The 30th anniversary has passed by — almost unnoticed — of the days when Delhi was engulfed in the tumult of the bloodiest frenzy of communal slaughter after the Partition riots, extinguishing over 3,000 lives. Ganga Kaur, who lost her husband, brother-in-law and four nephews in the carnage, sighs, “Every time November returns, we remember. This history will only die with us.” Like many widows of the carnage, her tears refuse to dry.
Yet “the official memory of 1984 is a blank, erased slate,” rages journalist Nilanjana Roy, “wiped tapes where no voices speak…commission reports that nobody was to blame, nobody would be blamed”. “The important thing,” writer Pradip Krishen adds, “surely, is to remember” it is immoral to just “move on”, “to gloss over the terror and coordinated cruelty”. In her personal battle against our collective forgetting, Gauri Singh has compiled a luminous heart-breaking booklet of her photographs of the widows’ colony in Tilak Vihar, with testimonies, narratives and poetry.
We gathered in Delhi to collectively remember 1984, as ageing widows wept, with dignity but with fury. The spectacular failures of the country’s criminal justice system to prosecute the leaders of the carnage have left their wounds raw and unhealed, even after decades. Many courageously and tenaciously offered witness in open court, but none of the leaders of the massacre were punished. Darshan Kaur, who testified against Congress leader HKL Bhagat, recalls being offered Rs 25 lakh to retract her statement in court. She refused with the words, “Bring back one of the 12 family members I have lost and I will consider your offer.”
Their unassuaged wrath stems also from the organised nature of the massacre that felled their loved ones. Roy recalls: “They had time to create their organised massacre. Time to buy chalk (to mark Sikh homes), to cyclostyle voters’ lists, to organise the necessary supplies. … The end product of this organisation, this careful, unspontaneous massacre, was bodies and blood and then, decades of amnesia and an unspooling list of things undone. FIRs that the police had not filed. Cases against politicians that never went through the courts. Eyewitness accounts blanked out and erased.”
Gauri’s little book contains testimonies of the widows and their children. Darshan Kaur recounts, “I have seen nothing of life. I have only cried. But still, you may have noticed, none of us is a beggar. I trekked 35 kilometres to work every day (to save money), but I have not begged.” Nothing had prepared these mostly unlettered working class women to face the world alone. But they fought valiantly, often heroically, to raise their children and grandchildren battling profound loss, memory and penury. Gopi Kaur was given a job as a water woman in Kailash Nagar. But “I never knew how to take a bus, had never stepped out of the house… I would first be dropped by my brother, then my son. In the bus I would go crazy, crying right up until Daryaganj.”
Pappi Kaur was only 15 when 11 members of her family was killed, and she hid under a heap of corpses to escape the rampaging mobs. Today she lives by making electrical sockets. Manjit was just a month old when his father, grandfather and three uncles were all burned. His mother died of cancer, and he dropped out of school, to work as a driver. Auto-rickshaw driver Gurdayal says, “My father and two brothers were both killed in the 1984 riots, and here I am, uneducated, trying my best to make ends meet.”
Many of their children, especially sons, now middle-aged men, could not cope with gruesome memories of the brutal ways their fathers were killed, and fell into mental illness and drug addiction. Bhaggi Kaur, who lost her husband in 1984, now mourns her son, who took an overdose of painkillers eight years ago. The widows lamented, “Our lives lie in ruins, as do those of our children. If we can see any hope in the far distance, it is that maybe our grandchildren will one day be able to see a little happiness.”
Few could believe that the great sprawling metropolis of Delhi in free India was capable of such unbounded cruelty. Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta is not alone when he says he has never forgiven this city.
And yet, alongside this, what is often forgotten is that 1984 witnessed not just the lowest depths of cruelty to which this city has fallen. It also marked its finest moment of collective compassion. Students, home-makers, teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors and many others joined hands to constitute the Nagrik Ekta Manch, which saved many lives, ran relief camps, offered empathy and healing to bereaved widows and children, helped file police complaints, testified and compiled citizens fact-finding reports, formed peace committees and fought hatred in the streets and in their homes.
Sengupta was a school-boy of 16, when he saw Sikh men being burnt alive; he recalls that he suddenly grew into a man. He volunteered for many months with traumatised children. Uma Chakravarthi and Nandita Haksar prepared what remains the most truthful unflinching account of this shameful organised massacre. Teachers like Mita Bose and home-makers like Jaya Shrivastava and Lalita Ramdas stepped out of their homes and colleges to run relief camps and document the massacre. They recall running house to house for donations of clothes and medicines. Some people opened their purses, other slammed the doors declaring, “They deserved this.”
It was Delhi’s deliberate amnesia and indifference to the lives mangled by that great frenzy of collective hate which paved the way for other massacres in other cities. If hope still endures, it is only because of the wonderful collective compassion which this city demonstrated twice, once to offer home and solace to the Partition survivors, and once for those broken by the 1984 carnage. Maybe if we find that compassion again, we can rediscover the lost soul of this uncaring city.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal