Kanwaljit Singh was 16 years old in 1984 when he managed to escape a frenzied mob baying for Sikh blood in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri after the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Over the years, the memories had dimmed and he had learnt to move on in life.
Thirty years later, the memories have come gushing back.
Kanwaljit had lost two brothers in the 1984 riots--both were burnt to death and their bodies never found. The two ended up in the list of dead; over 350 were killed in one block of Trilokpuri.
His lane was littered with bodies but his was one of the very few Sikh families that did not leave the colony. “There were bodies everywhere. I remember loading burnt bodies and body parts into trucks. The lane was full of burnt limbs, hair and blood,” he recalls.
Thirty years later, Kanwaljit has packed off his two sons, aged 8 and 21, and has told his wife Simranjeet Kaur to be ready to leave at short notice. His sons, Sarabjit and Ranbir, now live with their grandmother, a few miles away.
For the past one week, Trilokpuri has been on the edge after clashes between Hindus and Muslims. "In 1984, all communities had joined hands to attack us and raised slogans of Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai, Sikh qaum kahan se aaye. Old wounds have reopened. I see my brother’s faces when I look at my sons," he says.
His neighbour, Harminder Singh, hid in a trunk for three days at a neighbour’s house. His sons survived because they shaved and cut their hair. They live like 'Hindus' even today but are not sure how much longer they’ll be able to stay on in Trilokpuri.
"Earlier, one block used to fight with another but suddenly all 36 blocks are on the edge. Each community is protecting itself. In 1984, a Muslim saved our home and Balmikis saved our lives," recalls Harminder. "We moved to a relief camp for two years in 1984... we hope we don’t have to move out again."
It doesn’t help that Trilokpuri has become increasingly criminalised over the years. Kanwaljit has neighbours who he says deal in illicit liquor and smack. "Earlier, there used to be a long queue of people waiting to buy liquor just outside our house. It's shorter now because there are many more peddling drugs and booze."
Another factor hasa dded to the heightened insecurity. Residents across community lines swear there is tension for one reason or anothereachtimeelectionsareon the anvil. The former BJP MLA, who lost to an AAP candidate, has been named in an FIR. The police are set to question him for holding meetings on two occasions over the last week.
Kanwaljit sums it up: "Trilokpuri was agitated in 1992 after the demolition of Babri Masjid but quietened down very quickly after two hours of stone pelting." Tension has been rife for over a week now and this time he is not sure. "I cannot become a riot victim for the second time. My tenants left two days ago saying, we don’t want either the Hindus or the Muslims blaming you for renting out the first floor to us.”
The rent helped him survive. Both his wrists were slashed in 1984 and he had to give up his job as a mechanic. His older son has just picked up a job. "How long will I keep them at a relative’s home? I searched every relief camp for three months in 1984 but gave up after a lady told me that she had seen my brothers being burnt. I can’t be searching for my sons this time around. And it won’t even be because we are Sikhs."