Did disparate groups of rioters act spontaneously during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, or was the violence orchestrated at the behest of the top leadership of the Congress? This question has dogged Congress governments since Delhi’s Sikh comunity was devastated by one the bloodiest bouts of communal carnage after Independence. The Congress has long maintained that the violence was an unplanned response to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The riots continued until November 3.
Now, a recent statement by a senior government official of the time has added credence to the allegation that the violence was indeed orchestrated, and that the clearance came from the top. Avtar Singh Gill, the former petroleum secretary, has told Caravan magazine that Arun Nehru, a cousin and confidant of Rajiv Gandhi, had given clearance for Sikhs to be attacked and killed in Delhi.
In an article by the magazine’s political editor Hartosh Singh Bal in the latest issue, Gill is quoted as saying that on November 1, 1984, “Lalit Suri of Lalit Hotels, who used to come and see me often, dropped by. He was the errand boy for Rajiv Gandhi, and since he often needed some work done, he was close to me. He came to me in the ministry and said, ‘Clearance has been given by Arun Nehru for the killings in Delhi and the killings have started. The strategy is to catch Sikh youth, fling a tyre over their heads, douse them with kerosene and set them on fire. This will calm the anger of the Hindus.”
Gill is also quoted as saying that Suri “told me that I should be careful even though my name is not in the voters’ list, the Delhi Gurdwara voters’ list. ‘They [the rioters] have been provided this list. This will last for three days. It has started today, it will end on the third [of November].’”
Gill’s revelations also appear to put to rest the long-term speculation about Arun Nehru’s role in the violence. “That Arun Nehru had a role in the violence has long been widely rumoured, but Gill’s statement marks the first time a senior government official has put the accusation on record,” writes Bal. “His story offers the first coherent explanation for the nature of the violence in Delhi,”
Gill and Nehru
Gill’s revelations have greater significance because he was often consulted by Arun Nehru on Punjab and Sikh issues. “As one of the few Sikhs in a senior position in the government – even though I was clean shaven, he [Nehru] wanted to know my views,” the former petroleum secretary is quoted as saying.
Gill’s also explains – again for the first time – how rioters could easily identify Sikh houses. Lawyer HS Phoolka, who is leading the legal battle to secure justice for the victims of the 1984 riots, is quoted in the article saying “the ease with which Sikh houses were identified would make sense if Gurdwara voters’ lists were available”.
Gurdwara voter lists contain the names of people eligible to vote in the elections to the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. That these lists were already available to “people in the higher ranks” is made clear by another contention Phoolka makes in this article.
“When we were collating material to present before the Misra commission [one of the several panels that enquired into the anti-Sikh riots], we were told by some people in the intelligence community that shortly before Operation Bluestar, fearing a reaction from the Sikhs of Delhi, detailed information on the community had been gathered by the government,” the lawyer is quoted as saying.
The riots left 2,733 Sikhs dead in Delhi, most of them between November 1 and November 3, 1984. Sikhs were also attacked in several other Indian cities, including Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Bokaro in Jharkhand (then a part of Bihar), Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and Rourkela in Orissa.
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