How I survived on 31st October, 1984 — in the heart of Kanpur City
True stories of IAS and IPS officers who were scattered all over the Hindi-heartland on the fateful day Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us……………………”
1984: The year of “Blue Star”
No, I am not referring to Charles Dickens’s famous opening lines of his novel “The Tale of Two Cities” — I am talking about India, in general, and Punjab, in particular, in the year 1984 as I viewed with my innocent eyes as a 22-year old engineering graduate from and in Patiala. In the last week of May, 1984, the UPSC had declared the results of the Civil Services Examination and I had, surprisingly, cracked it in the very first attempt, bagging the second position on all-India basis. It was like a dream come true, quite literally — everything seemed surreal. My life as an ad-hoc lecturer in my alma mater was about to change forever.
Then in the first week of June, 1984, the most unfortunate “Operation Blue Star” happened. Indefinite curfew was imposed and we were virtually confined to our little house, with no credible source of information except perhaps the BBC. I need not dwell on the picture that unfolded in the next few days, but there was a thick smog of uncertainty hanging over Punjab as also in our lives. I had no idea whether I’d be able to be able to join at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie in the third week of August, 1984 for the “Foundation Course” as an IAS officer.
Joining the IAS in 1984 at Mussoorie
To cut the long story short, I was able to join at Mussoorie but not before my police verification was supplemented by rigorous verification of antecedents by unknown central intelligence agencies. The Mussoorie Academy, with its salubrious climate, seemed too far away and quite insulated from the dust and din and the heat — literally as well as metaphorically — of the plains of Punjab. Time flew, with the morning PT/ Yoga, the classes, lectures, Syndicate Groups, weekend activities, not to mention the treks in the Himalayas towards the end of September. Before you knew, we were knocking at the door of November, ready to embark upon our week-long “Village Visit”, that was meant to acquaint the IAS Probationers with the realty of the rural India at the grassroots level.
Village visit on the eve of the fateful day
I was slotted for a group headed to Hamirpur district in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, not too far from Lucknow. It was a cool and crisp late October evening, when we boarded the night train from Dehra Dun for our first stop at Lucknow. The journey was uneventful and most of us slept through it, to find ourselves in Lucknow on a bright, sunny, cool and autumnal 31st October morning. We were provided with a chartered bus and we were to head to Hamirpur, with a lunch break at Kanpur, after a quick breakfast in the Nawab’s City of Lucknow.
Lucknow was at its hospitable best. Alloo parathas, with a rich helping of curd, butter and achar, that would arguably put to shade the servings of “Kesar Da Dhaba” at Amritsar. The “Mian ji” Tongawala’s abounded the place, reminding us of the scenes from Kamal Amrohi’s “Pakeezah”. The songs from “Mere Mehboob” wove a spell and it seemed that the place so enmeshed in its rich history and traditions was truly timeless.
In heart of Kanpur City, midday 31/10/1984
The bus journey to Kanpur was again uneventful and the highway, even then, was pretty good. The bus took us to the heart of the city as some of the locals had recommended some excellent restaurants for lunch in that locality. Everyone was ordering their own dishes and, in any case, there was no hurry to reach our destination. It was here that we heard that perhaps an attempt had been made on the life of the Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. There was no information on the radio or otherwise, whether she had been injured or not. While others were still going through with their lingering lunch, Sudeep Dhillon — Haryana IAS Cadre officer who retired in December last year — and I set out to (i) buy him a pair of bathroom slippers and (ii) get the latest news of the assassination attempt on the PM.
Things looked tense
To our surprise, we found that most of the shops in what would have been a busy bazaar at this time were closed. We thought, Kanpur was catching on the habits of Chandigarh and Goa, where the shopkeepers do tend to down their shutters for the lunch and siesta. Needless to say, no “chappals” could be bought.
Signs of the Gathering Storm
At a little distance, bang in the middle of the chowk, we saw a crowd gathering. We were told that the “Special Edition” of a local newspaper had been displayed on the electric pole; perhaps it had the latest news. Two six-foot, turban wearing sardars, the both of us, sauntered towards the throng which was beginning to get a little restless, least aware of the peril of doing so. We thought with our superior height and 6/6 eyesight advantage, we would be able to read the headlines of the “Spot Edition” from afar. As we moved towards what was now almost a hoarde, some said rather aggressively “Phoot le Sardar, phoot le!” (Begone, Sardar (Sikh)). The “Ji” of Sardar Ji was conspicuously absent. It was then that the penny dropped. We did not know whether the Prime Minister had succumbed to her injuries or not but we were clear that there was definitely a “Sikh” angle to the incident. We scampered back to the restaurant where most of our colleagues were still in discussion as to what dessert to order. We had to be a little abrupt with some of our fellow probationers, when they did not appreciate the potential gravity of the situation.
