The Ghost’s of 1984
Madness…is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.
-The Joker, in Dark Knight
History shows that times of social crisis bring out man’s inherent capacity to destruction, acts of barbarism against his own kind. A bloody drama in the history of democratic India was enacted in late October, 1984. The orgy of madness, in the name of “retribution” for the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, that engulfed Delhi and many parts of North India would leave more than 3000 Sikhs dead and cast a permanent blot on the notion of secularism in India.
There was method in the madness. The Indian state and its machinery rendered tacit support to this vicious assault on a minority. State run television channels repeatedly broadcast images of the bloodied body of Mrs. Gandhi and the slogans of the Congress party workers like “khoon ki badla khoon se” and “Sardar gaddar hai.” Delhi, the country’s capital, was literally under the rule of the mob. The police and the armed forces were asked to stay in their stations, thereby giving the rioters a free hand. In fact, the only cases registered during the three long days of the pogrom were against the Sikhs!
What was most dastardly about the pogrom was that it was orchestrated by a party which had, for decades, sworn by its secular credentials. Storm troopers of the Congress party organized the pogrom in a manner that would make the Swayamsewaks blush. Voter lists were obtained in order to identify Sikh homes. Properties of the Sikhs were targeted, burnt and looted. Hundreds of Sikh women were raped. Even children were shown no mercy. Rajeev Gandhi, however, had an explanation. “When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake,” he said, in cold justification of his loyal hooligans.
And it is not that the rioters could not be controlled. Congress led mobs instigated violence in Kolkata even before they began in Delhi. However, the Bengal government, led by the CPI(M) under Jyoti Basu, brought the situation under control by issuing shoot-at-sight orders against rioting Congressmen and by deploying the army in sensitive areas. The unholy nexus between state officials and the organizers of the rioting mobs in Congress ruled states encouraged violation of democratic norms that would have shocked any civil society. It is a shame to the “world’s largest democracy” that its capital was held to ransom by a bunch of goons who looted, raped and killed innocents with impunity. 25 years on, little has been done to deliver justice to the victims.
Amrinder Singh had the misfortune of being a Sikh in Delhi during those troubled times. On the 31st October 1984, six-year old Amrinder and his family were aware of the large scale violence that had been unleashed against his community. Residing in a majority Sikh population area, Vashisht Nagar near Janakpuri, in Delhi, they had not been the target yet. Not taking any chances, they nevertheless shifted their womenfolk to a relative’s house in South Delhi’s posh locality.
Their fears came to life the very next day. At around 11 A.M a huge mob, shouting anti-Sikh and pro-Indira Gandhi slogans, fully armed with lathis and axes suddenly engulfed their area. As if it was a well planned strategy, only the houses belonging to the Sikhs were targeted.
Amarjeet Singh, Amrinder’s father, recalls the fateful day, “They systematically went straight to all the Sikh houses in the locality as if they knew where all the Sikhs stayed.”
Amrinder’s grandfather, a retired army officer, then in his early 70’s prepared himself to confront the mob with his Kirpan, but was prevented by Amarjeet. He was forcibly whisked away through the back door to a Muslim family’s house two doors away. “My father grieved Indira Gandhi’s death as much as the whole nation did. All his life he served the country and this is how he was being rewarded. He could not control his anger,” says Amarjeet.
Amarjeet himself was dragged out by the mob and beaten by lathis. His Muslim neighbours rushed to his help. They managed to drag Amrinder and his bleeding father away from the crowd, bundled them into a car and drove them to a Muslim dominated area, where they stayed for the next four days.
Amrinder, now 30, says, “I still remember how the mob beat up my father. His turban had come off and he was bleeding. I was too young to help him but was terribly scared.” Amarjeet returned to his house after things settled down in the city and was informed by his neighbours that the mob had first thoroughly removed useful things like the TV, telephone and other electrical appliances and loaded them onto the trucks. The cupboards were then broken open and whatever cash and jewels they could lay their hands on, were pocketed. The rest of the house furniture was then smashed by the axes, and then they set the house afire. “We lost everything in the riots and had nowhere to go. The place that was most safe for us, our home, was gone,” recalls Amarjeet.
Prepared to handle the worst, the next day they went to the local police station and lodged a First Information Report (FIR). The police visited their burnt-down house and noted all the visible details. But that was all the police did. Amrinder’s family had not expected much. They had seen the policemen standing across the road as mere spectators on the day of the attack. They had also noticed a senior police officer talking to some men sitting in white ambassador cars (allegedly used by the mob to commute) a few meters down the road.
Till date they have not heard of any progress on their FIR from the police. They did not get any summons from any court of law. Some journalists visited them and took down all the details of their ordeal, which appeared in some magazines and newspaper columns as a collective problem of their entire locality. Some NGOs came forward and assured them that cases will be filed on behalf of each family. They were assured that the culprits will be brought to book and adequate compensation will be given to them soon.
Three months after the attack, they got a letter from the Delhi Government, offering them a paltry compensation, which they refused to accept. 25 years down the line, they are both frustrated and disillusioned with the system. They are now well aware that the riots and the police and courts actions were all planned, executed and sanctioned by the Congress led government then.
“My heart burns every time I am reminded of that day. I grew up with this grief. I know what it means to be a minority in this country,” Amrinder says.
-With Sonal Matharu