Since 1984: 30 years of horror and neglect

Ananya Bhattacharya
Ananya BhattacharyaNov 04, 2014 | 11:08

Since 1984: 30 years of horror and neglect

“Aj akhan Waris Shah nu tikon kabran vichon bol

Te aj kitabe ishq da koi agla varka phol 

Ik roi si dhii Punjab dii tuu likh-likh mare vain

Aj lakkhan dheeyan rondian tainuu n Waris Shah noon kahan 

Uth darmandan diaa dardiiaa uth tak apna Punjab!

Aj bele laashaa n vichiiaa n te lahu dii bharii Chenab!”


(Rough translation:

I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave


And add a new page to your book of love

Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;

Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:

Arise, o friend of the afflicted; arise and see the state of Punjab,

Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenab flowing with much blood.)

– Amrita Pritam

“The Widow”, as Salman Rushdie had described India’s most controversial prime minister in his book Midnight’s Children, is gone for three decades now. If you’re born in pre- or post-independence India, and if you have survived either the reality or the tales, 1984 is a chapter of history that can just not be done away with. For tragedy, in its distilled, most concentrated form, is one that demands to be felt, not forgotten. And despite innumerable and continuous efforts of a government to wash the blood off their hands, 1984 is the darkest blot on post-1947 India. “Indira is India and India is Indira” - ran Mrs Gandhi's self-created myth for her country. And left the same country in tatters. Like the poetess, Amrita Pritam had put in poignant words the tragedy that the partition had caused; four decades later, too, the same words echoed all over Delhi, and the country, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.


“When a giant tree falls, the earth always trembles,” was the grieving Rajiv Gandhi’s much-criticised statement after his mother’s death. Delhi erupted in flames; taking with it; reducing to ashes, an entire community. The likes of HKL Bhagat, JagdishTytler, Sajjan Kumar – Congress big shots, all – ordered killings of Sikhs, instigating Hindus, providing them with ammunition to conduct the mass murders. For three decades, and after ten committees and their reports, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots have been thrashed and made to roll around in public memory. A clear consensus on the actual happenings of those few fateful days in Delhi – from October 31, 1984 to November 3, 1984 – has still not been arrived at. But then, in a country famous for the time it takes in arriving at judgments, thirty years are just but a blink of the eye. And when for the most part of these three decades, the ruling party at the centre is the party allegedly complicit in those attacks on Sikhs; justice is a word that ends up with negligible meaning. Like Rushdie speaks about the context of time in India in his Midnight’s Children, “...no people whose word for “yesterday” is the same as their word for “tomorrow” can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”


In the melee that 1984 gave birth to, in the facts that it shrouded in nebulous mysteries, the last three decades have been reduced to the most surprising in the history of India, as far as popular culture is concerned. For an event of this magnitude, the literature available or the films on the time are scant to the point of invisibility. Among the better known works of fiction, there’s Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, which talks about the riots in parts; there’s Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which criticises the Indira government, veiled in his magic realism; and there’s the recent novel, Helium, by Jaspreet Singh, which describes the riots using a survivor at the centre. It is only recently, after the ghosts of Mrs Gandhi are calming down somewhat – not without the promise of coming back to haunt, though – that writers are waking up and penning the disaster in words. But then, when one needs to work under hawk-eyed surveillance while writing a book, criticising a government openly – especially, when it happens to be the forefathers of the one at the centre – is a task insurmountable.

“I was on a train...On my way to Mumbai, from Calcutta on November 1, when the riots broke out in Delhi,” recalls RS Virdi, general manager, NF Railways. “I was out on the platform at Nagpur, where my train had halted, and a policeman came up to me and asked me to get back into the coach. I reached Mumbai the next day, to deserted streets. Mumbai was peaceful; but my parents were in Delhi. Dad had retired from the Navy, and my family was in a rented flat close to Dilshad Garden, which was one of the worst-affected in the riots,” says Virdi.

“They were evacuated by the Navy. Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas had sent the vehicle; and he kept my parents at his house till the disturbance subsided. The nights were spent in apprehension and terror. Every single moment, there was the fear of something happening. Delhi was on fire,” says a reminiscent Virdi.

Countless tales of horror spilled all over the country following the riots. The epicentre was Delhi, but the tremor was felt in places as distant as Siliguri in West Bengal. I grew up listening to stories of how my maternal grandparents had kept a Sikh family hidden away for a fortnight, while hooligans, baying for their blood, kept threatening to burn our house down. This was before the telephone entered our daily lives. The police had been sent a message, but the messenger never got back alive. Neither did the police arrive to do anything. After about an hour of threatening my grandparents and stoning the house, the group lost interest when something more interesting caught their attention.


“As long as I’m alive, my story is alive. I cannot forget the unbroken voice of that woman who lives in the slums of Delhi, she lost twenty-six members of her family in a single day. As long as I am alive, I will feel ashamed to call myself an Indian, the woman had screamed. At the end of the day all she had was her husband’s leg, half-eaten by dogs. Agar Angrez hotey to hum bach jatey. In British-ruled India we would have survived. That woman who held on to Gagan Singh’s amputated finger. She doesn’t know how to read or write but she carries an entire archive inside.”

- Jaspreet Singh, Helium

There are countless horror stories of the time that might put Edgar Allen Poe's best ones to shame, what with their sheer macabre cores. And there are countless tales of humaneness; Hindus, Christians, Muslims – humans – who helped the targeted Sikhs survive 1984, rescuing them from the clutches of terror; chopping their hair off at times, snatching their kirpan away at others; helping them get through the basic-but-traumatising process of staying alive. These unsung heroes helped exonerate a bit of the human side of the country; by then, an embodiment of shame and horror.

Once the tornado had passed by, leaving devastation in its wake, life in ravaged Sikh houses staggered back to a semblance of normalcy. The voices within, however – of the mother who saw three of her daughters raped in front of her own eyes; of the wife whose husband had a rubber tyre thrown around his neck-doused with kerosene-set on fire; of the seven-year-old whose hands were chopped off because he wouldn’t let go of his mother’s pallu as she struggled with the attackers; of the man who had been dragged out and hacked to pieces while he mourned the death of his prime minister, the TV inside his house playing and replaying the assassination; of a country whose people have been tortured to insanity – will never be silenced. 1984 still lives on - in the memory of India – the stub of an amputated limb; in the cries for justice – a festering wound.

“Jab arz-e-Khuda ke kaabe se

Sab but uthwae jaenge

Hum ahl-e-safa mardood-e-harm

Masnad pe bethae jaenge

Sab taaj uchhale jaenge

Sab takht girae jaenge...”

(“From the abode of God

When icons of falsehood will be taken out,

When we- the faithful- who have been barred out of sacred places

Will be seated on high cushions

When the crowns will be tossed,

When the thrones will be brought down...”)

 – Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Last updated: January 22, 2016 | 10:20
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