Kanpur to Hamirpur, by bus
Soon we were cooped up in the bus and on our way to Hamirpur. Sudeep and I tried not to bend to maintain a low profile, literally speaking, but on the streets and roads, agitating mobs were beginning to gather, and on beholding a turbaned Sikh, they moved towards the bus windows menacingly. The driver was, however, well-briefed, dexterous and tactful and before long we were out of the city, on way to the district Headquarter of Hamirpur. In the meanwhile, the death of Mrs Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards had been confirmed but no news, as yet, was trickling in as regards any anti-Sikh riots.
At Hamirpur District HQ
The journey to Hamirpur was tense but without any untoward incident. We were there before sunset. The Collector had organised a formal dinner which, needless to say, was cancelled — we ate the same food, though, but where was the appetite? The District SP visited the place where we were being lodged and firmly said that there was no question of Sikh officers venturing out for the village visit and rather that they should be stay put at a mofussil town, not the district HQ.
Confinement at Charkhari tehsil town
Next morning, after a quick breakfast, Sudeep and I were both huddled into a jeep, under armed escort, headed for the tehsil town of Charkhari, about 50 miles away. We were lodged/ housed in a Government Rest House on the edge of the town, under the care of the Cook-cum-Chowkidar Ramzan. Oinam Nabakishore Singh (IAS, 1984, Manipur cadre), who has remained Chief Secretary of Manipur and Raman Goyal (IRS-Income Tax, 1984 batch), who retired recently as Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, chose to stay with us in expression of their invaluable solidarity and concern. There the four of us stayed, doing nothing except basking in crisp November sunshine and, of course, eating delicious meals prepared by our brilliant but unassuming “khansama”. The news of the Sikhs being lynched in Delhi, Kanpur and elsewhere was now all over. We faced no anxious moments in Charkhari except once when the local SDM, accompanied by the DSP, came over to the rest house to alert us that someone had leaked the news of our presence in the neighbouring town of “Raath”, where some mischievous elements were planning to march towards us.
Nothing of the kind, however, happened and things seemed to have settled down in this rural hinterland. So much so, that we were permitted to undertake a one-day tour to the famous Khajuraho Temples in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh but only about 40 miles away.
Return journey and assessment of the aftermath
At the end of the itinerary, as originally planned, we all collected at the district HQ of Hamirpur and were soon on our way to Lucknow via Kanpur. The sight of burnt trucks and buses on the Kanpur bye-pass for the first time gave us an idea of the scale, magnitude and intensity of the anti-Sikh rage of the uncontrollable mobs. The train journey from Lucknow to Dehra Dun was quiet, although we were a little uneasy. At Dehra Dun, semi-burnt branches of the Punjab National bank and Punjab and Sind Bank that had been torched were still to be seen, as the repair and reconstruction had not commenced.
Mussoorie Academy — experience of other batches
Mussoorie town seemed like an oasis of peace, although some petty shops of the Sikh families had been ransacked; there was, however, no loss of life. In the Academy, as the other groups re-converged, experiences of officers were shared. Davinder Kumar Garg (IAS: 1984, Assam-Meghalya cadre), who belongs to Gidderbaha town, then in Faridkot district (now Muktsar) of Punjab, was viciously attacked. Sporting a beard and wearing a “kara”, he had been mistaken as a Sikh. Their group had alighted at the Arrah Railway Station, in Bihar on the fateful morning and they were on way to the Rest House in an open Government Jeep, when he was attacked. He suffered serious injury in one eye and minor fractures in the arm, which required hospitalisation in Patna, about 40 miles away. Fortunately, he recovered fully fairly soon. I spoke to him today and he still feels that he had a providential escape. Along with him, Gurbachan Singh (IPS, 1984, Odisha cadre) (@ GB Singh), who is working as Director General of the National Human Rights Commission and retires at the end of this year, was heckled but did not suffer from any serious injury.
Pritam Singh (IAS, 1984, Rajasthan Cadre, currently Secretary of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, having read this article wrote as follows: “I was in the Arrah group. Mandeep and Davinder (Garg@Garcha) were also in that group. I had miraculous escape . I was seated in the front seat of a jeep. For my good luck, the rioters took our jeep for a police vehicle and gave us enough time to climb the stairs of the unknown dharamshala where we were first taken. Later, we were shifted to the Circuit House and heavy security was deployed. Our entire group stayed in that circuit house for about a week before it was felt to safe to undertake the return journey.”
