“My wife, Amrit, and 3-year old daughter, Simran were in Kalka Ji city when the riots broke out on the first morning of November 1984.” Manmohan Singh, now a music teacher at San Jose Khalsa School, recalls this part of his story with immense relief. Being isolated and unaware of his family’s safety for more than three days, the easing of tension is to be expected—he could have lost his family, his world, during the three days of uncontrolled communal violence. Sagarpur, the town in which one of his five sisters lived, had no Sikh survivors. All Sikhs, their houses, businesses, and belongings were burned by unruly mobs. Not a single Sikh was spared. A peon from Singh’s local bank, Harbhajan Singh, was burned alive in Sagarpur while Singh’s sister sneaked out with her family after having her husband cut his hair, shave his beard, and don the guise of a woman.
After making their escape, Singh’s sister lived in a refugee camp in Delhi’s Sadhar Bazaar for three months with her husband and their two daughters, six and three years old. There were 3000 campers in that single cantonment, all of whom had their houses burned to the ground by governmentally-supplied rioters.
According to Rajinder Mangar, a resident of California since 1976, there is no doubt about the fact that the Anti-Sikh Pogroms of Delhi in 1984 were directed by and funded for by the central government of India.
“After Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as the succeeding Prime Minister overnight. Rajiv Gandhi and other leaders of the Delhi Congress Part started a well-planned attack on innocent Sikh families in Delhi and other states throughout the country.” Mangar supports the idea that the majority of mob participants were from poverty stricken communities and were given tools and instruction to murder and loot as many Sikh households as they could. It is a logical conclusion for many—for people who do not have fuel to light a fire for cooking their daily meals, coming across endless supplies of kerosene, patrol, and gasoline is highly unlikely and directs suspicion towards the ruling Congress Party of the time.
Sikh farmers wanted lower feed and seed costs and higher prices for their agricultural output, Sikhs in the civil services and military wanted to be given their long-delayed and well-deserved promotions. Sikhs wanted to be given their rights, the Indian government, under Gandhi’s leadership delivered terror. Many of the supporters of the Indian government claim that the individuals from the Sikh community deserved what they got because they brought terror to the nation by assassinating Indira Gandhi. However, they do not consider that even the killing of Indira Gandhi was to seek revenge for the deaths of thousands of innocent pilgrims at the Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi sought to suppress the Sikhs’ demands for justice by ordering a military operation code-named Operation Blue Star on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. It has been recorded in history that any individual who makes the Golden Temple its target for atrocity has been punished within a year of their acts by emotionally wounded Sikhs. It is also a known fact that a wounded lion is perhaps the most dangerous and the Sikhs pride themselves of living up to their religious last name, Singh, which means lion.
Mangar followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination on CNN attentively and was appalled at the fact that there was no coverage of the violence that had spread like a fire throughout the Indian nation. “But that is to be expected, the Indian government has always censored issues like this to the best of its ability,” Mangar acknowledges with a sad nod. There were obvious limitations on the press attention that was allowed to be given on this issue; otherwise, the extent of the carnage in Delhi would have become a globally acknowledged fact. Time Magazine published Indira Gandhi’s photograph on the cover of its November 12, 1984 issue with Indira Gandhi’s words, ‘”If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.”’ looming above her head in white font. It is astonishing how true Gandhi’s words were, her blood did invigorate the nation—to carry out the mass murder of thousands of innocent civilians who had been mourning the assassination of their Prime Minister with fellow citizens.
Manmohan Singh claims that on November 1, 1984, he went with his companion, Barinder Chawla, to perform religious services approximately ten kilometers from his home. The program lasted three hours, from six to nine in the morning. At the end of the program, Singh got on the bus and went home. Getting off from the bus, he noticed a lot of smoke. People ran from place to place, screaming that another fire had started at a different location.
“At first, I didn’t know what was going on. In all this confusion, I proceeded to the house which I rented—it belonged to a Hindu family. A few hours later, a messenger was sent to me by Baba Ravel Singh, a well-respected Sikh holy man in the Andha Mughal community of Delhi. He had sent one of his men for me because he knew I lived in a Hindu’s home and didn’t think it was safe for me to stay there.” There was still a lot of chaos as Manmohan Singh left for Baba Ravel Singh’s sanctuary and residence. Locked in safety, the various companions glued their eyes on the television set for updates on the national situation.
“One scene that they showed on TV many times just won’t leave my mind. Rajiv Gandhi stood as a leader in the midst of a crowd that screamed, khoon ka badla, khoon se lenge, blood for blood. I can’t get those words out of my memory,” Singh shakes his head as if the words are still blaring in his ears. Running his thin fingers through his two-foot long gray beard, he continues to recount the multiple attempts that rioters made to attack their hide-out.
