Remembering November

The feeling of being outnumbered during a State sponsored killing is the most depressing and demoralizing feeling one can experience in his or her lifetime. Whether it is the anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe or the anti-Muslim riots in India, we as Sikhs felt the same way during the violence in November 1984. When the mobs went past our house, I still remember seeing some of our neighbors across the street inciting the mob. People shouted slogans that you never thought would ever hear, things like 'blood for blood' or 'kill the snakes'.

Neighbors with whom we had spent so many years together celebrating Diwali, Holi and other festivals were now behaving in a completely different manner. No one came for help. In those early hours of the anti-Sikh carnage that erupted in Delhi and other parts of India, we were saved because of pure luck. Mobs were carrying printed lists of Sikh homes and businesses. Maybe our house was missed or was ignored. That same mob went and burned the Gurudwara down the road and we saw the smoke billowing out for days.

November 1,1984 was a bright sunny day. I was 12 years old and was studying at the ground floor room, and around 10 am we started hearing people shouting slogans outside our house. We went out to the verandah and saw at a distance an old Sikh man being pulled from his scooter and beaten and his red turban yanked and thrown on the road. At that age, seeing an elderly Sikh man being beaten was my first experience of witnessing violence. The man was spared as he quickly pulled his scooter and sped away.

Then a neighbor's servant went to the road, took the turban and threw it into a nearby drainage and I still clearly remember the expression of "heroism" on his face as if he had conquered Afghanistan by doing this dastardly deed. Mob passed in front of our house, and my mother asked my father to go inside so that they won't recognize his turban. It was on this day I realized we were somehow different or "other" from the majority.

Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are one family and I strongly believe in that sentiment not only because of how I have been brought up but also because of our shared social and historical experience in secular India. But when you see violence being perpetrated in such a large scale then one is forced to think about survival amidst the social and political apathy. Human instincts for survival kicks in at that point. Tactics and strategies of how to avoid being slaughtered race through one's mind. What can we do to be safe? Where can we hide? Who do we call? On that day we had nothing to protect ourselves with other than a registered two-bore rifle with couple of bullets. Our close Hindu friends called us and gave us assurances. One close family friend who was a retired Air Force officer came and stayed with us for an entire day. There are so many stories of Hindus and Muslims protecting Sikhs and for that, as a community, we are forever grateful to those brave souls.

For days we went to the balcony and saw the fires around our area. We could hear the distant screams and the nights were even more scarier as there was no sign of police for days in our neighborhood. May be not having the police around was a good thing as they were mostly involved in the riots and were directing the mobs to attack the Sikhs. We were at the mercy of our neighbors and hoping no one will point to our house next time when a mob passes by. After few days, the neighborhood setup a vigil to guard our street and by November 7th onwards the military trucks started appearing on the roads with Gurkha soldiers. It reminds me of the Gurkha soldiers escorting the refugees from West Punjab during Partition.

When any riot starts, it doesn't happen suddenly. It is planned and organized for days in advance and it only requires a manufactured event to trigger the plan in motion. The actors are then supported by the incited masses who provide the collateral help in carrying out the killings. The supply of kerosene, the printed lists of people to be killed, the directions to the police not to interfere, and gradual breakdown of law and order allowing known criminals to lead the mobs are just few of the documented activities that the government or their sponsored goons or party workers use to start the riots. And these riots are always one sided, it is never two sides fighting each other. It's always one side being hit by the full force and power of the state machinery.

Another thing to note is that being the only minority family in a neighborhood is never a good idea. Regardless of how the majority community treats you in the "normal" years, it is the "abnormal" years that should worry you the most.

The aftermath of violence left a permanent mark on the psyche of people who had experienced it first hand. In this recent article by S.P. Singh titled 'The Comfort of Objects', the journalist walks the streets of Trilokpuri, Delhi and talks to the survivors of the November 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Here in a very heart wrenching narration of the events, he links the ordinary objects such as electricity poles with the outrages that took place during those days. He writes,

"Gradually, the tale started to trickle in. A few neighbours told her bits and pieces of it over the years. It was with the pole that her grandfather was tied, killed and burnt. Death came upon the family as the pole watched. When, years later, Nazar Singh was to finally tell her daughter what had happened, he let it slip in little snippets, but first insisted that they all sit near the pole.

In her most poignant moments, the daughter would often stare at the pole, sometimes almost silently talking to it. She knew one fact for sure — that the pole knew much more than even her father Nazar Singh Fauji does.

Nazar Singh was away at his workshop in Mehrauli when an angry mob had pulled his father out, stabbed him and burned him. Since then, he said he had often stood near the pole and wondered why it happened.

At 22, Nazar Singh Fauji lost his mother. He refused to leave the house next to the pole and move to Tilak Vihar's resettlement colony. He told me he could not have left behind a family member.

I could understand.

It wasn't a safe area to leave a witness, that, too, a family member, to the horrors of an apathetic state all alone at the mercy of blood thirsty hounds."

Remembering the events of November 1984 is also important as it can be used as a reference point to remember the much larger carnage that took place some thirty seven years earlier. Survivors of the partition violence often speak of similar events and with the passage of time those events are still fresh in their minds as if they had happened just yesterday. You see, the passage of time should not be used as the barometer of measuring the importance of a particular event and whether it even matters to us today in our present day and time. Some would argue that we shouldn't dwell on those past events but the Sikhs felt the same way in 1984 and thought that after partition they would never have to deal with such violence again in their lives. But they did. And the sad irony of the riots is that some of the individuals who were involved in inciting the violence were themselves refugees from west Punjab.

To make a better future for our children, there's only one thing that would make their lives better and that is building a country that accepts diversity and tolerates religious differences. That the majority of the population is secular, educated and bans those politicians who play one community against the other. Those who stay silent are complicit in empowering hatred which is then ultimately used against each other. We don't want people who are silent and complicit, we need more protectors than attackers. Only those countries that use these tenets as a foundation for their social and political discourse will succeed in the 21st century. The rest will crumble from their own ignorance and failures.

The sum total of the "good" done by the government and the society in general should far outpace the sum total of the "bad" that is done by the government and the society. As long as the country maintains this healthy ratio then it is at the right track. In other words, we should have more protectors rather than attackers. However, when this ratio is skewed the other way where the bad outpaces the good then either it is time for you to get out of the country or vote in enough numbers to bring in the necessary change.

The term "good" can be defined as how a society and the government treats the most vulnerable in our society. The children, the poor, the women, the minorities and those who are physically challenged. It also represents how we treat education in terms of schools and providing access to education for all. How we treat the environment and the democratic institutions, whether there is proper access to food and healthcare are some of the important factors that make up the basic foundation of a successful nation. Also these parameters make up the Human Development Index that is published by the UN (Link to HDI India).

Here's a discussion on how the 1984 riots impacted the psyche of the Indian citizens and how political parties use the communal card to create divisions among the people. Sometimes it seems we have learned nothing from partition.

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