The Untold Story Of 'The Turkman Gate Massacre' During India's Emergency

The Untold Story Of 'The Turkman Gate Massacre' During India's Emergency
So Delhi

Remember, remember not the Fifth of November but our own gunpowder, treason and plot. We see of no reason why this censored out season should ever be forgot. 

[25th June marks the 40th Anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of an internal Emergency.What happened at Turkman Gate? How many countless lives were lost and destroyed by forced sterilisation? Who ultimately was the figurehead running India then?  The deeply censored and scarcely talked about event has been clouded under a veil. Until now.]

[ The narration of the events at Dujana House and Turkman Gate was taken from Emma Tarlo’s Unsettling Memories with a few additional details from Tavleen Singh’s Durbar]

“Never was such a great human tragedy caused in any part of the world.”

The reduction of any human tragedy to a simple case of numbers is a standard, albeit cold practice in the cycle of press reportage. We’ve witnessed it most recently with the Nepal Earthquake and time and again through out history, yet there is one case to which this formula cannot be applied. A massacre of human lives during India’s highly censored Emergency period so veiled that people who do know of it, rarely speak about it in coherent and uniform tones. And people who don’t rarely get a chance to read about it either. This is the story of ‘The Turkman Gate Incident’ of 1976 - independent India’s closest reliving of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that should serve as a shameful reminder in every history book across the country. 

Delhi’s Turkman Gate was built in 1658 and derives its name from the grave of Sufi Saint Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, which resides east of the gate. The gates lead off into a maze of narrow lanes that would twist and wind to the Jama Masjid with old-fashioned Havelis adorning the narrow lanes. The narrow doorways of these Havelis would open to courtyards and walled gardens with antique Persian carpets and dusty chandeliers. A Muslim stronghold in the 1970s, Turkman Gate is a critical example for the chroniclers of the 1975 Emergency as it symbolises the coming together of the most talked about atrocities committed during the Emergency - the forced sterilisation campaign and the demolition and ‘beautification’ of Delhi.

‘The manner in which demolitions were carried out in Delhi during the Emergency is an unrelieved story of illegality, callousness and of sickening sycophancy by the senior officers to play to the whims of Sanjay Gandhi,’ stated the Shah Commission report, as an estimated 700,000 people were displaced from slums and commercial properties over a period of 21 months, including large areas of the old city. The Delhi Development Authority and the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi acted as Sanjay Gandhi’s tools of enforcing the change as he deemed please but few can say with certainty that this would amount to the events of 18th or 19th April, 1976 ( a confusion we will come to later).

The general confusion and speculation which surrounds the Emergency finds itself in this story as well. The varying accounts and the euphemisms applied now call it a ‘demolition’ or ‘unfortunate incident’ while others insist on calling it the ‘tragedy that India forgot.’ The narrative you are about to read is presented from Emma Tarlo’s book Unsettling Of The Emergency: Narratives Of The Emergency In Delhi  which itself relies on the comprehensive account of the incident provided by John Dayal and A Bose’s For Reasons Of State: Delhi Under Emergency. 

The Bloodbath 

Turkman Gate on the Asif Ali Road and the Dujana House near Jama Masjid are only a mile apart. Mid-April 1976 saw the inauguration of the now infamous Dujana House Sterilisation campaign, spearheaded by ‘socialite’ turned social worker Ruksana Sultana in the Muslim-dominated area of Dujana House. She persuades the Muslim women of the area to get their husbands sterilised and as the week progresses, one can see street beggars being rounded up to be taken into a basement clinic, from which some never emerge. At Turkman Gate, a feeling of uneasiness starts creeping upon the residents when they realise the demolition squad would refuse to leave and that their houses were the next target. When some tried to enlist the help of Ruksana Sultana, a close aide of Sanjay Gandhi, Sultana offers support on the condition that they help her setup a clinic at Turkman Gate, and provide her with 300 sterilisation cases in a week.

The spreading panic leads to a delegation of local residents approaching the Vice-Chairman of DDA, Jagmohan. When they questioned if the Turkman Gate residents could be resettled into a single colony known as ‘Welcome’ or the nearby colony of Seelampur in East Delhi, he is said to have replied, ”Do you think we are mad to destroy one Pakistan to create another Pakistan?”

The mounting tension at both the location precipitates as the women in Dujana House start protesting with a burqa-clad woman lying on the ground to prevent a van full of sterilization victims, who had been collected randomly off the streets. The police intervention leads to arrest of one man as the crowd retaliates with a protest and call for general strike around the entire area including Turkman Gate. When Rukshana Sultana arrives at Dujana House, she barely escapes the furious local women when suddenly a message from Turkman Gate precipitates the situation - “They are massacring us here at Turkman Gate. Come and help us if you can.”

