Partial Healing Kuki awaits news that might finally grant him his freedom—in part thanks to the daughter of a man he allegedly killed BY Hartosh Singh Bal EMAIL AUTHOR(S) Soft spoken and quiet, Ranjit Singh Gill or Kuki is far removed from the image conjured by Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale and his cohorts. In his language and his surroundings, there is little to separate him from well-to-do Indians anywhere in the country. He seems to have achieved the life he may have aspired to when he was an MSc student of plant breeding at Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, 25 years ago. There is nothing to suggest that he has spent the last 22 years of his life either behind bars or on bail, nothing to suggest that over the next few days he awaits news that may finally grant him his freedom—in part thanks to the intervention of the daughter of a man he allegedly killed. For that matter, in the months before Operation Bluestar there was little to suggest that this was what lay ahead for Kuki. He had already been granted admission to a PhD course in biotechnology in the US. His interests seemed to parallel those of his father Khem Singh Gill, a leading agriculture scientist who would eventually go on to head PAU and be awarded the Padma Bhushan. In those days before June 1984, Kuki says he “was aware that whatever was happening around me seemed like trouble, but it did not affect me. I was aloof. Then Bluestar happened”. “I was born into a Gursikh family,” he says, using a term for those who keep their hair unshorn and wear the symbols of the faith, “And like all Sikhs, we accorded the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) the greatest sanctity.” His faith took him to the shrine within a month of the operation. “The impact was immediate, I felt that something terribly wrong had happened.” “I felt that if this indeed was the purpose of the Indian Army, then I was on the other side—we were combatants.” He realises that this is not as clear in English as in Punjabi—“Sannu baghi samjheya hai taan ban ke dikhawange. (If we’re understood as rebels then we’ll become so and show them).” ‘Baghi’ is a word that echoes all through Sikh history, a history of constant rebellion against centralised authority. Kuki became an Amritdhari, a baptised Sikh who was sworn to the tenets of the faith. On 15 August, he was arrested he says for wearing the kesri (saffron) turban, identified with the faithful, while headed to the laboratory where he worked. The intervention of a senior police officer known to the family ensured his release. A few months later, his father was in Rajouri Garden, Delhi, when Sikhs were attacked in many parts of the city. Over and over again, mobs gathered outside the house but were repelled. When the violence subsided, Kuki went to Delhi to bring his father back to Ludhiana. “Signs of violence were all over the streets.” Kuki started keeping the company of Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh—Jinda and Sukha—who were later hanged for the murder of General AS Vaidya, the Chief of Army Staff at the time of Operation Bluestar. Unlike Kuki, Sukha and Jinda had been close to Bhindranwale, and it was only the events of 1984 that brought Kuki in touch with them. “Now we had a common interest… ainne ne hath paiya hai, asi hath pawange (roughly an an eye for an eye). Why should I lie, we were on the same wavelength, we had vengeance on our mind and we only knew one path, the violent path.” Today, he feels the fight was doomed from the start. Punjab, he admits, was not ready for another partition. Apart from General Vaidya, Jinda and Sukha went after those involved in the killing of Sikhs in November. One of them was Congress MP Lalit Maken, named by Who are the Guilty, a report on the massacres by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL)—‘Lalit Maken, Congress (I) trade union leader and metropolitan councillor. Reportedly paid the mobsters Rs 100 each plus a bottle of liquor. A white Ambassador car reportedly belonging to him came four times to the GT Road area near Azadpur. Instructions to mobs indulging in arson were given from inside the car.’ Maken was the man who almost certainly organised the mob that attacked the house where Kuki’s father was staying in November 1984. A few weeks before the attack, Kuki had left home. His family would not see him for 15 years. In February 1986, he managed to make his way to the US illegally. Sukha and Jinda were arrested soon after, and Kuki was named as an accomplice in the larger plan to kill the ‘guilty’ named in the PUCL report. An Interpol notice was issued, and in 1987, Kuki was picked up in the US. The Indian Government lost the case for extradition repeatedly. But finally, after 12 years in custody in New York, Kuki himself asked to be extradited to India for trial in the Maken case. In May 2004, while the trial was still underway, Lalit Maken’s daughter Avantika Maken agreed to meet Kuki in Ludhiana. Kuki recalls it vividly. “I had gone alone to meet her. As soon as we sat down, she asked me ‘why?’ I answered. After all, it did not matter who had carried out the act. I told her there was nothing personal about it. It was a result of the turn of events. As a Sikh, I was on one side, and she, despite being Punjabi, as a Hindu was on the other side. If Darbar Sahib had not been attacked, if the riots had not taken place, none of this would have happened.” Avantika Maken wasn’t done. “She wanted to know ‘why my father?’ And all I said was, ask the people who documented the 1984 massacres. His name appeared in the list of characters. It was a moral statement—if no deaths had taken place, the Sikh psyche would never have recovered.” Avantika Maken was six when her father was shot. “As a child,” she was to later recall, “I wanted to kill the men who had done this. It used to disturb my relatives. I hated the men who did this.” After the meeting, Avantika told journalists, “He is a revelation to me, a person who is so well-informed and well-read… I have decided that I will stand by him and will not only work for his release but will also help him start life afresh.” She was true to her word. Despite a conviction by the High Court, the Delhi government is set to sign his clemency plea. Despite her words, there was one question that had bothered me in the course of my conversation with Kuki. Lalit Maken was not the only one killed in the attack; his wife Geetanjali, the daughter of former president Shankar Dayal Sharma, was also shot dead. What, I asked Kuki, would he have said if Avantika had asked ‘why my mother?’ Kuki did not falter, but if there was any regret for the past, it lay here. “She never asked me the question. But I would tell her that the men who killed Lalit Maken waited for two hours outside the house to make sure they would find him alone. When Maken was shot, he ran towards his house. The men went after him and Geetanjali embraced him to save his life.” In that hint of regret lies a divisive truth—unlike the rest of the country, many Sikhs draw the line only at Geetanjali’s death, not at the killing of Maken. The reconciliation that exists today is at best a partial one. Kuki had asked me, “How many of the men who organised the violence has this country managed to punish?” The answer speaks for itself. The country has made its peace with Sikhs in the same way as Kuki and Avantika have, by leaving some uncomfortable truths behind. But perhaps this may be the only way to move on. Too much of the truth will allow for very littlereconciliation. Back in Ludhiana, awaiting a decision on his clemency plea, Kuki has already turned his mind back to the work he had abandoned 25 years ago. He feels the wheat germplasm he developed as a student has stood the test of time. He hopes he has done enough to obtain his MSc degree. Forwarded by forum member Tejwant Singh ji.