By Jagpreet Luthra
Thirty seven years ago, all seasons, including winter, had great character. October and November, sitting between the scorching summer and biting winter, used to be the best time in Delhi. One would head straight to Lodhi Gardens in Lutyen's Delhi--armed with a Walkman, a bunch of newspapers and lots to munch. The Statesman, The Indian Express, Time magazine, with its sterling essays and The Reader's Digest, with its brilliant features on a vast variety of subjects, were among my favorite publications.
I had been in Delhi the previous three years, having worked with magazines like Surya India and Probe which had some rather uninspiring editors. I was still with a fly-by-night magazine called Now when the unimaginable happened: The November 1984 carnage of Sikhs in the aftermath of prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31 by two of her Sikh security guards. The burning alive and bludgeoning to death of Sikhs I witnessed changed my ideas about life and death forever.
I also underwent a perspective shift about politics. On one hand was a prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, so emotional and senseless about his mother's death that he almost condoned the mass murders with his infamous remark, "When a great tree falls, the earth shakes." He forgot to mention, of course, that the earth shook only in the Congress-ruled states, then too, where goons disguised as politicians like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and HKL Bhagat were the party big guns. Such was the hold of these politicians on the party and the people that, seven years later, in 1991, when a police team went to arrest Sajjan Kumar, his followers forced the police team to retreat, not allowing the arrest. The others involved in the killings were provided black cat commandos for their protection.
On the other side were Sikhs, a people of glorious destiny, the born protectors of Hindu dharma, turned into sitting ducks in their own homes, workplaces, buses and railway trains, which became the play grounds of blood-thirsty mobs who laughed at the young men they tied to electric poles and around whose necks they put flaming garlands of oil-soaked tyres as they burned alive. Thousands of men were killed, the number of women raped is not known, the half burnt and half dead bodies were loaded in trucks under police supervision, taken to the Aravali hills on the outskirts of Delhi and burnt with petrol and diesel. There are hardly any families that got to cremate the killed.
Today, 34 years later, 70 percent of the immediate families of the victims are dead, those alive are old and frail and for the new generation, the savage killings are a distant, although painful, story--just as the partition of India is for my generation.
Ten thousand people are estimated to have been involved in the premeditated genocide-- with the political establishment and the police as partners. Not one of these killers has been brought to book. Scores of Sikhs I spoke to in 1984 told me about the police landing at their homes and carting away all potential weapons of defence, including sticks and rods, while the political skinheads of the Congress party armed the killers with kerosene oil, tyres and iron rods.
The Delhi police riot cell officially named 72 cops as responsible for the carnage. Not one of those cops was ever charged, half of them are dead and the rest have retired. A total of 16 commissions and committees were set up to probe the killings but not one has yielded anything that would even remotely resemble justice. Countless people and activists have spoken, written and made films about the subject in the hope of justice for the families of victims, but to no end.
Like many journalists, I kept my date with the victims' families for years, reporting their stories. Meanwhile, many more catastrophes struck India: the militancy in Punjab and fake encounters by the police, the bomb blasts in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid, the reprisal Muslim killings in Mumbai, the Godhra train burning alive of kar sevaks and the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat. Such prolonged exposure to bestiality can be--and was--numbing. Besides, I covered scores of individual violence victim stories: a raped two year old and her poor parents, a woman trapped in a brothel and brothelhood for 45 years, a beggar-saint who was thrown out of her home at 60 by her adopted son's wife and was wasting away on the road, literally doubled up by 78 years of a hard life, until four years ago. All these incidents and people taught me to recede from words, and to expect less and less from the man-made systems.
If words could help the victims of violence, activist Gurcharan Singh Babbar, who expended the last 34 years of his life writing, speaking and petitioning the establishment about the cause of the 1984 Sikh victims, would not be still be fighting. He is hopeless but cannot give up. He equates his life with the struggle for justice for the Sikh victims. Sometimes, it takes generations to get justice, says Babbar, philosophically, and believes he must play his part to the hilt. Besides, doing something, he says, is better than doing nothing. These 'something-action heroes' are, perhaps, the only hope of the 1984 Sikh victims and countless others who suffered a similar fate.
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