When steel entered my soul: IAF veteran recounts 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom

Rana Chhina
Rana ChhinaOct 31, 2016 | 14:38

When steel entered my soul: IAF veteran recounts 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom

I write this not to invoke hate but to rid myself of a burden I have carried for too long.

The year 1984 marked a personal rite of passage. Its events are shrouded inside me behind a veil that I cannot lift. The horror it inflicted was painful and shocking, all the more so because it was unexpected. It was the year that steel entered my soul, compelling me to make a journey I had no wish to undertake. The scar it left was indelible and I still carry it hidden from sight, but known to me for what it is and for what it did to me. Yet it is a dark mark and not one that I wear on my sleeve, for to do so would be to give it an importance that it does not deserve. I fear that doing so will generate hate and allow those that deal in hate to win. To preserve humanity, in the face of inhumanity, must be the guiding principle of human endeavour and the touchstone in narratives of catharsis such as this.

For me 1984 was, in many ways, a Dickensian year. As a young man in love, the cares of the world rested lightly on my shoulders. The girl I loved was in London. My parents were in good health and had finished constructing their house in Delhi. I had just been posted from far-off Hashimara in the Bhutan Duars to Bareilly, just three hours away from home.

While flying in the Central Air Command was a bit of a drag compared to the devil-may-care capers of the "Eastern Air Force" – that was how the rugged and inaccessible areas of north-east India falling within the purview of the Eastern Air Command were known within the Indian Air Force – the central Himalayas from Pithoragarh to Kedarnath provided much relief from the baking plains of Awadh and I spent many days chalking up flying hours in the mountains. It was the best of times.

The angry clouds building up in the west over the Punjab seemed far away and appeared to be just another rumble in the eternal turbulence of the Indian political landscape. As Sikhs, with close ties to the Punjabi heartland – our village lies in the Majha, near Amritsar – we were concerned about the escalating violence and uncertainty. Yet we were, like the majority of the Sikhs, invested whole-heartedly in the idea of India as a secular, democratic nation. Operation Blue Star and the widening communal divide had, however, shaken us, as it had shaken a number of Hindus who did not subscribe to the divisive politics giving rise to the forces of communalism.

Like many Punjabis of their generation, my parents were refugees. Caught up in the greatest mass migration in human history, they had been uprooted from the land of their birth. When India awoke to freedom and its tryst with destiny on the stroke of the midnight hour on August 15, 1947, the people of the Punjab – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh – woke up to horror and suffering caused by an unscrupulous betrayal of trust by colonial Britain and an unconscionable compromise by India’s political elite.

For the Punjab, and the Punjabi diaspora of my parents’ generation, August 15, 1947 was always "Partition" instead of "Independence". Growing up in a Punjabi household in Delhi in the 1960s, the inevitable follow-up question the house elders put to a new acquaintance after the initial "and where are you from?" was always, "Par pichhon kithon aye si?" (But from where do you originate?). I never heard a word of bitterness or reproach from my parents or from my uncles in the village, even though they lost everything in the upheaval of 1947. My father was a professor of physiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Like many of his contemporaries, he was a man of strong principles and high ideals.

1984 left me wound up like a coiled spring and I have not as yet fully confronted the horrors of that nightmarish time where people were willing to kill me merely for who I was and what I represented. Credit: AP

Our cultural moorings, and those of his friends, Hindu and Sikh alike, were syncretic and secular. There was no room for the narrow-minded or the ultra-conservative in my parents’ circle of friends and acquaintances. I grew up in a middle-class household, unburdened by the strictures of conservative society though not unaware of them.

I am an only child. In 1977, I left home to join the National Defence Academy, that "maker of men". In 1981, I was commissioned in the Indian Air Force and assigned to the helicopter stream as I had excessive "sitting height" for flying fighters. I spent the first three years of my service career flying the single-engine Chetak (Allouette) helicopter in the East and in the Central Himalayas.

In the summer of 1984, I was sent to Gauhati to commence my technical conversion to the twin-engined Mi-8 (Pratap) helicopter along with three other youngsters from my unit. The three-month long course passed all too soon and came to an end on October 26, 1984. The next step was to proceed to Bangalore to carry out our flying conversion on the aircraft. As luck would have it, a Packet C-119 was returning to its base at Agra and two of us, Flying Officer Radha Shankar and I, decided to hitch a ride in it. That would give us a few bonus days at my home in Delhi and we could then proceed by train to Bangalore on the 2nd to reach in time for the course commencing at Yelahanka on November 5. At least, that was the plan.

