Sunday, November 2, 2003

Remembering 1984

Come November and people remember its fourth day. That was the day when the anti-Sikh genocide occurred. And recalling that brings back memories of 1984, the year it all happened. It was a year that scarred a nation’s soul. It was a year that witnessed Operation Bluestar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the anti-Sikh genocide and the ascendancy of Rajiv Gandhi as India’s Prime Minister. It was a year that will be remembered for decades to come. This is what I remember of 1984, recounts Rajinder Puri.

I WAS a freelance journalist and wrote a regular column for Bombay’s Sunday Observer. Jitendra Tuli, a former journalist and close friend, was working with WHO. He approached me and asked if anything could be done to defuse the tension in Punjab. Apart from journalism, I had dabbled in politics, and focused somewhat on Punjab.

"Of course," I snorted. "If the government wants to, it can easily settle the dispute!"

"I knew you would say that", he said. "Rajiv Gandhi would like to settle it. Would you meet him?"

"Has he said that he wants to meet me?" I asked suspiciously. Over the years my articles on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had not been exactly flattering.

"Yes. He really does want to solve this problem! If you can be of any help that would be great!"

We agreed to meet with Rajiv. There was no question of my visiting him of course, or of him visiting me. We decided to meet at the residence of a mutual friend of Tuli and Rajiv, Romi Chopra. I had a nodding acquaintance with Romi. Some years earlier I had an office in the same building where he worked as an advertising executive.

I met with Rajiv, Tuli, Romi and his father at the latter’s residence. The elder Chopra had worked in the protocol division of the External Affairs Ministry. He had been acquainted with Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In spite of the deference with which Romi and his father treated Rajiv, it was clear that Rajiv had affection for both. He protested but weakly before polishing off mushrooms on toast plied to him by Romi.

The atmosphere was cosy. To make conversation, we talked of this and that. There was a brief reference to Farooq Abdullah. Rajiv said that Farooq wanted to meet him, but he was not sure if he should. He said this with a thoughtful frown. It seemed to me that he was enjoying his role and hadn’t yet got over becoming a political celebrity. I remember talking about panchayati raj with him. He wondered if villagers were yet ready to govern themselves.

"That’s the only way they will learn to fight the mafia that exists in each village and district," I said. At the mention of the word, mafia, his head jerked and his eyes swivelled towards me . It occurred to me then that we use the word loosely. With his Italian connection he understood something quite different by it.

We finally talked about the subject that had brought us together. The reference to Punjab was brief. He said that Mrs Gandhi would accept any reasonable solution proposed by Bhindranwale and Longowal. "Try and get something quickly," he said. I assured him that I would. I promised to contact him immediately on my return. On that note we parted.

I had met Bhindranwale only once before. At that meeting we had a long discussion after which I wrote a column on the subject. In our first meeting Bhindranwale had been at great pains to say that he was not a terrorist. The Press continued to describe him as one, he said angrily. "Will you write that I am not a terrorist?" he had asked.

"Yes, I will", I said. And I did. Bhindranwale gave me a long account of how the government had discriminated against the Sikhs because it refused to appoint a commission of inquiry despite dozens of Sikhs being slaughtered by the Nirankaris at the Mehta Chowk incident.

For my meeting to be useful I knew that it would not suffice to meet him as a journalist. Bhindranwale had to be alerted about the mission on which I was coming. My elder brother, Prikshat, was a general in the Army. He was Engineer-in-Chief at Army Headquarters. Bhindranwale’s elder brother, Captain Harcharan Singh Rode, was posted at Jalandhar and served under Brigadier Sukhi Randhawa, also of the Engineers.

I asked my brother for assistance. He telephoned Brigadier Randhawa who explained the problem to Captain Rode. The captain agreed to help. He said he would alert Bhindranwale about the purpose of the visit. Then he would personally escort me to the Golden Temple where Bhindranwale was staying.

Through another political channel I had arranged to meet Longowal. He too had been briefed about the purpose of my visit. Both Longowal and Bhindranwale stayed in different parts of the Golden Temple complex. There was smouldering hostility between the two. The Akalis had appointed Longowal to lead the struggle against the government.

Captain Rode left me in the waiting room and went inside to confer with his brother. Within minutes he returned and asked me to enter and meet Bhinranwale. "Take all the time you want," he said. He warmly shook my hand and left for Jalandhar. After my meetings with Bhindranwale and Longowal I would return by train to Delhi. I had earlier checked into a hotel for an overnight stay.

Bhindranwale was alone in the room. I told him about my meeting with Rajiv. We talked for over 70 minutes. He summoned all the demons that tortured his mind. There was a conspiracy to eliminate and subvert the Khalsa, he said. Otherwise why would the Hindu government in Delhi have protected the Nirankaris? The Nirankari Guru insulted the Guru Granth Sahib, he said. He sat at a higher elevation than the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy scriptures, while giving his public discourses. Why did the government not act against the Nirankaris after they massacred innocent Sikhs at Mehta Chowk...?

