Those were black days, bloody days, full of a strange fear of death. A choking sensation rose from the earth to the sky, like a black cloth smothering all.
It was the month of November. The beginning of the month. The year was 1984. The city had been in shock, stunned, since 31 October. The woman who had ruled the country for so many years, the woman who had launched an attack on Harimandir Sahib at Amritsar like Abdali, the woman who had treated the country as her private property, that most exalted empress had been assassinated.
Of course assassination is deplorable. Reprehensible. Particularly of that woman who had several sensitive layers in her soul too! The woman with large eyes which seemed to announce that she was in control of the universe, the woman with beautiful little feet and nimble hands, the stunningly beautiful and intelligent woman who made friends with Castro and any American President with equal ease, the empress of her times.
But in this country it has not been uncommon for kings or queens to be assassinated.
Here a king often imprisoned his own father, murdered him, chopped up his own brothers, and then proceeded to rule the country.
This country also saw the assassination of the man who was popularly known as the Father of the Nation, a secular nation.
But after any such assassinations, death did not hover over the defenceless and innocent citizens of the nation.
This time in the Black November of 1984, people were being killed openly, out in the streets. Hoards of people, instigated and guided by their leaders, roamed the streets and bylanes of the city, shouting slogans. Hoards of people hunting for men of a particularly community, and slaughtering them. Raping their women in open streets! With their children looking on indumb awe.
Homes were looted, burnt. People slaughtered.
All this had happened before too. Exactly like this. When the father of this empress had agreed that this country be partitioned, cut into two, and that too with a blunt knife. Then also, a savage madness had the people in its grip. Then too homes had been set afire, like now. Then, too, people had knives driven into their abdomens. They were disembowelled. Their intestines pulled out of open gashes lay in blood-soaked puddles, or were scattered on the naked roads, in the fields, and on footpaths.
Then, too, fear, like a vulture, had hovered and circled over the cities and the villages.
Today, thirty-seven years later, the same thing was happening all over again.
I had closed all the doors and windows of the house and sat inside with my daughter, Arpana, on 31 October, and the first three days of November.
Our neighbours destroyed the name plate hanging on the gate downstairs. They telephoned to reassure us: “Don’t worry. We are here to protect you.”
But when thousands were being murdered in the colonies across the Jamuna, it was not possible to remain locked up, like cowards, in the house.
It had been announced on the TV and on the radio that the military had taken charge of the law and order situation in the city. But if the military was guarding the city, how would we able to leave the house? We would have to cross the bridge over the river to get there. Surely we will be stopped. They will ask what business we have there ….
We would try. We would see how far we could get. We could not remain holed up, cowering inside, while people were being killed on the streets, their heads bashed with iron rods, drenched in petrol and set on fire, alive. Being burnt with kerosene-filled rubber tubes and tyres around their necks. Their homes torched.
When women were being smoked out of burning homes and sexually assaulted right there, next to the bodies of their sons and husbands. Right there on the naked streets, covered with blood and mud, these atrocities were being committed.
Entire crowded bastis were being devastated. Already in the grip of death and poverty there was no recourse for them.
In the midst of this murderous outrage, to think only of our own safety was immoral. Unethical.
On the TV and the radio there was a constant replay of the last words of the slain empress: “ … Every drop of my blood … Blood! … Blood! … Blood … !”
We, my daughter Aparna and I, set out from the house. The driver was a bold neighbour Manoj, a Hindu, and I felt that the fact of his being a Hindu would be a protective shield for us.
That year the winter seemed to have set in early. We decided to take some food with us — packets of tea, sacks of sugar, milk powder, and some blankets. We turned towards Azad Market to get the blankets because that is where the thick army blankets are available in abundance.
As we were about to turn into Paharganj from Chitragupt Road, right in front of the Paharganj Police Station, we saw a large mob shouting in frenzy. The slogan they were raising was: “Khoon ka badla khoon!” — Blood will be avenged with blood!
