When A Big Tree Falls The Earth Shakes And shake it did!
A journalist engages with history as it happens while a historian deals with it in retrospect. As both a journalist and historian, I find it difficult to piece together the compelling face of the 1984 Sikh riots more than 28 years after they happened. How did the riots happen when the then President was himself a Sikh? Today, how do the guilty Congressmen get away for the murder of Sikhs in much-delayed trials when the Prime Minister himself is Sikh?
These snippets that have been pieced together do not answer these questions, rather they raise the question why out of the 2,733 officially admitted murders, only nine cases have so far led to the conviction of 20 people in 25 years; a conviction rate of less than 1 per cent.
I am not a Sikh, but I know and have met many who were targeted in those riots. As a small town young man in Bhubaneswar, I too had experienced the fear factor—first hand. On the evening of Indira Gandhi’s shooting, I got a phone call from the owner of a filling station at Rasulgarh on the outskirts. My Sikh neighbour, Sardar Joginder Singh, had been holed up along with half a dozen Sikh truckers in a small room behind the pump. A big crowd had collected at the junction of the National Highway. I drove down in my old car, but seeing the situation there I knew it would be difficult to get him out. I returned home and took a couple of blankets and parking my car at a distance walked to the place. I asked Joginder’s uncle to make his way from among the fields that lay behind, and further away, I would be waiting.
I saw him emerge from the darkness with another burly Sikh in accompaniment. He was a driver who had parked his truck and wanted to make his way out. I bundled him with great difficulty in the dicky of the car, Joginder’s uncle was made to lie down on the back seat, amply covered by the blanket. We were stopped thrice on the way, but I had switched on the light inside the car, and seeing a lone driver the crowd had waved me off.
The Sikhs of Bhubaneswar were not subjected to the mayhem that happened in places like Tatanagar, Rourkela, Bokaro, Chas, Indore, Bidar, Rohtas, Kanpur and other cities. However they had to keep themselves indoors and were forced to hold a memorial march for Indira Gandhi days later. Only then were they allowed to get back to their respective businesses.
I was in Delhi a week after the riots. I saw the actual devastation, the hundreds of burnt taxis, trucks and shops that had been owned by Sikhs. Razed gurdwaras still awaited kar seva. I had seen the agony of orphans, bereaved mothers and wives, injured and mauled men in the relief camps. The tragic tales they told were blood curdling.
To prevent Sikhs from taking refuge in gurdwaras, most of Delhi’s 450 gurdwaras had been sacked in the early hours of the violence. Women had been raped while their terrified families pleaded for mercy, little or none of which was shown by the Congress flag-bearers. All India Radio and Doordarshan kept on broadcasting blood-curdling slogans of Khoon ka badla khoon se raised by Congress party workers grieving over their dear departed leader, India Gandhi.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, had instructed party leaders in Delhi to organise relief camps and provide succour to the survivors of the pogrom. Madan Lal Khurana and Vijay Kumar Malhotra had braved the marauders to move from colony to colony, giving whatever help they could. ‘The BJP is an anti-national party,’ responded the Congress.
Manmohan Singh’s elevation to India’s prime minister was looked upon by the Sikh community as the vindication of its destiny of being born to rule. Singh was king. The past was forgiven but not forgotten and his casually tied trademark blue turban represented a collective crown for the persecuted community. They believed that the guilty would finally be punished, what happened and is happening is for all to see.
The government should establish a truth and reconciliation commission. A special prosecutor’s office with a wide range of services should be set up and further rehabilitation to the affected be provided. The genocide should be accepted and acknowledged in history books, memorials and museums.
Social scientists believe that what victims of suffering want is to be listened to in order to heal their wounds. Indeed, the therapeutic effect of being able to narrate one’s suffering and to be able to reveal one’s wounds publicly cannot be underestimated.
The cheerful images of those accused of organising violence in news media, being felicitated by supporters, addressing election rallies etc. can surely neither be read as signs of justice nor reconciliation. At the Karkardoma court, while angry Sikhs rattled at the locked gates, Sajjan Kumar left smiling and speaking into his mobile, as he sauntered jauntily past cameras. A victim told media persons present there, ‘today is worse than 1984.’ One should read it with one thought—those who forget history are forced to repeat it.
By Anil Dhir from Ground Zero