Mainstream, VOL LII, No 45, November 1, 2014
Memories of 1984
Sunday 2 November 2014, by
The moment I heard that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated, I hoped the assassin was not a Sikh. My parents said that when they first heard the news that Gandhiji had been assassinated, they hoped that the assassin was not a Muslim. We live in a strange country; when our leaders are assassinated, we hope the assassin is not from the minority community. At least those of us who want India to belong to all communities.
The next morning I saw the Guru Harkrishan School opposite my home in Munirka burning. A small crowd from our colony stood looking at it and someone said: “There may be children inside.”
Then a young man standing next to me said: “Aunty let’s go.” I do not know who the other five men were but we ran across the open field to the school. A jeep load of policemen were there. I felt relieved to see them.
The moment we arrived they turned away leaving the school burning and the Sikhs trapped inside a classroom. And a violent mob coming towards us from the Munirka village.
I told the Sikh men hiding inside the room to come out and we would take them to safety. One man told me to give him the key of my house and he would take them. He was a Jat. I gave him the key and told him my flat number was 56 and he left with the school teachers.
In one room an old man sat in a wheelchair and his granddaughter with her husband. I asked the young couple to leave but they said they would not leave her grandfather.
I left them. As I was rushing back, a young woman came and handed me her baby. She said she needed to look after the school.
I arrived back in my flat carrying the baby. The Sikhs were well settled in my flat.
I do not know the name of the Jat man or the young woman whose baby I carried home.
A young man who was not from our colony soon brought the grandfather on his two-wheeler and the young couple joined us.
Another young man had gone to the residence of the Principal who was trapped inside his home. The door was locked so the young man broke the glass with his bare hands and saw the Principal charge down at him with a sword.
Both the Principal and his rescuer joined us.
A man in the uniform of the Indian Army came to me and shouted: “You have put the colony in danger by bringing the Sikhs.”
I told him he could burn my flat along with all the Sikhs if he thought that was his patriotic duty.
We asked the people in the colony to give shelter to one family. Women were more willing; but the men said they would take in only the women and children.
We put the Sikhs in the back of a car, covered them with a blanket and took them into the Jawaharlal Nehru University where they were given shelter.
But there were some families who did take in the Sikhs even in our colony. One Brahman family from Karanataka took one family. The mother even cut the Sikh man’s hair when it went against caste rules. She was the mother of a future judge of the Delhi High Court. The future judge was one of the five who had come on our rescue mission.
I got a call from an agitated Sumanto Banerjee, a fellow member of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. He told me to come down to Panchsheel Enclave where they were meeting other activists.
“But, Sumanto, there is curfew.”
“How can curfew stop you from anything?”
I managed to reach the house. This was the small group of activists who soon called themselves the Nagrik Ekta Manch.
Everyone felt that we should get to the Opposition leaders who could perhaps help send the Army to stop the massacre of the Sikhs.
Sumanto had himself seen Sikhs burnt alive.
Five of us got into a car and landed at the Vithal Bhai Patel Bhavan and found the leaders of the Opposition huddled together wondering what they could do.
Sumanto and the others (I forget names) told them we should go to the PM’s house and demand that the Army be sent. Otherwise we should stop the funeral. He was deadly serious.
One leader, I think it was Dandavateji, came into our car. Sumanto insisted I sit in the front and get us through the security.
My father had been the Secretary to Indira Gandhi. At the time he and my mother were away in China on a secret mission.
When we arrived at the PM’s residence the security allowed us through. They must have thought I had come to express my condolences. I saw Arun Nehru.
“Mr Nehru, I am Nandita Haksar. If you don’t sent the Army into West Delhi we will try to stop the funeral.”
Arun Nehru said he would send in the Army.
None of us questioned how a mere MP had the power to do this. But the Army was sent by the time we reached Trilokpuri.
We drove to the Farsh Bazar Police Station. It was the only Police Station which did serious rescue and relief work. There was a relief camp there.
Someone suggested we make hot sweet tea for the Sikhs who were under shock.