As our car crawled past this crowd, I felt choked as though a lump of ice was stuck in my throat.
This was terror!
A primeval fear!
The fear of death …!
A numbing fear that my daughter, sitting beside me, could be dragged out by the hooligans ….
Having got the blankets, we crossed the bridge across the Jamuna. We saw no soldiers, nor any police. There was no official there. No military, no police! Nobody in uniform!
Nor could we see any turbans. There was no Sikh out on the road.
Proceeding slowly, we reached the Gandhi Nagar School. A police truck was parked outside the gate, and there were two or three policemen relaxing in it, drinking tea, gossiping.
Inside the gate there was a flood of humanity. So many people! All of them huddled in the school building! So tightly packed that a needle couldn’t have got through. Terrified, they stood in stunned silence. They were crowded in tight bunches, filling all corners, crammed in that dust-laden space with their backs to the walls.
Women, children, men, and old people.
It seems someone deep in the crowd recognised me. He raised both his arms, and in a tearful trembling voice said with a heartrending puddles: “Bibiji ! Not wail of blood! Now there are wells filled with blood.”
Perhaps he had read my article after the attack on the Golden Temple — “Puddles of Blood”.
Hardly five months had passed since then. And
There was no room for the car, but they insisted: “Bring the car inside, just inside the gate. Who knows what will happen outside? Someone will set it on fire ….”
They squeezed closer together, everyone shrinking back perhaps an inch, till there was enough space for the car.
What amazing people! They had lost everything themselves and yet they were concerned for my car.
We unloaded the car. They said: “There is no need. The langar is constantly going on. We have enough to eat. You shouldn’t have taken the trouble ….”
Behind the school building, in what used to be the playground, huge fires were burning under large choolahs. On one, daal was simmering, and on the other rotis were being made.
“But how do all these provisions get here?”
“Oh! There is one Kishenlal ji. Morning and evening he brings sacks full of daal and atta. All the shops are closed. But they say he begs or borrows, or just breaks open to locks of shops and brings the stuff. We have to survive somehow … and there must easily be ten or fifteen thousand people here! Kishenlal ji has taken it upon himself to see that we have enough food.”
Human beings were being slaughtered, but humanity still survived.
In the playground field at the back, some fifteen or twenty badly wounded persons, mostly with burn injuries, were lying on the bare, dusty earth. Only one person had something under him — his wife’s dupatta. She herself, her head uncovered, sat huddled next to him, hugging her knees to her chest, sobbing.
In the morning these people had been taken to a hospital in the police truck but the hospital authorities had refused to admit them saying, “Those hooligans will burn our hospital down.” ‘Those hooligans,’ meaning the attacking mobs.
There were some with severe burns on their legs and arms. Others had their heads crushed, and yet others had broken limbs. It was a terrifying sight. There was a strange helplessness. A shocked, numbing fear. An abject resignation.
We came back to Connaught Place. Bought bottles of Dettol, bandages, tubes of antiseptic creams, and returned to do whatever we could to clean and dress their wounds.
And then, for the first time, I felt a revolting stench in the air as the wind changed direction. Obviously all these people, having been cooped up like so many chickens in a basket for so many days, had to relieve themselves somewhere. The building was enclosed from all sides apart from the gate which was open, but no one had the courage to go out.
This was a ghetto! This is how those Jews must have lived, hiding like frightened rats from the atrocities of the Nazis, and taking refuge collectively in derelict towns in Poland and elsewhere. Terrified of death, they had sought shelter in underground sewage pipes, or in man-hole tunnels, or in deserted attics.
When it became dark, we left that place to drive straight to Khushwant Singh’s house. It was 9.30 p.m. No relative or friend is allowed in Khushwant Singh’s house at this time. His home is closed for visitors before 9 o’clock.
But this was a day of doom. This day all rules and laws had broken down.
Khushwant opened the door.
I don’t cry in anyone’s presence. But that night… the shock of the whole day, the helplessness, the fear, the horror, they all poured out of my whole body, shaking with tears of heavy grief. Heavier than any burden human endurance can carry! With my head resting on his shoulders I sobbed loudly, helplessly. And Arpana silently wiped her eyes with her dupatta.
I told Khushwant everything. He listened in stunned silence. I suggested to him: “Next to the Gandhi Nagar School building, is the building of Shyam Lal College. All schools and colleges are closed. If you can speak to the Lieutenant Governor and ask him to get the College premises opened, these thousands of people will get some space to sit, or even stretch out.”
Khushwant said he had been trying to reach the Governor for three or four days. But these days, whether it is a minister, a police officer or any government official including the Governor or the President of India, there was a standard response: “Sahib is not available.”
These days no one was available, anywhere. No one seemed to exist. The secretaries repeated like parrots “Sahib is not available. Gone for a meeting”.
And that was the truth. The whole country was caught in the eye of a storm. A swirling, black whirlwind.
It was not dust that the wind whipped up, but blood.
The sun had vanished. And the sky itself was hiding behind a bloody veil.
“I’ll try again,” Khushwant said. ‘I’ll phone again at night. I’ll call his residence. Can they possibly do anything worse than what has already happened? And what do I have to lose? For two days I took refuge at the Swedish Embassy, with my entire family … We returned home today because the government announced that the city has been put under army rule, and nothing will happen now….”
“The army? We didn’t see any signs of the army the whole day! Hardly a furlong away from the Gandhi Nagar School, a mob killed twelve people! We were witnesses! Helplessly looking on from a distance! And something must have happened in Paharganj too, because a bloodthirsty mob had collected there. We passed by them. We crossed the Jamuna bridge four times…. and there was no military anywhere. Take care of yourselves! Keep the doors and windows closed.”
It was about 2.30 that night when it occurred to me that an extremely nice doctor, a top cardiologist at the Medical Institute – Harbans Singh Wasir – was the personal physician to the President of India, Giani Zail Singh. It doesn’t matter how blinded a person can be because of his rank and position, or how weak, he cannot ignore his doctor.
So I called Dr. Wasir. “Please tell Giani ji to at least get Shyam Lal College opened for these refugees. And, Harbans, if possible, please ask him to get fifteen or twenty temporary lavatories built. And the same number of cleaners…. Let them at least dig pits in the ground. There is a real risk of cholera breaking out. Can you send an ambulance there? Some people are wounded. Just lying there in the dust with open wounds… They could get gangrene! The wounds can certainly turn septic.”
I don’t know whether it was because of Harbans’ efforts or Khushwant’s influence, but on the third day the rooms of Shyam Lal College were opened, temporary lavatories were built, and the cleaners were also deputed.
For the wounded, Harbans sent not only an ambulance but also a team of doctors.
Some artists, social workers, and theatre people came together to form a group. They would meet early in the morning in Lajpat Bhawan which was a central collecting point for food, clothes, shoes, blankets and quilts. They would sort them and send out vans with the provisions to different make-shift camps in the city.
Arpana and I also joined them. The group worked systematically, and the service and help they rendered was therefore more effective.
None of these people were sentimental or emotional. They were motivated by a deep compassion for their fellow human beings. They didn’t weep or cry like me. They were like soldiers in battle. Leaving the comfort of their homes, away from their loved ones, they were committed to the common cause of safeguarding humanity from the onslaught of barbarian bloodthirsty hooliganism.
The gates of Shyam Lal College were opened. The rooms were also unlocked. But no one was willing to go there, leaving the safe haven of the school and stepping out onto the narrow street between the school and the college. To step out onto that street was to step into the dark kingdom of death! To go out on the street meant that they would be at the mercy of the murderous mobs. To be out on a street was to invite danger! To walk into a seething cauldron of trouble.
What a strange age! When man should be petrified to go out in the street, just outside the place they were huddled in!
“Let’s break down the side wall of the Gandhi Nagar School, and make a corresponding opening in the side wall of the College, so that people don’t have to cross the road.” I suggested.
“But the police … ?”
There were two policemen sitting on the raised platform under a tree in the back yard of the school. I took them aside and spoke to them. “We have to do this! How much money will you want?”
They hesitated slightly. They didn’t speak for about five seconds, and kept looking at each other. “But what if the school and college authorities object later…?”
“Don’t worry about that. It is my responsibility to have both the walls repaired.”
I paid them. Then they said, “What if you don’t get them fixed?”
I showed them my Press Card and also gave each one my visiting card.
“Do me a favour. The police truck that is parked at the gate, please park it at the head of the street. We will close the gates of both buildings. Should any attackers come, they will have to come from the lane, and you will be guarding the opening there. Then there won’t be any danger.”
I knew very well that in those days the biggest danger was from the police itself, because every bloodthirsty mob was accompanied by a protective unit of police. It was in such police jeeps that jerrycans of petrol and kerosene were carried to those settlements where the mobs set people on fire and burnt down homes. Policemen too were among those who looted and raped.
In fact in some places the police had gone in first and collected all arms – mostly kirpans and sticks and occasionally a revolver or gun. They said that it was in the interest of keeping peace. When the people had thus been disarmed, the screaming mobs attacked….
The massacres were done in the style of Ghengis Khan or Taimur within the knowledge of the police and with their blessings.
But what blessings? They said these were the orders they had received ‘from above’! But then in this country there is always a reward for any favour done. From the constable to the minister, from the peon to the Prime Minister, everyone dispenses favours to those in need, and collects their own share. Showering favours! And grateful thanks given for every such consideration!
These attacks were different from the attacks of earlier times – whether Ghengis Khan, Taimur or Nadir Shah. Those people were fired with personal ambitions! They were conquering kingdoms, expanding empires, extending their territories – even though they, in the pursuit of glory and victory, marched through rivers of blood.
These attacks now, merely displayed naked savagery, and were proof of their own basest beastliness.
In the depths of my being I felt historical memories being revived. These attacks, these murders, were like those committed by the Nazis, methodically, and in cold blood. Armed with lists of names, they used to ferret out the Jews. They pulled out people – men, women, children who hid like mice – from gutters and manholes, and then separate them on the basis of their usefulness. And then send them to concentration camps and gas chambers accordingly.
Six million Jews were murdered.
And today, when I write after years of the bloodbath of November 1984, hundreds of thousands of people are being killed in Bosnia, Sarajevo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan! It has been going on for years.
And in my own country, the blood-soaked pages of Bhiwandi, Malyana, Gujrat, Mumbai, flutter before my eyes, the pages of which history will always be ashamed.
And in Punjab and Kashmir, and Assam and Bihar — everywhere it is overcast with dark red clouds of blood.
And the soul-shuddering memory of Nagasaki and Hiroshima still makes our hair stand on end.
Man! The supreme creation of God! In whose heart the barbaric animal is still alive, screaming for blood!
Anyway, the walls of the School and College buildings were broken to give those people a little bit of more space. Even so, there were still about fifteen families in each room. They spilled over into the verandahs too, and into the open compounds as well.
For almost a month, we – Arpana and I – stayed there from morning till midnight.
On the seventh day, Mother Teresa’s missionaries brought tins of milk powder and biscuits for the women and children.
They spent the entire day, day after day, feeding the hungry children and tending to the sick.
On the tenth day a tent was pitched. And a short, fat man, an officer of the government, occupied it. Half a dozen policemen hovered around him day and night.
The first thing he did was to put a lock on our store room. The room in which we put the things we ourselves had bought, or collected from friends, relatives, and neighbours. Things like blankets and quilts, stocks of food and medicines.
