Guest post by VIKAS BAJPAI
Sometimes, memories stacked away for long, come tumbling out. If these are not just about personal nostalgia, dwelling upon them could serve some public good.
It was 31 October, 1984. The time may have been around 11 am. I was taking my second term exams for class XI in a room on the ground floor of the science block of the Delhi Public School, R K Puram, New Delhi. Unfortunately, mine was the first seat very close by to the only entrance and the exit for the room. ‘Unfortunately’ because this made seeking the help and guidance of fellow examinees in this ordeal a rather adventurous proposition. Nevertheless, I focussed on the question paper intently, trying to make sense of what was expected of me.
A while after the examination had taken off, the teacher invigilating in our room and other teachers in the adjacent rooms flocked together at the door of our room for a conference of sorts, each having a cup of tea in their hands which had been duly served by that time. Barely a minute or so into their hushed conference, I over heard one of the teachers remark – ‘madam ko to goliyan lag rahin hain’ (madam is being riddled with bullets). I was a bit startled as to what that could mean; but then, I had a task at hand and got immersed in it before long.
The exam was over by 1 pm, and after the answer sheets had been submitted, all students were instructed to remain seated. A while later the teacher announced that the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s condition was not well and that she has had to be taken to hospital. Since the situation could get tense, we were all instructed to go straight to our homes from the school. It took no time for me to figure out who the ‘madam’ was and that the Prime Minister was not ‘ill’, but that she had been ‘riddled with bullets.’ By evening the picture became clearer as details were made public by the All India Radio and Doordarshan, then the only sources of audio-visual media. The picture had also turned ominous and soon metamorphosed into a full scale orgy of death and mayhem.
We lived in Sarvodaya Enclave, a colony in South Delhi, adjacent to the Mother’s International School on Aurobindo Marg, bang opposite to the southern periphery of IIT Delhi campus. The week following 31 October, 1984 is among the worst in my living memory. It was full of tension and strain in the family, especially for me and my brother who is about a year and a half younger to me. Even though the trigger had been provided by the mayhem outside, the reasons for this tension were internal to the family and are directly attributable to the duel between the two brothers on one side and our father on the other. My sister, who was still younger, and my mother largely remained bystanders to this duel.
I wouldn’t say that my father; our feudal lord, is particularly communal in his attitude, but yes, he is a man who generally abides by ‘conventions’; and talking of conventions, it’s been my long-standing impression that there exists a fair degree of permissiveness, systematically perpetrated from the top, in our society to communal attitudes even in the best of our “secular” times. A permissiveness that readily lends itself to whipping up a frenzy depending upon the convenience of political actors of various hues, and other segments of the ruling classes. To say so is not to brand Indians as particularly communal; after all, people following great faiths have lived together in the subcontinent, mostly in peace, for more than a millennium. It is just that communalism like other fault lines of caste, regionalism and ethnicity, apart from class, in our society are of existential importance for the ‘Great Indian Democracy.’ It is this environment of permissiveness which now confronted the two school boys living with their happy family in a two room rented accommodation on the first floor of C 160, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi – 17.
As is pathognomonic of such situations, all kinds of rumours went floating around in the city in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Our colony was no exception. There were rumours of an impending attack on the colony by armed hordes of Sikhs, even though there was no colony around ours which harboured Sikhs in numbers to conjure up such ‘hordes’; rumours of water supply being poisoned in some colonies, and what not. Night vigils were promptly mounted in every block of the colony, and all young boys were drafted for the purpose. My brother and I firmly refused to lend our services.
I do not remember correctly if it was on 31 October, or the day after; it was dinner time. Dinner time in our house also used to be TV watching time, and TV watching for most part meant watching only the news, and strictly so. Our feudal lordship had ordained so. The only exception to this routine was the Sunday movie telecast at Doordarshan, or when a kind neighbourhood auntiji would drop in with her munna-munni with the request to watch ‘Chitrahaar’ (the programme of Hindi film songs initially telecast once a week, and later the frequency was increased to twice a week). But the news was a must for us. Our father always liked his children to be abreast with current affairs.
That evening Kothari uncle, a very close family friend who later became the director of IIT Delhi, came visiting us. He would come over often with his old black coloured Atlas cycle in the tow; and we always loved his visits for he brought with him an ethereal light-heartedness which we felt we were much in need of to break the feudal regime. So, around dinner time, my father, Kothari uncle, my sister, my brother and I – the retinue sat together watching the English news on Doordarshan. My mother was readying the dinner in the kitchen.
Hearing the news all through that week had been an ordeal; news from the audio-visual and the print media, and that which came by word of mouth. It consistently fuelled the tension that hung heavy and low in the air; amply aided by the frustration and helplessness in face of an adversity.
Though not recalling the exact details now, but I distinctly remember that the news reader on the television screen announced – ‘Today, the terrorists blew up a railway line near – so and so – village in – so and so – district of Punjab.’ I do not recall if there was any accompanying loss of lives on this count or not. No sooner was the news reader finished with this news, my father hurled a loud curse at the ‘Sardars’ for what he perceived were crimes committed by them. The ease with which the act of a Sardar, or for that matter a Muslim, or a Christian gets transposed to all Sardars, all Muslims and all Christians is amazing, while the majority community can happily play the victim.
