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Tyres: The Unusual Weapon Used During the 1984 Riots

Tyres? As a murder weapon? Let’s talk tyres.

This method of killing was gut-wrenchingly unusual. Everywhere, large numbers of Sikhs were ringed with burning tyres. In years of reporting crime I had never seen such a method of killing in Delhi, never before, never since. Over those three days, this became the chosen way to kill all over the city. How did this suddenly happen?

This variance from any ‘popular’ method of killing is as revealing to note as it is macabre to comprehend. Because if you were the organization that wanted to kill as it did, tyres made a lot of sense. Tyres, in fact, might have been the only method to kill that then made sense in Delhi.

The usual methods of killing were not appropriate for what these men had set out to do. The most commonly available weapon usually is some sort of knife. Picking up a knife to stab someone in street fury is not uncommon. It is also a favoured weapon of attack in premeditated assault, if only because knives are often at hand. Such a knife attack is usually launched on an unsuspecting victim.

Those days knifing would have presented difficulties. The target was not some unsuspecting victim who could be surprised. That victim would be facing up to the attacker, and the attacker would have to get very close to him. The other, prepared, would fight back. You could have a fight on your hands that could take too long, with yourself at risk. It would get messy and bloody. Knifing would bring other risks. It’s very likely the attacker would get blood on his clothes, and that could be a deadly giveaway in case of any investigation.

Knifing is almost never used as a mode of attack upon large numbers of people. You never hear of knives used in genocide or in a pogrom. That is the weapon for an individual attack on a single target. Knives can be handy to pick up, but not necessarily easy to use. Any average bunch of men cannot all be trusted to use a knife skilfully enough for a quick kill.

Given the large numbers being targeted in the 1984 killings, it would have been difficult to hand out a set of sufficiently lethal knives for the job—the usual kitchen knife would not be suitable. And certainly no organization in Delhi would have a stockpile of long knives to hand out to kill someone with.

Or guns to hand out. A proper gun is always hard to get hold of anywhere in India; what is easy to find is the country pistol, the katta as it is called. But again, no organization is likely to have had some sort of armoury to produce these from, or buy them wholesale overnight. The katta is in any case notoriously unreliable, it fails and misfires often. If at all enough kattas could be produced, the average bunch of men one could find are unlikely to have had much skill in using the katta; using that kind of weapon does take time and training. Firing steadily from a proper revolver or pistol is hard enough—who could be trusted with kattas, and where would a relatively reliable lot of these be found? This option would be very much more difficult than wielding a knife. And it would take away any show of spontaneity.

If nothing as obvious as knives and guns, who would think tyres? They would have done a lot of thinking. Tyres could be found easily enough on streets and stacked in the open. They would only need the company of kerosene.

Kerosene would be even easier to find. Most homes in those resettlement colonies the murders happened in had no gas connection. Just about every home had a kerosense stove. And those neighbourhoods always had a kerosene depot where more could be bought.

Getting a kerosene agency wasn’t just anybody’s business; it was not an easy licence to acquire. These agencies were given to the carefully selected and well-connected. In any case, everyone knew where these were located in the neighbourhood. With connections or not, the owner would hardly be in a position to refuse an aggressive group that came with a demand for kerosene at that time.

Kerosene certainly was a familiar weapon. Delhi had by then developed a murderous tradition of burning young wives to death with kerosene around a stove. A great deal of my time as crime reporter was then taken up reporting cases of what came to be called ‘bride burning’, and ‘dowry deaths’, where a young and usually newly married woman would be burnt to death by in-laws, often for failing to bring enough dowry. Those killings took place mostly in just the kind of neighbourhood in which most of the killings of Sikhs took place.

Together with my colleague Sevanti Ninan, I had investigated the circumstances of many of these dowry deaths. We had together taken a hundred cases within a given and recent period, to look at each case through police records, home visits and collect the testimonies of relatives. In most cases of a woman burnt to death, the killings took place in the kitchen, often around a kerosene stove. Invariably, these were disguised as accidents. The murder weapon, kerosene, was ‘naturally’ at hand, many of these killings seemed to be copycat actions of known methods.