We got to know of it at nine at night, the time that we would go from room to room and distribute blankets and quilts as required. It was done very systematically. First lists were made. Then blankets collected from the store would be distributed. Groups of workers were in charge of separate wings. Each of them was responsible for taking care of the refugees in his wing.
When the lists were ready that night, we went to the store to find it locked, and an armed policeman guarding it.
“Who has locked this?” I asked in shocked surprise.
“Sahib has.” The Sahib’s agent said arrogantly.
“Sahib? What Sahib?”
“He joined duty today. He is a Government Sahib.” He offered casually.
“Where is he?”
“Find out from his office.”
“Where’s the office?”
“There, in the tent.”
In the tent another couple of armed policemen were relaxing, their legs stretched out resting on a tabletop, as though they had come to a wedding party.
“Where is Sahib?”
“He must be somewhere here!” They replied nonchalantly, as though to say, “Get lost!”
“Here, where?” I was beginning to get angry, and a little bold too because some of our people had also reached there. They whispered in my ear, “Be careful! These sons of bitches can be nasty…. they could also throw us out. Those who get people killed, can do anything!”
“All they can do is kill. So, a few more will get killed!” I was furious.
I shouted: “Tell us where he is! He is not in the camp … we have just been around it.”
“Then he must have gone for dinner. It’s dinnertime. He has to eat, doesn’t he?” one of them snapped back.
We waited for two hours for him to return. When he came, he was chewing paan and reeking of liquor.
“Are you the in-charge? The new in-charge?”
“Yes. I am!” he thundered at us.
“And where were you till eleven o’clock?”
“I’m not answerable to you,” he replied in English.
“No. You aren’t answerable to anyone! You are the Government. The Government is….”
“What do you want?” he snarled.
“Why have you had the store locked?”
“Why shouldn’t I lock it? I am in charge of this camp.”
“That’s obvious. With all the security you have for yourself! You must be a senior officer. Have you inspected the camp? Have you done any good to anyone? Have you registered a single complaint, a report? Have you appointed anyone to trace the missing members of any family? Nothing! All you have done is to lock the store….! And you have come after TWO hours, chewing paan…!”
“I’ll have you arrested for insulting a Government officer….”
“Yes. Why not? You can arrest me, you can get me liquidated – in jail or outside! I am fully aware of your power. You can do what you want, but right now unlock the store.”
“The store will NOT be opened!”
“The store will definitely be opened, and NOW!” I retorted and produced my trump card–my Press Card. “Here! You can note down my name and address. Arrest me whenever you want. But first open that lock. Not even a pin there belongs to the Government. Everything in it has been bought by our own money, money earned by our own labour, not bribe money!”
He looked a bit shaken as all this went on in front of his subordinates. He had the lock opened, but said softly, “I’ll see to you later!” It sounded both a threat and embarrassment.
In this camp there were ten to fifteen thousand people who had ten to fifteen thousand stories to tell. And there were as many stories from the camps at Trilokpuri, Uttam Nagar, Shahdara and their adjoining colonies. I will tell you only three of them.
One woman sat in the corner of one room, her four children huddled around her. Whenever we urged her to go to the langar for her meals she would simply shake her head.
“Food for the children? Milk?” The response was the same dejected “No”.
One day passed. Two days. Three days went by.
By that time she was no longer sitting. She had sunk to the floor, lifelessly, helplessly. Her children clung to her legs and belly, digging their knees into their stomachs, their heads drooping.
“She doesn’t eat herself, nor does she allow her children to eat. What should we do?”
We brought in people from other rooms to find out if anyone knew her. Perhaps someone from her own colony would recognise her. At last we found one man, who went and sat next to her and talked to her: “Bibi, get up. Have courage. You are not the only victim … everyone has been hurt.” The woman opened her eyes a little, and then started crying uncontrollably, loudly, helplessly.
“Let her cry. If she cries, only then will she be able to see her children. If she cries, only then will she think of feeding them.”
Then that man told us that on the night of 2 November the mobs had attacked her colony.
