October 26, 2015

An extract from 'Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984 by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay' (DNA, 17 oct 2015)

Daily News and Analysis - 17 October 2015

The 1984 pogrom

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

An extract from 'Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984' by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay; published by Westland Limited

On the third day of rioting (by then the Army had moved into several riot-affected areas), Swaranpreet cajoled a friend, also a local Youth Congress leader, to accompany him to Hari Nagar. Once he was assured of his relatives’ safety, Swaranpreet and his friend became adventurous and decided to take stock of various colonies that had been obvious targets of arson. It was either while walking aimlessly on a desolate street or perhaps in a corner — Swaranpreet failed to recollect the exact place – when they found a young teenage girl. It was obvious that she had been brutally and repeatedly raped.

The two young men covered her with a sheet-like cloth material and hurried to get medical aid but none of the hospitals agreed to admit a rape victim. The girl eventually died on Swaranpreet’s lap. He was numbed yet again and his thoughts went back to the time when he and his elder brother had heard of the selective identification of Sikhs in Haryana in early 1984. As he looked at the dead girl’s face, the aspiring surgeon realised how his worst fears had come true.

If that wasn’t enough to force Swaranpreet to deviate from his chosen path, a ghoulish experience awaited him within days of rejoining duty. One afternoon, the police walked in with a sixty-five-year-old woman and demanded that Swaranpreet issue a certificate to declare her mentally unfit to testify as a witness in a case. It was obvious that the police were setting her up but Swaranpreet risked their ire and while proceeding to examine the woman, he began speaking to her.

The gruesome tale unfolded bit by bit… She was a Sikh resident of a west Delhi slum and lived in a shanty. Her son was a routine offender, but this time around, he was arrested several days before the pogrom, she said and had fortunately escaped the mayhem on the streets. A few days later, there were rumours that the cops had killed all the Sikh detainees in custody. The woman then told Swaranpreet how she had gone from one police station to another looking for her missing son, but to no avail. One day out of sheer helplessness, she began to lament loudly in one of the police stations and didn’t stop despite attempts to hush her into silence. This became a regular nuisance for the police and they did what they knew best: put her behind bars.

Swaranpreet heard the woman in silence. She claimed the police had inserted a stick inside her… When he finally found the courage to give her an internal examination, Swaranpreet realised that she had been cruelly violated. That night, he gulped down a bottle of whisky to numb his mind, before sleep finally overtook him. The next morning, while nursing a monster of a hangover, he recalled how he had wanted to kill someone the previous night….

Around the time Swaranpreet was walking the streets of Rajouri Garden with his family’s ceremonial sword, Joginder Singh, a forty-five-year-old Sikligar Sikh was huddled inside a claustrophobic room with his family and sundry relatives.

Packed like the proverbial sardines, the adults sat in deathly silence and hushed the children into silence even if they made the slightest of noise. A “zero-watt”, incandescent bulb cast a pale yellow light in the room. From a distance, they could hear a low buzz — as if a beehive was stirring into life. The undecipherable, low-grade atonal chorus wafted into the room and the terrified men and women knew that the mobs were approaching. They had come visiting earlier in the evening in the narrow bylanes of their Block 30, Trilokpuri house.

In one corner of the room lay a steel paraat — a circular utensil with a raised edge — traditionally used to knead dough from wheat flour. Joginder’s wife, Surjit Kaur looked at the huge quantity of dough one last time before putting it away in the tiny kitchen on the ground floor. Even in the faint light, she could see clumps of hair stuck to the perfectly kneaded dough. A fan had accidentally been switched on by someone when hair from the heads and faces of several Sikh men had swirled into the paraat… Only Joginder Singh had refused to shear his hair. The others — his two sons, an elder brother and a few relatives visiting from West Bengal — had heeded the advice sounded earlier in the evening: ‘If the Sikhs want to be safe, they better cut their hair and shave off their beards.’

Joginder Singh was firm in his decision and categorically told the others that he was prepared to lose his life but not his turban. Although he wasn’t a devout Sikh, he felt outraged at the pressure that was being exerted on him to cut his hair. After all, he had always held a romantic idea of being a Sikh, or a Sardar, and felt a sense of valour with the turban on his head. Little did he realise that his headgear would send out a wrong signal.

But back then, the men used kitchen scissors to cut their hair, and while most performed the act on each other, the women were also included in carrying out this emotionally distressing task. The trimmings could not be thrown outside the house, and thus lay scattered in the room. While longer tresses fell limply on the uneven floor, smaller locks flew and made the dough unfit for consumption. The group went hungry for three days till Army trucks arrived in their colony to transfer them to a nearby makeshift “refugee camp”.

Trilokpuri was a little-known slum that functioned as part of East Delhi’s underbelly along with its twin settlement — Kalyanpuri. The two were among several localities that were developed in Delhi in the mid-1970s and were termed ubiquitously as “resettlement colonies”; with houses built on twenty-five square yard plots, they were devoid of any civic amenities. During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s overzealous son, Sanjay had taken it upon himself to “cleanse” and beautify India’s capital city and the scum was therefore pushed away to the margins of Delhi.

Eventually, Joginder Singh and his family escaped the fury of the mobs in Trilokpuri because a man amongst them possessed a unique talent and used it wisely when the mobs came hunting. A clean-shaven Sikh who spoke chaste Bengali and manipulated the killers into leaving them alone! But if there was one other moment which took a toll on the family, it was when Joginder Singh’s eldest daughter-in-law, Rani went into premature labour.

With no medical aid at hand, the neighbourhood women stepped in to deliver the child. In that tiny room, with the young mother shielded from men-folk by a flimsy sheet of cloth, a baby stepped into life to become one amongst thousands, on a day when the lives of their parents were torn asunder. For some, this became a lifelong identity and for others like Jasmeet Kaur who was barely forty-five days old that day, it became a millstone, a reminder of an incident no one ever forgot.

On the third day, dusk finally brought relief to Joginder Singh and his family. The loud and agonising shouts of people had died down and was replaced by loud announcements on megaphones — an authoritative male voice asking those in hiding to come out. The Army had arrived to rescue them.

An extract from Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984 by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay; published by Westland Limited