October 31st. In the country of my recent residence, it is Halloween. When skeletons tangled in floaty fabric, strategically ripped, pop up at residence-fronts, and ghouls become part of our community. My daughter’s school has planned an extended lunch break for a Halloween party and we have invested some time in designing her costume: fierce, not macabre. I am glad. She is twelve and I am relieved that the ghastly, for her, is make believe.
However, I grew up in India, in Punjab, and 31st October takes me back to a winter morning in 1984 when I had cycled to college as usual, cutting through the fog that floated over from the fields shrouding the streets of our small town. Before lessons could commence we were informed that lectures were suspended and we were to proceed home, immediately. Violence was expected.
That was not unusual, the state of Punjab had been rife with militant activity for two decades. Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, had galvanized an obscure Sikh preacher against the Akali party in Punjab in an attempt to divide the Sikh votes and gain electoral victory. However, as his fame spread, Bhindranwale became the Frankenstein who threatened the very existence of India with his demand for a separate state of Khalistan for the Sikhs. During the Partition of India in 1947 the state of Punjab had been bifurcated and the western part went to newly formed Pakistan, state of the pure. In the eighties, Bhindranwale was agitating for eastern Punjab to be made a separate nation of Khalistan, another state of the pure, where only Sikhs would reside. Ferozepur, my town that straddles the border between India and Pakistan, Janus-faced, was labelled a ‘militant hotbed’.
Thirty years back, on that crisp winter morning in Delhi, the Sikh bodyguards of Mrs Gandhi had pumped bullets into her, raised their hands and proclaimed their deed, convinced they had avenged a wrong. As news of the assassination percolated through the country, Sikhs became the target of communal violence, which, over the next three days, acquired the form of a pogrom. Senior leaders of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress party orchestrated and unleashed terror upon the Sikhs. Electoral roles were used to identify Sikh homes and businesses, which were then attacked, pillaged and set afire by mobs, even as the police were given instructions to stand by. A popular method of killing was to throw a rubber tyre around the victim, douse them with kerosene, and set them aflame. With reports of escalating violence, the Army chief sent additional troops, which the Delhi administration chose not to deploy. People woke up to rumors that evoked the horrors of Indian partition: trains from Punjab were arriving in Delhi laden with corpses of non-Sikhs. ‘Blood for blood’, ran the war cry as marauders rampaged through the national capital. Apparently, the pogrom was internally called, ‘Teach the Sikhs a Lesson’.
Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, briskly assuming the mantle of party leadership, dismissed the pogrom with the facile statement that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. The rest of the nation agreed wholeheartedly with him, soon returning the Congress to power with unprecedented majority. It is estimated that 3000 people died in that violence, mostly in the Indian capital, Delhi. India has instituted nine commissions to enquire into the 1984 anti-sikh violence. And yet, thirty years later, those victims have not received justice. The ‘riots’ have been declared variously to be spontaneous outbursts of grief, or uncoordinated acts committed by low-level Congress workers. The nation swallowed that rationale wholesale - in the last thirty years, the congress party was in power for 22.
After 1984, for the first time India returned a single political party with an absolute majority on its own in the general elections held earlier this year. The BJP came to power, the Congress with a shockingly low tally of seats looks decimated, and India has a new Prime Minister in Mr Modi. Mr Modi’s promise of untrammeled economic growth is touted as his success mantra. And yet, behind this thundering victory lurks a grim parallel truth.
Mr Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when an anti-Muslim pogrom racked his state for three days. It is estimated that 2000 Muslims were killed. Several commissions and enquiries have indicated that the State government was complicit. But Mr Modi was seen to have done something right as his state returned him to chief ministership for four consecutive terms thereafter. He resigned in May 2014 after being elected the Prime Minister.