On the afternoon of October 31, 1984 – I remember studying on our flat rooftop, under the canopy of the old giant tree that stood next to our home, tall enough and aptly positioned to provide just the right shade for my desk, chair and lamp – my make-shift eco-study-room.
We lived in Indore, a city located in the central part of India, several hundred miles south of its capital, New Delhi. My parents had moved here when I was just a month old.
I heard my buddy, Sapan, calling and waving at me from his third floor apartment porch that overlooked the roof of our single storey house. His body language conveyed a sense of urgency.
I ran to end of the roof closer to his house. A side street separated our homes.
“You don’t have to kill her anymore, she is dead. Her Sardar (Sikh) bodyguards roasted her.”
I could see him feeling important, delivering a very important piece of news. His tone had a bit of accusation in it, though.
I still remember the enormity of emotions that engulfed me. And I shamelessly admit that pride and relief were some of them. Fear was natural, but an afterthought.
June of that very year – a mere five months earlier – flashed in front of my eyes. I remembered when my maasi (mother’s sister) was visiting us from Delhi. All the way from the train station to home, she was silent and could barely hold her tears, her face flushing-hot. As soon as she walked inside, she had let go into a wail.
Words poured out: “Darbar Sahib (a.k.a. Harmandar Sahib or The Golden Temple in Amritsar) was attacked, the army killed thousands of innocent Sikh visitors, the sarovar (the pool surrounding the main shrine) turned red with blood…”
They had heard the news of the army assault on The Golden Temple on the train, as they were headed to Indore to visit us for summer. To add insult to injury, they had to bear taunts from their co-travelers in their train.
For days and days, we talked about what had happened in Punjab. Hurt, humiliated, enraged. We heard the neighbours, schoolmates, newspapers justify the attack and declare victory over the so called “secessionist” agenda of the Sikhs.
“If you have to live in our country, behave yourself, live with your head bowed low …” a shopkeeper had told me once, after I picked up and paid for provisions.
I had remembered telling Sapan how I felt like taking revenge upon and killing Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, who had ordered the attack on the heart of Sikhism, the Darbar Sahib, alongwith some 40 other gurdwaras throughout Punjab. I was a 15-year-old who wouldn’t harm an animal, but Mrs. Gandhi – she was a monster for me.
“Did she have to launch a full scale army attack to get to a few armed men who roamed about freely and even appeared before the media just a few days ago? What happened to intelligence services? Everybody knows that the Darbar Sahib has four doors, and is always open to all. Anyone could walk in and request a meeting with Sant Bhindrawale (the Sikh religious leader accused of rebelling against the government) and his men. [As Harry Reasoner of CBS’ 60 Minutes had said, only a few days before!]
“And was it a mere coincidence that she chose to assault us on one of our primary high holidays, the very day we were commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjan – who died while upholding freedom of religion, for all? Even on a normal day, the visitors numbered in tens, if not hundreds of thousands, coming in from all over the world …” – I would argue with him, on and on.
The most important center of the fifth largest religion in the world had been attacked and how adeptly she had managed to plan it, concealing the enormity of it and later trying to justify it, barring the international press and human rights groups from the province way in advance of the assault.
The intentions of the so-called “Operation Blue Star” were clear as crystal to me, even 25 years ago. It was meant to create the semblance of national unity by creating a national enemy. What better than, under the ruse of moving to preserve the “integrity of India”, actually consolidating her own political power by launching a war against this enemy?
I don’t think my friend understood my rage.
His sources were the newspapers that would describe Sikhs generically as terrorists, preparing for armed rebellion to declare their homeland free. They also reported isolated incidences of violence against innocent bus travelers, followed by pictures of brave police officers boasting alongside a dead “Sikh terrorist”, lying down next to purported “automated artillery”.
Yet, my cousins from Punjab would tell me how the police would pick up young Sikh boys and stage fake encounters, kill them and plant weapons on them to make them look like armed terrorists. There were news reports later – but hidden in the back pages – of cars found abandoned with turbans and fake beards hidden in their trunks! The media did not dare to draw conclusions!
