The narrow lanes of West Delhi’s Tilak Vihar are littered with double-storeyed houses, compactly built next to each other with thin walls and tiny rooms. At noon, elderly women can be seen fanning themselves on their dilapidated balconies, combing each others hair, or simply staring aimlessly into oblivion, in an effort to escape the stagnant heat trapped in their houses—an inconvenience caused by regular power outages that no longer surprise them.
These residents—most of them women—live in a place called Widow’s Colony. Built for the victims’ families and survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which thousands of Sikhs were targeted across Delhi, Tilak Nagar’s Widow’s Colony reminds you of a place that carries a heavy heart, but at the same time, it houses a determined community that will never forget the communal atrocities that were committed against them and their family members.
Last week, Rahul Gandhi said in London that the Congress Party was not involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed in the immediate aftermath of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards. RaGa’s statement has caused a massive uproar among the political class and Sikh community within the country. The Congress Party’s role in the riot, after all, has been well-documented in articles such as this.
“He [Rahul Gandhi] has a khwaab [dream] of being Prime Minister and is, therefore, trying to divide the Sikh vote,” said Gian Singh (36), a resident of Widow’s Colony who works at the local Gurudwara, and who has been living here ever since the colony was set up in 1985. Sitting in a small office belonging to a group that calls itself ‘Victim of 1984: Anti-Sikh Riot Society’ led by Atma Singh Lubana, the single-room office in the colony’s C-Block seems more active than usual. However, the mood remains morose, with a hint of suppressed anger.
When Gian Singh was a young boy, barely four years of age, his father and two cousin brothers were killed by a raging mob that assembled outside his house at Sultanpuri. “I remember it in bits and pieces, but the rest of the stories were told to me by my mother. My father was the first one to be killed—the mob took him out of the house and drove a huge sword into him, killing him on the spot.”
But if revenge was the mob’s only agenda, then it should have stopped at this stage of brutality. It didn’t. “They then threw some kind of white powder on his dead body and burnt him so that his body could not be recognised.” Gian’s mother, along with four-year-old baby Gian and the rest of his family, comprising seven siblings (five sisters and two brothers), were all present when this took place. His two cousin brothers, who were about 14-15 years old at the time, fell victim to the mob’s violence next. “My older brother had to be hidden inside the house at the time, which is why he wasn’t harmed. I was a child at the time, so I was left alone.
Speaking on RaGa’s latest statement of his party not being involved during the riots, Singh said: “He has said this to play with the Sikh sentiment. There have been 11 commissions formed till date, and all of them have named Congress leaders—from Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar—who are currently under investigation for instigating the riots. The results of these cases will come soon, and he wants to save his ministers because once they go in, the entire plot that was hatched will be revealed. He really should study his history and then talk.”
As 60-year-old Bhaagi Kaur leans against the yellow office walls whose paint can be seen slowly chipping away, she describes how the anti-Sikh riot unfolded at her home in Trilokpuri at the time, and how her husband was a victim to the mob. “The Prabhat Ferry leaves in the morning, and on it, we (Sikhs) give out prasad in the form of sweets known as barfis,” she recalled, wiping the beads of sweat off her brow. According to her, this was interpreted as distributing sweets as a sign of celebration of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
The news of Indira Gandhi being murdered by her two Sikh bodyguards the previous day had spread like wildfire across the country, and Kaur was afraid for all the right reasons. “I told my brothers that they should have their chai-paani and stay indoors. I was naive and thought that no one would want to fight with the poor, let alone harm them.” Kaur’s breathing becomes sharper and deeper as she approaches this part of her story. “There was a mosque on the opposite side of the road in Trilokpuri, outside which a big Hindu group had assembled with stones in their hands. On this side of the road were our Sikh brothers standing tall…”
Kaur lets her quivering voice trail away, and the narrative is taken over by Surjit Singh Shohit (45), an autorickshaw driver who also lives in Widow’s Colony. His family earlier resided in Trilokpuri as well, where young Surjit had his father and three uncles were murdered in front of his eyes by the vicious mob. Surjit’s story is vivid and clear in his head, almost like the incident happened just a few hours ago. “There were around 500 house for Sikhs in that area, and there was also a Masjid in the neighbourhood,” he said. “Both Hindus and Muslims lived here. On the morning of November 1, 1984, a group of armed Hindus started assembling outside the masjid at around 11 AM. We (Sikhs) assembled on our side of the road, along with the rest of our relatives, friends and community members. The fight between the two factions went on for nearly four hours…they knew they didn’t have the strength or the guts to fight us head-on. Then, the Delhi Police showed up.”
According to him, the cops showed up at the spot at around 5 pm and told both groups to go back to their respective houses. “They assured us that nothing would happen, and confiscated our weapons. But as soon as went back home, the mob—armed with our confiscated weapons—started attacking us. They had everything—from lathis and crude bombs, to swords and a type of white powder which they used to burn things. The police authorities had taken our weapons from us and given it to the Hindus who wanted to kill us at the time anyway. In front of my eyes, they killed my father Sawant Singh. I was only 11 years old at the time. The violence went on until November 3. More than 300 out of the existing 500 residents of our colony were killed. They burned our Gurdwara and threw dead bodies in the river, all the while shouting: ‘Ab sardaro, tumko mazaa aaya?’”
“If Rahul Gandhi had seen the kind of violence, torture, and murder that we have seen, he would have never made the mistake of making such a statement,” said Surjeet, speaking of RaGa’s claim of his party not being involved during the riots. “They (Congress) killed more than 5,000 Sikhs across the city. I was 11 at the time, old enough to remember vividly the tragedy that had befallen our community and neighbourhood. They (Congress) were the ones in power at the Centre at the time. Nowadays, cops come to the spot within a couple of minutes if there is an emergency, but at that time, why did it take them three days to finally take the situation under control? I appeal that Rahul Gandhi should check his mental stability and seek help; he has no power, barely a Party, and now he thinks that the Congress didn’t have a role in the 1984 riots whereas, in fact, it was his father who was the Prime Minister at the time. He is lying through his teeth.”
Speaking with Newslaundry, Atma Singh Lubana, whose father and two cousins were killed in the ’84 violence, and who is also the President of the group ‘Victim of 1984: Anti-Sikh Riot Society,’ said: “I just want to say that Rahul Gandhi’s brains have been addled. He keeps spouting whatever he wants.” He goes on to add: “Rahul Gandhi se satta cheen gayi hai aur woh baukhla gaye hai. Uska mansik santulan bigad gaya hai. Satta paane ke liye woh tarah tarah ke cheezein keh rahe hai. [Rahul Gandhi has lost his mind after losing power, he is saying such things to come back to power].”
As of today, 948 families are living in this Widow’s Colony in Tilak Vihar, and there are seven such colonies scattered across Delhi, according to Atma Singh. When asked what had been the sentiment in the colony ever since news of RaGa’s statement broke, he said: “We are all abusing him here—that is the sentiment.”
As this reporter walks out of the narrow lane leading him out of Widow’s Colony, the electricity comes back on, and residents can be seen returning to the comfort of their rooms from their balconies, where they stood patiently trying to catch a non-existing breeze.