8T4 - Part IIJASPREET SINGH
Continued from yesterday ...
We were unaware at that point that [India's ruling] Congress Party, in defiance of the constitution, was using all the organs of the Indian state to conduct a genocidal pogrom.
The state-controlled All India Radio announced that, barring a few little incidents, the “situation was under control,” and the state-controlled TV did a live coverage of national “mourning” as Indira Gandhi’s body lay in state (with Bergmanesque closeups of her face).
But the soundtrack was the soundtrack of the “mob” created by the cabinet ministers and members of parliament, as we found out later.
Khoon ka badla khoon say.
Blood for Blood.
The BBC shortwave radio told a different story. And so did the Indian Express.
But by and large the big media collaborated with the state.
Public buses and trains were used to transport paid mobs. Voters’ lists were used to mark Sikh houses and businesses overnight. Most victims were burned with the aid of a white inflammable powder. More than four thousand Sikhs were burned alive in Delhi alone. Untold number of men were set on fire in more than forty cities throughout India.
The mobs were given money, liquor, kerosene, and instructions by senior leaders who belonged to the astonishing Congress Party, some of them Doscos, educated at the elite Doon School. The Home Minister did nothing while the city of Delhi turned into a killing field, smelling of human beings and rubber tires on fire. The police gave a tacit nod and in many cases actively participated in the orgy.
So many prominent citizens and lawyers begged the Prime Minister to act, but he did nothing for four days. The police refused to register victims’ reports, and spread vicious rumours about the Sikhs. Low-ranking officers who defied the orders were immediately removed from duty and penalized. This kind of coordination of the state apparatus to kill its own citizens in such large numbers only a few blocks from the Parliament was unsurpassed in Indian history.
No wonder writer Khushwant Singh said, “I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany.” He took refuge in the Swedish Embassy. No Sikh in Delhi or in Congress-ruled provinces was safe. Those who happened to be on trains and buses, travelling, were the most unfortunate. The long list of names includes Sikh soldiers in uniform, some of whom had fought the 1971 war, some had fought for India in April 1984 on the coldest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier.
As is often unsurprisingly the case, the poor suffered more than the rich. Most who died were already twice or thrice dispossessed. Some eked out a living weaving jute cots. Although this was “mass murder,” each Sikh body was dragged out of a house or a shack or a hiding place and burned individually. No Swedish or Belgian embassies gave the poor refuge. No army guards appeared on time.
Sikh women were raped, and while they were being raped their children were often forced to watch. There were also instances of genital mutilation. Later on, the sexual violence victims and the widows received no counselling and for years no compensation from the state.
When parliament recommenced, the government never once mentioned the horrific carnage it had just conducted. When schools and colleges reopened, the principals and headmasters completely forgot to mention the dead. Some of their own students didn’t return, their chairs were empty.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said a few days later while addressing the nation: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” There
was no sense of shock. No anguish. Nothing to reassure the citizens that justice would be done. Gandhi opposed all calls for an inquiry because any “inquiry would harm the Sikhs.”
All the accused Congress leaders got plum posts in his new cabinet. The MPs argued: I killed more Sikhs in my constituency, I deserve a bigger cabinet post. (Names? H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Kamal Nath, et al.) The Prime Minister also halted the Ved Marwah report on the criminal role of the Delhi police.
All this is well documented in reams and reams of human rights reports.
The Congress Party, it is well known, fought for the Indian independence from the British. And that is what makes it so ironic: exactly ninety-nine years after it was formed (and one hundred years since it was conceived), the same party in a seamless manner conducted its first major genocidal pogrom. (Ironically, the party conducted no pogrom when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu zealot in 1948.)
For almost thirty years now, the Congress and the institutions of the Indian state have built hundreds of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi memorials and at the same time tried to erase, deny, and distort the pogrom. Historians have categorized the event as a “riot”; most don’t even recognize the event as an event.
A nation that remembers the 1919 Amritsar massacre would like people to forget November 1984. The younger generations don’t read about it in textbooks and often don’t even know what they don’t know. Barring a few accounts (for instance, Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence and the 1995 Amitav Ghosh essay in The New Yorker), most Indian writers were reluctant to engage with that horrific past.
The anti-Sikh “riot,” whenever the silence was broken, was narrated essentially as a footnote to the assassination.
After a lot of pressure from concerned citizens and human rights groups, the governments of the time agreed to hold one Kafkaesque inquiry commission after another. Ten such useless commissions were set up. The judges who chaired the commissions always gave the Congress Party a “clean chit.”
One of them, Ranganath Mishra, ended up becoming the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court.
All along the victims and witnesses were (and to this day are) repeatedly threatened, attacked, and bribed. On the other hand, senior police officers accused of involvement received glittering medals and promotions.
In 2002, another big pogrom took place in the Indian province of Gujarat. Gujarat, ironically, ended the silence about 1984. This new pogrom was conducted by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP).
After Gujarat, the ghosts of 1984 returned.
More than anyone else it was the BJP that reminded the Congress Party of its long-forgotten crimes.
To this day, those who enabled and carried out the 1984 and 2002 pogroms have not been punished. Despite the biased 2005 Nanavati Commission report, and despite that absurd semi-apology issued by the Sikh prime minister, not a single politician, cabinet minister, bureaucrat, judge, or a high-ranking police officer has been brought to justice.
Indira Gandhi’s assassins were hanged to death, but the victims of the pogroms received no justice.
Two ex-prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, who enabled the 1984 pogrom, are already dead. Narendra Modi, the one who enabled the 2002 pogrom, remains a darling of business leaders and is preparing himself to become the next prime minister.
For almost two decades if one inquired about “an ’84 book” in a bookstore in India, all one got was George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But now the situation is slightly different. In addition to several human rights reports, a few books have appeared, the most significant one: When a Tree Shook Delhi by Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka. There are also a couple of documentaries and feature films, including Shonali Bose’s Amu.
But many remain unaware of this tragedy.
Three Novembers ago I was in Delhi with my parents and sister. I don’t recall the exact time of the day when our conversation drifted to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Amrita Pritam’s “Aj aakhan Waris Shah nu.” We talked about Partition and that extraordinary, indispensable writer called Sadat Hasan Manto and his heart-breaking story “Toba Tek Singh.”
My father was born in the real Toba Tek Singh. He was nine years old in 1947 when his parents and siblings were forced to leave their house behind and cross the new border into new India. They arrived (or didn’t) -- some on trains, some on foot, and some on ox-carts part of a kafila -- in Amritsar and immediately made it to the Golden Temple to locate one another.
One of my ancestors’ name was Bishen Singh.
By some eerie coincidence, Bishen Singh is also the namesake of the Sikh protagonist in Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh.”
Toward the end of our long conversation, we drifted toward 1984, and I recall asking my own family members, once again, about their memories of November of that year.
My sister told me how she had tried hard all these years to erase all thoughts connected to her school, which was looted, partially destroyed, and set to fire by a mob.
During those couple of hours in the neighbour’s house, I still recall, she kept saying, “Let’s go home. I have to finish my homework.” She was only twelve years old.
Little did she know that she would not attend school for a while.
My father recalled his return trip home on the evening of October 31. He was the commanding officer of the Signal Regiment (E-Block). When the officers’ van passed by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, he was able to see through the window some signs of violence.
But the real violence began on November 1. On the morning of that day, he received several distress calls, at home, from his Sikh staff members, the JCOs, signalmen, radio and cipher operators. He immediately dispatched a Hindu driver to rescue them.
My mother said she had nothing to say. When I insisted, she told me about the regiment driver. Ishwar, the driver, called very late on the night of November 1. She had answered the phone. Ishwar was sobbing like a child. He asked her to hand the phone to my father. “The driver told your father, almost like an entry in a log book, the details of his day. Then he broke down.”
For eight or nine continuous hours, Ishwar drove through the burning fields of Delhi, fire and smoke and bodies and ash. He rescued dozens of Sikh men and brought their families to the safety of a barbed-wire camp in Khanpur. The trouble was that there were just too many of them, Ishwar the only regiment driver on duty, and he had not slept for the last sixteen hours and he had gone without food and could no longer stare in the eye of the horror. Your father tried to persuade Ishwar to make one more trip, my mother said. But Ishwar broke down.
My mother was silent for a while. Then she spoke again, and told me about Ishwar’s sobbing, crackling voice, whatever she heard standing close to the phone. Then a complete collapse of language.
“To this day I hear Ishwar’s voice and his scream,” my mother said, and her eyes became moist.
When she spoke several hours later, she asked me a question.
“What book are you working on?”
“November,” I said, “1984.”
I could see that my mother felt like saying something to me, but she was unable to do so.
[Jaspreet Singh is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and a former research scientist. His latest novel, Helium, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2013.]
June 24, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 24, 2012, 8:59 AM.
Jaspreet ji, your forthcoming book would add to exposing the infamy of 1984. Keep the torch burning for ever and ever and brighter by the day. There is no way 1984 will ever be forgotten or erased from the collective memory of mankind.
2: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), June 24, 2012, 11:03 AM.
Time reduces to dust the powerful and the mighty who resort to injustice and cruelty with no trace whatever being left of them. History is witness to it. God's justice is perfect.
3: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), June 24, 2012, 1:57 PM.
I lost my friend, Parvinder Singh Saini, who called me from his residence at 10 am ... warned me not to leave home. Instead, right thereafter, he and his father, along with two uncles, were locked into their paint shop and burnt alive. He was very good in studies, especially in Accounting. But India's justice system, culture, government, all need to change. And will have to be accountable some day, in some fashion.
4: Harpreet Singh (Delhi, India), June 24, 2012, 3:03 PM.
Many many salutes to those like Ishwar in this article. Also Delhi Police ASI Jugti Raam (posted in the most affected police station in the trans Yamuna area) and many others without whose help the death toll of Sikhs would have been higher. We too - six members of our family - stayed for six full days and nights with a Sehajdhari Hindu veer in our neighbourhood whose family provided us every comfort and even refused to take any money from us. As regards punishment to the guilty, we must not worry and instead take guidance from our gurbani: "manso keo dibano koyi nas bhaj nike har dibano koyi kithe jaya" - "One can escape punishment in human courts but no excuse works in the Divine Courts). As regards surviving victims (their condition is really not good) our Sikh bodies could and must apply all out efforts - financial, counselling, physical protection, provision of homes in better colonies to victims, etc. But sorry to say they will not or do not want to do this, making many excuses. Similarly the books or films on this topic must be made available to all and translated into other languages but our Sikh bodies can only build marble mansions, put gold on walls of gurdwaras, etc. But no such effort to tell the truth to the people. Recently an Indian newspaper carried big advertisements from some foreign country regarding their dispute with another country. Can Sikh volunteers do this as also concrete plans for helping the victims?
5: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), June 24, 2012, 10:27 PM.
Sikh must never get themselves in a position of weakness again. We must learn from the four holocausts we have suffered from through our history and never allow ourselves to be entrapped again.
6: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 24, 2012, 10:39 PM.
I understand that all this happened because the Congress Party wanted 'votes' and needed 'enemies' for their mostly illiterate and abject poor Hindu supporters!
7: S. Singh (Oslo, Norway), June 26, 2012, 8:08 AM.
I am buying it for sure!
8: Tanvinder Singh (Gurgaon, India), July 02, 2012, 12:02 PM.
Tears in my eyes ... and revenge in my heart!