The words tumbled out like a rambling river of woes. "Look at the Jews," he said. "They are less than a crore surrounded by crores and crores of Arabs. The Jews keep the Arabs at bay. There are over two crore Sikhs. You think the Sikh’s bone is weaker than the Jew’s bone ?"

"Of course not," I said. "Look, if the Sikhs really want to create Khalistan and are prepared to die for it, I have little doubt they will succeed. But what do they really want? What do you want? Do you want Khalistan?"

"I have never asked for Khalistan," he said. "But if they give me Khalistan on a golden plate, I won’t refuse it!"

"That’s clear then, " I said. "You don’t want Khalistan! So what do you want?"

"I want to protect the identity, honour and tradition of the Khalsa, " he declared with some passion.

"Okay", I said. "That means preserving the spiritual tradition of the Khalsa. That is the mission of a true sant. You do that. The Sikh youth look up to you. They will heed you. Demand a radio and TV channel from the Golden Temple. Look after the spiritual side of the Sikh race. Why bog yourself down with petty political issues like the sharing of river waters and the status of Chandigarh? Why not let Longowal look after these and bargain with the government? Your task is higher. You must address yourself to Sikhs all over the world!" He thought for a while. "Very well," he said. "You can tell the Dictator to hammer any settlement with the government. I won’t come in the way." By Dictator he meant Longowal, who had been appointed leader of the Akali struggle. He used the word Dictator with some slight contempt.

"Can I tell him that?"

"Yes, you have my word."

After a few perfunctory remarks, I departed. I was elated. I was confident that Longowal would cooperate. His main hurdle had been cleared.

The next day I called on Longowal. I reached at the appointed hour. There were a couple of Akalis in the room. One of them said that Longowal was in the bath, and asked me to wait. I knew what was happening. Longowal knew that I had already met Bhindranwale. By making me wait he was showing my place and his! I could not help observing the difference between the Sikhs surrounding Bhindrawale and those surrounding Longowal. Bhindranwale’s lieutenants were youths, mostly with fair skins, some with light eyes, sporting swords and spears, wearing saffron turbans and coarse tunics over bare legs. They had an air or innocence mingled with intensity, so often seen among fanatics and true believers. The men around Longowal were fat and sleek, with blue turbans, dressed in polyster tunics and pyjamas. They looked like conference-hall politicians.

After an hour had passed, Longowal entered the room. He greeted me politely. "I was washing my hair," he murmured. "Sorry to keep you waiting."

I assured him that it was alright. "I said. "I thought it better to first get a blanket assurance from him that he would not object to proposals put up by you. He has agreed. After all he is not political. You have to protect the political interests of Punjab."

Longowal’s face softened and he looked pleased. After that it was smooth sailing. We talked for an hour. We talked of politics and politicians. We deplored the current crop of politicians. We talked about the Partition. How the British had manipulated events. "If just fifty leaders had been eliminated in 1947, India would have remained united," he said.

Eventually we came to the minimum demands of the Sikhs for a settlement with the Central Government. I cannot recall the exact demands, but they were unexceptionable. Something about the river waters, the status of Chandigarh, the principles by which the future of Abohar and Fazilka might be settled, broadcasting facilities for the Golden Temple, declaring the immediate area around the Golden Temple a holy place with some administrative rights for the Golden Temple authorities, and other mundane issues. For the most part, Longowal wanted to abide by previous, or future, adjunction by the courts. He appeared eminently reasonable.

Going by the meetings with both Bhindranwale and Longowal, a settlement seemed to be clinched. I buoyantly returned to Delhi to apprise Rajiv of these developments.

* * *

Just a few hours hours after Mrs Gandhi was killed on October 31, I visited the Bharatiya Janata Party office at Ashok Road. I was a member of its National Executive. There was a hushed atmosphere in the room. L.K. Advani thought there would be tremendous sympathy for the Congress. The party’s Punjab leader, Baldev Prakash, echoed this sentiment. Others thought that public grief would know no bounds. I had already toured parts of the city by car. I found no grief even though people knew she had been killed. This surprised me. I shared my experience with the BJP leaders. Vijay Kumar Malhotra said I must be mistaken. I must have confused shocked silence with lack of grief.

"Come with me and I’ll take you around," I said. We got into my car and drove around. We stopped at different places and asked people if they knew what had happened. The response we got at a petrol station where I stopped to fill my car was typical.

I asked the petrol station attendant in a hushed tone, "Have you heard the news?" He continued his chore without batting an eye. He said laconically, "You mean about her being shot? Yes, we have heard."

