During a recent TV debate on Rahul Gandhi’s statement on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, HS Phoolka, advocate for the victims of the massacre for 30 years, kept waving pictures that showed the then president Giani Zail Singh’s damaged car. Apparently, a mob had pelted stones at Singh’s car on the afternoon he was on his way to AIIMS to check on then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who would soon breathe her last. Then, as now, various Congress leaders have repeatedly asserted that the riots started “spontaneously” after news of Gandhi’s death broke at 5.30 pm on 31 October 1984. These photographs would, however, indicate a different narrative. Among the many who had witnessed the horrific riots in Delhi, photographer Ashok Vahie, 65, too remembers it as if it happened only yesterday. As a 35-year-old freelancer, he captured on his camera an event that would go down as one of the most shameful episodes in Indian history. Thirty years later, in his small office in the narrow by-lanes of Bhagat Singh Market in Central Delhi, Vahie is reluctant to talk about the riots. His mind, unlike his camera, has captured those images of horror that can never be erased. On a February evening in his office, Vahie talks to G Vishnu of the pogrom he does not like talking about.
Edited Excerpts from an interview
On 31 October 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, you were among the first persons to reach AIIMS. Can you narrate the sequence of the events of that day?
I was a 35-year-old freelance photographer, who was getting published by the Bhopal-based Navbharat Group and some 16 other newspapers. On the morning of 31 October, I got the news that Indira Gandhi had been shot. I used to ride a Bajaj Chetak scooter then. Along with another photographer friend, I immediately went to the PM’s residence on 1 Safdarjung Road. There were several barricades and we were stopped by the policemen outside. A source informed us that she had already been taken to AIIMS. We immediately went to AIIMS, but were not allowed entry. But, as soon as we heard that some Sardar boys were getting treated in the hospital’s emergency ward, we couldn’t stop ourselves and somehow managed to sneak in with our cameras. Inside, we saw that these boys had been badly beaten up. Everyone’s, but one boy’s turban had been taken off. That was the first hint of the kind of violence that would soon follow over the next two days.
Between noon and late afternoon, VIPs started arriving at the hospital. At one point, we saw then president Giani Zail Singh enter the premises with Arun Nehru. His car’s windscreen had evidently been hit by a stone. The president’s bodyguard, who was also a Sikh, had been beaten up and was wounded. Indira Gandhi’s body was being kept on the third floor. By evening, reports of violence started coming in from various parts of the city, but we had no idea about the scale. All we were concerned about was taking a photograph of the prime minister’s body. In the end, at 12 midnight, I got the picture of the body. I was the only one to get a picture, since by then, everyone else had left. It got published in Rajasthan Patrika. On my way back home, I could see that Connaught Place was burning.
Could you describe the days after Indira Gandhi’s death?
From 6 am next day, riots were going on in every part of Delhi. Vehicles, shops, houses and whole areas would be covered in flames. By midday, I got a call from a friend, who told me that corpses were being transported in a coach. When I got there I saw two bodies on a trolley. I took that picture discreetly. For the next two days, the situation was such we did not know where we would go next. We would go to a place, only to find that another area had started burning. At some point, we were making choices based on which areas were worse affected.
Do you remember how many deaths you may have seen on those three days?
I will not answer that.
How did you choose which area was worse off? That seems like a very macabre choice to make.
You have to understand that there was great threat to our lives too. I myself escaped narrowly on two separate occasions. I almost got shot outside Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in an exchange of fire between the police and the Sikhs who had taken shelter inside. But, my primary concern was my equipment. Unlike today, when everyone has a sophisticated camera, I had a Nikon FN3 with a 135 mm lens and an aperture of 3.5. That meant I had to get really close to the subject to take a good picture. Moreover, after sunset, the results would not be good with the flash. So I had to guard the equipment with my life. My livelihood was at stake.
How did you come to be caught in the crossfire?
There was firing from both sides when I got there, but the pictures had to be taken. Hiding behind walls and other places, I somehow got them.
By crossfire, do you mean that it was a two-sided fight? How were Sikhs reacting to the violence around them?
No, it wasn’t two-sided. The Sikhs were scrambling for weapons for self-defence. Those who were fighting back were doing so to defend themselves after they had already seen other Sikh families getting butchered. I remember an episode in which I had a role to play.
My friend Narender Singh, who was a Sardar and a freelance photographer himself, had a very close shave. On the second day of the riots, before we had an idea of what was going to happen, he had already come out to work. When we realised what was happening, I hid him in my studio’s dark room in the basement here in this office. Narender could not get out of there for over 24 hours. He had to defecate and urinate within the dark room.
When did it all calm down?
On the fourth day. By then, of course, we all knew the kind of violence that had been inflicted on the Sikhs. Everyone was aware of the statistics.
The army was called only on the third day. Did that seem odd?
I was too occupied taking photographs. It was the government’s prerogative to call the military. Who knows why they delayed it for the first two days.
What did you make of the police’s role?
The police force was absolutely silent. In fact, there were occasions when policemen would intimidate journalists and photographers. They would ask us, why are you taking pictures? A lot of other crimes were committed during the riots, there was a lot of looting. The police would just sit back.