The unexpectedly familiar voice of Mark Tully, longtime India correspondent for the BBC, painfully jolted me back to the anti-Sikh riots of November 1984 in New Delhi. The cool fall morning on Lake Shore Drive faded away as I tuned into BBC’s 25th year retrospective about that traumatic time in India.
It was a similarly crisp autumn day on another continent in another time. Mark Tully had just announced over the airwaves that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. The dominant force of Indian politics and our longest serving Prime Minister had been gunned down by her own personal Sikh bodyguards in the front gardens of her home. I listened to Mark Tully’s gravitas tremble over the air as he contemplated the effects of a charismatic but iron-fisted leader being killed violently in a country that regularly flared up with sectarian divisions.
His concerns were realized almost immediately. Our small and carefree world of college came crashing down as the nation’s capital was gripped by a paroxysm of violence, rioting and rage against the Sikh community. That first night, we stood on the roof and watched our city burn in a hundred riot-induced fires, not knowing how bad it was really going to get. In a few horrifying days, over 10,000 Sikh men, women and children were brutally killed, raped, burnt alive or maimed by rampaging mobs in one of our most cosmopolitan cities. Until then we had naively thought of our Delhi as tolerant, liberal and nothing like the “17th century part of India” that we looked down upon with disdain. Suddenly we were living with daily outbreaks of violent riots, shoot-on-sight curfews, terrifying anarchy in the streets and tank patrols to enforce the law.
The shock of circumstance led many of us — including my childhood friend Vikram and me — to join a spontaneously formed relief organization made up of college professors, students, community activists and concerned citizens. Curfew passes in hand, we were driven daily to the outlying areas where entire blocks of homes had been burned down and hundreds of Sikh families thrown out of their neighborhoods en masse. We spent 14 hour days in refugee camps hastily set up within community gurdwaras, schools, police compounds and other safe havens weakly protected by cordons of indifferent policemen. Sullen mobs ringed our compounds for hours at a time, waiting for signs of defenselessness that would allow them free access to wreak their havoc once again. Only after the Army was called out a full week later did the camps become secure.
The camp to which Vikram and I were assigned had over 6,000 inhabitants, all in varying states of despair and degradation. The few surviving men wandered around aimlessly with their traditional turbans and long hair crudely hacked off by marauding mobs, a cruel stripping away of their dignity and manhood. Women sat in heart-breaking silence, the shock of gang-rape and the murder of men in their families all too plain in their stunned eyes. It was a chilling fact that the only unharmed men in most refugee camps were boys under the age of ten.
Since the two of us had our own car, we became part of what we called the Hospital Shuttle. In those first few awful days, we transported the worst of the injured back to the closest city hospital for triage and emergency care. We drove early and fast to avoid roving mobs still looking for Sikhs to attack. Our supposed police escort would peel off the road at the first sign of a crowd walking along the road and it was up to us to get through the city the best we could.
Vikram’s boldness and inherent love for all drama helped us through every situation. We kept our patients hidden in blankets in the back seat, acutely aware that the threat of mob violence still lurked around every street corner. We faked curfew passes to get past police road-blocks. We took to driving his father’s army jeep and started wearing our fathers’ old Army field jackets. It was a basic but effective camouflage that got us through most areas before our civilian license plates were noticed. We even managed to turn the grimness into a boyhood fantasy — we were the only Special Forces men out on the frontline; no one else could do what we did. Vikram took to yelling fake orders to me as the “Private” of the duo, making shooting noises as we wove our way around local gangs of men trying to stop us.
One afternoon, a mother and her fourteen-year-old son were brought into the camp. Severely burned in a mob attack, his face, shoulders and arms were raw with exposed tissue. The flesh on his hands was falling off and he was screaming in pain. After rudimentary and completely ineffective first aid, it was clear he needed a hospital. His mother clutched at us for help and his pleading, crying eyes were unbearable — we knew treatment couldn’t wait for the travel-safe corridor to open the next day. Vikram and I persuaded the camp leader that we were familiar enough with the dangerous areas to navigate through to the government hospital. As we carried the boy carefully to the jeep, Vikram promised his mother that he was now our personal responsibility, our younger brother.
The camp leader begged the police to accompany us all the way but, unsurprisingly, the two motorcycle cops assigned to us disappeared within a mile of departure. Forty harrowing minutes later, barely escaping a group of men with iron clubs and knives who tried to rush us, we screeched into the emergency parking lot of the hospital. What we saw shocked us: there had been another riot in the city; dozens of stricken people with openly bleeding wounds were waiting for treatment. Emergency care was being doled out in the hospital hallways — it was a war zone. We knew the boy in our care would be left on the side for hours, if not days, before he got any attention.
I was carrying the boy into the lobby when Vikram’s Army act went into adrenalin-fuelled overdrive in the most brazen moment of teenage bravado I’ve ever seen. He barged past me, gathered his olive-green jacket around him and yelled at the overwhelmed reception supervisor, “I’m Captain Maira of the 27th Forward Brigade and I want a private emergency room! Find your Senior Resident on duty, now!”
The supervisor hesitated, looking over at me with the boy in my arms. He had probably noticed that despite my Army jacket, the long, college-length hair was definitely not Army-issue.
Vikram grabbed him by the collar, hissing, “I said, NOW, or you’ll regret this for the rest of your life.” The supervisor panicked and ran for help. In under a minute, attendants had put our patient onto a gurney and rushed him directly into the trauma unit.
The young doctor on duty came out and swore to us that he would personally handle all treatment until the boy was discharged. Vikram rumbled approvingly at him, secured his name and reminded the poor man that he was answerable to Vikram with dire consequences should anything go wrong. We were immediately given access to our charge who, mercifully, was in much less pain now that he was heavily sedated and swathed in soothing salves. Vikram assured him he would soon be back in his mother’s arms. The doctor backed out of the room respectfully, swearing eternal allegiance to the man in command.
My self-appointed Captain, flush with his new-found authority, couldn’t resist a final flourish for the public in the hallway: “Private, what are you doing standing around? Get the damned jeep — I don’t have time to waste!” I couldn't believe his gall — this from the same boy who, a mere three weeks ago, was trying to persuade me that handing out flyers for the Dalai Lama was a great idea because "those Tibetan girls are really cute, seriously." I should have kicked him in the teeth, but instead I snapped to attention and led him smartly out of the hospital. We choked on our laughter all the way back to the camp and I’m afraid we may have even deliberately clipped a hoodlum or two on the edge of our jeep as we swerved recklessly through the streets of the inner city. We were the invincible Special Forces and our boy was safe.
Months later, as part of a volunteer reunion, Vikram and I visited a resettlement colony where most of our camp inhabitants had been relocated. We walked around smiling at familiar faces, pretending to be interested in the details of the rehabilitation effort. But in all honesty, we had moved on. There was not much left for us to do now and our involvement was just a minor footnote in a sad chapter of Delhi’s history.
A tall boy rushed out from a group of kids playing in the dusty ground, yelling for us to stop. Neither of us recognized his scarred face until he pushed his sleeves up and we saw the horrific burn marks on his hands and arms. Even then, we must have looked unsure, because he smiled broadly and said, “Bhaiya, brothers, you gave me my hands back — don’t you remember me?”
I think, through all those terrible sights and experiences, it was the only time the two of us cried openly. The tears didn’t befit our Special Forces aura but the boy and his mother didn’t seem to mind as we hugged them tightly.
//Rahul Roy is a longtime advertising executive trying desperately to pretend he has a creative bone in his body. None of his friends are buying it.