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November 1, 1984

November 21, 2018 10:29 IST

On Tuesday, November 20, 2018, 34 years and 19 days later after the horrific crimes, two men were sentenced to death and life in prison for their involvement in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in which over 3,000 Sikhs were killed.
It was the first verdict after the riots-related cases were reopened by a Special Investigation Team in 2015.
In his novel Man With The White Beard, Shah Alam Khan recalls a calamitous time in India's history.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The Man In The White Beard Sikh Riots

November 1, 1984, began like the usual day, almost as usual as any day in the congested lanes of the Trans-Yamuna Colony.

Milkmen pouring milk into waiting utensils, newspaper-wallahs tossing pieces of history into homes, ruminating cows in the centre of the road... all looked 'normal'.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh bodyguards occupied centrestage in everything that was written, spoken or done that morning.


A group of people at the local chai dhaba discussed the last moments of the late prime minister with fervour.

It was as if they had been present at the time Mrs Gandhi folded her hands into a customary namaste and her assassins opened fire with their automatic weapons.

"Dharh, dharh, dharh... they riddled her body with bullets," the young chaiwallah said, describing the bursts of the sten which were used by her bodyguards to shoot the prime minister.

Another man openly showed disgust at the services of the hospital where the prime minister was rushed after being shot.

Rumour had it that no one recognised Indira Gandhi for a good 10 minutes as she lay bleeding on a stretcher in the ever-busy emergency department of the big hospital.

People were angry not because a bleeding patient went unattended for 10 minutes but because no one recognised a bleeding Indira Gandhi! It was otherwise usual for patients to die bleeding in emergency departments of most hospitals in the country.

One gentleman even described the similarity between what had happened the day before and what had transpired a few decades earlier when a Hindu fanatic shot the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Although all the narrations focused on the dead prime minister, the bitterness towards those who had killed her and the faith to which the assassins belonged was becoming palpable by the minute.

Mahatma Gandhi's assassin wasn't discussed any further.

"Sardars are dreaded terrorists," Shuklaji made a sweeping remark, carelessly sipping hot, sweet chai from a deep brown clay kulhar. There was a toxic approval of his statement by those present at the dhaba.

The excitement of the assassination was fast catching up like a viral flu.

Rumours, hate, and insecurity are a vicious mix, more dangerous than the venom of even the deadliest cobra! On that November day, the three mixed freely with the already polluted air of the city.

Beeji hadn't allowed the children to go out.


"What a hit!"


"Out hai!"

Loud comments from the adjacent lane indicated that another game of cricket was on.

Both Daljeet and Harkeerat were popular cricketers in their mohalla and would never miss a match on a holiday. They were insistent on going out to play, but Beeji did not relent.

"Beeji, they are all my friends," Daljeet said, the frustration loud in his voice. "They can never harm us."

"Puttar, friends or no friends, I can't allow you outside today," Beeji said firmly, "I saw many outsiders in the colony this morning."

"But, why?" Harkeerat argued, holding on the wooden cricket bat with blue rubber covering the handle, "Why can't we go, Beeji?"

The argument was cut short by a sharp knock on the door. It was Jaspreet. She lived down the same lane with her two sons. Her husband worked in Kuwait.

She looked anxious and was panting lightly. "Veera, don't go out today. They have planned demonstrations in parts of the city including our mohalla. People are very angry with the Sikhs."

She gasped, "We are planning to go to Punjabi Bagh to my aunt's place. This mohalla is not very safe for us."

The emphasis on 'us' was notable -- 'us' as camaraderie to maintain tribe and territory.

Even before Beeji could fully comprehend what was being said, Jaspreet disappeared. She saw Jaspreet's silhouette entering her house in the cul-de-sac at the far end of the lane.

The maze of lanes in the Trans Yamuna Colony was like an old spell of magic, simple but unnerving to the untrained eye.

The sunny lanes suddenly terminated into darker cul-de-sacs or bund galis. Each cul-desac had two or three houses forming a small group.

The lanes branched once, twice and thrice, ramifying like the branches of an old tree, till they were connected to the main street, forming multiple exit and entry points.

Houses within the cul-de-sacs were bigger than those lining the red and brown brickwork lanes, thereby giving financial credibility to their owners like Jaspreet.

The word went, "Only the rich could afford a house in the bund gali!"

Each bund gali house terminated tersely as if they had been reprimanded by someone for growing out of their limits. This conscious reprimanding authority was the Yamuna.

The back rooms of all these houses had their windows open into the river.

The morning breeze, heavy with the smell of dead fish, kissed the cheeks of the wealthy owners of these houses. In the monsoons, when the Yamuna swelled, the smell of dead fish disappeared as if fishes stopped dying in rains.

The owners made special arrangements to drain off monsoon waters which invariably entered the farthest placed houses of the bund gali.

With the passing years, the Yamuna slowly gave way to more and more bund gali houses in the colony. The helpless river retracted, only to show its occasional might during monsoons.

The Trans Yamuna Colony was unique in more ways than just the smell of dead fishes bought by its wealthiest inhabitants!

The lanes in this torpid colony were numbered haphazardly. There was no explanation for why lane number six followed lane number two or lane four came before lane three.

It appeared that the numbering had been done by an obdurate child, out there to seek revenge from a strict Mathematics teacher.

Kulwanti's and Jaspreet's houses were in lane number four. These were the only two Sikh houses in that lane.

Keeping in line with the confused custom of the colony, two lanes after lane number four was lane number nine.

Besides the lack of logic for such arbitrary numbering, lane number nine had illogical numbers of Sikh houses in an otherwise Hindu dominant area, seven!

The brick lanes housing the residences were further narrowed by the presence of draining channels or the naaliyan, which were perpetually blocked by polythene bags, plastic bottles and other by-products of human existence.

Every house religiously contributed its bit in clogging the once flowing naali.

The houses of the Trans-Yamuna Colony had wooden doors with some of the wealthier owners reinforcing the main entrance with an additional metal gate that could open only outwards into the lane.

And as this iron access was unbolted, it further narrowed down the lane.

Scooters and rickshaws crashing into the metal gates were not uncommon; their unlucky drivers hurt more by the consternation of the impetuous opening of the gates than by actual physical injury!

By late afternoon, small skirmishes were reported from different parts of the city. The nation was in a state of shock and badly wanted to avenge the murder. There was a human cost of this assassination, which, however heavy, had to be extracted.

The deep voiced All India Radio newsreader described the situation as tense but under control.

To Kulwanti, it sounded like 'dying but not dead!'

Excerpted from The Man In The White Beard by Shah Alam Khan, published by LiFi, with the author's kind permission.

Dr Shah Alam Khan is a professor of orthopaedics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. The Man With The White Beard is his first nove;.

Shah Alam Khan