Saturday, October 14, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


Blood-letting in Punjab
By Khushwant Singh

IT was quite some time ago but having lasted 10 years with more than 10,000 innocent people killed, bitter memories linger. People who lived through the nightmare are understandably apprehensive that killings may erupt again. Among the few who stood against the tide of hate that swept over Punjab were Satyapal Dang and his wife Vimla Dang, nee Bakaya. They lived in Chheharta, a suburban township near Amritsar, in the heat of the terrorism let loose by Bhindranwale supporters and protagonists of Khalistan. Not only did the Dangs refuse to seek sanctuary elsewhere, they made Chheharta an island of peace when most of the state was in turmoil.

I heard of Satyapal Dang during my years in Lahore. He was a product of Government College and very active in the students movement. He was elected Secretary of the All India Students Federation. He met Vimla in his student days, fell in love and married her. They made their home in Chheharta and organised its municipality: Satyapal was its president for 14 years (1953-67). He attracted national attention when he pitched himself against Gurmukh Singh Musafir, Congress Chief Minister of the state. I recall the lethal use his supporters made of the filmi song Musafir tu jaaega kahaan? He won the election to the Punjab Assembly by a decisive margin. He held the Amritsar West seat till 1980 and for a while served as a minister in a non-Congress government.

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The Dangs remain the most loved and respected couple in central Punjab. They saw terrorism at close quarters and knew the main characters of the tragic drama. Perhaps it was this closeness to events that deprived them of an objective assessment of how and why religious bigotry and intolerance unleashed by Bhindranwale won so large a following among the Sikhs. Being communists they saw everything through rose-tinted glasses: all evils that befell India were due to a conspiracy of imperialist powers like Britain and continued because of American designs to destabilise India. This is too simplistic and naive an explanation of the division of the country into India and Pakistan. Satyapal Dang in his book, Terrorism in Punjab (Gyan Publishing House), goes on to accuse British intelligence and the American CIA of fomenting trouble in Punjab and Kashmir. "Operation Bluestar", says Dang, "was unfortunate but necessary." It was not. Operation Black Thunder which took place later under almost similar circumstances and was master-minded by KPS Gill saw the loss of no more than two lives, whereas Bluestar resulted in the loss of over 5000 lives and enormous damage to sacred property. He quotes General K.S. Brar who led Operation Bluestar to prove his point. A more juvenile book to justify the Army assault on the Golden Temple does not exist. He ascribes the demand for Khalistan to American agents. It was nothing of the sort: there never was nor is any basis for the demand. To this day none of its protagonists like Simranjit Singh Maan, Ganga Singh Dhillon (US), Jagjit Chauhan (UK), Gurmit Singh Aulakh (US) or any other person has drawn a map of what their notion of Khalistan is. All they do is to castigate the Government of India for discriminating against the Sikhs. No hard evidence is produced in support: Sikhs remain the most prosperous agricultural community of India. Satyapal Dangís book is full of details of events of that turbulent decade but is sadly biased in explaining the reasons behind it.

Is there danger of terrorism re-erupting in Punjab? Wherever there are disparities between the rich and the poor, there is always danger of violence. The gulf between the haves and have-nots must be reduced and employment opportunities provided to boys and girls coming out of schools and colleges. If the situation goes out of hand, stern methods must be adopted to restore normalcy. The state government and the people must lend full and unqualified support to law-enforcing agencies. This was done in Punjab when Chief Minister Beant Singh gave KPS Gill a free hand to deal with terrorists; Gill was able to stamp them out of existence.

Back in the Shivaliks

Vultures may have disappeared from the plains, they survive in the mountains. One morning in Kasauli, sitting in the balcony overlooking my little garden, I counted over 20 of them circling round in the blue sky, then head round the hill towards Monkey Point where they nest on ledges above a steep precipice which plunges down almost 4000 feet on a side-road to Kalka. They may disappear from the hills as well. In Kasauli they were poisoning stray dogs. I saw one which was administered poisoned food on top of a road which led to the entrance of the Central Research Institute which produces serum against rabies. The dog came tumbling down and collapsed near my feet with its legs stiffened in agony of death. I have not yet got the scene out of my mind. Every time I pass the spot, I am reminded of the dying dog. If their carcasses are thrown away, vultures will devour them and meet the same fate. How long will we humans, who have given ourselves the honorific homo sapiens (who can think) title, go on with this thoughtless destruction of other living species?

It takes a day or two to get used to the solitude and all- pervading silence of the mountains. It takes an afternoon or two for the locals to know you are back and then they drop in for some gup-shup. As for the total absence of sounds of traffic and loud-speakers, I can only describe it as defeaning. The sound of wind sloughing through pine trees, the occasional plane going overhead, the siren from the brewery at the bottom of the hill that sounds to summon workers and again when their shifts are over and peal of bells from Christ Church calling the faithful to prayer, are all that I hear in the day. At this time of the year there is very little bird-song. The period of courtship with lusty singing is long over, eggs have been hatched, parent birds are busy feeding their hungry chicks. I hear the raucous calls of a koel chick imitating its foster crow parents to fill its wide-open beak with worms. Even white-cheeked bulbuls and barbets, which call all day long, have fallen silent. I see black birds hopping about among the bushes but they sing no more. I sit out in the garden watching clouds tumble by. They disappear leaving a clear blue sky. Five minutes later they are back, covering the sky from end to end. Occasionally I hear thunder and it begins to rain. Then the sun breaks through the showers and a double rainbow spans a circle from one side of the hill to the other. It is God manifesting himself in his most beautiful incarnation.

Two days of absolute solitude with no one to talk to, besides the caretakerís mongrel named Joojoo, and I begin to miss human voices and welcome a visitor or two, strangers more than acquaintances. I had two in succession, neither of them had I seen before. I was lucky both times. The first was Nagina Singh of the Indian Express, Chandigarh edition. A comely, elegently dressed young lass with a diamond sparkling in her nose pin. And all of nineteen. A no-nonsense young lady who came armed with a photographer. It was a business-like interview about the changes I had seen in Kasauli over the 80 years I have been coming here. The interview over, she shut her notebook and departed. The other was Baljit Virk, teaching in Pinegrove School, not far from Kasauli. I expected a middle-aged, blue-stocking wearing glasses and a stern school-marmish manner. In walked a statueque beauty, wreathed in smiles. She had been an air-hostess, tired of seeing the world and being a glorified waitress. She decided to be grounded and take on English (She has an MA in literature) and sociology. She wanted me to see the manuscript of a second novel she has written. "Just read a page or two and tell me if it is any good." I kept the manuscript: "I will read all of it. Give me a week and then collect it." I did not want to miss the opportunity of another tete-a-tete with the air hostess turned pedagogue. I was surprised with the theme of her novel Jockstrapped. It is based on a young dipsomaniac who drinks at all hours, gets into scrapes, smashes up cars, has affairs with women and does not have to work for a living. I could not understand why Baljit chose to write about a good-for-nothing, foul-mouthed character: she is herself a strait-laced teetotaller of the type in whose mouth butter does not melt. Iíll find out the truth on my next visit.

Curdled definition

Santa invited a foreigner to his home for meal. Among other items it included a cup of dahi. His guest not familiar with it asked what that semi-solid white stuff was. Santa did not know the English word for dahi, so he explained, "Dear, the milk slept in the night, early morning it became tight."

(Contributed by Madan Gupta Spatu, Chandigarh)