I was at the afternoon session for boys (mornings were for girls) at my school, Nagar Nigam Prathmik Bal Vidyalaya. Suresh, a friend of mine, who was from a slum and belonged to a lower caste – although at the time I knew nothing about either the caste system or the religious beliefs of the people of India – said: "Let's go and buy a pencil."
We went to the stationary shop, where I heard a man announcing that Indira Gandhi was dead; someone had killed her.
Foolish fellow, I thought. She is prime minister of India; a prime minister cannot die.
Less than half an hour after we had returned to school, my mother and elder sister rushed into the classroom. Seeing what a panic they were in, my class teacher immediately allowed them to take me with them.
"What happened, Mummy," I asked.
"Indira is dead, and they are attacking and killing Sikhs," she replied.
"Who is ‘they’?"
“The ‘mob’,” she said in a terrified voice, looking around as if she had committed a crime and was on the run.
Sikhs have a unique identity and are easily recognisable in a crowd. They never cut their hair and men wear a turban on their head, while Sikh boys wear a patka. My mother feared for me with my patka, so she avoided the main road.
When we reached home, my brothers and other sister were already there, but my father had not come yet. A few women from the neighbourhood were gathered, among them Rani Auntee, my mother's best friend; they were like sisters. It was a time when few people had telephones, and not everyone had television sets, so some neighbours used to come to our house to watch. My sister turned on the TV to see the news,
Suddenly, a neighbour's daughter, Shalu, started crying. "Oh god, Sikhs have killed Indira. The Sikhs must be punished!"
This led to a commotion in our house. Neeta, my sister’s friend, told Shalu to leave the house, and my mother switched off the TV, and locked the front door.
My father had not yet returned, and with each passing moment my mother’s anxiety was increasing. She sat statue-like on a chair, drying the tears in her green eyes, as she tried to comfort herself by reading the Sikh hymn, the Chaupai Sahib.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. "Open up!"
On hearing my father’s voice, my mother rushed to the door.
"I managed to get back somehow,” he said. "When I got on the bus, the driver and conductor told me about the attacks, and that mobs are stopping buses in order to attack and murder the Sikhs on them. They told me to lie down, and when a mob stopped the bus, the driver told them there were no Sikhs on board. He drove on and I escaped."
“God bless that wise man,” my mother said.
Mohinder Singh wanted to beat him up but my father stopped him, saying this would just increase our difficulties.
Before dawn, my maternal family, my grandmother, three uncles, two aunts and my cousins had come to our house as their house was in a less safe area, and after a while another family of distant relatives arrived, too. Our house was crammed with men, women and a cluster of children, At the same time news came that K Block in Gurudwara had been set alight and shops of Sikhs in the market looted and burned,
All the men and women in the house were discussing how we would defend ourselves. We began preparing, although there were no weapons except for kitchen knives, some empty glass liquor bottles and a few bricks, which we collected on the roof top; also, a few rods and some small paper pellets of chilli powder, which we made and distributed among the women and girls so that they could protect themselves by throwing them at the attackers’ eyes.
As a child, I was thrilled with these preparations; it was like an exciting game.
Today I realise that all those silly defensive measures were nothing but an eternal human desire to survive, to live. In terms of human rights, I believe the supreme human right is the right to survive.
My father, who is a very brave and strong man and had once beaten up a gunda (criminal) from Kasabpura, understood the difficulties of our situation. He knew that six or seven weapon-less men, a similar number of old and young women, teenage girls and a group of children could do nothing against a mob of hundreds of armed people.
Fortunately – and I have used this word many times, because we could have been among those who lost their lives and families in the massacre – we lived in a street where my mother and father had family-like relations with our neighbours. Our next-door neighbour came to my father and said, "Veer ji (big brother), don't worry, if anyone comes I will stand at your door and say “This is my house." And he really did.
Rani Auntee told my mother to send all the girls and small children to her home as she is Hindu and they would be safe there. So, we all went to her place.
Next day, the situation became worse; smoke was visible in the sky, and we were told that the mob was very close. No one knew what was going to happen.
Some of our neighbours gathered and suggested that the boys’ hair should be cut and they should be sent to Hindu families for safety. My father did not like this idea at first and refused; he did not want to cut the hair of his sons or of any other child, but they argued that it was the only way to save their lives: "They are even killing Sikh kids and babies," they urged.
It was one of the most painful moments in my parents’ life. They couldn’t do it, so one of the neighbours cut the hair of the youths and small boys including mine. I don't remember what I felt that day, but I still remember the shame I felt in school a few days later.
After a few days of riots, I returned to school and a friend said, "I guessed that you’d cut your hair when I saw your brother with his hair cut. Are you a coward?”
Are you a coward? I still don't understand whether that was a question or a statement. It was of the most humiliating moments of my life, and those words echoed in my ears for many years to come.
My elder sister, who was in eleventh grade, faced an even worse situation when a girl in her class said to another girl in a deliberately loud voice, "Look at her, she escaped. Why didn’t someone kill her and her bastard family!" Those girls had been her classmates for many years, and seeing that sudden change in their behaviour shocked my sister so much that she refused to go to school again.
Our good neighbours, who had done a lot to help our family, said to my father after a few days of riots,"Veer ji, we saved you this time, but if a situation like this arises again, we won’t be able to do anything; they are threatening us because we helped Sikhs.”
My father therefore made the decision to move to the state of Punjab, although this resulted in his business being ruined and a long period of suffering for the family.
For years my mother yearned for her friends in Delhi, her social circle and city life. She felt uprooted and Punjab was like a jungle to her in the beginning. We even tried to move back to Delhi in 1995, when I was in the second year of my B.Sc. degree. I had to leave my college, destroying my dreams of becoming a botanist forever. But the move was unsuccessful; we realised we could no longer fit into Delhi.
We never really recovered from our financial difficulties. Somehow my sisters managed to study and my father scraped together the expenses for their marriages, but my brother was not accepted to college due to money problems and I had to do part-time jobs to help make ends meet.
Some thirty years after the massacre, I see that most of the accused continue to enjoy or enjoyed their lives. While the assassins of Indira Gandhi were killed immediately or arrested and executed, and justice was done to her, Indira's son and her successor Rajiv, for whom the killing and burning alive of thousands of people was just “a shake of the earth,” was honoured, posthumously, by the government as a Bharat Ratna (the highest civilian award of India) – although no one can say what his contributions to India were, except that he was the son of Indira Gandhi. The Congress Party leaders involved in the massacre won elections and become ministers in central or state governments. Police officials were promoted. All this is well-known to all.
On the other hand, the victims of the 1984 riots, those who lost family members, their businesses, their friends and social life, their roots, their careers – in fact, the golden days of their lives – continue to struggle, though they are doing so bravely.
In literature, one expects poetic justice to be done at the end of a story, but I am sorry, there is neither poetic nor natural justice at the end of this one. I am therefore ending it with some unjust words: that I still hope for a world where we become human to the extent that every text, whether fictional or real, will conclude with poetic justice.