I do not remember who I went with, but a woman who drove to South Extension where she knew a tentwala who opened his shop and gave us a dekchi; then she bought batasas since we could not find a ration shop selling sugar. And milk.
I found myself making the tea. The water was boiling and I wondered how much tea powder to put into the pot. Before I could empty the packet of tea a Sardar said: “How are you going to strain it?”
They told me to get a dupatta and put the tea leaf into it. A tea bag! Then I asked how much milk?
One young man asked with a twinkle in his eye: “What you have made is a cup of tea, not for two hundred people. Just pour two buckets..”
I could not believe that these young men could laugh and tease just an hour after being rescued from a ghastly death. It was my first glimpse into the celebrated spirit of the Sikh community.
The activists of the various NGOs told us, human rights activists, to leave the relief work for them and do fact-finding. There were three fact-finding teams.
Ours was a joint team of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (represented by Sumanto Banerjee and myself) and the People’s Union of Civil Rights (represented by Dinesh Mohan and Smitu Kothari).
We split into two and I went along with Dinesh Mohan from the IIT. As we started our fact-finding we discovered the extent to which the city had been burnt. This arson required skill and access to kerosene or sulphur which was not available because all shops were closed.
People told us that they had seen Congress leaders with registers identifying the homes of the Sikhs. That is how even in posh South Delhi colonies huge concrete structures were set ablaze. Gurudwaras were also the target of mobs led by senior Congress leaders.
We met Inder Gujral in his New Friends Colony home. When I asked him whether it could possibly be true that this massacre and arson could be done with the approval of the top leadership, he looked so sad that it was answer enough.
That night the entire PUDR team sat in Sumanto Banerjee’s home in Press Enclave. There was a heated debate on whether we should publish the names of the Congress leaders named by the people we interviewed.
Some members felt by naming them we would endanger the life of our President, Govind Mukhoty. Already his car had mysteriously caught fire. The local leader in Munirka Tokas had set men to follow me.
Then there was the other consideration. Would the Sikhs use our report to make a hit-list? But then the Sikhs themselves had given us the names.
In the end we decided to publish the names. The whole night the names were checked and crossed-checked against various testimonies. The list was made and the report was written.
Our report was entitled: ‘Who Are the Guilty?’
It was banned. The police raided our printer. He was subject to a lot of harassment.
The Sikh organisations reprinted the report in defiance of the ban and without our consent and it was vastly circulated. It was translated into Punjabi.
Many Sikhs told me when I went to Punjab that it was because of that report they still felt loyalty to India. It reassured them that there were Indians who stood by them when it mattered most.
On the basis of the material we collected during our fact-finding I drafted a writ petition and filed it in the Delhi High Court.
The case came up before Justice Rajindar Sachar, who later became the Chief Justice. He issued notice to the police. We asked that FIRs be filed against the leaders named in the affidavits of the victims.
When the case came up again it had been removed from the court of Rajindar Sachar and brought before the court of two other judges.
Those judges made disparaging remarks in open court about the veracity of the facts. One of them even asked why the victim had not gone to the police. He was reading from the affidavit of a woman who had watched her daughter being raped. The affidavit named the rapists.
I know how careful we had been when making these affidavits. She had spoken in Punjabi, it was translated into Hindi and the affidavit written in English. Then it was read out to her paragraph by paragraph before she signed it.
The High Court judge turned to the page and laughed at the affidavit.
The petition mysteriously turned up before the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. Govind Mukhoty was not available. I appeared.
Justice A. N. Sen was presiding. He looked down from the Bench and smiled and asked me gently, persuasively:
“Kindly withdraw this petition in national interest.”
I refused. The petition was dismissed. Those words ring in my ears and I feel a burning shame to this day.
The Nagrik Ekta Manch did excellent relief work. But there were most stimulating discussions and debates on the politics of relief. Each camp was run by activists with varying ideologies: Socialists, Naxals, social workers, and feminists.
The discussions did not come in the way of all of us working together.
