but in their personal capacity. Besides, another committee headed by Gurdial Singh Dhillon was appointed in 1985 to recommend measures for the rehabilitation of victims. It asked that the insurance claims of attacked business establishments be paid but the Central government rejected the claims. In February 1987, three more committees were appointed by the government on the basis of recommendations of the Misra Commission. Firstly, the Jain-Banerjee committee, which was subsequently replaced by the Potti-Rosha committee in March 1990 and then by the Jain-Aggarwal committee in December 1990, was charged to examine the registration and investigation of criminal cases, recommend the registration of cases, and monitor the conduct of investigations. All looked at accusations against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, and recommended cases to be registered against both. However, none was registered against them and the probe stopped in 1993. Secondly, the Ahooja committee had to establish the official number of deaths in the massacres. And thirdly, the Kapur-Mittal committee was in charge of further discussing the role of the police. Seventy-two policemen were identified for connivance or gross negligence and 30 recommended for dismissal but no one was punished. Then, another committee, the Narula committee, was appointed in December 1993 by Madhan Lal Khurana government in Delhi. It also recommended registration of cases of some Congress (I)’s leaders such as H.K.L Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. However, it had once again no effect since no case was registered.

Finally, a last commission was set up in May 2000 by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) through an unanimous resolution passed at the Rajya Sabha. It was headed by Justice G. T. Nanavati, retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. Its terms of inquiry were nearly the same as Misra Commission’s. The Nanavati report was submitted to the government in February 2005. Contrary to the Misra Commission, its procedure of inquiry was fully transparent and it acknowledged that violence from November 1 onwards was organized though it understated the scale of violence and failed to hold anyone accountable for it. The Nanavati Commission issued notices to H.K.L Bhagat, former Union Minister, Dharamdas Shastri, former Member of Parliament (MP), Kamal Nath (Union Commerce Minister at the time), and asked for the reopening of the cases against then MP Sajjan Kumar (Chairman Delhi Rural Development Board) and Jagdish Tytler (Union State Minister for Non-Resident Indians (NRI) at the time). However, the government refused to reopen these cases and the only consequence of this report was that the last two had to resign from their official position. Concerning Sajjan Kumar, the Nanavati Report stated, «The Commission is inclined to take the view that there is credible evidence against Sajjan Kumar and Balwan Khokhar for recording a finding that they were probably involved as alleged by witnesses», and recommended to the Union Government to «examine only those cases were witnesses have accused Sajjan Kumar specifically and yet no charge sheets were filed against him and cases were terminated as untraced» (Nanavati Report, 2005). In the Sultanpuri case alleging his involvement in the killing in Sultanpuri, the only 1984 riot case against Sajjan Kumar being probed by the CBI before it registered five more cases against him following the Nanavati Commission report in 2005, Sajjan Kumar was acquitted in December 2002, the trial judge trashing the CBI saying it had «miserably failed to prove the case». It took five years for the CBI to get its appeal against the acquittal admitted in the Delhi High Court and no charge sheet has been registered in the five other cases in four years. About Jagdish Tytler the Nanavati Report reads «Relying upon all this material, the Commission considers it safe to record a finding that there is a credible evidence against Jagdish Tytler to the effect that very probably he had a hand in organizing attacks on Sikhs. The Commission, therefore, recommends to the government to look into this aspect and take further action as may be find necessary» (Nanavati, 2005). One of the cases against Tytler relates to an incident when a mob set afire Gurudwara Pulbangash killing three persons. Both Surinder Singh, who was the head Granthi of Gurudwara Sahib Majnu ka Tilla, and Jasbir Singh, who was living in Delhi, categorically told the CBI they had seen Tytler instigating the mob and heard him telling his supporters on November 1, 1984 outside the Gurudwara: «Don’t only loot them but kill them. They have killed our mother». However, in its action-taken report, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government rejected these recommendations on the ground that «In criminal cases, a person cannot be prosecuted simply on the basis of probability».

Once again the truth about the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984 was buried by the government and the survivors’ quest for knowledge, justice and reparation stalled. The burial of the truth went on recently when the Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) gave to both Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, Congress’ candidates for respectively Delhi north-eastern and southern constituencies, a clean chit allowing them to participate in the 15th Lok Sabha elections, on the ground that the testimonies of Surinder Singh, a self-proclaimed eyewitness, and Jasbir Singh, a California-based witness, were too inconsistent, unreliable and unworthy of credit.

However the ghosts of 1984 resurfaced in the course of the electoral campaign when Jarnail Singh, a Sikh journalist and Dainik Jagran ‘s Defence correspondent, threw one of his shoes at Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram during a Congress press conference. This event propelled a wave of protest among the Sikh communities of Delhi and Punjab and many political observers also criticized the CBI for being patently non-independent and behaving like the handmaiden of the Congress government. This led to the removal of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, the last two recognizable public figures perceived to have led the mob to attack Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 (others like H.K.L. Bhagat and Lalit Maken are long gone), as Congress’ candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. The two «offered to withdraw» from the contest in view of the controversy over their candidature which could have affected the Congress’ electoral prospects not only in the capital but also in Punjab.

As the wait for the charge sheets continues, the Congress once again only settled for temporary damage control for the sake of political exigency with no concern for the victims’ quest for justice. Notwithstanding the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh Prime Minister, calling the riots a «national shame» in Parliament, Congress President Sonia Gandhi visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and Rahul Gandhi’s statement that the 1984 riots were «unfortunate and condemnable» were relatively well received, the Congress party seems unable to learn from history and to understand that the ghosts of 1984 cannot be exorcised unless the victims get full justice.


H – Bibliography



CHAKRAVARTI Uma & HAKSAR Nandita, The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation , New Delhi, 1987.

GREWAL, Jyoti, Betrayed by the State: The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2007.

KAUR, Jaskaran, Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India , Portland, Ensaaf, 2006.

KOTHARI, Smitu & SETHI, Harsh (eds.), Voices from a Scarred City: The Delhi Carnage in Perspective , Delhi, Lokayan, 1985.

MITTA Manoj & PHOOLKA A.S., When A Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath , Delhi, Roli Books, 2007.


Book chapters:

DAS, Veena, «Our Work to Cry: Your Work to Listen», in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia , Delhi, Oxford University Press (OUP), 1990.

DAS, Veena, «Privileging the Local: The 1984 Riots» in Steven Wilkinson (ed.), Religious Politics and Communal Violence , New Delhi, OUP, 2005, pp. 91-100.

HARLOCK, Angela, «The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots in Delhi» in Ian Talbot (ed.), The Deadly Embrace: Religion, Politics and Violence in India and Pakistan 1947-2002 , Karachi, OUP, 2007, 108-132.

VAN DYKE, Virginia, «The Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984 in Delhi: Politicians, Criminals, and the Discourse of Communalism» in Paul Brass (ed.), Riots and Pogroms , London, Macmillan Press, 1996, 201-220.



Negi, S.S., «84 Anti-Sikh Riot Probes: Book presents gloomy picture of justice denied», in The Tribune , October 31, 2007,



Citizen's Commission, Delhi, 31 October to 4 November, 1984: Report of the Citizen's Commission , Delhi, Tata Press, 1984.

Census of India, 2001: http://www.census

Nanavati Commission Report, «Part IV: Assessment of Evidence and Recommendations for Actions», available at

People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Who are the Guilty? Report of a Joint Inquiry into the Causes and Impact of the Riots in Delhi from 31 October to 10 November, 1984 , New Delhi, PUDR & PUCL, 1984

RAO, Amiya & al., Report to the Nation: Truth about Delhi Violence , New Delhi, Citizens for Democracy, 1985.

Singh, Manmohan, «Text of the Prime Minister (Dr. Manmohan Singh) at the Rajya Sabha during the debate on the adjournment motion regarding action taken report of the government on Nanavati Commission report»,  consulted on June 4, 2009.

Cite this item

Baixas Lionel, The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of October 31 to November 4, 1984, in New Delhi, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 9 June, 2009, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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