BETWEEN 31 OCTOBER 1984 and 1 November 1984, I had seen some of the most violent rioting in Delhi. Almost the whole city was being burnt and I had seen more than 60 percent of it in a little more than 24 hours.
On 1 November, while I was studying at IIT, I learnt my PhD examiners’ reports had come in and I should start getting ready for my final PhD viva to be held before the December convocation for receiving the degree.
On 2nd evening I had just started having dinner when my phone rang. At the other end was my closest friend from my time at AMU, an army officer, Major Atul Mehrotra. He was calling from Siliguri. His senior Major Baljit Singh, whom I had met just two weeks ago while on a tour of Northeast India after submitting my thesis, came on the line. Baljit said his father was missing because of the anti- Sikh riots in Delhi. On further inquiry, he said, “My mother, father and sister were coming from Ajmer to Delhi to finalise my marriage when their train was attacked at Pataudi station on the 1st. Somehow, my mother and sister escaped but my father is untraceable. Can you help enquire from different sources, until I can reach Delhi by tomorrow?” I told him I needed details of his father, like a photo, what he was wearing, his age and height to do some ground work. He gave me contact information of his relatives — the house where his mother and sister were.
Next day, I headed for Ashram where Baljit’s relatives had a house. It was a small colony of Sikhs by the side of Hotel Rajdoot. I called Baljit’s cousin and told him I would be coming to collect his father’s particulars. When I turned my motorcycle on the road to their house, I could not believe my eyes. The houses around were burnt and residents there were sifting through the remains of their belongings.
I parked my motorcycle and went with his cousin into their house. I gathered as much information as I could with specific details. I left the place and during the day, did ground work with the morgues, hospitals, and the police about Baljit’s father. By night, Baljit and Atul both arrived in Delhi. I gave them the update and met them the next morning at Sena Bhawan. From there the three of us went to the Defence HQ in South Block. Baljit came out to inform us that we were to head to Pataudi in a one-tonner. Baljit’s superior asked Atul and him to move around only in uniform. With two armed jawans and a driver, three of us left for Pataudi and soon reached the railway station.
The conspicuous-looking army truck and jawans attracted a mini crowd. We were shown the bogie that was burnt down in an attack on the 1st. Five of us (except our driver) inspected the burnt bogie. The smell of burnt flesh was horrible. I stumbled upon a spherical burnt object. When I picked it up, it was a burnt skull! Then we saw the remains of two people who died in the toilet of the train. By the time we came out of the bogie on the platform, there was a crowd of over 200 people encircling Baljit on the verge of turning violent. In an instant I saw how our trained jawans acted that moment: within a blink of an eye both the jawans, as our guards, had loaded their SLRS into the firing position and leaped to Baljit’s protection.
We returned to Delhi that evening to search for his father in morgues across the city, with no success.
The next day, when I reached IIT, my second supervisor, while handing me the copies of my examiners’ reports very politely pulled me up for not focusing on my PhD viva. I replied, “Sir, I will get the degree if not now then in next convocation for sure. But for the likes of Baljit, today is the time to address their sorrows, tomorrow will be too late.” I did get my degree, but in the December 1985 convocation.
Ahmad Cameron is 54. He is a Toronto-based engineering scientist