The flight to Agra was uneventful, although I recall being slightly disconcerted while looking down through a gap in the fuselage near the clamshell doors and seeing the earth a few thousand feet below. From Agra, we managed to catch a bus to Delhi and made our way to my house in the AIIMS campus where my parents, who were pleasantly surprised to see us, greeted us warmly.

On October 30, my father drove me to the Air HQ to see an officer and enquire about my next posting. We went back there again on the morning of the 31st, the day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot. When we returned around mid-day, the news was out. The initial news bulletins reported her condition as critical and said that she had been shot by two of her guards who had surrendered their weapons afterwards. Soon after that, however, it was announced that one of her guards had been shot dead and the other was severely wounded. Both of them were Sikhs and had shot her for what they saw as her complicity in the attack on the Golden Temple in June that year. The bulletin also announced that she had been taken to the AIIMS casualty.

In those days, my father would walk back home from his department for lunch. As we sat down to eat that afternoon, he said that he had heard from his colleagues that Mrs Gandhi was no more, but the announcement was not going to be made right then. The talk turned to the act of assassination. This was an act of passion; the desecration of the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith by the Indian state had shaken Sikhs all over the world to their core. It hearkened a collective memory back to similar acts of desecration under the worst Mughal persecution two centuries ago and many Sikhs felt that the assassination was a justifiable act of retribution for an unforgivable act that struck at the very core of their belief.

In Memory and Imagination; Rs 350; Amaryllis 

I asked my father what he thought of this. His reply was characteristic of the man. He said that she was the elected prime minister of the nation, and in his opinion her killing was just as unjustifiable as her actions.

After lunch, round 3.30pm, Shankar and I strolled down from my house at C-II/7 to the main gate of the hospital in front of the private ward. By now a large crowd had gathered there and people were milling about, talking in hushed tones. There were some Sikhs in the crowd as well. After a while, we returned home.

Shortly after that, my father came back from office at 5pm and decided to go shopping. As he approached the campus gate on Ring Road, he was stopped by a nurse who had happened to assist in my delivery at the time of my birth. She told him that mobs were targeting Sikhs all over the city and advised him to go back home. As he turned back, a policeman who was standing near a police jeep and had overheard the conversation, also called out to repeat the nurse’s advice. "They are killing the Sardars," he said. "We are keeping even our saathis (companions) out of sight."

He lifted the flap of the jeep to reveal a couple of Sikh constables in uniform hiding inside.

My father returned home and we spent the next eight or nine days in a mixture of disbelief, anxiety, fear and anger. I am unsure of the sequence of what transpired during that time, or even of the time frame. I think that it was eight or nine days. It may have been more, or less. I do not know. I do not want to know.

Many years later, I received a phone call from a young man, a journalist, who asked how I was, how my parents were. When I said that I had not placed him, he said, "But don’t you remember? You saved my life in 1984." He said he was being chased by a mob when I offered him a lift on my scooter and brought him home. I racked my brains, and did recall that we sheltered a young man in our house for about five days, but I cannot for the life of me remember the circumstances in which I saved him.

My mother, who was a great admirer of Pandit Nehru, was genuinely upset to see Indira Gandhi dead. The television and the radio were our link to the "outside" world and we followed the news closely. Over the next few days, we heard horrifying stories. Mobs led by Congressmen had stopped buses on the Safdarjung flyover, pulled out Sikhs travelling in them, and flung them onto the tracks below.

In other places, they were placing rubber tyres around the necks of their victims and setting them alight. Some people spoke of "teaching the Sikhs a lesson", and I remember watching the TV in disbelief as Rajiv Gandhi made his abhorrent comment: "when a big tree falls, the earth will shake", to justify the genocide taking place around him.

Shankar stayed on for a day and then decided to leave by train for Bangalore. Even though it meant that I would go AWOL, we decided that I should not accompany him, but stay at home to venture out only after things settled down. As it turned out, he was to witness the train being stopped on the outskirts of Delhi and Sikhs dragged out and butchered by marauding mobs.

I remember that a promising young officer, who was supposed to go to France for his test pilot’s course, was murdered in Palam.

On the third or fourth day, shortly after the Army was called out to restore law and order, we received a call from Sheila Mehta, the wife of my father’s lifelong friend and veteran journalist, Balraj Mehta. The Mehtas resided in Gulmohar Park and knew that the Army was camping in the AIIMS campus. Mrs Mehta said that a mob was gathering in front of a Sikh residence near their house and wanted me to tell the Army to come to their rescue.