My father’s stigmatization of ‘Sardars’ was notwithstanding the fact that among one of his good friends in the colony was Sardar Amarjeet Singh, the big fat rotund zamindar from Jandiala Guru in Amritsar district of Punjab, whose English tastes edged on to the royalty. He was after all an aluminous of Colvin Taluqdars’ college (a colonial era college built by the British for the education of the children of the British colonial officers, and those of the native feudal gentry) in Lucknow. Lucknow happens to be our native place. Sardar Amarjeet Singh would occasionally come over to have drinks with his Bajpai Saab and reminisce about his days in Lucknow over and over again. We had aptly named his imposing persona – Mughal-e-Azam. Auntiji, his wife, was accordingly named Jodha Bai who was a tall, fair, beautiful and slim, but a theth (typical) Sikhni. Jodha Bai aunty spoke nothing but rustic Punjabi, and my mother spoke nothing but Hindi, often tinged with Awadhi, the dialect spoken in our part of UP; and yet the two could spend hours talking to each other about God knows what.
This communal ‘permissiveness’ is also a strange sentiment which allows people to be friends at one plane and enemies at another, all at the same time. Fortunately for the ‘royal family’, they were away and safe in Jandiala Guru when an old tree had fallen to shake the earth in Delhi.
No sooner had my father hurled his loud curse, my mother called out from the kitchen – “what happened now?” The answer it seems was so straight forward that it hardly mandated any application of mind. He answered back – “Sardaron ne ek aur patri uda di” (the Sikhs have blown apart another railway track). This proved to be the proverbial last straw which brought forth an amazing truculence on the part of my brother who retorted, with aggression writ large on his face – “How dare you talk like that. Just because mummy does not understand English, you think you can tell her anything. What they said on television was that ‘terrorists had blown up the railway line in Punjab and not the Sikhs.”
His fierceness took everyone aback. Every attempt to admonish; to threaten with consequences, met with an even more defiant retort until he was asked to get out of the room. He obliged at last.
I had been weighing the situation quietly, though with alarm, and by implication was seen to have encouraged my brother’s contumacious irreverence. Kothari uncle also seemed to share the opinion. My father tried to succeed where he had failed with my brother. He admonished – “Bikkoo (my calling name at home) – why did you keep listening? You ought to have stopped him as an elder brother. Is that the way to behave with elders? He even disrespected Kothari sahib. Is this the worth of all my efforts to educate you three in good public schools?” He said much more, and I waited until he had had it to his heart’s content. Kothari uncle too fortified the counselling part of the admonition.
I conceded that Nikkoo (my brother’s pet name) could have been more restrained in his expression, but also insisted that the more important point here was not the manner of his speaking, as much it was, what he was trying to convey. I am sure I must have done quite some advocacy of what my brother and I had been feeling about the situation as it obtained then
The fallen tree was consigned to the holy pyre; the shaking of earth, and the murderous orgy it ignited ebbed over a week’s time. In the same week more than three thousand innocent Sikh men, women and children (the weeds, as against the tree, some might say), were relieved from their earthly abode in Delhi alone, by marauding mobs led by prominent leaders of the then ruling party, the Congress. The country wide toll was around eight thousand dead. The newly anointed scion of the ruling party, Rajiv Gandhi, who passed off the cataclysmic events as only the expected ‘shaking of the earth when an old tree falls’ was beatified as the new Prime Minister of the country. He in turn baptised leaders of the anti-Sikh pogrom of his party as ministers in his cabinet among them Jagdish Tytler and H K L Bhagat being the most prominent. Others were elected as members of parliament and legislative assemblies.
The communal carnage of 1984, it seems was not enough to rouse the society to annihilate this Frankenstein of communalism. In the onward march of the ‘Great Indian Democracy’ baseline communal permissiveness has continued to be harnessed religiously to yield handsome dividends for one party or the other of the ruling classes and thereby securing the monopoly of the oppressors on political power. The then BJP president Lal Krishna Advani took out the ‘Ram Rath Yatra’in September – October 1990 and then went on preside over the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 in the presence of other important leaders of the party and the Hindu communal brigade. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the notable exception, but not for the reasons of equanimity or any detachment from the Ram temple. Having incited the karsevaks to ‘level the ground’ in his speech delivered in Lucknow just a day before the demolition, he made a strategic retreat to Delhi in order to be able to enact a charade of ‘unfortunate’ event and offer a facsimile of an apology over the demolition.
Riots followed in Mumbai, Delhi and many other places in wake of the demolition; once again thousands lost their lives. In my living memory, I would call that period of the early 1990s as the first phase of Hindu chauvinist resurgence.
