The Stain of Memory

in potpurri

Rohit Chopra continues the series on South Asia with a reflection on the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Close to three decades after the pogroms, most of those responsible for the violence have not been brought to justice.

In 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards, gangs of Hindus led by Congress leaders fanned out across Delhi hunting for Sikhs. Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L. Bhagat, Lalit Maken, and Jagdish Tytler were alleged, variously, to have had prior knowledge of the attacks, planned, or led the mobs.

The neighborhoods of east Delhi known colloquially as jamnapaar or across-the-Jamuna witnessed some of the worst violence. If such violence, already at the limit of comprehension, can be measured or comparatively assessed.

My mother, brother, and I had stayed in east Delhi in the early 1980s while my father was working overseas. We had lived for a few months in Nirman Vihar, a nondescript colony at the edge of Shakarpur. Shakarpur was an agglomeration of unfinished brick structures that stayed unfinished as the locality mutated into a ever-more dense and crowded iteration of itself, a perfect symbol of east Delhi’s arrested, beleaguered, modernity. We had later moved a mile down the road to C-Block Preet Vihar where my grandparents had built an extraordinarily uncomfortable three-storied house.

There was exactly one shop in C-Block Preet Vihar, which sold bread, milk, eggs, Campa Cola, batteries, and notebooks. For everything else we had to walk to Nirman Vihar or Shakarpur. Right on the border between the neighborhoods, on the northeast corner of the road separating them, stood a small chicken stall owned by a Sikh. Bright orange roasted chickens dangled from the awning above the shop. A movie theater, Radhu Palace, was located down the road.

During the attacks, Sikhs were killed at that intersection. They were dragged by their hair and forced into columns of piled-up tires which were set ablaze. Shops owned by Sikhs in Shakarpur were looted and destroyed. We heard all of this when we next visited Delhi. The chicken stall was gone.

The entrance to the Radhu Palace cinema was stained with blood. Sikhs had been chased there and then killed by a mob in the throes of passionate rage. Or they had been taken there and then killed in cold blood. The truth depended on whether you believed the violence against Sikhs was spontaneous or was planned.

In Trilokpuri, Kishori Lal, a butcher by trade, went on such a spontaneous three-day spree of killing Sikhs, which earned him the nickname “The Butcher of Trilokpuri.”

This was simply the earth shaking.

We heard other stories too. Someone told us that Sikhs had distributed sweets on hearing of Indira Gandhi’s death. Their would-be killers had shared these sweets with them, only to come back the next day to avenge her killing. Then there was that one Sikh somewhere in east Delhi who was given shelter by a family only to turn on them and murder them in their sleep.

It was still wrong to kill them, of course, but they had celebrated Indira Gandhi’s death.

I had been in the midst of a table-tennis championship match in school in Calcutta on the morning that Indira Gandhi was assassinated. BBC had reported that Indira Gandhi was dead though the Indian media, gravely aware of their national responsibility, lingered in confirming her death.  The best player from the other team had stayed away. We were winning– a mere six points away from seizing the inter-house championship trophy–when the match was called off and school was declared shut. When the match was replayed two weeks later, we lost.

I have never forgiven Indira Gandhi for that.

My father came to pick us up from school, my brother and I, to take us home. Trying to make it back to Lake Gardens, we were turned away by mobs at several places. On Dhakuria bridge men holding bricks threatened to smash our car, screaming “bhenge debo boka choda” (we’ll break your car, you dumb fucks). “There are schoolchildren in the car,” my father said, “they have not eaten since morning.” “Schoolbus, schoolbus,” one of them, obviously a leader of some kind, shouted to his minions, his face shining with sweat, “jete de” (let them go).

Whatever you say about Calcutta, they respect education. And women and children.

I learned that mobs are capable of reason.

The image of a concrete compound stained with blood stayed with me for a long time. I imagined the stain growing fainter but refusing to vanish, fading no more beyond a dull pink. I visited Delhi countless times after that, living there for long stretches as well. I always meant to go to the Radhu Palace cinema to see the blood stain, but never got around to it.

What is scandalous about riots in India is not their scale of destruction nor the horror of the detritus of human life that they leave behind. What is scandalous is the speed with which all traces of the riots are eradicated, roads washed and cleaned of blood and hair and burnt flesh, the shards of glass and metal removed even if the burned husks of shops stay burned awhile.

And this in India where otherwise the streets are not cleaned for months.

In January 1993 a second round of Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Bombay, following an earlier round of rioting after the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. “The party’s started again,” someone in the know shouted in the St. Xavier’s College canteen foyer. Someone else shared the information that Lalit, the bar across the Irani restaurant, Kayani, would be open during the curfew that was bound to follow. “Cops have to drink somewhere too,” he added by way of rationale.

Next week people traded stories in the foyer. “We were ready with hockey sticks and crowbars,” said an acquaintance of mine who lived in Prabhadevi, “if the Muslims came from Dubai by boat.” Another acquaintance recalled with amusement the poetic talents of the members of a crowd on Warden road who, as they passed outside his building, were chanting “Tel lagaao Dabar ka, gaand maaro Babar ka” (apply Dabar oil and sodomize Babar [Babar here symbolizing the figure of the Muslim invader]).

And always, the counterpoint. Some Muslim men had raped two Hindu girls somewhere near Marine Lines. Or maybe Marine Drive. I had heard the story several times in the few days that college had been shut.

What alarms me is how readily I believed the rumors about the Muslims as I had about the Sikhs ten years earlier.

I oppose riots. Of course.

Well after 1984 and even 1992, I wound up one Delhi autumn evening in Trilokpuri by accident, near a wall on which was painted a bright pink pair of gums beneath the words “Durga Daant Clinic” (Durga Teeth Clinic). Perhaps the Butcher of Trilokpuri had passed by that wall at some point of time.

A few weeks later, I saw H.K.L Bhagat, on a walk in Lodhi Gardens, surrounded by commandos. I remembered a story, perhaps in India Today, about Bhagat spending his days cowering in fear of reprisal from Sikhs.

At a cousin’s wedding in Delhi that December, I spotted Sajjan Kumar among the guests, difficult to miss. “Wapas aa gaya hai” (he’s back), I heard more than one person say heralding the return of the prodigal from the political wilderness after his troubles related to his role in the 1984 violence. People were lining up to touch his feet.

Visiting Delhi earlier this summer, after seven years, I found a city transformed. I lost myself in Delhi’s buildings, the teeming malls and stalled construction projects of east Delhi no less fascinating to me than the historical monuments, shrines, and ruins of the old city. In a vast, empty three-storied mall, all of two stores were open. A giant poster of an actress who I could not identify dangled from floor to ceiling. Heading over a bridge, my eye caught a tableau of rusting metal shapes twisting up from the ground like the skeletons of giant, monstrous beasts who had died in conference. It was an abandoned water park, a quixotic hope in an area of the city plagued with severe water problems.

Nearly at the end of my journey, I remembered. How much time will it take to get to Radhu Palace, I asked my mother, hoping to be able to make a quick visit there on the morning of the day I was flying back to the US.

They tore that down a long while ago, my mother said. To make a mall.

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