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1984 1984 & I: The Cartoonist

Discussion in 'History of Sikhism' started by Aman Singh, Jun 2, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Tech Admin SPNer

    Jun 1, 2004
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    October 31, 1984 was like any other school day, except for the contents of my lunch box.
    Instead of the usual onion paranthas wrapped in the daily newspaper, there was a change in the menu. I had decided the interiors of the lunch box were the perfect location to sneak in a transistor radio to chew in some live cricket commentary. The Indian squad was visiting Pakistan for a match up in the city of Lahore.
    By the time the match started, classes were in session. Along with my friend, I played a delicate dance with the teacher. When the teacher was in long sessions facing the blackboard, the radio came out, glued to the ears. We went back and forth for some time until an abrupt interruption.
    Late in the morning, live commentary of the game went off the air and a stern voice announced the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
    We were stunned into silence. The match had been cancelled. We did not know what to do with this news. I was not ready to share it with the teacher, so I sat there, trying to digest the news which was about to change our lives.
    The lecture went on without interruption. It was not long before someone entered the classroom, had a whispering session with the teacher and then announced that school was suspended for the day. We were to get ready for boarding the buses by the front gates of the school.
    On any given day, I would have cheered the news of going home early from school, but not on this day.
    I did not know what the day held in store for me. While I boarded the bus along with hundreds of fellow students, rumours were already beginning to swirl around.
    Indira Gandhi had been apparently shot by her Sikh bodyguards. That might explain why we were leaving early.
    We were students of a private Sikh school owned and operated by Delhi Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
    The forty-five minute bus journey through the streets of South Delhi was unusually quiet. Slowly, the bus emptied out as it made stops on the way. My brother and I were among the last to disembark from the bus.
    We quietly walked home, knocked on the front door. Our mother could not have been more relieved to see us home. Although she did not know that we were heading home early, she reacted as if she was expecting us.
    Now, we waited for my father.
    These were the days before owning a phone was an affordable necessity.
    As minutes turned into hours, my mother was beginning to panic. By now, it had become public knowledge that the Prime Minister's assassins were indeed her Sikh bodyguards. There was no precedent for such an event, but even as a young boy, I could sense tension in the air.
    My father finally arrived in the early hours of the evening with news that disturbances were being reported around the hospital where the Prime Minister had been taken. The evening news was focused entirely on the tragedy at the Prime Minister's residence earlier in the day.
    The elder son of the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as the next leader of the nation. There was no mention of any other events. So we all went to bed that night with the nation officially in mourning.
    The morning came and the curtains remained shut. My parents had declared a self-imposed curfew. We were not to leave the house and were to stay away from the windows. I was not sure who we were hiding from, but intuitively knew not to question my parents.
    We caught up on the news of the official mourning period in progress, which was in preparation for a grand funeral. It felt like a quiet holiday morning until we spotted police officers from the cracks of our bedroom curtains.
    I took a peek, my brother took a peek and our father joined in as well. I remember seeing a khaki-uniformed police officer standing in the middle of the street, right next to our apartment building. He had this long gun pointed in the other direction. A couple of other officers were standing right next to him.
    The asbestos roof tops of a local school blocked our view of his intended target. He kept standing for a while, fidgeting with his gun. We were almost losing interest until we saw the cop lie on the ground, still taking aim with his gun in the same direction. Maybe he got tired. He posed like that for a while. No shots were fired and we retreated away from the windows.
    I felt a vague sense of relief at knowing these police officers were here to maintain law and order. We felt safe in their presence.
    The next half hour or so felt like the intermission of a Bollywood movie. What came next, though, no Bollywood writer could even dream into his script.
    There was a slight rumble of feet and sticks hitting the ground. We peeked out of one side of the apartment and saw nothing.
    Then, we took a peek from the windows on the opposite end of the apartment. What we saw froze us in our spots.
    As far as the eye could squint, there was a long orderly line of men with sticks in their hands marching quietly. As if that was not enough, the same cops we had spotted earlier on the street were guiding the mob of men. Never before had I seen Indians calmly and orderly move through in a line without a word being uttered.
    This procession went for a while. Hundreds of men were pouring in from the neighbouring shanty town, heading into the unknown. Unknown to me, at least. These men probably knew exactly where they were headed.
    Hours went by with no sign of the men with sticks. After some time, neighbourhood kids, including some of my friends, came out for a little game of cricket right in front of our building.
    This whole scene was so outside the realm of my experience or imagination, that I just could not fathom what those men were doing on this day while in the company of uniformed police officers.
    Then, came the sequel.
    Late in the afternoon, we spotted the mob of men again, this time all straggling back, in clusters, in the direction of wherever they came from earlier in the morning.
    Except, this time around, instead of sticks in their hands, they were carrying sacks of wheat, tin-cans of biscuits and bags full of groceries. They all seemed so content and harmless that, after a while, my father made the most stupid decision of his life.
    He decided to venture out into the balcony in full view of these men. I still have the crisp vision of this old man on the street, wearing a dhoti and a tank top with a huge can of crackers on his head. With a Gandhi-like body and balding patches of white hair, he seemed so harmless.
    We made eye contact and he went his way. We spotted a few others. All with hands full, gingerly making their way towards the shanty town.
    Then we spotted this one man on the same street where we had seen the cops in the morning. He was empty-handed. Actually barefooted, he had his rubber flip-flops in hand. The anchor on one of them must have slipped out and he was fixing it. He spotted us.
    "Maadar chodh, Sardar!" is the expletive I heard erupt from his throat.
    And then, it became a litany and a chorus, arising from the crowd!
    We rushed into the apartment. My father locked the balcony door. The insults got louder and more men seemed to have joined the seemingly ****ed-off empty-handed man.
    Within minutes we were surrounded. "Maadar chodh, Sardar, bring them down!" seemed to be the chorus now, emanating from the mob.
    Then we heard the neighbourhood kids, who had by now left their game of cricket, trying to talk with these men. They were almost screaming, attempting to talk over the men. I actually heard one of them say: "There are no Sikhs here".
    "What audacity!" I remember thinking. A young kid, yelling at a man hell-bent on looting, lying to his very face. More insults flew in our direction.
    Then one of the kids cried out: "These are government-owned apartments. This is a government-owned shop". That was a fact. We did live in government-owned housing and the apartment below ours was converted into a shop.
    By this time, my mother was panicking and my father had us sequestered in his bedroom.
    My father was a Sikh version of Woody Allen. The same dark rimmed glasses, a skinny figure with an anxious edge. He had a mean temper but I could not imagine him saying, "Jay marna hi haiga, taa(n) larrh kay mariye" (If we have to die, then at least let's die fighting!).
    Even if we had to, what were we going to fight with? Kitchen knives? We formed a circle and started to recite japji Sahib. I could not imagine death, but fear was beginning to take a tight grip.
    The voices now seemed to be fading into the distance.
    I cannot remember if we finished reciting the Japji Sahib, but the voices had stopped. I was waiting for a cue. Would the front door come smashing down? Would we suddenly see the faces of those men up close? Screams, insults and then, a confrontation?
    We sat through the longest minutes of our lives.
    As time passed, so did my imagination began to relax. Once darkness set in and it appeared as if the crisis had blown over, we heard a knock at the door. We waited anxiously ... and silently.
    Then we recognized the voice of a neighbour. My father went to the door. Our neighbour, whose sons were good friends of mine and my brother, was checking on us.
    His sons and our cricket buddies had pulled off a miracle. They had somehow convinced the mob to turn away. With the sun down, we were not sure if the men would come back now that they knew or at least suspected that a Sikh family resided in the building.
    Our neighbour offered us his place for the night. We had a quick dinner. My parents packed a few suitcases with things close to their hearts, and we set out a few steps into the open to spend the night on the gracious floor of our neighbour.
    We woke up to a new day. We walked back to our apartment to spend the rest of the day watching, hearing people walk past the body of the slain Prime Minister on television. There was a crush of people surrounding the body, covered in countless garlands. While they paid obeisance, periodic chants filled the airwaves. "Khoon ka badla khoon se laingay" (With blood, we shall avenge blood!).
    For the next two days, these chants reverberated on television and in my head. Stories of Sikh men chased by mobs began to trickle in. The ones caught in the fury had kerosene poured on them and then were set on fire.
    This would happen a few thousand times before it was all over.
    I tried to visualize the image of human skin lit on fire, but couldn't. Until I set my eyes a few days later on the cover of a current events magazine, Surya. The magazine cover had the image of three massive charred lumps of Sikh men who were burnt beyond recognition.