Sometimes, our arguments would heat up. I remember beating my friend one day when he lost an argument and resorted to insults. I was taller than most boys my age, athletic and hot-headed. He just liked to test my muscles from time to time; we were still the best of friends.
Dad had come home early, as soon as he read the news in the evening tabloid. A dark cloud hung over our heads. We spent the evening glued to the TV and calling our relatives. The news of “revenge against Sikhs” had started to trickle in, alongside the swearing-in of Mrs. Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, as the new Prime Minister of India.
The next morning, we were violently interrupted in our breakfast as a loud brick flew in through our living-room window, pelting shattered glass all over.
A mob of about 20 was outside the courtyard gate, hurling bricks and rocks at our home, chanting slogans like “Sikhs are traitors!” “They killed our Mother!” and “Blood for blood!”
The one-time dictator of India who had, only a few years earlier, unilaterally dissolved the government, censored the press … and had herself, as a result, been charged, convicted and imprisoned for crimes of corruption and seen as a tyrant by Indians and the rest of the world alike, had suddenly become a martyr and the Mother of the nation?
The mob quickly dispersed after a few minutes of terrorizing us.
Daddy quickly got on the phone to call his police-officer friend. Strangely, he was nowhere to be found, either at home or at the police station. Daddy kept calling him through the day and leaving urgent messages.
Finally, the phone rang. I jumped up, anticipating Daddy’s friend. But it was not him. The voices were unfamiliar, clear and stern. They addressed me by my name.
“We are coming to your home soon. We will … you in front of your mother, your father and your brother … hundreds of us … before we kill you all”.
The language they used made the term “gang-rape” sound sophisticated. I couldn’t exactly process all the words, but the message managed to terrorize one who was generally referred to as a “tomboy” and “fearless” – me! Perhaps it was their calm and authoritative tone of voice – conveying that they meant business – that got to me.
Who were they? How did they know it was me who had answered the phone, and not my mom, not my sister? Dad looked at my pale face, my shaking hands, and grabbed the receiver. He heard the last bits and pieces and figured what was going on. He yelled at them; they hung up.
The calls didn’t stop throughout the day. Each time, they would tear the already scary silence that had pervaded the space of our cozy home. We had no choice but to answer the phone – in anticipation of help from the Police.
In the meanwhile, after trying him for the hundredth time, Dad got DSP Bhadoria on the line. “I will send you some security”, he had said.
The security never showed up. But the mob did.
This time, they came with more bricks, as well as torches, in their hands. They hurled the bricks first, broke more windows, jumped over the locked gate and set fire to our car and the scooter. They damaged the electricity panel outside and cut off the supply into our house. And quickly, they disappeared again. They were probably testing if we had any weapons. We didn’t and Dad was regretting not having anything to protect his family with.
We called the fire department, in vain.
As soon as we felt safe, we rushed out to put off the flames with the garden hose. None of the neighbours came to help. The street was quiet and deserted, as if nobody lived in that area. It was getting dark and as soon as the fire was put out, we locked ourselves inside, hoping that it was over, still naively thinking that the police and the fire department would show up any minute to help us.
When the realization occurred that we were on our own, we started cooking up some defence strategies if the mob were to show up again. We knew we wouldn’t last long. My sister was only 13, my brother 11. Mom was no good to put up a fight. She had never even raised her hands on us.
Running would be an option, but where to and how far? Why weren’t the neighbours worried about us? They surely saw the mob the last two times. Why hadn’t anybody called to see if we were okay?
All the while, we were hoping that it was over and the government would act by now. They may be a bit slow, but how could they let an innocent law-abiding family be treated like this? After all this was India, the biggest democracy in the world, a country that boasted its secularity and diversity. A country for whose freedom Sikhs had laid down their lives for centuries, first against the Persian, Turkish and Afghan invaders, and then against the British. A country for whose defence they still fight today and sacrifice in an enormously huge proportion, given their small population ratio.
Little did we know that it was the government who was sponsoring this program against its own people. Later, we were to find out that even the Sikh members of the Armed Forces who were riding the trains that day were dragged out and set on fire.