“They had dragged her husband out into the street, hit him with iron rods and then put petrol on him and burnt him alive. His shrieks pierced holes in the sky. Her eldest son remained inside, hiding behind a big tin trunk. “She took the other children and ran out into the street…. The neighbours pulled her and her children into their home and hid them.
“The mob then set fire to her house. She was frantic and tried to open the door again and again. “Where is my Sohan? Let me go! Let me go and get him … they’ll butcher him….”
“When the mobs departed shouting in victory and intoxicated with glee, the neighbours brought all of us, including this woman and her children, to this camp….
“She had gone in the middle of the night to her house looking for Sohan, her son. There was still smoke coming from the house which looked like a gaping hole, burnt to ashes.
“In the compound she had found Sohan’s half burnt body. She thought that the dogs would find it and eat it. So she spent the rest of the night pulling down the remains of half-burnt doors and windows, and tried to burn the corpse of her son.
“We heard of this later when our neighbours told us she had gone to them to borrow kerosene oil and matches.”
This poor woman who pulled out bits of half-burnt wood to cremate the body of her half-burnt son! What else can happen to her?
The woman continued to sob uncontrollably. We brought water for her. She drank it. We put a plate of food before her. She broke a morsel with her trembling fingers and put it in her youngest child’s mouth….
I’ll tell you the second story.
In the verandah, there was an imposing, handsome, middle-aged man and his family. Next to him was his pretty, plump and impressive wife, and a young son whose hair was cut like grass. This is the Sardarni’s story.
“The factory was burnt. The house was robbed and then burnt. The neighbours hid us. When they brought us to the camp they begged me: “Bibiji, save your son’s life! Cut his hair.” So I cut his hair with these, my cursed hands …”
She wept bitterly.
Then wiping her tears with her dupatta she continued.
“The factory and the house don’t matter. The Guru bestowed them, and He has taken them back. He knows best… He will look after us. He will grant them again. But Kaka’s hair! Haaye! How I used to take care of them! Washing them with fresh curd…! So beautiful, so thick, so silky. Such lovely golden brown hair!”
The third story is about a very old man who sat in one corner of the verandah. He had sat there for almost a week. Sometimes he would doze off leaning against the wall, his mouth slightly open, his white beard quivering as he shivered with cold. His eyebrows were shaggy and white. He was wearing an old kurta pyjama and his head was bare, covered with white hair.
We tried talking to him but he kept his eyes closed. At times though we could hear a soft murmur, ‘Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru.’ And he would sigh.
We found out that both his sons were auto-rickshaw drivers. They didn’t come home for two days. When his colony was attacked, he brought both his daughters-in-law and their children to the camp somehow–hiding and running to evade the attackers.
After two days the daughter-in-law left, saying they were going to look for their husbands.
“And the children?”
“I don’t know whether they’ve taken them along, or left them with somebody. How to find them in such a crowd … ?” And his voice faltered.
At that moment I thought of Darji, my father. If he were alive he too might be sitting in a corner, just like this. His white beard would be trembling just like this old man’s. I thanked God that he had passed away before he could see all this!
“Bapuji!” I touched him gently, “Please take this blanket. It is cold.”
“No. Give it to a needy person.”
“But what if you catch cold and get fever?”
“It will be good. I have nothing to live for.”
I left the blanket next to him anyway. The next day it was exactly where I had put it. We tried our best but he would accept nothing, neither clothes nor the blanket.
On the seventh or eighth day I took a white turban for him. For a minute he looked at it. Then he looked at me. I don’t know what it was about that look but I felt a searing heat. Even now sometimes at night I feel it shooting through me.
He accepted the turban with trembling hands. Slowly he unfolded it and, crumpling the width of it with both hands, started tying it, one fold after another.
When he had finished he looked at me again. Two tears spilled over from his eyes. They trickled down the creases in his cheeks leaving a trail of wetness, and disappeared into his beard.
– Translated by Satjit Wadva