Vijaya Srivastava (IAS, 1984, Madhya Pradesh cadre), currently in the rank and status of Secretary Government of India, and incidentally retiring from service today, similarly responded as under: “Friends, if I remember correctly Garcha (Davinder Garg) had an eye injury. The DM was reluctant to arrange medical help. He had other priorities because of the disturbance in the town. I was separately trying to contact my Chacha/Uncle in Patna (1958) batch…..” Ravi Kant (IAS, 1984, Bihar Cadre), currently, Secretary Food and Public Distribution, Government of India, confirmed this account of Vijaya and further stated, “Mukta took the DM Arrah to task.” Incidentally, Mukta Tomar nee Dutta is IFS officer of 1984 batch and is currently Indian Ambassador to Germany.
Our friend and Punjab cadre-mate Mandeep Sandhu, who retired as Additional Chief Secretary, Punjab in December 2017 and is currently the Chief Commissioner of the Transparency and Accountability Commission of Punjab, was stated to have sustained a minor injury close to his eye by two officers independently today but Mandeep, as is his wont, has underplayed the whole issue and maintained that nothing happened at all: “No injury ever, some misunderstanding it seems”, he wrote in our WhatsApp Group. Our Customs batchmate, Karnail Singh is also said to have sustained minor injuries.
Gurdarshan Singh (IPS: 1984, UP cadre) and Mohinder Mann (IPS: 1984, Haryana cadre), both now retired, were attacked in Samthar, an erstwhile princely town, after they had alighted from the train in Jhansi, about 50 miles away. They were lucky to escape with just minor scratches and thereafter they were housed by the erstwhile royal family in their palace-cum-fort, as a precautionary measure. I spoke to Gurdarshan today and he still remembers the hospitality as well as empathy of the sister of the erstwhile ruler, who hosted them.
Satish Tewary (IAS, 1984, West Bengal cadre), currently Additional Chief Secretary, wrote: “It was a very bad phase in our Nation. Fortunately, none of our Sikh batchmates suffered permanent injury- although psychological trauma would linger. Our group was in Jaipur, but incidentally no Sikh probationer was with us. But I remember, City was tense from 10 AM onwards.”
34 years is a long time, especially when you are in a full-time job in IAS or IPS but all those who could have been consumed by the senseless whirlwind of 31st October, 1984 are still thankful to the Almighty for His divine grace. It gave them an attitude for gratitude.
As soon as I shared the link of this story on the WhatsApp Group of the IAS officers of the 1984 batch, I received versions and views from many of our friends, both serving and retired. I quote them and share them with you so that you can get the benefit of other perspectives, Sikh as well as non-Sikh.
Dr Vijay Satbir Singh Bath
Dr Bath, who hails from Gurdaspur district of Punjab, superannuated last year as Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Maharashtra. He’s now the Member of the Maharashtra Real Estate Regulatory Authority. He wrote: “Yes. It was a free-for-all situation. Terrible time for all of us.Yes, it was a narrow escape. I was in the group that was attacked in Arrah. I had to hide behind a stack of bricks. I remember Garcha (@Davinder Garg)and MS Sandhu were in the front seats of the jeep that was attacked. Both of them got injured and had black eyes for many days. One could see the collapse of administration.”
Roshan Lal has retired as Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Haryana and is now settled in Kurukshetra. He penned the following graphic account:
“We were in District Banda ( UP) Three Sikh batchmates Gurbachan Singh , Karnail Singh and Randhir Singh Gera (IRTS)were in our group . We reached Lucknow by 10 DN Dehradun Howrah Express at 0830 hrs on 31st October .After having breakfast at the railways restaurant , we left for Banda by UPRTC bus around 12 noon We got the assassination attempt news after crossing Kanpur on P C Dhiman’s transistor via BBC We reached Banda at 1830 hrs and stayed the night at the irrigation rest house No untoward incident happened on the way and we reached Banda safely .