The sun was starting to set and silence of the dark got scarier. Smoke was seen in the distance and occasional telephone rings chilled our bones.
The calm before the storm did not last long.
They were back before long, over a hundred in number this time around, armed with bricks, torches, metal rods and machetes. We were surrounded from the front and the side. Before we knew, some had jumped the gate, broken the front door open and entered the living room. There was another door that separated the living room from the hallway, that led to the bedrooms on each side and the kitchen towards the center back of the house.
Dad yelled, asking us to jump off the back-wall behind the kitchen’s courtyard and to run for our lives, while he rushed to shut the hallway door in order to get us some time.
The rebellious teenager that I was, I refused to leave him. I was his strong warrior, the second line of defence. I joined him as he held the door handle from the hallway side, trying to shut it.
We found the mob already at work on the other side. The three young men leading the mob had got hold of the door and started pulling it in the other direction, trying to get to us. We knew it was over for us. We only wanted to delay them so my sister and brother had a chance, and they needed at least one parent.
Blood-curdling screams of “Kill them! Get them!” filled the space, alongwith the glowing light of the torches, the flashing iron-rods and machetes and, above all, the deviously criminal, shining eyes of the mob. The door went back and forth a few times between us.
It was them, the ones who had called on the telephone. I recognized the tone of the voice, the words, even through all the noise. The struggle went on for a little over a minute.
Then, suddenly, I came face to face with the killers, rapists, plunderers … The scene comes clearly alive even today as I write, this day 25 years after that dreadful day.
Then, something happened, and our bodies switched to survival mode and, together we seemed to be applying a super-human force … Dad and I somehow managed to shut the door and latch it closed.
Our hands were bruised and seemed to have become one with the door handle, but the struggle gave my brother and sister just enough time to jump off the wall and escape. My weeping and terrified mother was still desperately trying to climb the six-foot-high wall, but kept falling back over to our side.
We picked her up and literally dumped her on the other side in a split second. Dad and I were working in unison, as if we had coordinated each action to the second and practiced the drill several times beforehand.
The poor thing … Mom fell flat on her belly. And I, most unexpectedly burst into laughter. We didn’t know whether I was laughing at the crisis or whether I had gone insane. But later, to my relief, I learnt that nervous laughter is not an unusual response to a sudden shock or crisis.
The ground was much lower on the other side, where the little hut belonging to the neighbourhood Jamaadaars (toilet-cleaning workers) stood. I jumped over next. Helped my mom, dragging her to the home across the narrow street on the left.
I could see the torch-bearing mob slowly trickling into the side street, but at a safe distance. And then Mrs. Jain flashed out of her darkened house, grabbed us, shut the door, shoving and locking me inside her bedroom. I fell to the floor in exhaustion, and then blacked out.
When I woke up, I remember struggling with Mrs. Jain. I was trying to grab a knife from her kitchen to go back outside in order to look for my brother, sister and Dad. She was somehow prepared for it. Perhaps, because she was familiar with my temperament. A few months ago, I had beaten up her son (who was a couple of years younger than I) for harassing my little brother and messing with his patka (turban). When the door bell rang at our house that day and she appeared with her bruised and bleeding son, Vikas, I knew I was in big trouble.
But an educated and cultured lady that she was, she had brought Vikas to my home for us to make truce. When she saw my torn shirt, disheveled hair and scratched face, she made him apologize, for he had raised hands on a girl! When she left, she had a smirk on her face and I, a blush of embarrassment; she had probably not met a rogue like me, nor I ever encountered a classy woman like her. Vikas and I remained good friends thereafter.
As I waited, a “prisoner” in her kitchen on this fateful day in 1984, for a few hours I did not have a clue as to what had happened to the rest of my family. I only knew that my mother was safe.
Where did they go; was Dad able to jump? Did the mob get them? Those few hours of my life were some of the toughest I can recall. Humiliated, hurt and helpless … I was crying to be let out. What if they were wounded and needed help?
