The Khooni Kissa of Turkman Gate

"When there were loud knocks on the gate, Imam Mohammed had thought that the police were trying to scare them in opening the door. But a loud crunch on the door dispelled his illusions. The police were using a battering ram."

This is an excerpt from the chapter “Turkman Gate” from the book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose, both of whom were reporters for the Patriot newspaper. The Turkman Gate incident was one of the more notorious of the Emergency, which was declared by Indira Gandhi on June 26, 1975. The book was published soon after the Emergency was lifted and general elections called. It was released by George Fernandes.

The Khooni Kissa of Turkman Gate

John Dayal and Ajoy Bose

Imam Hafiz Mohammed of Dargah Faiz-e-elahi Masjid had nearly finished the Monday prayers when the police came to the mosque. He had fervently prayed to Allah to stop the massacre outside and protect his congregation for the last 15 minutes. But Allah seemed to have deserted the Faiz-e-elahi mosque and its Imam on this day.

The Masjid’s huge main door had already been bolted to prevent the police coming in but it was just a precautionary measure. Imam Mohammed had not really imagined the police would enter the holy place.

When there were loud knocks on the gate, Imam Mohammed had thought that the police were trying to scare them in opening the door. But a loud crunch on the door dispelled his illusions. The police were using a battering ram on the gate. He had fixed the gate just a month back and the bill had come to over seven thousand rupees. The Imam’s heart sank as he thought the damages to the door would be the least of the things damaged that day.

The congregation was getting restless. The battering outside had risen to a crescendo. Finally, with a crash the gate broke open. Through the door poured in policemen.

“Stop, this is the house of Allah”, the Imam screamed, his face a mask of fear and anger. But his voice was drowned in the screams of the 300 odd men, women and children as the police fell on them.

There was no escape from the police lathis in the small confined space of the mosque. One by one the people were being dragged out.

But it was by no means an easy task for the police. The people clung desperately to the walls and windows of the Masjid. They clung on despite the rain of lathis and blows by the police. The Masjid to them was still safer than the rampage going on outside.

“Okay, gas the bastards out of the Masjid”, ordered a police officer. Two tear gas shells landed right inside the Masjid. In the closed space, the gas was murder. This brought the people running out of the Masjid like ants from an anthill. Just a few minutes of the gas and a person could choke to death.

Little Usman had lost track of his mother in the bedlam. Because he was small, he had been able to dodge the lathis and blows till now. But gas was another thing. His eyes blinded by tears, Usman ran hither and thither inside the mosque, but in the mad stampede he could not locate where the door was. His breath came in heavy pants.

“Amma Jan”, he screamed. “Where are you?! Save me!” But Amma Jan was enveloped in the blanket of the gas which was slowly choking the life out of Usman. Someone stepped on him heavily but Usman was beyond feeling. The gas had taken his life.

Eighty-year-old Abdus Sattar crouched terrified next to the wall. He had been the sweeper of the Masjid for more years than he could remember. Never had he seen such a scene of bedlam. Screams, lathis, tear gas and blood – Abdus Sattar closed his eyes and prayed to Allah. But soon the gas got to him. Coughing desperately, Abdus Sattar ran for the door.

He was caught just as he had managed to grope his way to the door. Dragging him by the neck was a burly constable. “I will come with you, but just let me go to the latrine once,” cried Abdus. The answer came in a huge blow on his head, then everything blacked out for Abdus Sattar.

Imam Hafiz Mohammed had managed to retreat into one of the inner rooms of the Masjid.

“Hai, Allah”, he prayed, “Help your children, how long will this massacre go on?”

“Where are you, Allah?” came a voice behind him. In the doorway stood two police constables and a Nehru Brigade man. It was the Nehru Brigade man who spoke.

“Bring your Khuda, Imam, and see what we do to him. Come on let’s see, bring out your Allah, I want to see him,” he jeered.

“I am the Imam of the Masjid. Do not touch a holy man. My blood will be on your head,” the Imam shrank back. His heart gave a sudden leap as he remembered that his little son was sleeping in the next room.

“Where have you hidden the rest of them, Imam? We know that some of them are hiding in the next room,” as he smashed the door of the next room. The Imam ran to stop him but he was grabbed by the neck by one of the constables.

“Ah, what have we here. Your son, Imam,” the Nehru Brigade man’s voice, a sibilant whisper. “Don’t hurt him, he is only a little boy,” the Imam cried.

“Arrest both of them,” the Nehru Brigade man ordered.

“Okay, I will come along with you but don’t hurt my son.” The Imam had surrendered. But his little boy tried to run. A lathi caught him in the thigh and he fell on the floor. The Imam jumped to guard the boy. A lathi blow crashed on his left arm, breaking it instantaneously.

“Soften up this dog of a Imam a bit. It will take out some of the love of Allah out of him,” the Nehru Brigade man barked.

Imam Hafiz Mohammed prayed on while the blows rained down on him.

“Allah, all these insults, all these humiliation to you, and your Imam. Punish them Allah. Let them remember what they did to your Masjid forever,” the Imam prayed, as he was dragged outside.

In just half an hour the Masjid had become an abattoir. Blood lay in pools on the ground and the air was noxious with fumes of tear gas and groans and moans of the injured congregation. Doors, windows and furniture had been smashed and the cash box of the Masjid containing a few thousand rupees had been looted by the marauding policemen. It had been a wholesale affair.

Outside on the road the battle was not so unequal. There was space to fight back and men had joined the women to keep up the stone-storm which still kept off the police at a distance from the houses of Turkman Gate. Fresh reinforcements had come from Jama Masjid to help the people and the mob had swelled to over three thousand strong.

DIG Bhinder himself was in charge of the operations but never had he in his life seen such unbending resistance from a mob. Normally, the first few rounds of gunfire were enough to dispel any mob. But these people were mad men. They still would not allow the bulldozers to come in.

Right in front of him was a man jumping up and down. A giant of a man. In one hand he held a lathi and with the other he lifted his lungi and showed his genitals to the DIG. His abuses reached Bhinder even over the sound of gunfire and screams.

“What are you staring for,” Bhinder shouted at a subordinate. “Get the son of a bitch.”

It was easier said than done. The first policeman to reach him was smashed down like a match box by the man. So was the second and the third. The man stood like a colossus daring to mock the whole of Delhi Police.

They got him finally. About a dozen policemen brought him down with a crash. For minutes all that could be seen were flailing lathis falling on the supine body of the giant. But not a scream escaped from the giant’s lips. Not even a single groan. His body twitched spasmodically even after the policemen had left him for some time and then finally lay still.

Another man was spotted on the terrace of a house lifting his lungi and showing his genitals to the police below. Orders were given to shoot him down. For some time it seemed that he bore a charmed life against bullets. He remained a grotesque, obscene figure silhouetted against the sky screaming imprecations against the battery of guns firing at him below, till the figure gave a sudden jerk, lifted his hands and then fell like a stone down from the terrace on to the road. A bullet had found him at last.

But for all their heroism, the people of Turkman Gate were slowly pushed back by the police when suddenly help came from unexpected quarters.

A mob of more than 500 men attacked the police force from behind.

They came from the direction of Delite Cinema on Asaf Ali Road. They had been enraged because one of their womenfolk had been shot down as she was passing Turkman Gate just a few minutes back. The men, like all residents of poor colonies, had no love lost for the police and the death of one of their women had put all considerations out of their mind.

Barely had the police recovered from this surprise attack when another mob attacked them on the left flank. This mob came from the Hamdard Dawakhana side. Some of their relatives too had got hurt in the firing and lathi charge.

Taking advantage of this, the fighters at Turkman Gate again pushed forward chucking stones, soda bottles and acid bulbs at the retreating lines of policemen. They were more organised now.

