31 October 1984 – A Day Extraordinaire!

"Over the next four days, thousands of Sikhs were killed in a retaliatory violence that could have been avoided with impartial, quick and transparent actions by the central and state governments."

31 October 1984 – A Day Extraordinaire!

Our Battalion 2 Kumaon (Berar) came to Gandhinagar (Gujarat) in February 1984 from Suratgarh in Rajasthan for its peace tenure. Though physically Suratgarh, as a field location, was closer to the Kumaon Hills, move to Gandhinagar was being looked good from the morale and welfare point of view, as it was a new cantonment with much needed family accommodation, schools and also a Military Hospital in Ahmedabad, where men could get their families and dependents for treatment.

But, in those days, life in a peace station was also equally dreaded. Firstly, the newly arrived units were required to acclimatize with their new operational role and therefore, spend the first few months in operational locations. We had moved from Suratgarh to Gandhinagar and our operational role shifted from the adjoining contiguous Bikaner desert sector to Barmer desert sector without changes in terrain, training and operational role.

However, for the Southern Command and the Army Headquarters, newly inducted armoured and infantry units in the operational theatre needed familiarization with combat doctrines and training in the newer areas of operational responsibilities. So, before we could settle down in Gandhinagar, we spent a good eight weeks around the massive Chotan Hill feature, in the Barmer desert in operational familiarization, rehearsing numerous contingencies that were more than the scanty hair on my head!

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During the fag end of our operational familiarization, there were riots in Thane, and half of the Battalion was moved from the operational location to Thane. As the troops were getting back, we got embroiled in the unfortunate aftermath of ‘Operation Blue Star’. The Battalion moved to its operational areas to prevent trans-border terrorist movement as a precautionary measure in the scorching desert heat. We spent a good six weeks manning the entire international border (IB) in Brigade Sector from the Rann of Kutch to half way between Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

Ours is a very old Battalion- perhaps one of the oldest Battalions of the Indian Army but our ancestors never maintained records and one really is clueless about when and where the Battalion was raised, and how it got its Berari lineage. The erstwhile Hyderabad Regiment of The Nizam of Hyderabad, is the present day ‘Kumaon Regiment’. Since the Beraris do not know when and where they were raised, the Battalion started celebrating 27 October as its Raising Day. Incidentally, 27 Oct is also celebrated as the ‘Kumaon Day ’and the ‘Infantry Day’ too.

After our hectic desert sojourn, I sounded out Brig SC Katoch, our Brigade Commander and Major General Afsir Karim our GOC that we planned to celebrate 27 Oct 1984 as our 250th Raising Day with great pomp and show. The GOC remained a diehard Berari, though commissioned in the Beraris, later became a paratrooper.

The celebrations were interspersed over 26 and 27 Oct which included special prayer congregation in the Regimental Mandir, Sainik Sammelan, Pagal Gymkhana, JCOs’ Mess Lunch, and Bara Khaana on the first day, and finally culminating in the Officers’ Mess Dinner on 27 Oct. Since my wife and children were staying in Prasad Nagar, New Delhi, due to education of children, I was staying alone in Gandhinagar.

Therefore, I was keen that my wife and children join me for the celebrations but my wife came alone leaving kids behind because of their studies. After the celebrations, I was to go on much needed one month's leave and we both planned to proceed on leave on 31 October by the night train.

It goes to the credit of all ranks that all Raising Day functions went like clockwork and our guests and families were well looked after with typical Kumaoni - Berari warmth. After the functions, the next three days were spent as ‘administrative days’ in winding up and the clearances of numerous bills.

As usual, on 31 Oct, I went for PT at 0600 hrs and office at 0800 hrs. Since I was to proceed on leave, I wanted to hand over my charge of duties to my second in command (2IC), Major KM Kuttappa affectionately addressed as Kittoo. At about 1000 hrs, my wife rang me with the shocking news that she had heard on the Doordarshan that Mrs Indira Gandhi had been shot but more details were not known. I was shocked - what 31 Oct had seemingly looked like a normal day for me, my wife and the Battalion had turned out differently.

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I rang the Brigade Commander who had by then not heard the news and was equally shocked. In anticipation, since Kittoo was already with me, I quickly called Capt Bobby Mathews the Adjutant, Capt Suresh Mamgain, the Quartermaster and the Subedar Major Amar Singh, briefing them to be on short notice to move wherever ordered by the higher headquarters and the Battalion commenced its mobilisation.

