One journalist had recently written that nobody can forget where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Mrs Gandhi being shot. I remember too.
I was on morning shift in The Times of India and had popped into the cabin of the late V.D.Trivadi, the satirist and in charge of the middles section of the edit page, and Gautam G.S. Vohra, assistant editor and now a development activist. Someone (I don’t remember who) opened the door and said news had just come that Mrs Gandhi had been shot. We came out and moved to the teleprinters. Some of us young sub-editors smirked - `another attack drama?’ we wondered. Some years earlier, a stone thrown at her during a public rally was termed an assassination attempt. But no, this time it was for real.
The rest of the day went in a blur. A special edition had to be brought out, the teleprinters clattered without a pause. I don’t remember very much.
But there’s another thing people in Delhi will not forget – their first experience of/encounter with the anti-Sikh riots. Riots? Hell, no. It was a one-sided, targeted, cold-blooded massacre.
It was November 1. I was on morning shift again, which started at 9 a.m. I was on a 703 or 704, from Janakpuri to ITO. As the bus stopped at the red light on what is known as the Lajwanti crossing on Jail Road, we saw massive crowds on the road leading from the Delhi Cantonment railway station. No one had a clue what was happening (there were only small reports of Sikhs being attacked in South Delhi in the newspapers). Someone thought some train had got cancelled. And then the import hit us – several men got into our bus. “Koi sardar hai kya?” There were none. I quickly lowered my hand which was on the bar of the seat before mine and covered the kada I wear on my left wrist.
As I looked out of the window, I saw a middle aged Sikh man with his old mother on a two wheeler and the mob chasing him. He drove towards some office – it was probably a municipal corporation office or part of the Tihar Jail complex – right on the corner. But the employees there wouldn’t open the gate. There was fright on his face as he tried to speed away. The light turned green and my bus turned. I don’t know what happened to that man and his mother. Did they get to safety? Did the mob get to them? That picture haunts me to this day.
I reached office without any further incident. It was only towards afternoon that the magnitude of what was happening began to strike us. Cars were sent to pick up people in later shifts. When my shift got over, I was sent home in a car with someone else who had to be dropped home, crack reporter Ravi Bhatia (now deceased) and a photographer, probably Chadha saheb.
The images will never leave me. Panchkuin Road furniture shops being looted. “Gaadi rok, mere ko bhi ek chair chahiye,” Ravi joked, as only he can. We all laughed but all of us were shaken to the core.
I couldn’t believe that the ghost city I was driving through was the city I was born and brought up in. Burnt vehicles, still smouldering, blackened shopfronts.
The Kirti Nagar timber market was up in flames – we could feel the heat in the car. At one point, a lone policeman armed with just a lathi (a lathi!!), trembling with fear, flagged our car down. `Don’t go further, there’s violence there.’ With me in the car, Ravi and Chadha saheb decided to take another route. Near Naraina village, we saw a group with a Congress flag chanting that now famous slogan - `khoon ka badla khoon’.
And on the Delhi Cantt flyover – Janak Setu – the most horrifying sight of the day (for me, that is) – the half burnt body of a Sikh, his hair spread out.
And as we turned into Janakpuri from Jail Road, there was a huge poster that had been quickly put up – We mourn the sad loss of our beloved Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It had been put up by Bakshi Properties – a known property dealer of the area and a Sikh.
Did that get him immunity from the rioters? Some said yes, and some said no. I never came to know.