If someone had killed my family, didn’t I have a right to go after them? But who would I go after? Deep down, I knew I could do nothing but wait … yet, I couldn’t sit still. My mouth was dry with screaming and it took Mrs. Jain’s whole family to keep me there.
Around midnight, one by one, we all finally were united. All five of us intact, but with some minor injuries.
Dad, who did not get an opportunity to cross over the street, was quickly hidden by the jamaadaars in their hut. Fortunately, the mob didn’t expect him to be hiding in a vulnerable, insecure hut or perhaps did not want to venture into the dark shack of the “untouchables”.
The mother had stood outside, calmly consoling a crying baby in her arms, pretending she hadn’t noticed a thing, when a couple of hooligans came looking for us. A small mud wall separated Dad and them; he could hear them questioning her.
The kids were helped by a Christian school teacher in the apartment complex to the right of our house. They had to jump a couple of walls to get there. We all spent the night at Sapan, my Hindu friend’s, home, and watched our home from his third floor porch as it smoldered. Not much was left of our car and scooter.
Apparently, since several of our neighbours ultimately realized that their homes were threatened by the spreading of fire, they finally approached the Fire Department, which then turned up and mercifully put out the flames in our house.
It had taken us five years to build our dream house. Dad was busy running his small transport business, often out of town, so he was always behind in his paperwork. When we moved into this place from a 300-square-foot space, it seemed like a mansion. Most of all, we were happy to be settling down for the first time ever in our own home.
We kids had our own bedroom and spacious bathroom and a king-size bed that we were glad to share. I had even my own racks for clothes and books. There was a small garden in the front courtyard, but most precious of all was the flat rooftop with the shade of the giant tree under which my desk stood; my haven.
All I wanted was a quiet spot to read, and that was it!
Now, in new-found camaraderie, we could see our haven smouldering, with the smoke merging with other smoke clouds emanating from Sikh homes and businesses across the city of Indore.
The city had a decent Sikh population, a cluster enveloping each of the dozen gurdwaras. Guru Nanak himself had visited the city while on his second major sojourn (between 1506 and 1513 A.D.) and a few of those gurdwaras were historical, protecting the places where he had held discourses, enlightening many. They had been established in the 16thcentury by locals who had been inspired by him.
Now those very places were being attacked by the locals, perhaps agonizing the souls of their ancestors who had played host to the great Guru.
We learnt later that the two senior bureacrats (Collector and Additional Collector) of the city that day in 1984 – one was a Christian, the other a Sikh) were instrumental in imposing curfew across the city, thus bringing the mayhem and violence within control within a day, which was much sooner than what New Delhi, Kanpur and other cities in the Northern India had experienced.
A total of 26 Sikhs were officially reported to be killed by the mob in Indore and surrounding areas. [The real figures in India are invariably higher than “official counts”.] Thousands of businesses, homes and automomobiles were destroyed.
No respectable family ever reports a rape in India; hence, none were talked about, although there were plenty of rumours of rape-suicides.
The second day, as news of the curfew order was broadcast, we went back and took a walk through what was left of our house.
The mob had taken everything they could and destroyed the rest. Photographs and sports trophies, the things that mattered to me the most, were burnt or charred. My handcrafted doll that I had made for a craft project was lying there half-burnt, one-eyed, accusing me of desertion.
It was Dad’s first home that he owned in his country of refuge – he had fled here in 1947 from the tragedy and mayhem of Partition. It was my last. Refugees and renters – that’s what we felt we were in India.
“Make something of yourself, get out of this place. This country does not want us anymore”, Dad had said, choking back tears, as I looked at my doll.
The seeds of emigration had indeed been sown. Five years later, I would finish my Engineering degree and apply for graduate school in the United States. One by one, the rest of my family would flee that sad land to join me.
Perhaps he had lost the courage to be displaced again in his lifetime. He was already thrown out of his homeland (West Punjab) when he was a child.
They had arrived in Kanpur empty-handed, along with his extended family – half of them Sikh and half Hindu Bannuwals (of the city Bannu in the Sarhad Province of current-day North West Frontier Province in Pakistan).
