Sunday, 5 June 2011

1984 - Vishavjit Singh

Oh you miserable wretches!
Your brother is maltreated and you shut your eyes!
The victim cries loud, and you keep mum?
The bully goes around, selects his victim,
and you say: He'll spare us because we hide our disapproval.
~Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan

A few days ago while chatting on the internet a friend made a passing reference to a news story about a group of Sikhs in Delhi paying homage on the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi. This reference took me back to that first week of November in 1984. I was there in Delhi when the assassination took place and the madness that enveloped the city and elsewhere in India.

What struck me the most was that with the passage of time the fateful events of 1984 got buried deep beneath the daily rumble of life to the point that I had forgotten the events on this 18th anniversary of 1984. Forgotten is not the right word since the images from the time of assassination followed by the massacre of thousands are still crisp and clear in my mind. Busy with mundane issues, personal dreams and to a certain extent finding it easier not to care for the dark shadows of events eighteen years past, events from which I extricated myself unscathed lie relegated to obscurity.

I remember listening to a live commentary of a cricket match from Lahore between India and Pakistan on October 31st, 1984. I was at school sitting in a class half listening to a boring lecture and the other half transfixed to the live commentary via a transistor radio I had sneaked in my lunch box into the school premises.

The live commentary was interrupted abruptly for an announcement. It was not an advertisement break. An announcer with a shaky voice announced that the Prime Minister of India had been shot. The match had been cancelled.

Within minutes the school authorities had announced the school closure and all the students were on their way home. I was young, not even a teenager yet but had lived long enough in India to know that difficult times lay ahead. Somewhere between the abrupt interruption in the live cricket commentary and my arriving at home, I had come to learn that the Prime Minister had been shot by her Sikh bodyguards.

By the time I got home the news had spread like a wild fire and my mother was anxious about my father not being home from his office in downtown Delhi. My father arrived late afternoon and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

He brought the first news of mobs coalescing near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where the Prime Minister was brought for medical help, seeking revenge. Passing vehicles were being searched for Sikhs.

By the morning of November 1st the city felt as if under a siege. A cloud of mourning and revenge had settled in. My first images of this day are the curtained windows of our apartment. My parents, like thousands of Sikhs across the city, sensed an impending wave of violence and had pulled curtains on our apartment windows as a first line of defence, not to expose oneself.

Through the cracks in the curtain I remember seeing policemen on a nearby street taking aim in the distance. I could not see what they were aiming for. One policeman took aim lying on the ground and the other while standing. I also saw a mob of hundreds of men armed with bamboo sticks being guided by policeman in an orderly way to some destination passing just below our apartment building. The mob was eerily quiet. We quietly assumed the mob was looking for Sikhs to kill, Sikh businesses to ransack and other ways to vandalize and terrorize the neighbourhood.

In the late afternoon my father, brother and I decided to step out to our first floor balcony and get a better look at the looters. Somehow they had appeared benign and not as bloodthirsty as earlier in the day. Men were casually walking back carrying loot from Sikh owned grocery stores. A solitary man fixing his slippers on a side street shot a glance at us and started yelling obscenities. We rushed back into the apartment.

Within minutes a mob had appeared around the apartment building asking us to be dragged out. I heard my young Hindu friends along with older kids in the neighbourhood talking to the mob, telling them that it was a government owned building and they should go back for it is no use destroying government property. They went back and forth.

As we sat in a little circle in my parents’ bedroom and read verses from the Guru Granth Sahib I heard the negotiations between the mob and my friends in the background. Magically the background voices disappeared. We carefully peeked out of the bedroom window. The mob had dispersed. The young ones had saved the day for us. Later in the evening we came in for a verbal thrashing at the hands of another Sikh family that lived on the fourth floor of our apartment building. We had not only put our lives at risk by venturing out on the balcony but possibly theirs. We apologized profusely to them.

