The past week has seen reopening of wounds that never healed. Of the riots of 1984, interviews with survivors, plotters, absconders and apologists. From newspapers to television, the images and voices brought back the horrors that one wanted to forget. There is no closure for anyone who has witnessed a riot. It tears the fabric of your neighbourhood, your friendships, of your relationships sustained and nurtured over generations.
No, don’t tell me that 1984 riots in Delhi are not the same as 2002 of Gujarat or 1992 in UP, 1993 in Mumbai or 2012 in Assam and Moradabad, Kashmir, Nellie….so many more. There are trishools and talwars, burning tyres and iron rods, transistor bombs, cycle bombs, tiffin bombs. There are smashed skulls, rapes, killed pregnant women, mass murders. There are blood-curdling slogans of Har Har Mahadev, Allah-o-Akbar, Khalistan Zindabad, Khoon ka Badla Khoon, Ek dhakka aur do.
November 1, 1984 was a day when I was to host my birthday lunch for my friends at our home just opposite the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. But on October 31, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh body guards. Around 4 pm, huge crowds had gathered at the traffic intersection in front of AIIMS, where a cloverleaf flyover stands now. The roads were jammed and traffic was stationary. Many of us got on to our rooftops to see what the noise was all about. By now rumours had started filtering that “She” was probably dead. We could see groups of Sikhs in the crowd, who had gathered in front of the hospital. Then we heard police sirens and crowds running helter skelter….and slogans. My mother pushed us away from the terrace; we ran down and shut ourselves from the noise, the horror that was unfolding just a few metres away.
I picked up the phone, it was dead. Desperate to speak to my father, I picked up the RAX phone, a three digit hotline service that senior government officers were provided for official use. There were no cell phones in 1984. “Is it true,” I asked him? “Yes,” he said and don’t open the doors for anybody, don’t go out, don’t use the phone unless it is urgent.” He stayed in the office all night and we stayed indoors. We could hear shuffling footsteps in the corridors and our yard. We didn’t sleep all night, terrified that somebody might come in…not knowing who was attacking whom. There was no mention of the riots on television or radio. At day break, I peeked out from the window, about six or seven Sikhs who had taken shelter in our yard and terrace were leaving for their homes.
The next few days were horrific. Barely a mile from our home, shops were gutted, targeted killings happened; but if you switched on the state owned TV or Radio, there was just one funeral preparation on in the city. According to government reports, 2,700 people died and 20,000 fled the city. A classmate called, “Do you know Sunny and his brother have cut their hair? They don’t wear turbans anymore.” Another friend and his pregnant wife hid under their ailing grandfather’s bed on the first floor while mobs burnt down their living room to cinder in one of Delhi’s posh neighbourhoods. When I meet these friends, we don’t talk of 1984 or the Khalistan movement. We pretend it didn’t happen.
Those who witnessed the riots during partition said 1984 was “worse”. When I innocently asked “But why worse, didn’t more people die then? 12.5 million people got displaced.” The reply I got then and I still get now is “Woh alag thaa beta, tab Hindu aur Musalmaan ek doosre ka katal kar rahe the….yeh to Sikh aur Hindu kar rahein hain….yeh to ek hi nasl hai.” In some minds, a Hindu-Muslim riot has a fatal inevitability to it because of the subcontinent’s history. But “this” wasn’t acceptable.
It didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense to me now. Because of our tardy judicial process and lack of social support structure, victims of riots never get closure. Charanjeet Kaur or Zakia Jaffri or thousands of victims of communal riots in India are powerless against a system that devalues life of the common Indian to abysmal levels. It is only the rich who somehow manage to “move on”. The middle class pretends it didn’t happen and the poor… does anybody even care about them?
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash