When a Tree Shook Delhi

I have just finished reading the book, When a tree shook Delhi: the 1984 carnage and its aftermath by Manoj Mitta and H.S.Phoolka (Roli Books, 2007). The book serves the useful purpose of bringing together various bits of information regarding the carnage, emanating from official and non-official sources, and raise crucial questions about what went wrong and how.

The authors, journalist Mitta and senior advocate, Phoolka have brought together their years of association in their individual capacities in reconstructing the tragedy and its aftermath. Although there are a couple of official reports of inquiry commissions regarding the carnage, the book fills a void in that it brings together all these reports, and analyse their findings holistically from the readers’ point of view.

What struck me after reading the book are a few nagging questions which perhaps were beyond the scope of this book.

The first is the authors’ claim, duly substantiated by the affidavits of the victims before the inquiry commissions, that the carnage was an organized one (which would perhaps justify the use of the term pogrom, rather than carnage, as the role of the State was implicit in terms of its connivance, and the active participation by the police). It was organized because the actual killings of Sikhs began only on the morning of Nov.1, 1984, although Indira Gandhi was assassinated on the morning of October 31, 1984.

Had it been spontaneous, then the killings must have started almost on the same day. The interregnum, perhaps, points to the constant signals to the would be rioters, that anything would be tolerated for at least three days, and the State, with all its instrumentalities, would look the other way. Thus signals led to meetings at various places, and organization, materials, men and so on.

Of course, this is quite a plausible account. But it falls short of answering the question, why? Did the Congress stand to benefit from the carnage? It is true that Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded as the PM, made no effort to stop the killings immediately; instead he encouraged them, by his statements seen by many as justifying the violence. But did he have the ensuing elections in mind? Did he think the carnage would polarize the voters?

Mitta admits that he did not deal with this issue, but said (while discussing it with me), that the Congress campaign managers were under the compulsion to demonstrate that the Indian State had the potential to strike back, as the assassination suggested that the fight against Sikh terrorism suffered an irreversible setback. The Indian State had to demonstrate this potential, by its inaction against the rampaging mobs in Delhi for three days. And the voters, convinced as they were about this potential, decided to vote en masse the Congress, to further strengthen its resolve to control Sikh extremism.

Two things follow from this. One is that the Congress leaders assumed that through carnage, it would be easier to consolidate and mobilise the Hindu vote-bank. However this is only a facile assumption. In my view, the voters in 1984 election voted out of sympathy for the assassination, no doubt. But would they have voted so as to show their approval of the carnage? If the vast majority of voters did feel that carnage was necessary to send a strong signal, then we could as well be subscribing to the theory of spontaneity as a probable cause of the violence. But as the authors show it was not a credible explanation. Indeed, there were many Hindus on October 31, 1984 and later, who went out of their way to help and save the Sikhs from the rampaging mobs in Delhi and elsewhere.

Therefore, the question of what the top Congress leaders stood to gain by being indifferent to the carnage on the first three days has not convincingly been answered yet. Well, it could be said that similar interpretation can be placed on the 2002 Gujarat carnage and the subsequent consolidation of Hindu voters in Gujarat assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

Were the voters influenced by the fear of reprisals by the minority community in both the instances? If that is so, it clearly shows that the voters disapproved the original carnage, because they undoubtedly feared reprisals. In which case, the political class could be said to have felt that the carnage would serve a political purpose, by instilling this fear, and thereby serve the immediate purpose of consolidation and mobilization of the majority community.

The lack of clarity on the issue was so glaring to me also because in the post-1992 phase, the BJP did not actually benefit from the demolition of Babri Masjid, as every election after that it only paid diminishing returns to the party. Are the killings of minorities less tolerable than the demolition of a religious structure of minorities? Well, I have no answers, as no serious academic has addressed this issue in this manner.

The book also raises an important issue regarding institutional safeguards. The book confirms the worst suspicion that had the army been deployed in all the trouble-spots of the Capital on October 31 itself, the killings would have been almost nil. So, who delayed the deployment? The L-G of Delhi has the powers to deploy Army in such circumstances, without waiting for political clearance. The L-G claimed that he gave the go-ahead to the Police Commissioner on the morning of Nov.1. What followed was the clash of institutional egos between the Police Commissioner and the general officer commanding of Delhi area, as the Army did not want to work under the Police in Delhi, although the peculiar position of Delhi required that Army was answerable to Delhi Police in such situations.