The media and local information sources were beginning to give limited coverage of the savagery that was let loose in many parts of Delhi especially in the lower middle class neighbourhoods.

The nation was in a state of mourning and the Prime Minister’s body was on display at her residence for people to pay their last respects. For the first few days of this fateful November, I remember seeing on the television an endless stream of people walk past the Prime Minister’s body with a constant chanting in the background, Khoon Ka Badla Khoon Se Lenge (Avenging blood for blood) and Jabtak Sooraj Chand Rahega Indira Tera Naam Rahega (Till there are suns and moons Indira your name shall live). 

Every day seemed like eternity as more and more news of rage, killings, rape poured in. After about a week we decide to step out of our apartment. On the cover of the magazine Surya (Sun) were burnt and charred bodies of three Sikh men. I vividly remember it. Three bodies lying on the grass, almost completely charred with a few tender spots only visible by the light brownish shade of the human skin.
The next day all the issues of Surya were pulled off the shelf not to be found again with the hope that no undue sympathy should crystallize in the minds of the people for the savagery displayed by thousands of residents of Delhi.

I was to learn that thousands of innocent Sikhs had been burnt alive, thousands of women and young girls raped some in front of their parents. Gurudwaras all across Delhi and other parts of India were burned, Guru Granth Sahibs defecated and urinated upon, Sikh owned businesses looted and burnt.

On my first day back to school I discovered that it had been ransacked and parts of the building damaged by fire. My school was a Sikh school. I called my friends and fortunately all were well except one who had lost his father to a heart attack after his house was burnt by a mob.

The madness that followed the assassination was initially explained as a knee jerk reaction, the rage and anger of the masses spilling out as an expression of love for their leader. As time went by it became clear there was a planned strategy behind the murderous mayhem. Mobs were mobilized from the poor sections of the city. The police worked in concert with the mobs guiding them, in many instances, to Sikh households and businesses. The police in turn was mobilized by the political powers at the local and central level. Lists of Sikh homes and businesses were prepared and handed out to the mobs.

The army was not called in immediately following the first wave of killings but after three full days of killings of innocent Sikhs and rape of countless young girls and women. That is when the situation was brought under control. My analogy to explain this human carnage is that of a robot at the command of a human force. The robot is programmed to do everything a human is capable of and at the touch of a button will do what the master desires. The carnage following the Prime Minster’s assassination was let loose for three days and then the button was pressed again to halt the genocide.

The rage of poverty, lack of literacy and the control of mass consciousness by the powerful few is an ever-ready mixture at the disposal of corrupt leaders who can mobilize a lethal and deadly force and just as quickly sweep that force back into the errands of every day life. In the first few weeks after the killings as I moved about the city people gave me weird looks and passed comments but mostly it seemed normal. The mobs had dispersed and turned back to the normal routine of their lives.

The new Prime Minister, son of the assassinated Prime Minister was sworn in few days later and I remember hearing him on television addressing a large crowd. His words were, Jab bara per girta hai to dharti hilti hai (when a big tree falls the ground obviously shakes). I will never forget his words in response to the magnitude of the human tragedy. Fortunately I was not alone in finding these comments irresponsible and unbecoming of a man entrusted with the job of running a country. 

It has been eighteen years since the fateful days of November 1984. I was one of the fortunate ones who survived to write his story. The survivors of the victims’ families live with scars, memories and images of those days.

Like others who live with the unfortunate luxury to forget, I too live with the illusion that death is not near. Then again I pause, I wonder. Thousands of people who killed Sikh men, and raped Sikh women in 1984 are free in India. None was held accountable for the 1984 pogroms. I might have brushed past one of them in a crowded bazaar, sat next to one on a city bus, had one come to my home to fix the plumbing, breathed the same polluted air on a city crossing.

The murderous beast was let loose on numerous occasions since 1984 across India, Gujarat 2002 being the grandest one in scale. The next one waits to pluck innocent lives catching us unawares, while we live in the amnesiac safety of our homes.

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