“Next day on Ist November , our sub-group (comprising Bhagwan Sahai, M Sambasiva Rao, A Geetesh Sharma (IAAS) and K G Radhakrishnan (IES)was sent to village Pailani in Tindwari block but the three Sikh officers were asked to stay back at Distt HQ by DM Mr A K Khurana
“On 3rd November, Gurbachan, Karnail and R S Gera joined us at village Pilani but they were advised by local officers to stay indoors and not to move around
“They hardly stayed for two nights with us but some local tension started building up on 5th November and all of us were asked to leave the village with our baggage and in the afternoon we were escorted by heavy security to Distt HQ After reaching Banda the DM advised our Sikh batchmates to stay back at district HQ only and sent the remaining of us to village Pailani the same evening and we continued the village visit till 8th before leaving for Banda on 9th around 0630 hrs
“On our return journey from Banda we reached Lucknow on 10th at 1620 hrs and boarded Howrah Dehradun express at 1955 hrs for Dehradun and safely reached Mussoorie around 1130 hrs on 11th November . As far as I remember none of our group members was attacked or wounded.”
On perusing this account, his Haryana cadre-mate, Sunil Gulati observed: “Roshan Bhai…with the accuracy of details u have remembered and given, I feel if u try again u can still clear UPSC. I can’t say that for myself at least…” Roshan Lal’s explanation was: “It is noted from some small diary which I maintained that time and luckily could locate the same now after reading KBS’s super article.”
Our UT cadre batchmate, now Additional Secretary, Agriculture, Government of India, was responsible for keeping up the spirits of the Patna Group. He wrote : “Grateful for acknowledging. Mind… We were in the Patna group and kept safe by the anticipatory arrangements by the DM, Shri RK Singh, who went on to become the Union Home Secretary and is the Hon. Power Minister today. But the other group which got down earlier at Arrah, got the brunt. I recall the horrid details as later heard from our batchmates when we met some ten days later.”
Ashok Dalawai, the final word
Ashok Dalawai, our Odhisha cadre batchmate, retired earlier this year in the rank and status of Secretary Government of India, in the Ministry of Agriculture. He headed the inter-ministerial Committee on “Doubling Farmers’ Income.” He wrote these beautiful lines, with which I shall,with you leave, conclude this account:
“I read with both anguish and trepidation the fateful accounts of our friends, elucidated with a delicate balance of anger and agony by Karan Bir. The language is perfect- simple and elegant, but sharp and piercing.It touches the raw nerve in us, where it is suppose to and awakens us out of our numbness to those gory nights and days.
“Those crisp and cold days, as Karan Bir describes that season were unfortunately turned into blood stained moments, leaving behind a permanent scar on our memories.Not withstanding that the physical injuries healed very soon.
“It is easy for us who were victims, neither in reality nor in perception to forget the event as a bad dream or a chance occurrence. If so, it would be inhuman.And so far as our Sikh friends who had to bear the vibrations of hate and negativity are concerned,they would continue to always feel the raw nerves of pain despite the astringent of time that has lapsed since then.That pain is more painful, not because of the depth of the cut or the tasseled skin, but on account of the pathos of being said, ‘You are not Us’.
“When man categorises his society by denominations, and builds walls between and among one another, the pain cannot be described or quantified.And this is what happened on that episodic night of 31st October, 1984, and the barbarism that was unleashed over a few days following that..Without being shy or squeamish, we must admit that the occurrences were a blot on our society, and will remain so as dark days in our history.
“Two shameful events that cut through raw flesh of human togetherness in the modern history of India, are all that happened in 1947 and 1984.We saw the ‘animal instinct’ overtaking all that is characterized as ‘human’.We showed what abysmal depths of cruelty and shamelessness we can plunge ourselves into.
“All these denominations we have constructed are a double edged sword.Religion, Nation, Language, Caste, Culture and the countless cleavages bring people together and also divide.In fact, their impact and influence are more overwhelming in negative circumstances.History of the world over millenia is a witness to several such happenings.
“We, in India, must be more cautious and circumspect, given our diversity.Thanks to the density of our population and constraints of resources, there is so much of insecurity.The ambiance is almost incendiary.Note the instantaneous mob that gathers to beat a guy, who is perceived to be at fault on street, while turning a blind eye to a person bleeding from injury and dire need of help. ‘Unity in Diversity’ is our heritage, and a rich one at that.We can preserve, protect and prolong this richness, as long as we are willing to be egalitarian and cosmopolitan in our approach; understanding and accommodative of variations; and tolerant and patient with one another belonging to different denominations.
“Must admire and appreciate our dear friend and batchmate for resuscitating our memories and reminding us of our duties, nay, Dharma. Am sure it has been a painful process as he wrote his account, feeling all through the raw wound on his soul and mind, and not just body. He has borne the pain of touching base with other friends and recounting their experiences along with his own for us and for others in our society.