A new language, new culture, new country: they had to build their lives from scratch.
I have returned to India a few times since, and every time the plane lands into the inauspiciously named “Indira Gandhi International Airport” at Delhi, the city where thousands of Sikhs were burnt alive, it gives me a queasy feeling.
I want to ask every person in uniform, every taxi driver, every common man on the street: “Where were you in 1984 – in the mob, or hiding in your home, peeping out and watching a neighbour being raped or burnt?”
Then I think of our neighbours – the Jains, who took us in, the Shahs who sheltered us for the night, perhaps risking their lives … and I stop myself.
Till today, I have not had the heart to visit my birthplace, Kanpur. It was in Shastri Nagar, Kanpur (in Uttar Pradesh Province) that three of my paternal cousins – Harjinder, Bhupinder and Khalsa, aged 30, 25 and 20 – were dragged out of their homes and torched alive, right in front of the eyes of their widowed mother who had raised them singlehandedly through extreme circumstances. Their young wives and a little daughter, too, were made to watch the massacre.
The three months that followed November 1984 in that home in Indore were some of the most humiliating days of my life.
A couple of the thugs from the mob rode by on their bicycles every morning, and again in the evening, perhaps heading home from work, right on the street in front of our house. At times, they would run into me and they would utter the same words I had heard on November 1. Their eyes would brighten up with cruel delight as I would squirm, enraged.
I didn’t speak about them to my parents. I knew it was pointless. I did not want to bother them; they were already burdened, rebuilding our lives and livelihood. Besides, who could they complain to? The police?
We had heard by now of how the mob leaders were given positions in the government. Some, clearly identified as criminals, were appointed cabinet ministers in the national government.
How could one seek justice from the very criminals who had committed the crimes? I would often fantasize about killing them, but somehow managed to tough it out for three months.
I jogged a lot and joined judo school instead, taking my wrath out at the opponent on the mat. Two years later, I would win the state championship.
“Deal with it!” I told myself.
We did go to court. The day our case was dismissed for lack of evidence, we all decided that it was time to move on and that pursuing justice was useless.
“Learn a lesson and look forward” has been the motto of my life from then on. I have become real good at running away from negativity.
By February of 1985, four years after we had moved into our much-loved home, we had fixed the damage, repainted it … and then, said goodbye to it. We rented a small apartment in a Sikh neighborhood which had stayed safe during attacks.
There was a little gurdwara in the neighbourhood and as soon as the residents had heard the news of violence elsewhere on November 1, 1984, they had gathered and organized themselves. They had made a human wall around the neighbourhood and would man it for the next three days and nights. They were a bunch of truckers, ex-armed services men, etc., and hence managed to muster a good bit of arms and hardware, including traditional Sikh artifacts from the gurdwara, to keep the mob at bay.
We were back to crummy quarters, about 500-square-feet of space that we could afford. I would spend the five years of my college studying on the rooftop in the hot scorching sun … without the shade of my tree.
Nonetheless, it felt safer, with fellow Sikhs around and the shade of the gurdwara – incidentally, built in memory of Guru Arjan.
This is where my longing to connect to my roots began. To be a Sikh had slowly started to have meaning.
Guru Arjan’s life and martyrdom itself has a lesson for anyone that is looking for any answers and I was begining to see it -“Tera kiyaa meetha laage, har nam padarath nanak maange” – “Sweet is Thy Will, O Lord, All Nanak asks for is the Gift of Thy name”.
My mom, sister and brother hated the move, for this was far away from the “cosmopolitan” neighbourhood and the good school district we used to live in. They resisted and tried to convince us, saying it was a once-in-a-lifetime incident, but failed to convince the two of us.
My mother was particularly afraid of us falling behind in our education and picking up “uncouth language” from the children of the neighbourhood’s truck drivers.
It was my Dad and I who couldn’t live in our former “educated” and “civilized” neighbourhood home anymore, because we had come face to face with the worst of humanity. If we were to have faith in the goodness of Man again, we needed to seek it elsewhere.
My Dad needed to get away from his “friend” in the Police, and I from those evil eyes.