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1984 Fires, Riots. No Police, No Army

Discussion in 'History of Sikhism' started by Tejwant Singh, Nov 14, 2009.

  1. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh United States
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    Jun 30, 2004
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    Fires, Riots. No Police, No Army<small>by IAN JACK</small>

    <!-- <small>November 13th, 2009</small>-->
    This is the 66th piece in sikhchic.com's "1984 & I" Series, which is being presented to you through the 12 months of this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India's crimes of 1984.

    Twenty-five years ago, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in the garden of her residence in Delhi. Two of the Indian prime minister's security guards, both Sikhs, shot her as she walked towards an early morning interview with Peter Ustinov, who was filming a British television documentary.
    Some reports say that more than 30 bullets were taken from, or had found their way through, her body. The assassins were exacting retribution for the destruction of the Golden Temple in Amritsar four months earlier, when on her orders the Indian army had bombarded and then invaded the Sikh shrine purportedly to expel militant Sikh separatists. Hundreds of innocent Sikh pilgrims had died in that operation, and now, in the days following Indira's death, hundreds more met the same fate in the poorest suburbs of Delhi.
    It was a vengeful cycle of action and reaction. Over several years as a reporter in the subcontinent I'd witnessed violent demonstrations, sometimes brutally put down, and read brief newspapers items about "communal disturbances" in remote (to me) provincial towns. But Delhi was my first full-scale communal "riot".
    Pogrom might be a better word.
    To belong to the 8% or so of the city's population which was Sikh was to know terror during those days in late 1984; in terms of civilian bloodletting, India had seen nothing like it in almost 40 years. Not to be known as a Sikh, not to be bearded and turbaned, not to be carrying a ceremonial dagger; all these negatives made you safe.
    Many of Delhi's taxis were driven by Sikhs, which made taxis especially vulnerable. I remember the drive from the airport. Mobs of young men would stop the taxi at their makeshift barriers, inspect the non-Sikh driver and his passengers, open the boot to see if any Sikh was hiding there. In my hotel, the boy who'd carried my bag drew me to the window of my room. Pillars of black smoke were rising from the low-built city that was then still recognisable as the old British imperial capital.
    "Fires, riots," he said. "No police, no army."
    There were many rumours. Two of the most persistent were that Sikh terrorists had poisoned the water supply and that a train filled with the bodies of slaughtered Hindus was on its way from the Sikh homeland in Punjab. I heard the second from Indian Railways' chief PR officer, a previously sceptical man who now, as we sat in his office, grew hot-faced with anger. He named the station where the train had halted and estimated the number of dead.
    None of it was true, but it echoed the famous atrocities that accompanied partition in 1947, when Delhi's population swelled with Hindu and Sikh refugees from those parts of India that became Pakistan, and so it could be easily believed.
    In retrospect, one of the most interesting things is how quickly people learned to behave in new ways. The looters might have been looting all their lives, the youths who manned the road barriers might have served apprenticeships in stopping cars and searching them, the mobs who poured kerosene over dead or dying Sikhs did so, according to witnesses, quite matter-of-factly.
    Somewhere in south Delhi I came across a group setting fire to a Sikh-owned furniture factory and asked them what they thought they were doing. "Setting fire to a Sikh furniture factory," one man said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
    But if bad and cruel behaviour seemed intuitive - or inspired, like the train atrocity rumour, by folk memory - then so also did the good and compassionate kind.
    On the second night after Gandhi's death I was with a family I knew well, watching the mother sort her jewellery and keepsakes, enfolding her little statues of Ganesh and Krishna in fine shawls and secreting them about the house in case the worst happened. But the knock on the door, when it came, was from a neighbouring family of Sikhs who were dressed in their pyjamas and carrying bedding and seeking (and freely getting) the safety of this Hindu household for the night.
    Indira's funeral pyre was lit on 3 November. Thereafter the mayhem died away and it was possible to visit the sites where the worst slaughter had occurred.
    The most infamous was Trilokpuri, a relatively new settlement reached from the city by crossing the Jamuna river and therefore easily missed by the TV crews, assembling for the funeral. I went there with a citizens' action group which had been hurriedly put together to distribute rations, blankets and medical supplies to the survivors, mainly women and children, who'd been gathered into camps.
    Scorch marks on the ground showed where their husbands, sons and brothers had been set alight after being beaten down with iron bars. At least 400 Sikhs had died here, butchered within a bus ride of the Indian parliament.
    The questions of who had done it and why soon arose.
    "Outsiders" was the favourite reply to the first question, as it has been at almost every inquest anywhere in the world into communal slaughter. In Trilokpuri this seemed partly true: many people attested that some of the killers and arsonists had come from more far-flung suburbs. But many others had come from Trilokpuri itself; "anti-social elements" who mainly belonged to the lowest castes and did the dirtiest jobs.
    Some of their cruelty or nonintervention in the killings could be explained by the winds of alienation and disaffection that blew though these lives, but the awkward fact remained.
    In the words of the Indian writer Mukul Kesavan, who went with the relief workers to Trilokpuri, "We learned from widow after widow that the mobs that had killed their menfolk had been made up of neighbours, people who had spent evenings watching television in their [their victims'] homes."
    Politicians from Indira Gandhi's Congress party were heavily involved as facilitators and inspirers and barely hid their role at the time. A rumour they helped spread was that Sikhs had distributed sweets - a celebratory act - when the news of her killing came through, and their influence undoubtedly delayed police intervention.
    The army stayed in its barracks. Gandhi's son and successor, Rajiv, took a lofty, fatalist view. "When a great tree falls, the earth shakes," was how he explained the bloodshed that followed his mother's death, and it survives him as his most notorious statement.
    Many foreign commentators had always taken a gloomy view of India's future - the phrase "fissiparous tendencies" became a cliche of this prognosis - and in 1984 it really did look as though their moment had come. It hadn't.
    Many calamities followed: the Bhopal gas leak, the Air India flight blown up over the Atlantic, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination at the hands of his co-religionists - Hindu Tamils. Even as the Sikhs' secessional threat receded, another in Kashmir took its place. The Sikhs had been a sideshow. The Hindu v. Muslim question emerged from its slumber as the state's most poisonous communal difference.
    Still, India did more than survive; it began to flourish.
    Perhaps this is nothing more, or less, than the triumph of the new economics.
    [Courtesy: The Guardian]

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