Each time 31st October comes around, the newspapers are filled with advertisements commemorating Indira Gandhi, the woman who ruled our country from 1966 till 1984, with a break from 1977 to 1981. But for me, it always brings back memories of the riots that engulfed Delhi immediately after her assassination. And I, wide-eyed innocent of 17, was a witness.
I had joined the Delhi College of Engineering the previous year and was living in the hostel. The campus, a jewel like compact one, was in the heart of old Delhi, cheek by jowl with several age-old buildings such as the Dara Shikoh Library, the Residency, the Old Telegraph Office and Kashmere Gate. 31st October was like any other day at college and as autumn had set in, the playground was full at lunch time, not so much with players as students lounging around in the warm afternoon sunshine. Then the news gradually began filtering through – that Mrs Gandhi had been killed. This was confirmed through a radio broadcast that was heard at the Electrical Engineering Block and then it was decided that everyone could go home. The day-scholars left and then those of us in the hostel were left in the campus.
Just outside the campus was the Interstate Bus Terminus and shortly after five or so, we began hearing shouts and the sounds of great commotion. We went out and what did we see but several taxis belonging to Sikhs being set on fire. It was frightening to watch. The cries of those whose properties were being destroyed thus and the heartlessness with which the looters went about their task. The police stood and watched. Soon news reached us of similar acts taking place everywhere in the city. Someone had just returned from Connaught Place to report that several showrooms there had been looted and set on fire. By night, the acrid smell of burning tyres was all over Kashmere Gate. At 10.00 pm the power failed and was not restored till early morning.And in the silence we could hear every cry, every shout and every other indication of rioting in progress.
The next day,the hostel woke up to realise that supplies of food items were running low. The milk had not come. We managed on biscuits for breakfast and then by lunch, the mess staff (God bless them) managed to produce kichchdi. I can still remember the taste. It was heavenly. We were lucky. Outside, several families had been rendered homeless and lost all their savings. The rioting continued unabated. By midday, we had ‘visits’ by armed gangs who came, looked in at the gate and then left. Then someone felt that with at least two Sikh students still in the hostel, we were all at risk. The two boys cut their hair for our (and probably their) sake. And sure enough at night the gangs were back. The rumour spread that they were attempting to poison our water tank. But somewhere along the line the police decided to assert itself. A convoy of jeeps arrived at the hostel and the officers assured us of our safety. Outside, the army staged a flag march. A series of announcements was made through a megaphone that the army had orders to shoot at sight. That night we had boiled eggs for dinner.
The next day we found we had a surfeit of fruit, though very little of anything else. Just down the road was a juice shop run by a Sikh. His telephone was our connection to the world. That was from where we could call our parents, for a fee of course. The college hostel had no phone those days (can you imagine that?). This juice-shop owner had distributed sweets on hearing of the assassination and his shop was among the first to be looted. The mixer-blender was stolen but the fruit was just left to rot. Some enterprising souls had managed to bring them away and so we could keep body and soul together.
What I remember now is the eerie silence of the city. Even the birds and monkeys in the campus sensed that something was wrong and kept quiet. Doordarshan, which had declared mourning, was playing bhajans by MS Subbulakshmi non-stop. Some of my Punjabi friends wanted to know if the lady specialised in songs of lament! In between we had shots of the crowd at Teen Murti Bhawan where the body lay in state. Enormous crowds, the riots notwithstanding, had descended on the city to bid their leader farewell. But even then, the loss of so many innocent lives was hanging over the entire place.
It was the fourth day when some sense of normalcy returned to the city. We were allowed to go out of our campus and almost the first thing several of us did was to go to the Old Telegraph Office and send off telegrams to our parents informing them of our well-being. For once, the road leading to the telegraph office was completely empty. That meant I could read the inscription over the memorial arch that stood just before it. It had a bronze plaque showing two shells and a cannon and it read that this had been the place where the Magazine once stood. When the Mutiny broke out, the last telegram had been sent from the telegraph office here to Calcutta alerting everyone. Then the officers in charge of the Magazine had blown it up to prevent the gunpowder from falling into the hands of the mutineers. The explosion it was said, even shook Red Fort. Here I was, living through another Mutiny of sorts, and another explosion had shaken the city. I have since wondered as to how we, parents and children, stayed without communicating with each other for so many days. We just did not have a choice then. And I must say, to be with fellow students was to be like one family.
Mrs Gandhi was cremated, and they could have done it a lot sooner. Everyone it would appear was milking the situation for all it was worth. DD of course had nothing else to show. When the cremation was broadcast, we watched it in the common room and several students cried. I was quite surprised. Yes, it was a poignant moment but should it have claimed so many other lives in its wake?
But hats off to the Sikhs. Within days, the looted shops were back in business. And this community which has lost so much, repeatedly in history, had to build itself afresh. But there were several signs that life had been embittered. The cheerful smiles and larger than life welcomes were gone. There was sullen resentment but life had to go on. We could no longer use the telephone at the juice shop. College came back to normal after a week. A bearded professor now came clean shaven. He had been attacked on the assumption that he was a Sikh. He was never the same man again. Two students never came back to college. I have always wondered what happened to them. I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who rather callously said that the riots were only to expected for when a mighty oak falls, the ground will rattle. But what of those for whom it was the end of the world?