The top police leadership had moved fast, in a way. Orders for police preparedness had come swiftly after news of the shooting of Indira Gandhi – police officers not posted in the local districts headed to the armed police centre where units of the armed police were available, and from where these armed men could be led by these newly transferred officers.

To deal with what? They were never deployed to deal with the city cracking up all around them. So what was the perceived threat for which they were so hastily mobilised and kept on the ready within a few hours of the assassination?

Deployed ­– but for what?

The instant deployment of DCP rank officers to the armed police could only have been ordered by the police commissioner. He knew the city was in flames around him, that men were out killing – he saw that for himself on the morning of 1 November at Rakab Ganj gurdwara, which was attacked, a few minutes’ drive from Teen Murti Bhavan.

The police commissioner had visited Rakab Ganj briefly from Teen Murti Bhavan, where he had positioned himself around the VIPs filing past Mrs Gandhi’s body. Early reports from the gurdwara area had spoken of Sikhs within the gurdwara hitting back at advancing crowds. That brought the police commissioner there ­ he was quick to go to places where reports arose of Sikhs hitting back.

After setting up an armed police reserve so rapidly, and moving senior officers there to command it, the police commissioner did not then order their deployment around the city. Were they kept in preparation to deal with aggression from the Sikhs? Because they certainly were not called upon to stop aggression against the Sikhs.

The officers with the armed police knew they were needed, they had asked to be sent out. This was refused. The unit that went out to east Delhi led to a fearful inspector buying bullets from soldiers to show he had done nothing when in fact he had. Other units stayed put.

It was known to the top police officers that besides these hundreds of armed policemen waiting to be deployed, some at least among the thousands of other armed policemen on routine duties could be available for redeployment from their scattered posts in an emergency. Some of them were posted close to the trouble in the districts. So, many more armed policemen were available than these waiting busloads.

To this huge force of the Delhi Armed Police add a large force from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), at whose raising day the top officers sat on the morning when word came of the assassination. This was an armed force available for the police to summon whenever and wherever the Delhi Armed Police might not be enough. And they were called up – a full platoon from the CRPF stood at the Rakab Ganj gurdwara doing nothing to stop mobs advancing there; they stood as witnesses to the scene and to the fact that an armed force was available to the police, should the police have wanted to stop the killers. They should have.

What one police officer did

And what could Kanwaljit Deol do as a DCP on a regular posting already with the armed police? She was asked to go home. She was then nine months pregnant, and her boss undoubtedly was kind to suggest this. None of the other DCPs with the armed police – and several had been stationed there – was pregnant. As it turned out, Kanwaljit Deol could in any case not go back to find any rest.

“Kulbir Singh said she should go back and rest, so she left,” said Shamsher Deol. “Our house was in East Kidwai Nagar, opposite the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (where Mrs Gandhi’s body had been taken on the morning of the assassination). From our house, you could see the main road. She reached home and went to the roof. She saw a bus being stopped. She saw passing Sikhs being taunted; they didn’t even know what had happened.

“Then they started stopping buses and pulling out people. They pulled out one sardar, and roughed him up, his turban fell off. He grabbed it and started running, he jumped over the nullah. After a bit he stopped and started putting his turban back on. But three or four men started running towards him again. Mrs Deol saw this, walked out and stood between them and the sardar. She spoke sharply to them, told them ‘What are you doing?’ They stopped, looked a little uncertain, they turned around, and they went back. And she was just one pregnant housewife.

“So that was what you needed at that particular time to stop people from doing anything. I think if these 200–300 armed cops we had with us had been at the AIIMS, it would have had an impact on these men. It would have taken very little to put the squeeze on.”

As a top police officer of the armed police, Kanwaljit Deol could do nothing. In her capacity as a pregnant woman, she came close to saving a life. The men she confronted didn’t need even to hear a shot from a revolver, she just shooed them away; and away they went.

Word of strong police action on that evening of 31 October would have gone out to the entire police force. They would have known that they must stop these violent gangs. That evening those violent groups were allowed their way unchecked at one place; later they had their way just about everywhere. The police had been informed, without being told, that if men were running riot against the Sikhs, they must not be stopped.

Late that night Shamsher Deol got deployment orders, he was ordered to move with force. But not to deal with the attacks and all the killing that came that night. He was ordered to head for the five-star Ashok Hotel in Chanakyapuri in south Delhi. That is where VIPs arriving to attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral would be staying. His force would be posted to protect them and to manage VIP movement. It was there that the officer sat uselessly over the next couple of days.

An interview

Sanjay Suri (SS): Through all this, what did you know of [the] events in the rest of the city?

Shamsher Deol (SD): Incidents went on throughout the night. There were a lot of phone calls to the police, and a lot were unattended.

SS: The police simply were not answering distress calls?


SD: Many people did not get through to the police. Later one Sikh told me that he had realised that if we phoned up and said we are Sikhs and we are feeling insecure, you weren’t going to get any kind of response at all. So he said he called to say that Sikhs are gathering around here, they are gathering around us. He said he told others too that they should call and say this. Once they said that, he said, they got such a good response. Calls saying that Sikhs were the ones attacking got a lot more response.

SS: How many such calls might have been made?

SD: We really don’t know how many because everybody wasn’t in the know of what was really happening. People (in the police) were suppressing [information], they were not recording, they had just put the phone off the hook, because you can just imagine how many phone calls were coming through.

SS: And you were sent to Ashok Hotel?

SD: Yes, that night I was asked to go out to Ashok Hotel, where the VIPs would be gathering for the funeral. There they gave me force.

SS: Did the force include Sikhs?

SD: Two of the officers were Sikh, Inspector Shamsher Singh and another guy. When they were coming for work on 1 November, they barely managed to make it. They were in civvies.

SS: Were Sikh police officers attacked?

SD: Yes. We had called a force from the Police Training School, I had a lot of people there doing courses. Those trucks were stopped at Uttam Nagar (in west Delhi) when they were coming. Look at the boldness – these people stopped police trucks, with policemen with arms inside them. They saw three Sikhs inside. They said, we want them to step out of the trucks. They were not handed over, but look at the audacity.

SS: In Ashok Hotel did you have an idea what’s going on in the city?

SD: We didn’t know what was going on, except that here and there we would see smoke going up. We didn’t know why it was like that.

SS: Did you encounter any of these crowds directly?

SD: The next morning I was going to Ashok Hotel from home, and I saw four chaps carrying iron rods, one had a sword. I told my driver to stop. I challenged them, and they just ran. There was a time when the slightest show of intent would have had the desired result. I was in plain clothes but I had a pistol in my hand. I had got myself a 9 mm that I then kept with me.

SS: What was going on within the police force?

SD: I did turn up later at the police headquarters. You see, a lot of the time what happens is that when you do something wrong, you start defending yourself, and then you start believing that defence. And then you find all sorts of reasons why you couldn’t handle the situation, you say there were no clear-cut orders. But you don’t need, you didn’t need, orders.

SS: Did you have any direct dealings with the police commissioner?

SD: Subhash Tandon was the CP (commissioner of police). He earlier had a very good relationship with the Nehru family. He was from the Rajasthan cadre. That was before he became commissioner.

SS: But were there clear orders from the commissioner that the police should go out and stop this?

SD: Well, he is a nice man and personally a gentleman . . .

SS: Yes, personally a gentleman, but we’re not talking about that.

SD: On 1 November he landed up at Ashok Hotel to make sure all was OK. There was blood on his uniform. He told me, ‘Shamsher, people have gone mad.’

Excerpted with permission from 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, Sanjay Suri, HarperCollins India.