Vijay was as stunned as I was by the strange public apathy and unconcern over the assassination. When I dropped Vijay at the party office, he got out of the car without a word. This total apathy continued for almost the whole day. Then a relative of Arjun Das, a close follower of Sanjay Gandhi, stabbed a Sikh in one part of the city. Around the same time President Zail Singh, a Sikh, visited the All India Medical Institute where Mrs Gandhi’s body lay. A few miscreants stoned his car.

The next day the anti-Sikh riots began. It was a systematic massacre. Sikh homes were earmarked, and then torched. Sikhs were pulled out of their homes and killed or burnt alive. I witnessed the carnage at several places. A mob burnt a shop near Regal Cinema in Connaught Place while a policeman looked on silently.

"Why don’t you stop them?" I snarled.

He shrugged. "What can I do?" he said with a smirk. This continued for several days. I visited Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence at Raisina Road. From the verandah where we stood, we heard a mob intercepting a car outside on the street. We rushed to the gate. Some of Vajpayee’s aides accompanied us. There were urchins and youths with a can of petrol surrounding a car. Vajpayee shouted from the gate. I advanced menacingly towards the urchins mouthing vile expletives in Punjabi. The urchins evaporated. We returned inside. Later I learnt that the same mob went farther and set fire to a car with a Sikh locked inside. He was burnt alive.

If the police wanted, the situation could have been controlled easily. In fact, I witnessed policemen urging lumpen youth from shanty colonies to burn and loot. The miscreants were seen carrying TV sets and other articles from burning shops while policemen watched benignly. I visited the dwellers of Pandu Nagar, a shanty colony near Patel Nagar.

One ragged youth told me, "We keep awake all night fearing the Sikhs will attack us!"

"But it is you who have terrorised the Sikhs and burnt their shops," I said.

"Yes," he said. "That’s why we fear they will come at night to take revenge!"

The Sikhs were in no position to take revenge. Along with Ram Jethmalani, I visited the camps set up for homeless Sikhs. They were outnumbered and terrorised. I visited some of the worst sites like Khichripur in East Delhi where poor defenceless Sikhs were brutally killed while their wives and children watched. The rich Sikhs of Punjabi Bagh and South Delhi lost homes, shops and factories. The poor Sikhs living in shanties and resettlement colonies lost lives. And this was all done by mobs from poor slums and shanty colonies, with the police watching silently.

The Army offered to control the situation at the first signs of an ugly situation. The government bluntly ordered the Army to desist. Only after the carnage, after more than three thousand Sikhs had been slaughtered, after forty to fifty thousand had been rendered homeless, did the government take steps to stop the violence. Once the government moved in, the violence stopped almost immediately.

The government did not, as it normally does, promptly announce a commission of inquiry to probe the genocide. Private inquiries by public-spirited citizens of repute did the job. The Peoples Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) jointly conducted a probe. The various unofficial inquiries came to a common conclusion. Congress Party leaders had conspired to unleash the genocide.

The Congress itself projected a very different view. In a public speech after the genocide, Rajiv Gandhi said: "When a big tree falls, the earth trembles!" Years later a Sikh in Chandigarh, Sher Singh Sher, recounted in a public speech Gandhi’s words and then tauntingly asked: "Were there only Sikhs sitting under that tree?"

Rajiv Gandhi in a public speech in Bihar on December 2, less than a month after the genocide, said that the same extremist elements that killed Indira Gandhi later engineered riots in Delhi to destabilise the nation. In subsequent speeches he repeated this. He said that a deep-rooted conspiracy to assassinate his mother was financed by outside sources. In other words, he alleged that the assassination and the genocide were part of a single conspiracy.

If Rajiv Gandhi is to be believed does it not follow that the general election that immediately followed these events was also a part of the same conspiracy? For over two weeks during the election campaign, close on the heels of the genocide, the government TV channel—there were no cable channels then—repeatedly showed the same scene on TV screens across the nation. Congress sympathisers surrounding Indira Gandhi’s dead body chanted: "Blood to avenge blood!"

As a result of the mass hysteria generated, a political novice obtained the largest mandate ever accorded to any leader in independent India. Rajiv Gandhi won with a substantially bigger majority than either Pandit Nehru or Indira Gandhi ever did. Going by Rajiv Gandhi’s logic, if there was indeed a single conspiracy behind the assassination and the genocide, its biggest beneficiary was Rajiv Gandhi himself.

Thus did 1984 end. It became a defining moment in the history of India. Seven years later, Rajiv Gandhi himself was assassinated. A woman who was a human bomb, sent by the LTTE on a suicide mission, staying in a house owned by a prominent Congress leader, walked up to Rajiv Gandhi in a public meeting to take his life. From being the unwitting beneficiary of conspiracy, Rajiv Gandhi became its victim.

Excerpts from an article being published by a new magazine, National Review in its forthcoming issue.