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Rioters on the rampage. (Photo Credit: Ashok Vahie)

In 1984 someone decided to combine the commonly available kerosene with the commonly found tyres. Used tyres found a big market for resale after ‘retreading’. These could be seen piled high in the open; rarely stacked indoors within some locked warehouse. In these piles of tyres someone had seen deadly promise. Tyres burn, and they burn over a long time. Topped with kerosene they burn more, they burn faster. A burning tyre contracts into itself, tightening itself around the space within. Ring a victim with a tyre, pour kerosene and set it aflame, and the tyre will turn into a killer garland. It will throw a restraint around the victim, and burn longer than kerosene splashed on clothes might. It was not a restraint the victim could run away from. The victim could at most carry the burning tyre around him the few steps he could move, if at all; he couldn’t grab it with his bare hands to pull it away, or to pull himself out of it. Someone had thought this through methodically.

Tyres would be particularly suited to killing scenarios where a number of people, say anything from four to ten, could overpower a victim, force a tyre around the neck, set it on fire and run away. The victim could never run away from the tyre.  Through our reporting of those cases of bride burning, forensic experts told us that killing by burning offers peculiar advantages—the very method of killing destroys the evidence with it. Burning usually destroys fingerprints, it leaves no bullets or shells to identify the gun they were fired from, from which to trace a weapon and its ownership. Burning leaves no telltale bloodstains. A forensic team would be much limited in gathering evidence around a death by burning, even if investigation was ever to get that far; it rarely did in those dowry death cases. In 1984 it never did.

Why tyres, we may ask? Really, what else could be better under those circumstances, and for that kind of killing? A new weapon had been created—the kerosene-tyre. It seemed just right for killing in a pattern where small groups would target one or two victims at a time before turning upon the next. That kind of ratio would enable easy overpowering of a victim to ring him with a tyre and set it on fire, and the tyre would do the rest. An easy murder with almost no evidence left.

In other, more normal, circumstances the kerosene-tyre would never work. It couldn’t be the weapon for an individual murder driven by some personal motivation. You couldn’t hope to surprise a victim with a kerosene-tyre. The killing itself would be problematic. It would set off too much smoke, the screaming would get too loud, it would all attract too much attention. Not what anyone might want for the quiet murder they could get away with. Walking up to a victim lugging a tyre would hardly be discreet.

Tyres could never be used for bride burning. Such killing would be obvious murder, few could argue that a young wife had landed herself accidentally within a burning tyre. The kerosene-tyre was also unknown as a suicide method. But in 1984 killers felt no need to disguise their murders as anything else, to pretend these might have been accidents. They were confident they didn’t need to.

It mattered nothing who saw the killers and how loudly and how long the man ringed with fire screamed. Or how high the smoke rose or how far the stench went. It was nobody’s intention then to sneak upon some unsuspecting victim, the idea was to surround, drag out, burn and kill. From the organizers’ point of view, it worked perfectly well. They had thought fast and acted fast. Until then it was thought tyres could kill if the tyre of a vehicle ran over someone. Now a detached tyre had turned killer.

In rare police action at the time, the central district police had to seal off the wholesale tyre market near Swami Shraddhanand Marg, the old ‘red-light district’ of Delhi. It was a well-known street, but not for tyres. Now and then the police would raid this area and make arrests among sex workers and their clients. This time the police descended on the area to protect tyres because these could be used to kill Sikhs. This is what Delhi had become.

These tyres had not just become the means to kill but a licence to kill. Groups that carried these tyres about were identifiable as groups with a particular mission with known targets. They would be seen to be so by the police. And nowhere in the worst affected areas did the police look out for groups carrying tyres to stop them.


Read more about the deadly anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, which brought the national capital to its knees in Sanjay Suri’s 1984: The Anti-Sikh Riots and After.

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