Mysteries of Indian politics series: Who ordered massacre of Sikhs in 1984?

On May 9, 2019, Senior advocate #HSPhoolka told ANI at New Delhi that “There is enough evidence on record to show that in 1984 when the Sikhs were being killed, the instructions were coming directly from the Prime  Minister’s Office and the Army was not called in… We have placed our evidence on record before the Nanavati Commission as well as Mishra Commission.”

I have no idea what evidence he and others placed before various commissions but I can share with the readers what I remember of October 31 and certain questions which have been haunting me since then.

At around 11 AM on that fateful day, when I was taking a meeting with some officers of the Indian Airlines in my office in the Yojna Bhawan (office of the erstwhile Planning Commission), a junior colleague barged into my room and broke the news that ‘Indira Gandhi has been shot at and taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.’ As all first learned later, she was already dead but at 11 AM the All India Radio gave the news only of her being shot and admitted to the AIIMS.

About half-an-hour or 45 minutes thereafter, I received a full phone call from my wife to give the same news but what she further said was very alarming. She told me that a friend of hers ‘has told me that there was going to be violence in Delhi and we should bring our children from schools immediately.’ She told me that she was going with her friend to bring the children.

Her friend was the wife of my colleague in my earlier department. I knew that he had close associations with some Congress leaders. We were also neighbours. As I learnt later, he had received a telephonic message from one of his contacts that there was going to be violence and he asked his wife to bring the children from school.

During the lunch break, along with several colleagues of the Planning Commission, I walked to the PTI building, a few yards from my office, to get the latest news which was coming from the BBC. A large gathering had gathered there for the update. The BBC had announced that Indira Gandhi was no more. The AIR announced the death only in the evening news bulletin, after Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as her successor.

As we all know, the first incidence of the anger against the Sikhs was reported from the areas around the AIIMS. In the evening, at 5:30 PM, the motorcade of President Zail Singh was stoned when it came near the AIIMS.

The burning, looting, and killing started in the morning of November 01. Violent mobs armed with iron rods, carrying cans of kerosene oil (used for burning), tyres (used for putting around necks of Sikhs before burning them), and guns were targeting Sikhs – young and old, men and women – in their homes, buses, streets, in fact wherever they could be spotted. Congress leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler were seen leading and inciting violent mobs.

The genocide continued for nearly 4 days, not only in Delhi but in several other parts of the country. Everywhere the police remained a mute spectator.

Three questions that have been haunting me are,

  • ‘Who took the decision that Sikhs should be massacred and when?’


  • What was the motive of those who took the decision to indulge in genocide?


  • How could they (the congressman) mobilise criminals on such a large scale and arrange large quantity of Kerosene oil, a large number of tyres and iron rods overnight?

The first question is crucial because the massacre of Sikhs did not start spontaneously. Had it been spontaneous, the government would have intervened immediately to stop it. So, who decided to start?

A criminal decision to commit genocide with an assurance that the government would not stop it for a couple of days, could not have been taken at the level of small fries like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, and H.K.L. Bhagat.

Even senior Congress leaders (ministers in Indira Gandhi cabinet) could have taken such a decision.

The Prime Minister’s Office consisting of bureaucrats could not have taken such a decision.

Was the decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi himself even before he became Prime Minister?

Or, was someone very powerful giving orders from behind the curtain? The person giving orders was so powerful that nobody could disobey him/her.

Did Rajiv Gandhi’s buddy actor Amitabh Bachchan give the call of “khoon ka badala khoon” (blood for blood) on his own or was he reading from a script given to him?

The timing is also very important. In closed circles friendly to the Congress, the alert had come when preparations were being made. The perpetrators of crime did not lose much time to start preparations.

I am surprised that such a vital question has not been raised. Perhaps, we will never know who took the decision and when.

The second question, motive, is also very crucial. What did the commander who took the decision and ordered massacre expect? Was the expectation that it would provoke the Sikhs and there would be Hindu-Sikh right in the country?

The developments did not take place according to their motive. Hats off to the Sikh community that despite, according to the estimate, torturing, killing and burning about 30,000 members of the community in the country, they did not retaliate. They only cried at the cruelty and the loss of their dear and near ones. Those days we saw a large number of Hindus protecting and giving shelter to their Sikh neighbours. This was an excellent example of Hindu-Sikh unity that must have shocked the perpetrators of the crime

The third question is crucial because Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler & Company could not have mobilised all the resources required for the massacre so quickly without a network available and close links with criminals. There must have been a chain of command to arrange a large number of criminals and large quantities of lethal materials.

I got some answer to the third question sometime in 1986. My elder daughter was in Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital for appendectomy. Those days the attendants managing parking areas meant for cars were overcharging and harassing car owners. Being a frequent visitor to the hospital prior to my daughter’s admission, I had made a number of complaints to the Medical Superintendent but he expressed helplessness. He told me that the license issued to the contractor had expired two years back and had not been renewed; he could not throw the contractor out because he had got a stay from a court.

Since I had to keep my car parked during nights also, I decided to be practical and befriended the attendant of the area where I used to park the car. When he became quite friendly (he hinted that he expected me to help him get a government job), he told me that a couple of contractors who were basically criminals were controlling all the parking lots in Delhi and they had had political patronage in lieu of which they provided men and material for criminal activities of their patrons. One such occasion mentioned by him was when Sikhs were to be massacred. He told me that the criminal contractors were among those who mobilised more members of the fraternity, arranged large quantities of kerosene oil, a large number of iron rods and tyres and even guns at short notice.

This was the first and hopefully this last case of state-sponsored (even if at the command of a non-state entity) genocide in a democratic country. For a couple of days, India reminded of Nazi Germany when innocent Jews were killed at Hitler’s order. Had the purpose been served, India would have acquired a stigma for ever.

        It is a slur on historians and investigating agencies that we do not have answer to such a critical question even after 35 years.

Devendra Narain


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Written by Devendra Narain
Date of birth: January 1, 1941 Educational qualification: Master of Arts (First Class) in Political Science Visiting Fellow: (one year, 1978-79), University of Oxford, UK. Job Experience: Teaching job: Lecturer in Political Science, Patna University (February 1963 to October 1965) Indian Revenue Service: November 1965 to December 2000. Important positions held in Government of India: Head of the Project Appraisal Division (Planning Commission), Head of the Project Monitoring Division and Joint Secretary/Additional Secretary (Department of Programme Implementation), Chief Commissioner of Income Tax and Member, Appellate Tribunal for Forfeited Property. Retired from Government of India on December 31, 2002, as Member, Appellate Tribunal for Forfeited Property. Experience as trainer: more than 50 national and international training programmes on project management International Experience: Indian member of Inter-governmental committee on project management system by the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1985; Member of Indian delegation to the (erstwhile) Soviet Union (1986) Area of expertise: Project Management (ex-ante Project Appraisal, CBA, Monitoring, ex-post evaluation). Experience as author: Co-author of a book on Indian Constitution in 1970 (now out of print); More than two dozen articles on different aspects of project management; 11 stories (10 satirical and one serious) in English and Hindi, published in leading magazines and a leading Hindi newspaper. Presently writing articles on social, political, economic and administrative issues available on my website and LinkedIn. Website: Present on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) Published collection of short stories in Hindi: "ये टेढ़े मेढ़े रास्ते". Paperback available on Amazon and Flipkart; ebook available on Amazon.