When the government announced the setting up of the Ranganath Mihra Commission of Enquiry into the causes of the violence, the Nagrik Ekta Manch asked me to represent them. I appeared before Justice Rangnath Mishra. At every stage his bias against the Sikh victims was obvious. It was decided that the Nagrik Ekta Manch would boycott the Commission and I withdrew and wrote a long article why we had taken that decision. The article was published.
Earlier, when Rangnath Misra was a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, I had noticed his bias against the Muslims when I filed the case relating to the Meerut violence. In that case the PAC had shot 33 Muslims and dumped them in the canal.
Rangnath Misra should have taken action against a junior advocate who accused him in a published article.
Justice Rangnath Misra became the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.
Soon after there was another violence. This time the Muslims were the targets in the Walled City. There was no citizens committee. Nirula, which had sent food for the volunteers, did not come to old Delhi. I went for the fact-finding and the PUDR brought out a report but there was not that kind of empathy or anger.
It was then that I realised that the Nagrik Ekta Manch activists were mostly Punjabis and all of them had friends who belonged to the Sikh community.
Later when I interviewed the activists it came through that only Sumanto and I did not have friends among the Sikhs; and we had links with the Muslims.
Uma Chakravarty, my history teacher in Miranda House, Delhi University, asked me to help her conduct interviews of the victims. It was a moment in history when a community had turned into a minority.
Then we interviewed the non-Sikh neighbours and activists.
The interviews showed the complex reasons behind the violence apart from the immediate causes. In many places, such as Munirka there was resentment when village land was taken away. The Guru Harkrishna School was built on land which once belonged to the Jats of Munirka village.
When the school was being built the villagers had come and used the ground for their morning shit. Now they set the school on fire as a revenge.
There were heart-warming stories of people protecting their Sikh neighbours; and the best were the wrestlers from traditional akharas who had protected the Sikhs because the akhara admitted all communities.
The book was published. It was called: Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation.
The victims of the 1984 carnage are still fighting for justice. They are not supported by enthu-siastic volunteers; the activists, many of them, used the experience to get themselves nice projects; some lawyers made careers from this experience.
Never again did citizens of Delhi come together for any cause.
The groups have come together to remember the events of 1984 and to condemn the Congress party. Yes, the Congress party should be condemned. But did Sonia Gandhi not make a public apology?
The parties and organisations gathering together to condemn the Congress party have not done anything to help the Sikhs get justice or to stop the issue from being taken over by Hindu and Sikh communal forces; now the struggle for justice for the victims is a part of sectarian politics.
Could not this anniversary have been made into an opportunity to come together again not only to fight for the victims of 1984 but also to unite in the fight for another vision of India?
The first novels are being written by Sikhs about 1984. One of them is by Amandeep Sandhu. His novel is called Roll of Honour. It was nominated for the Hindu Literary Award 2013.
They see the events of 1984 within the context of the wider politics in Punjab. They do not draw inspiration from narrow sectarian politics or from false prophets. They do not align themselves with any political party but then it also seems they do not align themselves with any political vision.
I met Amandeep at a Literary Festival in Goa.
He is enthusiastic about meeting me. He says he has heard what I did in 1984. He gifts me his book.
Amandeep ends the book with these words:
“It is a chance that I was born into a certain family, or a community, a society, or a nation. But when I parade the dictates I inherited at birth—colour, religion, place, language, family, and the other markers of identity—my birth becomes a joke, drawn out through my life. I wonder who laughs at it. For when I live like that or am willing to die for them, I feel I am a caricature of what I could be.
“...facing life has taken a bit long, more than two-and-a-half decades. But I have finally stood up. I have finally created a space where I feel safe from myself, from the world around me. It is a space where free birds come to feed every morning.”
While we fight for the rights of the victims for justice, the victims must also fight for a space to free themselves from the prison of hate and revenge. I would not have dared to say so, but Amandeep has shown the way; so I dedicate this article to the children of the victims of 1984 or perhaps the grandchildren.
The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.