The relatives and friends of the Dujana House protestors had made a call for help as well as set the arena for the final confrontation with the police. The scene for the approaching clash has women and children at its centre as they stand on the road, fighting for their homes from being demolished. Sanjay Gandhi is said to be standing on the balcony of a distant hotel as he watches bulldozers razing through Turkman Gate. The Central Reserve Police Force is kept on standby with arms ready for use with violence erupting when women and children get up to pray.

Sanjay Gandhi, said to be inspecting a slum
Sanjay Gandhi, said to be inspecting a slumGuruprasad

The sudden movement causes the chief of the Nehru brigade to signal his men to prevent stoning by the people. This is done by the throwing of stones themselves which is met with fierce retaliation as the situation quickly deteriorates with the use of sticks and later tear gas in the midst of women and children. A person whose identity still remains unknown provokes the police to open fire, which triggers a bloody conflict. Some of them flee to the nearby Faiz-e-Elahi Mosque where they are gassed out, physically and verbally abused. The mosque is heavily attacked and said to represent an abattoir as the policemen are said to have stolen the cashbox of the Masjid containing thousands of rupees as groups of injured people lay screaming.

The air is filled with screams and tear gas as a desperate crowd throws stones outside on the streets while new arrivals attack the police from behind, taking over the chowki. The Commissioner of Police orders reinforcements which are armed with bayonets to kill as blood flowed down the Turkman Gate at four in the afternoon. A curfew is finally called at 5.30 as one of the least-talked, and perhaps, the most shocking part of Turkman Gate massacre comes to fore. Foul-smelling constables indulged in a spree of raping and looting by breaking into the houses of defenceless women whose husbands had either been arrested or fled. The electricity of the area has been cut off as only the bulldozers traverse through the night, clearing Turkman Gate of the rubble which is taken by trucks and dumped on the Ring Road as a foul smell of stale meat from the rubble tells a story of its own. Many narratives mention the callousness shown in the demolition and its brutality by running bulldozers over women and children as the old

’Who threw the first stone and for what reason? Was it the Nehru brigade or the people of Turkman Gate? Were the latter resisting  sterilisation or demolition or a mixture of both? The unanswerable nature of such questions does nothing to diminish the symbolic value of the story. For, of all Emergency tales, the story of Turkman Gate contains the most dramatic elements for a tragedy. It begins as the state versus innocent women who fight for the basic right to retain their homes and reproduce,’ asks Tarlo in her book, a question everyone who has heard the story of the Turkman Gate Massacre is left asking in addition to a few more of our own - Are the horrific accounts of rape true? If so, why has there been not a single comprehensive inquiry into it 39 years after the incident? Michael Henderson, a foreign journalist who attempted to publish a critique of the events of Emergency during its imposition stated the following in his 1977 book, “Turkman Gate is where it came to grief. People speak the words now in the way that they spoke of Jallianwala Bagh after General Dyer’s massacre in 1919.”

So who took the fall? Nobody responsible. 

What then happened to the alleged perpetrators/conspirators of this horrific crime? While Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash on 23rd June,1980, many of his stooges and complicit bureaucrats remained scot-free.

Jagmohan Sharma, the former Vice-Chairman of DDA on whose orders Delhi’s ‘beautification’ was undertaken went on to a successful political career as Governor and the Union Development Minister under the BJP Government. He defended himself in front of the Shah Commission and his book ‘Island Of Truth’ aims to shift blame by projecting himself as the lone honest man surrounded by hypocrites and concocted accusations. He goes onto defend the violence at Turkman Gate, stating that it was a result of the sterilisation campaign at Dujana House and that of the six people killed, only one lived at Turkman Gate and his house wasn’t even scheduled for demolition. He even refuted the allegations that the 25,000 displaced individuals could only get the plots if they agreed to sterilisation. A visit to Turkman Gate by Tarlo in 1996 coincided with the Election Campaign of Jagmohan with the BJP where leaflets claim that the ‘demolition man’ of the Emergency was now the saviour of the Turkman Gate refugees who were relocated to a place outside of Delhi and were ‘thankful’ for making them landowners.

Navin Chawla, who served as the secretary to Delhi’s LG during the Emergency and worked closely with Sanjay Gandhi, was indicted by the Shah Commission for his ‘authoritarian and callous role’ and noted the following about Mr Chawla- “He is unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others.” 