In order to give myself time to prepare for the post-graduate medical entrance examination, I had resigned as a junior resident doctor from Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital and University College of Medical Sciences situated in Dilshad Garden in East Delhi, just before the riots broke out. Riots had affected many areas with substantial Muslim population around our medical college – Seelampur, Jafarabad, Nand Nagri and other localities. I do not remember the exact date now, but it was a late afternoon on one of the days in December 1992. I received a phone call from one of my dearest friends and batch mate Nishith, who was then serving as casualty medical officer at GTB hospital. That particular day seemed to have witnessed a particular surge in casualties due to riots. Nishith’s voice was shaking. He narrated:
“Yaar Bajpai, main tujhe bata nahin saktaki casualty mein kya scene hai is waqt. Police gaadiyon mein lashen bhar-bhar ke laa rahi hai, aur kuch log itne badtameez hain ki main bata nahin sakta. Jab stretcher par laashen aa rahin thi to kuch interns pooch rahe thae ki ka…..a (a cuss word used for Muslims) hai kya?” (My dear friend Bajpai, I cannot tell you what is the scene like in casualty right now. The police are ferrying loads full of dead bodies in vehicles; and some people here are despicable beyond words. When dead bodies were being ferried in on stretchers, some interns asked are these k—a?)
Even though Nishith and I are fully capable of running into each other with as much ferocity as it would take to tear each other apart in an argument on a pet political or ideological issue, but Nishith is a person filled with pristine humanity to his core; a quality that enables him to reverberate with the joy and sorrow of the people around him with utmost sensitivity. He captured the poignancy of the situation for me when he described the plight of a policeman who was sitting in the casualty with two small Muslim children, a boy and a girl, sitting on his either thigh, wailing and weeping, overcome by fear as they were. The children had been orphaned, with both parents having been consumed by the wild fire of hate that raged outside. I do not remember what Nishith told about the mother, but as the policeman with the custody of the kids uncovered the face of the father’s corpse lying on the stretcher, he couldn’t bear the sight, rushed out of the casualty main gate and vomited. The man’s skull had been blown to smithereens.
I am an emotionally labile person. Even as Nishith had begun with the first words of horror, my eyes had welled up and they soon broke down into a torrent. I couldn’t even keep the receiver of the phone in place and my condition deteriorated to that of frank ululation which had my parents worried.
But this time around, there was some leeway to vanquish the grief, at least in part. I had recently come in contact with a group of progressive doctors and scientists, mainly based out of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, who worked in an organization called ‘Delhi Medicos and Scientists Forum’ (DMSF). DMSF had been taking up campaigns on various social and political issues alongside the professional issues of doctors and scientists. I had had a chance to be part of some of these campaigns.
DMSF obtained curfew passes to provide medical relief in the riot affected areas around GTB hospital and a team of doctors, interns and medical students went to the affected localities to provide feasible relief, witnessing the lives broken and property destroyed. Tragedy was simply too huge, and the overt and covert wounds sustained too deep to lend themselves to the efforts of a motley group of doctors and medical students. This was realized on day one itself, and so it was decided to do the doable. DMSF teams went from house to house and along with providing the preliminary medical aid, collected the testimonies of the riot victims, all of which were ultimately compiled into a report on the riots. Except the extent of the violence, its method and pattern weren’t much different from that of the 1984 riots, except that the targeted religious minority community this time around were Muslims. One characteristic of such riots in India is that they are as much the result of ‘studied connivance’ of the supposedly ‘secular’ ruling class parties, as much they are a result of the industriousness of the ‘communal’ ones. The communal permissiveness snugs them all under its wings.
Our report went places; it was indeed well received. To top it all it was accorded due respectability by the union home ministry, under the Congress regime which set up an inquiry into the report.
The interns in the casualty of the GTB hospital weren’t the only ones who were swept off their feet in the fast blowing wind of communal frenzy. There was a very dear professor of ours in the department of Preventive and Social Medicine (PSM), whose lectures opened for us newer vistas of thinking in social role of medicine. He had helped validate many of my leftist ideas. He suddenly started talking of ‘cultural nationalism’ one day. I saw my role model of a teacher fall from the high pedestal. Bearing this can be much more difficult than what most might presume. It is not for nothing that ‘communalism’ is the weapon of choice for the oppressors; after all, it deprives us of our humanity as few other things do. Incidentally, it was this professor who had put me through to my comrades in DMSF. As I gather from a common acquaintance, I am a much despised anti-national to him now.
In the political environment as it obtained after Babri mosque’s demolition, Vajpayee emerged beatified, a saint of a politician, while Advani was the hawk. Then in 2002, Gujarat happened; another 2000 or so Muslim lives were lost; gory tales of rape and mass murder followed, enough to put any civilized society to shame except ours, the ‘Vishwa Guru’ (preacher to the world). In the aftermath of the carnage there emerged new saints and new hawks. The reigning deity attained a higher pedestal by preaching ‘Raj Dharma’ (duties of the ruler), as if that could atone for the sins of Gujarat, just as the ‘sorry’ after the 1992 demolition. The new hawk who rose from the ashes of Gujarat made the earlier one appear as a dove, nay, a ‘saint’; another beatification.
The Kandhamal riots of 2008 against Christians in Odisha remained ever so remote, at least for the glitterati in more happening parts of India. Thousands of tribal people were displaced from their homes, and among those who were killed was an Australian Christian Missionary Graham Staines and his two sons aged all of ten and six years.
More memories and future memories crowd my mind, but we shall put a full stop to memories here.