In early 1976, the family planning campaign in Delhi began to intensify. Under directions from Sanjay Gandhi, this was soon combined with a so-called programme for the beautification of the capital. What this meant in practice was that slum and jhuggi-jhompri colonies were to be cleared and their residents forcibly sterilised.
The old walled city of Delhi, with its predominantly Muslim population, was the next target. Reports indicate that Sanjay Gandhi visited Turkman Gate sometime in early 1976. He was upset by the hostile reception he received from the residents of the area. It is said that he was also unhappy that the buildings around Turkman Gate restricted his view from where he stood, all the way to the Jama Masjid mosque.
His mind was made up. The slums, buildings and other structures around Turkman Gate would have to be razed to the ground.
The first bulldozer arrived at Turkman Gate on 13 April 1976, accompanied by a small police presence. Initially, some of the outlying hutments were cleared, with no resistance from the public. Then on 15 April, the Dujana House family planning camp was inaugurated by Sanjay Gandhi and the governor of Delhi, Krishan Chand.
Dujana House was a stone’s throw away from Turkman Gate. Almost immediately, rickshaw-wallas, street vendors, beggars and even passers-by started being picked up at random and taken to the camp for forced sterilization. In the days following its opening, Rukshana Sultana, a Muslim social worker connected to Sanjay Gandhi, started pressuring men and women of her community to come forward and be sterilised in return for cash and other incentives.
Soon the pressure turned into force, with the police being pressed into action to ensure that the daily target set for sterilisations was met. Anger swept the neighbourhoods of Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk and Turkman Gate. A general strike was called.
Meanwhile, a more militant group of workers from the lace factory, who lived in the alleys around Turkman Gate, called a meeting. There was unanimous agreement that the people of the area should be mobilised to come out on the streets and oppose further demolitions. Islam, Ram Sewak and Arjun were asked to mobilise other members of their Party and bring them into the area to support any action by the local people.
Ram Sewak immediately left the meeting and headed out to Seelampur. There he contacted members of the Krantikari Harijan Sangh. He could only find three: Ram Lal, Om Prakash and Birju. He explained the situation in Turkman Gate to them and asked them if they were willing to accompany him there to support the proposed protests by the residents of that area. They enthusiastically agreed.
Meanwhile, Islam headed out to one of the safe houses where Harsh was currently living. The “Major” was told that his skills were needed at Turkman Gate. And so by the evening of 17 April, the CPI (ML) group was ensconced at Turkman Gate. Harsh had completed his big task of preparing a small stockpile of Molotov cocktails and acid bulbs; Ram Lal and Birju were taken into homes near Faiz-e-Ilahi mosque, on the far side of the main Asaf Ali Road; and, Ram Sewak, Arjun and Om Prakash were placed in a barsati on the second floor of a house overlooking the Turkman Gate police station.
On 19 April, the bulldozers started moving forward again. The people could take it no more. Protestors came out on the streets and attacked Dujana House.
The police responded with lathi charges and tear gas. At 1.30 pm a large group of women and children collected on the main road at Turkman Gate. The police started arresting the women and tear-gassed the crowd, followed by a lathi charge. Many of the women and children were injured.
Undaunted by this, the protestors moved to the area in front of Faiz-e-Ilahi mosque and sat on the demolished structures. The crowd had now swelled to 5000-6000. But the authorities had made up their minds. Nothing was going to stop them. The bulldozers were ordered to move forward again. This led to massive stone throwing from the protestors.
The conflict had now escalated and the armed police opened fire. Arjun and Om Prakash, standing on their second floor barsati overlooking this war zone, saw many of the protestors hit by bullets and falling over. Suddenly in the midst of this melee, they saw Ram Lal run forward and throw a Molotov cocktail at one of the bulldozers. The machine immediately caught fire. The driver jumped out but the mob rushed forward and beat him to the ground. A second volley of shots was fired by the police. Many of the protestors around the bulldozer were hit. From their vantage point, Arjun and Om Prakash saw Ram Lal falling down.
After that there was no let-up from the police. Random and repeated firing continued until the few remaining protestors in the area had dispersed and not a single person could be seen standing. The whole area was strewn with dead and injured. Ram Lal was probably dead.
Closer to where Ram Sewak, Arjun and Om Prakash were, another crowd had emerged from behind the Faiz-e-Ilahi mosque. In front of them was the old police station of Turkman Gate, manned only by a few policemen. In their anger, the mob attacked the police station, chasing away the few remaining police personnel within the premises.
But their victory was short-lived. Reinforcements from the reserve police and armed police were already crossing the main Asaf Ali Road with the intention of recapturing the police station. This gave Ram Sewak, Om Prakash and other protestors who had gathered on the roofs overlooking the police post their opportunity. Stones and acid bulbs were thrown from above. The weapons, though primitive, rained down on the advancing police parties stopping their progress.
Overwhelmed by this attack, the police retreated from the narrow lanes around the station where they were at a disadvantage. Seeing this, in a surge of adrenalin Om Prakash stood on the barsati railing and started hurling Molotov cocktails at the retreating police force. He did not realise that one of the police commanders, seeing the rooftop fighters, had ordered his men to focus their firing in that direction. A bullet struck Om Prakash in the chest and he fell heavily back on to the barsati floor.
Ram Sewak rushed to where Om Prakash had fallen. He shouted for help; Arjun, who had gone down to the street to see what was happening there, was urgently summoned. Om Prakash was bleeding heavily. Arjun took off his kurta and pressed it against the wound, but the bleeding would not stop. He was in a panic. Om Prakash was dying before him and there was nothing he could do about it.
Meanwhile, the police were continuing to fire at the rooftops. Bullets were flying everywhere and hitting the barsati walls next to them. Arjun held Om Prakash’s hand. He could hear the police advancing again under the cover of this firing. The senior officers were screaming orders to their men. ‘Aage badho, aage badho! Maro salaon ko! Maro, maro!’ (Advance, advance. Shoot the bastards. Shoot, shoot!)
What were he and Ram Sewak to do? Stay with their friend and revolutionary compatriot until the end, knowing that the police force was now out of control and would probably shoot them on the spot if they found them on the barsati roof? Arjun looked down at his hands and saw that they were covered with Om Prakash’s blood. In terror, he extricated his hand from Om Prakash’s grip. Both he and Ram Sewak decided the only option was now to flee the scene. They quickly jumped from the barsati roof on to the lower roof of the adjacent house. From there they climbed down to street level and started running. Random firing was occurring everywhere. Constables were firing their .303 rifles, senior officers firing their revolvers.
Subsequent to the clashes, an army of bulldozers was sent in that night to finish the job, using floodlights. The bulldozers crushed and collected all the bodies – both dead and alive – and along with the rubble disposed them off at a rubbish dump some distance away. The screams of those who were injured or trapped in the rubble could not be heard over the roaring and clanking of the machines. There was no pity, no respite. The demolitions continued for another ten days. Independent researchers place the toll of the massacre at 400 dead and over 1000 wounded. The Shah Commission which considered this event several years later did name several individuals such as Sanjay Gandhi, Jagmohan, Tamta (Commissioner of the Municipal Corporation), Bhinder (Deputy Inspector General of Police), and others, as culpable for the excesses committed at Turkman Gate. But no action was taken against any of them, and no one was ever punished.
Excerpted with permission from The Struggle Within: A Memoir of the Emergency, Ashok Chakravarti, HarperCollins India.
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