I put on my uniform and for the first time in four days stepped out of the house and marched to the AIIMS Guest House where a Gurkha unit had set up camp. For the first time in my life, I was conscious of my physical identity as a Sikh. As I passed the sentry at the Guest House gate, he did not salute. I walked past him and entered the Guest House where the officers were eating their lunch. I sought out the senior-most officer there and went up to him. After saluting him, I informed him of the purpose of my visit. He said he would see to it as soon as he had finished lunch. However, since lives were at stake, I persisted. He looked at me wearily and said he would leave in a few minutes. As I left, I heard him calling for his jeep.

The campus was relatively safe; a haven of tranquility in a city on fire. Yet, a day or so later, someone came and said that a mob had entered the campus and asked us to be prepared for the worst. I pulled out the two small swords that I had inherited from my mother’s family.

The larger one was made in 1947 as communal riots escalated, while the smaller sword was made from the blade of my maternal grandfather’s cavalry sabre, which was broken during an engagement in Mesopotamia during the First World War. A hilt had been attached to it in 1947. It was steel born of violence and had seen my family through turbulent times before and I hoped it would do so once again. I also pulled out my father’s two licensed firearms: a .32 Smith & Wesson revolver and a 12 bore Winchester repeater.

As I loaded the weapons and kept the spare ammunition handy on a nearby table, I slipped three cartridges into my pocket; one each for my parents and the last one for myself. If all else failed, I was determined that we would not be taken alive by the mob.

Luckily, the mob was turned back and a few days later the city limped back to "normal". As we emerged cautiously into the open, I was not aware of the change that had occurred deep within my sub-conscious. It was only a few years ago, when my parents finally passed away that I realised how deeply the iron had entered my soul and the change it had wrought. From being a mild and passive individual, I was now someone ever ready to react with aggression. 1984 was the passage of innocence.

It left me wound up like a coiled spring and I have not as yet fully confronted the horrors of that nightmarish time where people were willing to kill me merely for who I was and what I represented.

There are other fragments that I can unearth from the graveyard of buried memories. My parents had just constructed a house. It was still empty and the caretaker had managed to prevent a mob from damaging it by ripping off the name plate and insisting that it belonged to a Hindu. The elderly Sikh carpenter and his sons, who had done the woodwork in the house, were not so lucky.

They lived in the notorious Trilokpuri colony in East Delhi where the police connived with the lumpen gangs in the systematic massacre of the Sikh residents. They were dragged out of their houses and killed with all the refinements that the Delhi mob could muster. I recall the carpenter as a gentle man with polite sons.

My father’s friend, the renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr PS Maini, who lived in South Extension, was only able to escape with his life by being transported in the boot of his car. In every corner of the city, for months afterwards, the signs of the violence lingered, whether in the burnt out husks of houses or shops, or in the indelible marks on the road near the Laxmi Nagar crossing that were caused by the hundreds of gallons of paint looted from a Sikh business and poured onto the street in front.

There were other effects as well. My mother never quite recovered from the trauma of the riots and her fear was one of the main factors in persuading my father to move to the United States after his retirement. In the Air Force, for nearly a decade after the riots, Sikh officers were not posted to the Air HQ Communication Squadron, which flew VVIPs, or assigned to similar VIP flights.

Luckily, there was no backlash against Hindus living in rural Punjab, although many left in the ensuing years of terrorist uncertainty. Life gradually limped back to normal. I quickly realised that it was futile to try and explain what I had gone through to those who were not there.

Friends were sympathetic, but were unable to fathom the extent of the trauma that the experience had caused. In order to survive, it was important to try to forget. However, nearly seven years later when my wife woke me up from a nap to announce that Rajiv Gandhi had been killed, my first words were, ‘Where is the revolver?’ My relief that he had not been killed by a Sikh was immense.

In hindsight, I feel that there is more good than evil in this world. In the worst of times, the vast majority of Hindus never lost their sense of decency or allowed their balance to be swayed by the base instincts of the mob. The fabric of Indian society, which embodies the best qualities of human nature, held. By doing so, it gave hope to many of us that what had happened was nothing but an orchestrated aberration of the worst kind.

Subsequent events in Gujarat, though, have shown that we have not yet learnt our lessons and that the body politic of our nation is yet to mature to its full potential. Those of us who toil to build the social edifice of this country have, to paraphrase Robert Frost, many miles to go before we can sleep.

(The above excerpt by Rana Chinna appeared in 1984: In Memory and Imagination; republished with Amaryllis' permission.)

Last updated: November 07, 2017 | 18:42
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