A crowd surrounded the police chowki and the two or three constables inside barely managed to escape with their life. The people had taken over the police chowki.

There was jubilation among the people. This was the police chowki where many of them had been brought before. They had been arrested, harassed or beaten up here. Now, they controlled the chowki.

The phone rang inside the chowki. One of the crowd picked it up. “This is the Deputy Commissioner speaking, what is the situation at Turkman Gate?” the voice on the other side said.

“Murderer, bastard,” a stream of abuses poured into the receiver.

Sitting in his office, the Deputy Commissioner panicked. “Hullo, is that the Turkman Gate police chowki? Who is that speaking?”

“This is your baap,” [father] replied a hoarse voice filled with hatred.

This was too much for the Commissioner. He put down the phone abruptly and then picked it up again.

“Send reinforcements to Turkman Gate at once,” he spoke into the phone. “They have taken over the police chowki.”

The Commissioner then called for his driver. “Turkman Gate,” he ordered as he settled down on the back seat of his car.

For so long the police had fired sporadic volleys. After the capture of the police chowki by the crowd, they fired in a steady stream. They were shooting to kill now.

The western horizon was red. Four o’clock in the afternoon and blood flowed down Turkman Gate. Their short-lived jubilation had turned sour as the bullets cut them down one by one. Nobody, not even the people of Turkman Gate, could take so much punishment.

The mob was being pushed back again.

“Run, run for your life bhaiya [brother]. Run back into the lanes,” even as Rais Ahmed told his brother he saw him slump down with a bullet in his chest. He ran backward dragging his brother’s limp body. Must get to a doctor, he thought to himself.

But where would there be a doctor at Turkman Gate at that time? The injured who could be recovered from the battle lines by their friends and relatives had been brought to a lodge deep inside Turkman Gate where a makeshift hospital had been set up by the people. Torn clothes substituted for bandages and the women cleaned up the wounds as best as they could. For the seriously injured, there was little hope of survival.

The sea of khaki now threatened to swallow Turkman Gate. The crowd had fled the police chowki and there sat the District Commissioner making hurried phone calls. “The situation is coming under control, sir,” he spoke into the phone.

“Good,” the voice on the other side said, “but be sure to smash all resistance completely before you stop.”

The police had come right up to the inner ring of houses of Turkman Gate and scores of them began to enter them. A new wave of carnage had started.

At Karta 3393 Turkman Gate, Husnah Begum lay huddled quivering with fear as she heard the sounds of gunfire and shouts outside her room. Her little boy Akbar cringed next to her as there were loud knocks on the bolted door.

“Open up. This is the police,” shouted a voice.

The woman and child kept silent.

“We will break down the door if you don’t open up,” the voice shouted louder.

Akbar crawled even closer to his mother. Then a loud church and the door gave away.

Husnah Begam closed her eyes. She tried not to open them through her ordeal with the foul smelling constable. Her soft whimpering only once rose to a scream when she heard the cries of little Akbar as he was smashed to the ground with a rifle butt. A strange darkness now surrounded her.

Just a few yards away, pretty, bright-eyed Salena Begum was fighting like a wild cat the burly constable who had broken into her room. The constable had already felt her nails and teeth.

“This is a tough bitch. I can’t manage her alone. Come and help me,” the constable called to one of his friends outside.

Two constables against one woman. Yet Salena fought. Biting, kicking and screaming, she dragged both of them from one corner of the room to the other of the room as they tried to tear off her burkha. Salena Begum would go down the hard way.

The scene had shifted from the demolition spot to inside the houses that remained standing in Turkman Gate. The firing had subsided as the police steadily poured into the lanes and by-lanes hunting for their kill.

Inside the Girdhar Lal Panna Lal Lace and Gota Factory, one of the oldest industrial units of Turkman Gate, were trapped 60 workers. They had reported for duty as usual in the morning. When violence had erupted all around the factory, the proprietor of the factory had quietly slipped away leaving the workers and the supervisor to deal with the situation.

The workers were defending the factory like their own homes. The machines were their bread. Nobody, neither the demolition squads nor the mob outside, would be allowed to touch the machines, the workers had vowed.

But the situation had rapidly worsened. The main gate was bolted, the fleeing mob could enter the factory and set it on fire. The supervisor panicked. He phoned up the police chowki and asked for help to evacuate himself and the workers.

The police came soon after. But before the workers could open the gates for them, the police broke through the gates themselves. Hundreds of them poured in and fell like wolves upon the unsuspecting workers.

They were beaten up mercilessly and then packed like dogs into the police van. The only fault of the workers had been that they wanted to defend the factory.

Curfew was declared at 5.30 in the evening. And then followed a systematic wave of looting and raping. Most of the men had either been arrested now or fled from the area. Only the women and children remained unguarded in their houses.

Razia Begum had been waiting for her husband for over an hour in her house but still no sign of him. There was a knock at the door and she eagerly went to open it. She found the figure of a police constable instead of her husband.

“Take off your earrings,” he ordered. Razia gave him her earrings.

“Where do you hide your other jewellery?” Helpless, Razia directed him to the little box where her jewellery was and their accumulated saving over the years.

“And now your clothes.” Razia pointed to the suit cases beside the bed.

“Not the clothes in your suitcase. The clothes on your body.” The constable showed his betel-stained teeth.

Razia’s eyes widened with terror. With a wild lunge she managed to dodge the constable grasping arm and ran out onto the verandah. Below lay a 40-foot drop to the ground.

“Come back, woman. What are your trying?” the constable shouted from behind.

Razia Begum closed her eyes and jumped. The pavement rose to meet her with a sickening thud.

It was getting dark in Turkman Gate. Red flocks still coloured the dark sky as the sun sank further. A hush had fallen, though occasionally the silence would be broken by screams or hysterical sobbing.

Not a light showed at any of the houses. The electricity had been cut off. So had the water and telephone connections. It was as if Turkman Gate had been disowned by the rest of the city.

The silence was broken suddenly by a weird crankling and croaking of machines. It seemed as if some primordial monster was laughing at the face of Turkman Gate. The bulldozers had started moving again.

Arrayed like a tank squadron, 16 bulky shadows came to life as the light of day completely went out. Their ugly snouts shaking as they moved forward. They seemed to be chortling with glee. There were no obstacles in front of them now.

Nineteen year old Suleiman heard the sound of the bulldozers as he crouched inside a half demolished house. He had managed to escape and hide here. Nobody would think of looking in here. He was a bit worried about his brother. They had arrested him. Tomorrow he must try and bail him out, Suleiman thought.

The sound of bulldozers did not mean anything to Suleiman at first. It must be the police trucks going off, he thought. The sound came closer and closer.

This was no truck, it flashed through Suleiman’s brain. Trucks don’t make this sort of a noise. What could it be? Suleiman wondered as the noise grew louder and louder. He dared not look out lest he be discovered by a passing constable.

The noise seemed to be heading towards the house in which Suleiman crouched. And as it was almost upon him, Suleiman knew it was a bulldozer.

He opened his mouth to scream but his scream was drowned in the growl of the bulldozers as its 12-foot blade smashed its way into the house, mixing Suleiman’s body into the rubble. Then the monsters moved on to destroy further.

The darkness was suddenly lit by high-powered searchlights and the waste that was Turkman Gate lay stark and bare under their piercing rays.

The 16 bulldozers kept on moving. They did not stop that night, nor the next day or night. In fact the bulldozers worked round the clock till April 22, till they had decimated all signs of life as well as death in Turkman Gate.

The rubble was scooped up into trucks and thrown behind the Ring Road every day where buzzards and jackals were seen rummaging through the rubble. Only the stink of stale meat which hung for days together over the thrown rubble remained to tell the story of the life and death struggle of the people of Turkman Gate.