In 2016, I went to Chandigarh to meet Dr Gurdeep Kaur, the daughter of the late Giani Zail Singh, the President of India in 1984. In my interview with her, Dr Kaur told me, “We were scared and felt threatened during 1984. My father rang the then-home minister, PV Narasimha Rao, to call the army in for help. He rang up the prime minister’s office as well, but his calls were either not getting through or were being disconnected. My father was not briefed by the prime minister on the situation. The police were not helping the Sikhs. It all looked organised, even the commissions said so. Sadly, there was no timely action by the then government.”

I also met the former chief justice of Delhi High Court, Justice Rajinder Sachar, in 2016 at the conclave organised by Amnesty International at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. My report on the anti-Sikh massacres of 1984 was being released at this conclave. When I asked him about the pogrom of 1984, Justice Sachar told me, “Soon after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi on 31 October, when almost all of Delhi was burning, an opposition MP rang up the newly inducted home minister, PV Narsimha Rao, to inform him about the situation in the city and the need for the army to be called in. He said that a curfew should be imposed. On the afternoon of 1 November, several citizens, including senior government officials, went to meet the President of India. They were told that the government was still considering whether or not to call in the army; regardless, till late at night, there were no signs of curfew even as mobs wreaked havoc in the national capital.

The mobs that Justice Sachar spoke to me of were indeed running amok through the streets of Delhi in 1984, equipped with iron rods, cans of petrol and kerosene and an execution plan: first, gurdwaras would be desecrated. Second, Sikh establishments would be identified, looted and burnt down. And third, any Sikhs caught alive would be bludgeoned to death. This was a pattern of attack that would reverberate across the city and build into a genocide. Most of the victims belonged to lower-income backgrounds and they lived in jhuggi-jhopadi (slum) colonies in the trans-Yamuna area. The localities worst affected by the violence were Block 32 in Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Mangolpuri and Seemapuri. The Sikhs in these areas were mostly daily wagers while the women were homemakers. These colonies were targeted because they were enclosed and easily identifiable. The Sikhs, especially the men, were brutally murdered – their necks were ringed with tyres that were filled with either petrol or kerosene oil and they were then set on fire. Their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters were raped. Thousands of children were left orphaned.

From Karol Bagh to Moti Bagh, from Connaught Place to Chandni Chowk, anything that belonged to the Sikhs, be it commercial properties or vehicles, fell prey to the mobs that went on a rampage across the national capital.

Senior journalist Harminder Kaur, who lived in Bhogal in South Delhi at that time, told me that throughout the morning of 1 November, there was an influx of armed men from outside Delhi. They were brought in, she said, on government buses, in jeeps and in trucks – all with one mission: to butcher the Sikhs. “Hundreds of men were brought in from Bahadurgarh even though the state borders were sealed. Posh localities and neighbourhoods like Maharani Bagh and New Friends Colony were engulfed in the conflagration of the massacre; mobs roamed about with lists bearing addresses of properties owned by Sikhs.”

Several calls for help were made to police control control rooms.

None were answered. “In desperation, some Sikhs tuned their radios onto FM and discovered that the only instructions given to the police were to look after Bravo Two’s (Rajiv Gandhi’s) security and safety.”

In Bhogal, continued Harminder Kaur, the fear was such that even her brothers didn’t venture out of the house for days. She had to go out furtively to get supplies for the family. “Perhaps we were lucky that our neighbours stood up for us. The Afghans in the neighbourhood showed the locals how to make petrol bombs and that helped the Sikhs defend their lives and properties.”

In 2016, at the same conclave where I met Justice Sachar, Seema Mustafa, a senior journalist who had been working with the Telegraph in 1984, said to me, “It was a complete bonfire – around the Parliament, the area which is the VVIP area, around the Rashtrapati Bhavan, around South Block and North Block, that whole area … All that you could see were the huge fires rising up from the Sikh taxi stands that were being burnt. In South Delhi, I actually saw with my own eyes, mobs entering houses that they knew belonged to Sikhs and dragging people out. Some were saved. But many were not saved. I went to Trilokpuri with a photographer. There were not many journalists out there. Remember that this was the time before television. Except for one or two newspapers, the other papers did not flood Delhi with their reporters, so actual eyewitnesses were few and far between. You can count them on your fingers.”

Mustafa recalled that when she arrived in Trilokpuri, chaos was prevailing. “We had borrowed someone’s old white Ambassador, and we were wondering why people were running. Then we realised that the entire place was burning. We stopped the car and got out to see what was being burnt. To our shock, we realized they were human bodies. Each bonfire had bodies.”

To get a rough count of how many victims there were, Mustafa remembers stopping by each bonfire and counting the number of bodies she could see.

“People often referred to rumours, deadly rumours, that it was the Sikhs who were butchering people. One of the rumours circulating at that time was that trains were coming in from Punjab, loaded with dead bodies. This was an unmistakable parallel being drawn between the trains of 1984 and those that came from Pakistan during Partition. I went to the railway station very early in the morning – I must have been there at 7 am and I was there till six or seven in the evening. I was the only reporter there – and there were trains coming in and all of them were full of bodies of Sikhs. So, because the rumour going around was that the Sikhs were killing people, Hindu mobs were incited to go to the outskirts of Delhi, stop trains coming in from different locations, pull out the Sikh passengers, burn them alive, and then put their bodies back into the coaches. I counted 200 dead bodies in one day.”

And what of the women? Where were the Kaurs of 1984 while this carnage was taking place? My conversations with the survivors of the massacres reveal a grim timeline.

Between 31 October 1984 and 2 November 1984, Sikh women across Delhi were either hiding or running around the national capital with their children, looking for safety. Those who were caught by the mob were either abducted or raped. Among the women I spoke to, those who had witnessed Partition told me that in their eyes, 1984 was no different from 1947 in the kind of gendered violence that broke out across the capital. Women were at the heart of crimes of revenge and communalism in 1947, and they were at the heart of similar crimes in 1984 as well. Their own families brutalised them too, by forcing them to stay silent in order to safeguard the chastity and purity of the family, thinking who would marry these girls if the truth became known.

Excerpted with permission from The Kaurs of 1984: The Untold, Unheard Stories of Sikh Women, Sanam Sutirath Wazir, HarperCollins India.