Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Remembering 'Daar ji' and the Anti-Sikh riots of 1984: Twenty five years after Operation Blue Star

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A quarter century has elapsed since the horrific anti-Sikh riots had engulfed parts of North India including Delhi. Though it seems ages ago, but to my mind, it's still fresh.

I was eight when the anti-Sikh pogrom shook the nation due to the Congress' disastrous policies and its mishandling of the Punjab issue. [A couple of months later I was witness to the biggest industrial disaster of the world--the gas tragedy in Bhopal.]

Circa 1984: The All India Radio blared news about skirmishes between militants and police in Punjab on a regular basis. Just two years ago the grand Asiad had excited Indians and TV was slowly becoming a part of every urban household.

Fortunately or unfortunately there was no concept of live TV news. As a result, the images of neither the damage to the Golden Temple during the army operation nor the widespread carnage in national capital could be seen in rest of the country.

My first memory is fire in the building behind my house in New Bhopal. A tent house owned by a Sikh was set afire and the flames had spread to the entire structure. It was a horrifying scene but youths seemed enjoying the sight.

The middle-aged Sikh gentleman in our locality had got a haircut to avoid the gazes. And there were groups of youths on the prowl. In Gwalior, the situation was even worse. The eateries and dhabas run by Sikh [refugee families who had settled here] were either ransacked or burnt.

In Rae Bareli, Kanpur, Hardoi and other neighbouring districts in UP which I passed through a few days later, the talk on the streets would be like--'we saw a Sikh driving a truck in that direction' or 'at that place a Sikh family was cornered' and 'taught a lesson'. And this was the situation hundreds of kilometers away from Delhi, where the real massacres took place.


My worst experience was seeing the trauma of 'daarji' [my father's friend] and his family. His son called him 'daarji' [shorter version of Sardarji]. He was born and brought up near Lahore. After partition, he had migrated to Indian Punjab and later came to Central India.

When we visited his home soon after the riots, the entire family was huddled in a room on the backside, almost scared to death. Their house was attacked thrice in a week--all by 'civilised', educated neighbours and local boys.

They were so scared that only when the policeman deployed at their residence yelled a couple of times, they came out and opened the door of the backyard to let us in. They were all shaken. He tried all contacts when his house was targeted, but to no avail. Friends had stopped taking calls and even a senior police official close to him, hadn't been enthusiastic about providing security.

After repeated attacks, the family had run to a gurudwara and took shelter. When they returned, they would rarely venture out. Their trauma was all the more worse because like most of the Hindu families in Punjab, they also had both Sikhs and Hindus in the same clan.

In many Hindu families, the eldest son was asked to follow the path of Sikhism. So 'Daar ji' became a Sikh, while his brothers remained Hindu. Outside Punjab, it was not widely known and people often expressed surprise.

I can never forget their faces--the couple breaking down every now and then, the pale horror-stricken faces of their daughters. Especially, when he would cry and say--'Unhon-ne Guru Granth sahab ko jala diya, sab se zyaad to usmein Ram ka hi naam likha hai' [They set fire to the Guru Granth Sahib, that mentions the name of Lord Rama most].

Time is a great healer. 'Daar ji' kept getting promotions and was attached to Chief Minister's office. But he could never come out of the trauma fully. The anti-Sikh pogrom in which thousands of innocents were killed, was shamelessly concealed by the state-run Doordarshan and Akashwani.

First, the last rites of Indira Gandhi were turned a national spectacle. Who didn't watch Amitabh Bachchan standing by the side of the handsome Rajiv Gandhi, as he lit the funeral pyre.[Incidentally, Amitabh's mother Teji was also a Sikh]

Then elections were announced. Soon the TV was suddenly showing movies through out morning. In those days it was too tempting and I recall watching flicks of Raj Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar, Rajesh Khanna and lot of other stars.

Then, there were no CD-DVD players or cable TV and the movie bonanza kept the citizens hooked. The atmosphere was euphoric. Rajiv had heralded a new era. Sikhs, the protectors and defenders of Hinduism, had been suddenly been turned into villains.

The sorrow of the widows and the cries of orphans didn't matter then. After all, 'a tree' had fallen and the 'tremors' had to be felt. Who expected justice in that atmosphere? Was it the misdeeds of two guards for which millions paid the price. Or it was the Congress' policies that turned the hero of Bangladesh war, Major General Shahbeg, to turn a rebel and die fighting against the same army?

To whip up passions and win elections, the communal and linguistic cards were played time and again in Punjab. A couple of years after the carnage, the demand for justice was raised forcefully. Some families did get compensation. Militancy again got a filip and it took many years before normalcy was restored in Punjab though the communal harmony and bonding in the society was severely affected by then.

However, the big fish remained scot-free. One wonders if such horrors were possible if there was 24/7 television then. Nobody knows. Though AIR and DD had 'managed' the situation too well for the Central government then, still there were many rebellions in army camps across India, that were not reported then.

It could have been far worse for the integrity of the nation or the deteriorating situation may have been controlled much earlier. It was later said that the anti-Sikh violence could be the last major communal conflagration of such magnitude in independent India. But in live TV age, there was the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, once again reminding us about the mob mentality in us [our society].

Those who won't dare to take a step for for others or speak a word in ordinary times, turn killers when they are part of mob and they suddenly have their sight on the greater common cause. Software, Sensex and Swanky SUVs are fine but no society can claim to be truly progressive until it remains unrepentant and fails to learn lessons from the past.

In a way 1984 seems distant past. In a way it's yesterday.