Monday, 2 November 2009

Violence By Any Other Name

Sunil Varma has left a comment on my previous post and he has said something very relevant and interesting in the end. “I just feel we forget very easily and conveniently some aspects of this country's tragic past.”
How very true. Everybody is now remembering Indira Gandhi for being this great leader, and trying to gloss over the fact that her economic policies and his dictatorial/dynastic side did more harm to the country than good.
We keep remembering the 2002 riots in Gujarat but forget the Godhra massacre, which sparked it off (I am not justifying the Gujarat riots or the inaction of the Narendra Modi government. It should have anticipated the riots and taken steps to prevent it. It is as guilty as the Congress government in 1984 was.) As for the human rights brigade and the left-liberals, the less said the better.
In college, I was one of these human rights types – admired PUCL etc because of the opposition to the Emergency and the fact that eminent people like V M Tarkunde, Nayantara Sahgal and a lot of leading anti-Emergency types were associated with it.
But I got cheesed off with the entire human rights brigade when in all those years on the TOI desk, processing news about terrorist killings in punjab, I never saw any criticism of killings by terrorists though the human rights activists were always quick to flay fake encounters and even real ones (though i don't justify fake encounters). That’s still happening – in Jammu and Kashmir, in the Naxalite heartland, in the NorthEast. Not one prominent human rights activist has openly commended Kashmir’s Rukhsana who killed a LeT commander or condemned the retaliatory militant attack on her house three days back. Left liberals rant against the Salwa Judum (a vigilante citizens force set up to counter the Maoists) but are silent against killings by the Maoists. On top of that, they urge the government to open a dialogue with these people on issues of development. But when the government says ok, stop violence, let’s talk and the Maoists reject that offer, they are silent.
I once argued about this with someone years, years back and was told that terrorists/militants etc are not responsible individuals, they function outside the system and that it was pointless to criticise them. What utter balderdash.
But there’s one point on which I differ with Sunil. “Whilst the Prime Minister of India has apologised for the carnage that happened after Indira Gandhi was assasinated by those who were supposed to have protected her with her own life, has ANY sikh ever apologised for the countless Hindus that were killed by the extremists in Punjab?”
The Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi before him apologised not as individuals but as symbols of the Congress Party whose top Delhi leaders were instigators of the anti-Sikh violence.
But expecting individual Sikhs to apologise for killings by terrorists is to brand the entire community as having supported the terrorist movement. Which they didn’t.
Can the same argument be extended to the Congress Party – that is, the entire Congress Party was not to blame for what a few individuals in it did? No, it cannot. Because a political party is a more cohesive unit than a community and therefore has more control over its members. Because even though everyone in the Congress knew what was going on, the violence continued for three days. Because after the violence came that unpardonable `jab ek bada ped girta hai, to dharti hilti hai’ statement by the new Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. And above all, because the perpetrators of those killings continued to be rewarded with plum posts by the Congress Party.
The entire Sikh community never identified with the Khalistan cause or had any sympathy for the terrorists. Sure, the extremists got local support, but it was from a microscopic minority. Often food and shelter was taken by terrorists from Sikh families in the villages at gun point. The bulk of the support for the terrorists came from NRI Sikhs sitting safe in Canada and the United States and from Pakistan.
So yes, maybe members of the Babbar Khalsa, the All India Sikh Students Federation, the Khalistan Liberation Army (these are some of the names I remember from those days) should apologise, but not ordinary, individual Sikhs. They were also victims, though the violence was being done in their name.

Two Days I Will Never Forget

One journalist had recently written that nobody can forget where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Mrs Gandhi being shot. I remember too.

I was on morning shift in The Times of India and had popped into the cabin of the late V.D.Trivadi, the satirist and in charge of the middles section of the edit page, and Gautam G.S. Vohra, assistant editor and now a development activist. Someone (I don’t remember who) opened the door and said news had just come that Mrs Gandhi had been shot. We came out and moved to the teleprinters. Some of us young sub-editors smirked - `another attack drama?’ we wondered. Some years earlier, a stone thrown at her during a public rally was termed an assassination attempt. But no, this time it was for real.

The rest of the day went in a blur. A special edition had to be brought out, the teleprinters clattered without a pause. I don’t remember very much.

But there’s another thing people in Delhi will not forget – their first experience of/encounter with the anti-Sikh riots. Riots? Hell, no. It was a one-sided, targeted, cold-blooded massacre.

It was November 1. I was on morning shift again, which started at 9 a.m. I was on a 703 or 704, from Janakpuri to ITO. As the bus stopped at the red light on what is known as the Lajwanti crossing on Jail Road, we saw massive crowds on the road leading from the Delhi Cantonment railway station. No one had a clue what was happening (there were only small reports of Sikhs being attacked in South Delhi in the newspapers). Someone thought some train had got cancelled. And then the import hit us – several men got into our bus. “Koi sardar hai kya?” There were none. I quickly lowered my hand which was on the bar of the seat before mine and covered the kada I wear on my left wrist.

As I looked out of the window, I saw a middle aged Sikh man with his old mother on a two wheeler and the mob chasing him. He drove towards some office – it was probably a municipal corporation office or part of the Tihar Jail complex – right on the corner. But the employees there wouldn’t open the gate. There was fright on his face as he tried to speed away. The light turned green and my bus turned. I don’t know what happened to that man and his mother. Did they get to safety? Did the mob get to them? That picture haunts me to this day.

I reached office without any further incident. It was only towards afternoon that the magnitude of what was happening began to strike us. Cars were sent to pick up people in later shifts. When my shift got over, I was sent home in a car with someone else who had to be dropped home, crack reporter Ravi Bhatia (now deceased) and a photographer, probably Chadha saheb.

The images will never leave me. Panchkuin Road furniture shops being looted. “Gaadi rok, mere ko bhi ek chair chahiye,” Ravi joked, as only he can. We all laughed but all of us were shaken to the core.

I couldn’t believe that the ghost city I was driving through was the city I was born and brought up in. Burnt vehicles, still smouldering, blackened shopfronts.

The Kirti Nagar timber market was up in flames – we could feel the heat in the car. At one point, a lone policeman armed with just a lathi (a lathi!!), trembling with fear, flagged our car down. `Don’t go further, there’s violence there.’ With me in the car, Ravi and Chadha saheb decided to take another route. Near Naraina village, we saw a group with a Congress flag chanting that now famous slogan - `khoon ka badla khoon’.

And on the Delhi Cantt flyover – Janak Setu – the most horrifying sight of the day (for me, that is) – the half burnt body of a Sikh, his hair spread out.

And as we turned into Janakpuri from Jail Road, there was a huge poster that had been quickly put up – We mourn the sad loss of our beloved Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It had been put up by Bakshi Properties – a known property dealer of the area and a Sikh.

Did that get him immunity from the rioters? Some said yes, and some said no. I never came to know.