I recall the day, October 31, perhaps a tad more vividly than the scores of news anchors, some of whom I suspect were either my age – 11 years, 3 months and 16 days – and some, whom I believe would probably have been a fond wish in their parents’ hearts. It was quite bright and sunny – the kind of day textbooks said represented autumn. Delhi, three decades back, actually had four distinct seasons, and the skies were actually a deeper shade of blue than the pale grey we are now accustomed to.
Sometime, post lunch, there was a call for a general school assembly – Springdales School, Dhaula Kuan – wherein the announcement of Indira Gandhi’s death was made and a mandatory two-minute silence was observed. After that, school was dismissed, much ahead of its closing time of 2 pm and school was closed for 1 week.
In hindsight, one wonders whether the school authorities at the highest level had some inkling or inside knowledge of the disturbances that were soon going to rock the country’s capital and other cities across India, especially those governed by the ruling political party at the Centre.
The next morning, November 1, was a weather-wise clone of the preceding day. After a leisurely breakfast, hearing some sloganeering, I ventured forth near the bedroom window, which overlooked the main street of our rented accommodation in West Patel Nagar. A passing DTC bus, filled and packed to the rafters with young men, went cruising past, in the direction of the local police station, about 500 metres from our house.
The slogans were distinct, in Hindi: “Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” (we shall avenge blood with blood). It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the reference to blood was of the slain prime minister.
Again in hindsight, that a bus belonging to a government-run service could be commandeered such brazenly, and would have had to pass by the police station on its way, but not stopped, seems, to say the least, a trifle bizarre in a democracy.
I remember my father, a few years older than what I am now, in his typical rush of blood, going charging to the window and shouting and daring the men before being pulled inside by my very worried looking mother, who immediately shut the windows and bolted the doors.
Then, it was quiet for a while. Only for a while.
The hind part of the house, overlooking the service lane, also gave an eagle’s eye-view of the main road – smoke was billowing out of a few shops and a bus, which had the name tag ‘Singh Travels’ on it, was being furiously ransacked before being set aflame. The irony came out later: the bus was owned by a non-Sikh. So much for the spirit of vengeance!
What I saw with my own eyes was a free for all being indulged by young boys and men with sticks in their hands, breaking the shops’ shutters, decamping with the expensive goods. Of course, it wasn’t that all shops were being targeted – only those which we knew whose proprietors owed allegiance to a certain faith.
In hindsight, the mob quite obviously had prior knowledge of who owned which shop.
Back on the main street, the front of the house, a growing din could be distinctly heard. Shoved behind the curtained window by my mother, even as dad was examining just what possible household goods could be used as weapons of offence and defence, I caught a glimpse of a swarm of armed men, till as far as I could see, led by a man I recognised as the owner of the neighbourhood fruit juice shop.
It was just as well that we had never availed of his home-delivery services, for his furious inquiries about the ownership of a Fiat car parked in the driveway was stonewalled by a neighbour who claimed it was hers and had parked it in front of our house due to paucity of parking space at her residence.
I wonder what would have happened if those quirks of fate hadn’t intervened – had we availed of his home delivery services that would have familiarised him with our residence, had that lady not had the presence of mind to falsely claim that our car was in fact hers…would I have been writing this piece?
Of course, there was another twist that probably saved us and many others. Among the row of houses across the service lane, was the residence of a retired Sikh army officer, who owned a ready-made garments showroom in the front part of his bungalow. Based on hearsay, this is what happened: when the mob attacked his shop, the gentleman beseeched the crowd that if all they wanted to do was to ransack his shop, they were more than welcome, but if they so much as cast a glance at his residence, he would be forced to put to use his licensed .303 calibre rifle on them.
Taking it as a dare, the rioters decided to call his bluff and barged in to the house, only to be greeted by bullets, which is when rumours that Sikhs in the vicinity have not been disarmed spread and the mob quickly retreated and dispersed.
In hindsight, one is a more than a bit puzzled as to why licensed firearms and swords were collected by the local police authorities? After all, it wasn’t the Sikhs who went on a rampage through the streets of Delhi.
It’s close to 29 years – passions appeared to have cooled down, especially for those of us who didn’t personally bear the brunt. For those who did bear the brunt, several of the survivors have moved on – either physically or metaphorically. At the end of the day, fighting for justice doesn’t really light the kitchen fires and fill up hungry bellies.
Funny thing is, while Qutubuddin Ansari became the face of the Gujarat riots, where incidentally 1000 people died, compared to over 3000 in 1984, the defining image of 1984 riots continues to be smouldering shops and a burning bicycle – as if no humans were torched alive. Where exactly was intrepidity of the media? Perhaps in mourning along with Jagdish Tytler.
As for me, I rose to become a wishy-washy sort of a guy, venturing into journalism, where the cardinal rule is never to let your emotions get the better of you. But sometimes, the passions get better of your senses. The rage rises, the blood boils when blatant lies are paraded on prime time news by an accused, and one wants to have a go at the other community. Perhaps that rage is born out of the impotency felt by an 11-year-old reared on heroic tales of valour of religious icons.
But every time reason starts to take a flight and generalisations come home to roost, I am reminded of that Hindu woman neighbour, a mother of three daughters, whose lie about our car probably saved the day for us.
The anger subsides, and my sanity survives for another day.
Part of the Indi-blogger tribe