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1984: Memories of massacre

Archis Mohan 

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

178 pages; Rs 399

Every day hundreds of Indians from remote corners of India queue up to offer their respects at the bungalow that houses the memorial to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 1, Safdarjung Road in Lutyens' Delhi. It was here that Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31, 1984.

The Congress party, as it did last week, marks it as the day of Mrs Gandhi's martyrdom. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre, keenly appropriating icons from other political streams, celebrated it as "National Unity Day" to honour the birth anniversary of India's first Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent out a tweet paying his "tributes" to Mrs Gandhi.

There was, however, relatively little mention of the state-sponsored killings of an estimated 2,733 Sikhs, rape of their women and looting of their homes and shops that went on for over three days following Mrs Gandhi's assassination in November 1984.

The Delhi Police, barring a few officers, provided protection to the marauding mobs led by Congress leaders as they desecrated gurudwaras, set Sikh men on fire, cut their beards and hair or grabbed them from their cars or two wheelers to fling them down the nearest railway over-bridge or a flyover.

I was nine years old then, living for those few days with my grandmother in Lodhi Colony, close to where the trouble started as Congress leaders and their followers trooped out of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where Mrs Gandhi lay dead. They started by attacking the very first gurudwaras in Karbala, near Lodhi Colony.

The next day the horror unfolded. The plume of black smoke from the gurudwara was just one of several that could be seen in the November sky. Men and boys, including some from our middle class colony, joined in to loot and burn shops owned by Sikhs, returning with their rich haul of books, video cassette players and even chickens from a Sikh-owned jhatka meat shop.

A Sikh boy whom I knew fleetingly was caught and his hair set on fire until local shopkeepers intervened. A burning car tyre was thrown around the neck of another man our family knew.

Yet, across Delhi, rumour mills worked overtime to warn Hindu families to stay awake all night with whatever arms they could gather, to counter a possible strike by armed Sikh men or that Sikh militants had poisoned the water supply.

Growing up in Delhi, I have always been surprised at how so few of my classmates in school or university were willing to discuss their experiences of November 1984. Most, outside the world of journalism and activists, have a hazy idea about the enormity of the crimes against the Sikhs. That the Sikhs somehow "had it coming" is, even now, not an uncommon response.

Journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a rare breed of writers - the list includes few but notable names like Amitav Ghosh, Manoj Mitta, H S Phoolka, Nandita Haksar, Uma Chakravarti and Sanjay Suri - who have dared to tell the untold agony of 1984. He has interviewed scores of victims and activists to put together their personal experiences of those three fateful days and how it changed them.

Mr Mukhopadhyay is also unsparing in apportioning the culpability of the Punjab problem to Mrs Gandhi and Congress' decade-long cynical politics to destabilise the Akalis by dismissing their elected governments and dividing the Sikhs by propping up such men as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

He names all the villains of the piece, including Congress leaders who went on to become members of Parliament and Union ministers, and how successive governments at the Centre failed to prosecute the guilty. The agenda, Mr Mukhopadhay says, was to reduce the Sikhs from an extremely proud community to "weeping wimps" when faced with the "Hindu patriarchy".

The heart of the painstakingly researched book is in the recounting of personal histories. There is Jarnail Singh, later to fling a shoe at then Home Minister P Chidambaram and currently an Aam Aadmi Party MLA, who says how as an 11-year-old he was made to feel like a terrorist in school.

Filmmaker Safina Uberoi, daughter of academics Patricia and J P S Uberoi, who from thinking herself to be a "white child" born to an Australian mother and an atheist father, went on to discover her Sikh identity. There are heart-wrenching stories from those who survived the riots like sound engineer K J Singh, strategic expert Gurmeet Kanwal, Campa Cola owner Charanjeet Singh and those like IIT Professor Dinesh Mohan and politician Jaya Jaitley who braved the angry mobs to save those in trouble.

There is the case of Avantika Maken, daughter of Congress leader Lalit Maken killed by Sikh terrorists in 1985, who, in a gesture she refuses to explain, moved heaven and earth to ensure that the sentence of one of her father's killers was commuted.

The author has also detailed the relief effort, particularly the Nagrik Ekta Manch set up to collect material for Sikh families in resettlement colonies. He recounts how a Sikh gentleman arrived every morning with his wife to deposit relief material. A friend of Mr Mukhopadhay asked the man his name. "My name is Manmohan Singh. I work as the Governor of Reserve Bank of India," he said and walked away.

First Published: Thu, November 05 2015. 21:30 IST