“Thank you, dear Karan Bir. But we remain your friends and share your agony. As they say, it is not time that heals.It is love that heals.Am sure you and your goodness have met bountiful of love and kindness over the last 34 years since those dark days, and are therefore willing to forgive while not forgetting; and live a long life of peace and tranquility.”
Email from Gurbachan Singh, IPS (Odisha, 1984)
On 1st November, 2018, after the publication of this article, I received the following email from our aforesaid IPS batchmate.
“Narinder Chauhan passed on a link of your article. Must say very eloquently written. Brought back some old memories.
“I think Roshan Lal is right with his diary inputs. I was in fact with the Banda group and spent some tough days with Karnail Singh (Customs) and RS Ghera (IRTS).
“The good thing is that we all survived with Waheguru’s grace. May He bless those who did not make it.
“I am basically writing to bring to your notice the role played by the then DM Banda, Mr.AK Khurana and the SSP, Mr. Chaturvedi in ensuring our safety. I recall a meeting in his office during which they briefed us on the dos and don’ts during our protective ‘confinement’. While the briefing was going on, a group of Congress leaders arrived at his office for discussing the route of a proposed rally in Banda. He asked us to wait in the adjacent room while they tried to dissuade the Congress leaders from holding the protest rally as feared that this could vitiate the atmosphere in the town which had remained peaceful despite occasional and stray protests by some elements. When the Congress leaders insisted on the rally, Khurana firmly laid the ground rules for them.
1. The rally route would not cover any Sikh business establishments, residences or Gurdwaras.
2. It would be symbolic and end within two hours.
3. The SSP and he had agreed to resort to force in case the rally turned violent.
“The SSP for effect added that he would personally be present during the rally and would not hesitate to resort to firing on the protestors in case they indulged in violence. Needless to say the political leaders left muttering threats but to the credit of the two no rally was taken out and Banda remained mostly peaceful.
“This was my first hand experience of how good administrative decisions ought to be taken and how effective firmness can be in such situations. Wish others across North India had emulated their example.I used this exposure to great effect when I was SSP Koraput during the 1990 Shilanayas by the VHP and ensured no riots took place there.
“By the way I retire at the end of the year.
“Take care. Thanks for a great write up.”
PS: I have edited GB Singh’s service/ retirement status in the main article.
Nripsingh Napalcyal, IAS retd. (from Facebook Page of IAS Association, in response to this piece).
“I was then posted as DM Pratapgarh UP and sensing trouble after attempt to loot a couple of Sikh shops in that small town, we had imposed curfew early on and. thus nipped the trouble in the bud.One shop had been looted of some bales of cloths.We searched one house and recovered the bales of the cloths.We made the boys of the house to carry. the bales on their heads. all the way to Kotwali.
“We then went and visited each and every Sikh household in the town to assure them of full safety and security.
“We later learnt that the neighbouring district Allahabad had suffered quite a lot of violence and arson. and they had imposed curfew only after learning that Pratapgarh. had imposed preventive curfew without waiting for the violence to erupt.
“After about a week, 3–4 Sikh gentlemen had come to the DM and SP to invite us to the Gurudwara where they wanted to present us saropas.We politely declined the invitation saying that it was our duty to protect our cutizens and no honour of the kind was required for having performed our duties.
“We still look back with horror at those times of great turmoil in India’s history and with some saisfaction at our small role in protecting the life and property of our citizens.”
Mr Ravindra Mathur (IAS, 1970, UP cadre)
Mr Mathur has been the Chief Secretary Uttar Pradesh as well as Secretary Government of India. Having read my article, he commented as follows on the Facebook Page of the IAS Association:
“Your account is absolutely graphic and almost takes us back to those forgettable dark times. I was in Japan at the time attending an official meeting, but when I returned two days later ,the sight that greeted us before landing in Delhi was something I had never seen before-was too small when similar things had happened in Amritsar in 1947-one could only see fires burning and smoke engulfing Delhi.The pilot took two attempts before he could land safely. But the saddest sight awaited me back in Lucknow almost three weeks later when a clean shaven gentleman came to meet me and had to introduce himself-he was a junior Sikh colleague who was now clean shaven.This sight almost brought tears to my eyes.You were all probationers, but here was an IAS officer of some seniority having served as DM,who was driven to such despair. Indeed a dark period of our History if ever there was one.”
Devinder Singh Bagga, IAS, former Chief Secretary Uttar Pradesh, 1967 batch
Shri Bagga passed away on 27th November, 2018 morning. RIP.
K.B.S. Sidhu. The author is an IAS officer of 1984 batch of Punjab cadre. The views expressed are his own.