“There were many devotees of Baba Ravel Singh who did not wear turbans or any other Sikh religious symbol, they easily blended in as Hindus and stood guard at both the front and back gates of the sanctuary for three days and nights. We wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for them.” Singh Sabha Gurdwara, about one and a half kilometers away from Manmohan Singh’s hideout was set ablaze and the head of the Gurdwara was thrown into the burning building when he tried to save it.
Singh found out about ten days later that when him and his companion, Barinder Singh, had separated on the morning of November 1, the latter had made it home after four hours of running from mobs that were stationed at nearly every street of the neighborhood. “He got home, but very badly bruised. The sad thing is that there were police and army vehicles all over, but the police didn’t want to stop the mobs and the army could not act without the permission of the police.” Singh utters every fact from his memory with a disapproving shake of his head.
Along with more than seventy-two police officers identified through the Kapur Mittal Commission for purposeful negligence of the events surrounding them, names of prominent Congress Party leaders like Sajjan, Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, Ajay Makan, and R K Anand are listed by many eyewitnesses and had made their way onto the most recent commission, the Nanavati Commission which submitted a 185-page report to the Indian Home Minister in February 2005.
These four men were representatives of the Congress Party in and around Delhi in the 2004 elections while they had been seen distributing kerosene and weapons to mobs twenty years earlier. Despite reports against them for leading the riots, charges were dropped on the sly to ensure that their political careers were not tainted by the fact that they are responsible for the murder of at least 2,307 blameless people, a number accepted by the Indian government—the Ahooja Committee, a commission established to investigate the riots acknowledged that 3,874 individuals were murdered in Delhi alone in its August 1987 report.
According to Rajinder Mangar, “The amount of deaths that occurred is not as significant as the amount of individuals who had to continue living after the riots, after losing their families, their houses, their businesses.” Sikh taxi drivers were burned in their taxis upon sight. “My cousin’s husband was burned alive in Kanpur, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh—he did not wear a turban, they saw his iron bracelet and knew that he came from a Sikh family—they burned him alive.” After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the word ‘terrorist’ was attached to ‘Sikh’ by the Indian government, “The Sikhs weren’t the terrorists, the government was the terrorist in this case,” says Mangar with fire in his eyes. “They poured money into the killing of normal civilians; it was genocide, nothing less.”
Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, and other politically empowered culprits have amassed wealth and status. However, the origins of their wealth are buried in secrecy. Even after having hundreds of eyewitness statements made against them in trial, they remain glued to their prestigious political position. Where in the United States, such questionable pasts are not left unquestioned, in India, even after proof of guilt, nobody dares protest. Individuals with access to government documentation retrieved official voter lists in order to pinpoint Sikh homes and certify that none were spared. With the government as the silent leader of the riots, it is obvious why the courts are unwilling to punish those who murdered more than three thousand innocent individuals.
Manmohan Singh acknowledges that he is lucky to be alive and to have his family intact, but not everybody was as fortunate. Most men, according to Singh, were pulled out of their homes; their turbans were used to tie their hands back while mob leaders doused them in flammable liquids and set them aflame. Those who were not made the victims were the spectators. The number of individuals killed during the riots can be counted to some extent. However, the number of women who committed suicide after being gang-raped by collected criminals, children who died after being orphaned and displaced outside burning houses, and individuals who decided to end their lives because the pain of being a survivor was unbearable cannot be counted.
The pain of the wounded cannot be measured. The amount of tears shed cannot be collected into a container and quantified. Punishing the masterminds of the riots will not bring back the dead, nor will it compensate for the decades that survivors have spent in poverty after losing all that they had. Stories of the horrendous tortures individuals were made to endure before being mercilessly murdered will live on for generations. Children of tomorrow will know that their great grandfather was pulled out his house while having lunch to be beaten by a ruthless mob. Their great grandmother was kicked to the ground, head bashed into the furnishings as she was jerked from wall to wall of her small house by her hair. Their grandfather had a tire placed around his neck, drenched in kerosene and set aflame; onlookers’ eyes writhed in pain as they witnessed the live burning of an amiable neighbor. Their grandmother was gang-raped; she killed herself. Their father was a child, he survived. But their uncle was kidnapped and never found. Their father’s aunt sat with him and his sister, hiding in a neighbor’s house, waiting for the nightmare to end.
The Sikh neighborhoods that were the targets of the riots are now known within the community as the Widow Colonies. Widowed and helpless women live together in patched up houses, supporting one another as they continue to struggle against their grief. Children in these colonies have witnessed the loss of integral commodities in their lives and are determined to bring about change.
The wounds of these survivors will never heal, but the criminals responsible for mass murder run as free men and there seems to be no chance of receiving justice. Commission after commission is appointed to conduct thorough investigations; yet no action is being taken to reach out the victims still in pain. It has been more than twenty-five years and people who have lost their families and friends in the 1984 Anti-Sikh Pogroms are waiting for the leaders of the riots to be punished by the Indian legal system. Survivors await justice with no hope in sight.
Navdeep Kaur is a Sikh American writer currently obtaining her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. More of her work can be viewed at http://aarsi-reflections.