    Although that magazine issue was immediately pulled off the shelves on government orders, I still have that image fresh in my head. Apparently the powers to be, in their wisdom, decided the graphic images of the crimes committed against innocent citizens would provoke outrage.
    "So the nation was officially sanctioned to only respond to the death of the Prime Minister, by whatever means", I thought.
    After the cremation of the Prime Minister's body, when the streets of the capital city became safe for Sikhs, we ventured out and the real extent of the damage became clear.
    We found out that all the local businesses owned by Sikhs were looted and reduced to rubble. The local Gurdwara was damaged and the caretakers beaten up. My school's gymnasium was ransacked by a mob and other parts set on fire.
    Apparently the mobs that coalesced in our part of the city were not as bloodthirsty.
    The story in the Trans-Yamuna areas of the city, far-off places that I have never visited even to this day, saw a very different face of humanity.
    We heard story after story of mobs - guided by police, with the express blessings of local members of parliament - that were less interested in looting than in burning alive men and raping women. It was hard digesting these stories and walking out on the streets, where our local mobs had gone on a systematic rampage.
    Almost immediately, I noticed Sikhs beginning to pick up pieces of their lives and businesses. Amidst all this information overload, it was hard to know how the nation would respond.
    Then on November 19, the new Prime Minister of India addressed the nation. He said a lot of things, but one stood out among the rest. He had the answer to the carnage that followed his mother's assassination. He said: "When a Big Tree falls, the earth shakes".
    It was said as a matter of fact, as if we were just supposed to move on. Even before this carnage, I was beginning to realize each human life does not have the same value, but on this day I had a confirmation. As painful as these words were, amazingly, life forces you on.
    Within a few months, the local Sikhs - ever resilient and perennially in chardi kalaa - and their businesses were back in action, as if no harm had ever been done to them. Our neighbourhood gurdwara was quickly repaired. My school had also removed all traces of damage.
    The industrious Sikhs had done such an impeccable job at cleaning up, they made it difficult for me to memorialize, let alone trace, the enormous brutality let loose in the capital of the most populous "democracy" in the world.
    My parents for months seriously entertained the possibility of leaving Delhi for the safer confines of Punjab. But even they were convinced after a few months that things were back to normal.
    Their only act of protest was to vote for the first time in their lives in the upcoming elections. They voted for the party standing against the ruling Congress party.
    Not being literally touched by the fires of 1984, we moved on.
    I finished high school to return back to the land of my birth, the United States of America.
    With a typical immigrant sensibility, all I cared about was my career plans.
    I went through college, graduate school, taking off my turban, shaving my hair, and dabbled in atheism, Buddhism, Taoism ... and then, eventually, discovered Sikhi for the first time in my life.
    In August 2001, I donned the Sikh turban as a reaffirmation to Sikhi.
    A month later, 9/11 happened!
    I was only a few miles north of New York City, as I saw the planes fly into the towers. I was just as far from the Trans-Yamuna area which saw the worst of the 1984 tragedy.
    In the days following 9/11, somehow the tragedy of seventeen years past came rushing back. Maybe it was the incineration of thousands of innocent lives that connected the two tragedies. Perhaps it was the irony that a few thousand American lives are worth a quantum leap more than the few thousand Sikh lives in India.
    The world changed in response to the loss of American lives and to this day, the process continues. I am inclined to say that nothing changed after the tragedy of 1984, but I would be lying.
    To those who lost their loved ones, everything has changed. And even for those who conspired and perpetrated the genocide of 1984, something did change. They might be roaming free under the protection of the Indian state, but they have blood on their hands.
    For me, the change came 18 years late. In the strange confluence of the two tragedies, partly aided by the response of American editorial cartoonists to 9/11 and the ensuing hate crime wave affecting many Sikhs, I rediscovered my long buried passion for the arts.
    Cartooning has consumed my nights, weekends and many daytime hours for over six years. Armed with a computer touch pad and my right index finger, I have tried to give voice to Sikh aspirations and frustrations.
    The 1984 tragedy might be racing to its 25th anniversary, but we do not have closure yet.
    Countless perpetrators roam free on the streets of India, many as elected officials.
    And then there is us, the countless bystanders who might think we have nothing to do with this tragedy.
    But our silence is deafening.
    Through cartoons, I continue to try and capture the perpetrators ... and the idle bystanders too!


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