Mitta told me –although he did not elaborate this issue in the book – that this was perhaps the reason why there was the needless delay in deploying the Army. Strangely, I find this issue –although it must have been obvious to any observer – has not been addressed at all, and corrective steps taken so that such clash of institutional egos does not undermine our response to a grave national crisis in the Capital.

Another larger issue also deserves consideration: how to fill a political and administrative vacuum in a crisis of this proportion. If a Prime Minister dies in office under tragic circumstances, why can’t we institutionalize his or her succession,(I mean automatic) so that there is no vacuum till a successor assumes office? It appears that certain political leaders of Congress used this vacuum and the inexperience of Rajiv Gandhi in governance to teach Sikhs a lesson, although the political and electoral benefits to the Congress from this carnage were dubious.

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  • The author Manoj Mitta has written to me this:
    the book is available in leading book shops. in fact, it has already gone into a reprint which will be out this week

  • Hi. I am currently reading the concerned book and came across your blog in the course of a google search on the same subject. Your question on what did congress stand to gain from the carnage forced me to rethink the facts i had come across in my reading ( incomplete). The authors do mention the electoral angle when they say that the congress gained politically following the carnage riding on their ‘India-in-danger’ campaign (page 122). It is clear what ‘dangers’ they were alluding to and that the carnage was a clear ‘testimony’ to their ‘committment’ to salvage the situation. I partially agree with your views on the ‘sympathy’ factor as i believe that this explains why some of the ‘moderates’ may still have voted for the party. However, given the charged atmosphere of the capital,one feels that the ‘India-in-danger’ propaganda would have been an easily saleable commdoity to a large section of the ‘mass’. After reading the book, I cant help but see the obvious commonalities with the Gujrat riots.

  • Dear Mr.Amit,

    You are most welcome to visit our blog.

    I agree that India-in-danger campaign would have been useful electorally. But what is not clear is how this campaign would have been strengthened by the carnage. I am unable to understand even as a layman – let alone as a rational observer – how carnage could be a clear testimony to their commitment to salvage the situation. Terrorist incidents did take place even after the carnage. Punjab Terrorism died down not because of the carnage, but because of K.P.S.Gill.

  • Hi VV,
    Thanks for your reply. Pardon my ineptness with language, but I had meant to use the words ‘testimony’ and ‘committment’ sarcastically. The Carnage was probably meant to convey that the party was prepared to be ‘heavyhanded’ in its commitment to protect the integrity and internal stability of the country. I know it would be difficult to buy the soundness of this argument for any rational mind but given the charged atmosphere of the capital and the backdrop of the separatist movement in Punjab, a section of the electorate atleast could have easily taken it for truth.
    Returning to the question of what the party stood to gain by it, i feel if not the party but its leaders could have used it as a platform to display their loyalty to the ‘dynasty’ and catapult their political careers. Almost all the leaders implicated were political nobodies then and the fact that they were later rewarded with high positions both within the party and in the government is hard to miss.

  • Once started its hard to stop reading the book. The shocking disclosure of judiciary working for congress is really upsetting. And Mr Phoolka didn’t critisize judiciary the way he did to others.

    I was happened to get into some hot discussions with some congress party chief of canada and this book helped me to pin him down.
    Really worth make a movie out of this book so that to bring congress sponsored carnage to world attention before all the culprits die.

  • it indeed is an awesome book.Its just so sad reading about the sikhs were attacked and the state machinery did absolutely nothing. My mother being a journalist tells me what she and her colleagues saw .. n it was horrible

  • Read the book and the review. Being a sikh i feel more than just put off from the State machinery. But at the same time i cnat help forget a dialog from the film "Amu" which says that if all Hindus were a part of this plot, there would have been no Sikh left in Delhi.

    Of course it was a political plot and hired hands initiated the killings.. later the mob mobilized, but there were many, who silently helped their friends from becoming the victims.

  • India needs more books and articles to bring-out the truth about 1984-Congress led Sikh pogrom. Hollywood & Bollywood should make movies in this matter to clarify that it was NOT Hindus who killed Sikhs it was Congress who killed Sikhs.