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November: The saddest month of the year

November will go down in our history as the saddest month of the year because of what happened in November 1984. Mrs Gandhi was murdered a day earlier. And hell broke loose on Sikhs who had nothing whatsoever to do with her dastardly murder. On its heels came the Bhopal gas tragedy. Khushwant Singh writes.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2009 00:42 IST

November will go down in our history as the saddest month of the year because of what happened in November 1984. Mrs Gandhi was murdered a day earlier. And hell broke loose on Sikhs who had nothing whatsoever to do with her dastardly murder: upwards of 5,000 were slaughtered across India all the way down to Karnataka. On its heels came the Bhopal gas tragedy in which over a thousand were choked to death and thousands more maimed for life.

Have these tragedies lessons to teach? Yes, they tell us how to avoid their recurrence. First, let us take a closer look at the assassination of Mrs Gandhi. I have good reasons to believe that she was averse to deploying the army to clear the Golden Temple to rid it of Bhindranwale and his goons entrenched in the Akal Takht. She was persuaded to do so by her advisers who evidently knew very little about the Sikhs, their history and what the Golden Temple meant to them. She was assured that the operation would be over in a couple of hours as Bhindranwale would lay down arms as soon as he realised he had to face armoured tanks and aircraft. As it transpired, the battle lasted two nights and days with heavy casualties of life and sacred property. When Mrs Gandhi visited the Temple two days later, she was shocked by the sight. There were dead bodies still floating in the sacred tank and the Akal Takht was in ruins. Mark Tully has rightly described it as “The fatal miscalculation”. Mrs Gandhi herself should have known that her life was in peril.

Another aspect of the tragedy, which is rarely mentioned, is the cowardly silence maintained by leaders of the Sikh community, both Akalis and Congressmen, against the hateful utterances of Bhindranwale against Hindus and his gangsters pulling out Hindus from buses and shooting them. They were scared of losing their lives because Bhindranwale only knew one way of dealing with critics — killing them. I know because I was on his hit list for many years. This created a lot of ill-will against Sikhs and is the main reason why so few came to their help when they were attacked. It has not yet got into the skulls of Sikhs living abroad. Many gurudwaras overseas have Bhindranwale’s photographs on display and speakers refer to him as a martyr.

All that is now history. What remains is to punish those who took part in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Hundreds have been named by eye-witnesses. Barely 20 have been brought to justice. As I keep repeating ad nauseam, crimes unpunished breed criminals. You can be sure if these criminals are not brought to justice soon, many of those who suffered will take to crime.

About the Bhopal gas tragedy, all I can say is that it was caused by criminal neglect of safety measures. We continue to use sub-standard material in laying roads, building houses and factories. We pay the price for doing so.

Happy Gurpurb

Early morning on Monday, November 2, my phone rings. Since I’m hard of hearing, I ask my servant Bahadur to answer the call. He listens dutifully and tells me: “It’s from Karachi.” I take over the phone and yell, “I’m deaf. Why don’t you write to me?” He tells me to hand the phone back to my servant. Bahadur informs me, “It’s someone called Raza. He wants to wish you Happy Gurpurb.” Then it dawns on me that it is Guru Nanak’s anniversary. I was charmed: a Muslim from Pakistan, reminding a Sikh in India that it is his Guru’s birthday. This is the kind of gesture that would have been endorsed by Nanak since he preached love and understanding between different faiths. His first disciple, the minstrel Bhai Mardana who put his hymns to music, remained a Muslim all through his life because there were no conversions to Sikhism at the time. My caller from Karachi is Raza Parvez, divorced husband of Sadia Dehlavi and father of Armaan; both mother and son continue living in Delhi. It is ironic that Raza is as reluctant to go to a mosque to pray as I am of going to gurudwaras. Nevertheless, I looked for an appropriate hymn of Guru Nanak to send to Raza. I found one entitled Punj Nijajan Vakht Punj:
There are five prayers
Each with a time and name of its own;

First, truthfulness
Second, to take only what is your due;
Third, goodwill towards all
Fourth, your intentions;
And praise of God, fifth.
Let good acts be your creed; persevere with them
They proclaim you are a Muslim,
O Nanak, more false the man
The more evil his power.

Up in smoke

During Premier Krushchev’s visit to America, he presented a box of world famous Havana cigars to President Kennedy, who enjoyed cigars. Though Kennedy accepted the cigars, he later directed his ADC to destroy them as they had come from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a hostile neighbour with whom relations were strained. A few days later, Kennedy desired to smoke some good cigars and he enquired from his ADC, “Have you done away with the cigars?” The ADC, who too enjoyed smoking choicest of coronas, faithfully replied to the President: “Yes, Sir, they have all been burnt, one by one.”
(Courtesy: Col. Trilok Mehrotra, Noida)