Aboard the ‘Death Train’ in 1984, I Saw Mobs Baying for Sikh Blood

Thirty-four years after the ghastly anti-Sikh riots of 1984, former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar has been sentenced to jail for the rest of his life. The now 73-year-old was one of those who orchestrated the riots following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

Those who lived to tell the tale wonder if that blood-curdling violence truly played out. Or is it just a recurring nightmare?

The passage of time has lent a surreal hue to the spine-chilling memories of 1984.

Also Read: Sajjan Kumar Quits Congress After Conviction in 1984 Riots Case

31 October 1984

I was a journalist, who had just finished a year’s training at The Times of India and was confirmed as a sub-editor in the Illustrated Weekly of India. My very first piece for the magazine was my personal experience. A Sikh and a staffer, I was to share the terror of a train journey on that fateful day.

31 October 1984.

There was a glint of madness in their eyes, and murder etched across their faces. Ominous shouts and cries of ‘Koi sardar hai? Goli se maar dalenge’ followed. We were all stunned into numbness.

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We were a group of 20 Sikhs on our way to Delhi for a wedding. When we boarded the Deluxe from Calcutta’s Howrah Station on 31 October, we had never imagined that death and destruction were in store for us.

It was at 12.30 pm that we first heard that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been shot by her bodyguards and was in hospital. Our instant reaction was one of disbelief. The confirmed news of Mrs Gandhi’s tragic assassination reached us over the radio at about 6.30 pm. And it was only then that we learnt that the two assailants were Sikhs. Every passenger, irrespective of religion, was in a state of shocked silence. But not one had anticipated the disaster that awaited us at Ghaziabad.

Also Read: 1984 Mass Killing: Why Delhi HC Reversed Sajjan Kumar’s Acquittal

Fear & Loathing

The train reached Ghaziabad, two hours from Delhi, at 11 am the following day. That was the beginning of two harrowing hours for us, when we were suspended between life and death. A bloodthirsty mob, almost like a pack of hungry wolves hunting for prey, went from coach to coach in search of Sikhs. In a frenzy of madness, the mob, armed with iron rods and knives, brutally dragged out Sikhs, burnt their turbans, hacked them to death and threw them across the tracks.

Even the old and feeble were not spared. The barbaric mob, totally devoid of rationality, declared that women would be spared. But in what sense were they ‘spared’ ? What can be more torturous for women than seeing members of their own families being brutally killed?

The only sardars who were spared were the six with us. And the credit goes to the innate goodness of the passengers in our coach. Before the train even halted at Ghaziabad, the hysterical mob had caught a glimpse of the six turbaned Sikhs. One of whom was my father.

A fusillade of stones followed and the glass windows were smashed to bits. Shutters were hastily pulled down for protection. The police, we were told, could not control the wild mob and found it easier to turn their backs and walk away.

The Kindness of Strangers

We had a ladies compartment and the other passengers in our coach, realising there was more trouble ahead, suggested that the sardars in our group occupy it. At first, they were reluctant but we literally forced them in. I could well understand their discomfiture. It was ironic. Sardars, who were historically known for their valour now had to protect themselves by hiding in a ladies compartment or become victims of a hysterical horde.

My mother and the mother of the bride-to-be were also pushed into the ladies compartment so that they could answer if any questions were asked.

The main doors of the coach were locked from inside. We waited with bated breath. The mob, hell-bent on destruction, was not to be deterred. They pounded on the heavy metal door for over 15 minutes.

The incessant hammering was accompanied by threats to set the train on fire. One non-Sikh passenger shifted uncomfortably in his seat and felt that all of them would lose their lives if the door was not opened.

But he was sternly reprimanded by the others who forcefully announced that under no circumstances would the door be opened. But finally the mob broke open the door.

Their violent mutilation of the train had only whetted their appetite for more destruction. The savage mob stormed into our coach and walked past the ladies’ compartment. But even before we could sigh with relief, they turned around and angrily demanded that the door of the ladies’ compartment be opened, so that they could check for themselves.

A Mindless, Murderous Mob

By now our nerves had reached breaking point. Yet we couldn’t lose our composure lest they suspect that something was amiss. My parents were inside. Yet my face could not betray any emotion. We tried to convince them that there were just panic-stricken women inside but the mob was adamant. They began to bang on the door.

They seemed to grow suspicious at the sight of a large number of women outside the ladies compartment and pointing towards us asked the other passengers, “Are these women travelling alone?”

Even before I could bat an eyelid, a middle-aged Hindu replied, “No, they are with us.” Our fellow passengers couldn’t have been more co-operative. The petrified screams of the two ladies from inside, our pleas and the persuasion of the other passengers finally seemed to convince the mob that there were no sardars. They retreated. After two hours of excruciating agony, we could almost collapse with sheer relief.

We hoped that conditions in Delhi would be better, but sadly, no security arrangements had been made at the station.

There were many sardars stranded at the waiting room, while the women left the station to make arrangements for them. I left the station at 3 pm with the ladies in our group, while the sardars with us, who were the only ones on the train to survive the ghastly disaster, waited at the station. They removed dead bodies from the train and assisted the injured. By 8 pm we were successful in making arrangements for them to be safely ferried out of the station.

Also Read: Scars of 1984 Sikh Massacre Won’t Fade Until Justice is Delivered

The Scars Remain

In a state of stupefied silence, I saw bodies of sardars with rivulets of blood streaming down their faces, being unloaded from the train in which I had travelled. Brutally battered bodies of innocent Sikhs reached Delhi from other incoming trains as well. Innocent people who had done nothing. Except for being Sikh and travelling to Delhi on that fateful day. Truly, an ugly blotch in the history of Independent India.

Tragically, 1984 had the support of a paralyzed administration. There was no political will to douse the raging flames. Painful memories return each year on 31 October.

And then, once again with an abiding faith in a secular India, an inherently strong and resilient community marches on buoyantly with the business of living.

Hopefully Sajjan Kumar's conviction will provide a sense of closure for those whose lives were deeply scarred.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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