As expected, after a while I got the telephone call from Major Vijay Chaddha, the Brigade Major, that our Battalion was to be mobilized to seal the International Border (IB) in the Barmer Sector and second line transport from Ahmedabad would be reaching our location by the afternoon. My wife kept waiting for me for lunch but I could not get back to our room as I was deeply involved in organizing and supervising our Battalion’s impending move to operational area on very short notice.

I reached late afternoon to my room for a while to bid my wife goodbye, leaving some money and instructions not to leave for Delhi till things were normalisesed. Major Sawinder Singh (Sawi), the officer commanding (OC) Administration Company was left behind at Gandhinagar as the OC Rear to look after the families including my wife, rear parties and regimental assets and hectic activities of impending move commenced as per time tested standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the Battalion. I requested Sawi not to let my wife move to Delhi till normalcy returned as riots were rumoured and news on radio and TV were blocked/censored.

The convoy drove throughout the whole night and we reached our field locations the next morning. Those were the days when there were no mobile phones and Doordarshan was the only news channel. At around 2000 hrs en-route we learnt from the way side dhaba that Indira Gandhi was no more and riots had broken-down all-over India. Salma Sultan, the popular news reader gave us the first news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination on Doordarshan's evening news on 31 October 1984, more than ten hours after she was shot.

Unfortunately, over the next four days, thousands of Sikhs were killed in a retaliatory violence that could have been avoided with impartial, quick and transparent actions by the central and state governments. The trains and buses stopped running and civil telephone connectivity within the country was severely disrupted as the law and order and civil administration had collapsed.

Reaching Ramsar the next morning, I found that the rear line link was not working or blocked and for the next two days I had no information from Gandhinagar. On 2 November, I got a signal from Sawi stating that my wife, after watching the riots in the country on the TV news, insisted on leaving for Delhi as she was concerned about our children’s safety. I drove down nearly 80 km each way to Uttarlai air base on two consecutive nights to ring my father-in-law and know about the safe arrival of my wife to Delhi.

I could get connectivity to military and air force exchanges in Delhi but not to any civil number in Delhi or around. After two days, the Battalion got a signal from the Station Headquarters Jaipur stating that Mrs Rajni Bhatia w/o Lt Col NN Bhatia, CO 2 Kumaon (Berar) who was stuck in Jaipur for the past 48 hours had been dispatched to Delhi by train with a police escort. I was also able to talk with my father-in-law who told me that telephone services were restored and he got the phone call from the MCO Delhi that Mrs Bhatia had arrived and that he managed to reach the railway station and got her home safely in a taxi.

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Later, my wife told me the ordeal and horror she went through. As she was left alone in my single room in the Officers Mess complex, watching Doordarshan TV news about assassination of Mrs Gandhi and riots in the country, she got extremely worried and insisted Sawi to let her leave for Delhi even without train reservation. At the Ahmedabad Railway Station and in the train, rumours about riots and lawlessness all over the country were rife. When the train reached Jaipur Railway Station early the next morning, all hell broke out at the station.

Since my wife, like many Punjabis wears a Kara (steel bracelet worn by all Sikhs) on her left wrist, rioters mistaking her identity, pulled her out of the train for thrashing, but seeing her short hairs and pleas that she was a Punjabi Hindu, she was let off unharmed by the hooligans. Being terrified, she spent the next 24 hours without food or going to the toilet, at Jaipur Railway Station platform swarmed with passengers because all trains were cancelled or suspended and vacating a seat for the toilet would mean forfeiting the precious sitting place.

After a day and a half in utter misery and distrust, she heard the Movement Control Officer (MCO) Jaipur announcing on the public address system that all service personnel and the families struck at the railway station should report to the MCO.

While men and their families were shifted to a local military unit, my wife was shifted to the MES Inspection Bungalow (IB) in the cantonment, where some food and tea were provided to her. After spending nearly six hours in the IB, late in the evening, she was made to board a Delhi bound train that reached Delhi Junction the next day early in the morning.

The station was almost deserted, and she was most scared but she managed to locate the MCO at Delhi Junction and rang her father who reached an hour later, thus ending her life’s longest ordeal. It is not unusual to face such unfortunate misadventures but unfortunately, they occur quite often in every soldier’s life and need to be tackled in the right spirit.

I too had a sigh of relief from this unfortunate misadventure and got embroiled in manning the entire divisional front with just a Battalion thereafter in the cold wintry desert where I celebrate both Christmas and the New Year.

About the Author

Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. Upon his retirement from the army, he went on to work in intelligence, specializing in industrial security, goin on to conduct security audits of vital installations.

Presently he is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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