He went on to become the Chief Election Commissioner of IndiaRukshana Sultana seemed to have fallen into obscurity after the Emergency with no account of any criminal or civil cases being bought against her  and yet, the famous boasting of 13,000 sterilisations in a year lived on. The year of the Shah Commission investigations sees her bemoaning the loss of her rich lifestyle.

Remembered in Conjecture And Rumors 

The shroud of conjecture, rumors and uncertainty has surrounded much of the post-Emergency literature and Turkman Gate Massacre is not free from its clout either. Journalist Tavleen Singh, who was present at the time of the demolitions, agrees with Emma Tarlo’s observations about the varying casualty figures in police firing, varying from 12 to 1200 but a major discrepancy is highlighted in both the narratives. The date of the massacre is mentioned as 18th April in Singh’s book Durbar  while Tarlo mentions the date of the massacre to be 19th April. Another major discrepancy lies in the nature of the violence mentioned. While John Dayal’s narrative mentions rape, we failed to find any other report which could substantiate the above claims. Vandana Gupta, the director of When The Trains Ran On Time, who interviewed John Dayal said that the journalist was present at the demolition and did call it a massacre where many people died. The filmmakers had interviewed the residents of Turkman Gate and those whose shops had been torn down in the demolition but co-director Saba Naaz denied coming across any reports of rape during their research and process of making the documentary.

The conjecture is even passed down to the survivors of this tragedy with Tarlo’s visit to the Turkman Gate in 1996 acting as an important illustration of the fact. She met a local leader who claimed to be the head of the Turkman Gate Committee and a woman in a burqa who was a social worker. The leader tells her how the event became famous during the Emergency with people from all over Delhi and even foreigners coming to visit their houses as he laments that the Muslim majority beckons the government to be apathetic towards them. He claimed that at least 400 people were killed and states that Sanjay Gandhi wanted to build a ‘Sanjay Minar’ here, describing a revolving hotel while some narratives speculate that Sanjay gandhi’s personal whim for a shortcut or a wish to enjoy a clear view of India Gate from the Jama Masjid lead to the demolition. The social worker continues to lament the lack of help from the government, describing vividly how the bulldozers crushed people alive.
When Tarlo asks to see the Faiz-E-Elahi Mosque, she is taken across the road to an empty space where several buildings were demolished and where only a part of the mosque now remains. The demolition of the mosque was halted when one of the bulldozer drivers was killed. When questioned about why there wasn’t any sign/symbol for the passerbys, she is told that it would have to be taken down as the government would view it as a sign of provocation.

Tarlo is promised to be shown a movie about the massacre on 19th April but she returns to find a politically charged event where the massacre and the Babri Masjid incidents are being used for Anti-Congress posturing and calls, lead by the same head of the committee. A 2000 Rediff story  showed many who still awaited the promised compensation from the government while reeling from the devastating memories of the event. Delhi’s Trilokpuri Riots of 2014  are also said to be traced back to this massacre as the Turkman refugees were relocated to Trilokpuri with poor support and amenities provide by the state.

The Powerful Thrived While The Poor Fell Into Obscurity. Again. 

The narrative of the ‘rich and powerful with impunity and the eternally-suffering poor’ ceases to be an over-simplification when describing Turkman Gate Massacre. “The Turkman Gate Massacre, once so central to the post-Emergency narrative, has today shrunk to the status of a localised grievance which may raise passions amongst those individuals who were directly affected in 1976, but failed to capture the imagination of the electorate two decades later,” noted Tarlo in 1996, an observation which remains accurate 19 years after its original prediction. What was it about the Indian nation in the ‘70s and ‘80s that riots and pogroms of Turkman and 1984 riots are silenced or muddled with lack of coherent reportage? While the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and the riots of 1992 in Mumbai are stocked into public consciousness repeatedly, Turkman seems to be lost in obscurity with no fresh attempts to arrive at a factual conclusion, the absence of which sees conjecture bolstering.

The victims of Turkman Gate can still be found in the region, ready to tell the story of their suffering -whether firsthand or one passed down from one generation to another in the hopes that someone would listen and fight for them, and not simply use their sufferings and misery as political tools. The culpability of the State ,which might not be substantiated from personal accounts or books, deserved a fair trial but the alleged perpetrators of this horrific crime, either through complicity or incompetence have enjoyed vast impunity for almost 40 years.

B.M.Sinha summarises Turkman Gate in his book Operation Emergency with one simple line - “Never was such a great human tragedy caused in any part of the world.’ We find ourselves agreeing save for one minor embellishment-’ Never was such a great human tragedy forgotten in any part of the world.”

[The narration of the events at Dujana House and Turkman Gate was taken from Emma Tarlo’s Unsettling Memories  with a few additional details from Tavleen Singh’s Durbar]