CHRONICLE OF A PROPHECY FORETOLD
Trilokpuri returns as the arena of hate and bloodshed, 30 years after the 1984 riots engulfed Delhi from here
Amit Sengupta Delhi
Indira Gandhi assassinated. November 1984, the beginning of the month, the beginning of the end. It all started in Trilokpuri in East Delhi. I was in my early 20s, raw, with light eyes half-shut with dreams. The night was slow, like the passenger train from Saharanpur in Western UP to Old Delhi, loaded with uncanny news of Sikhs being dragged out from trains in several railway stations, smashed by mobs, their hair cut forcibly; others hiding and choking inside toilets, like in gas chambers.
The dingy dead-end lanes and by-lanes across the suburbs, the borderline architecture of authorised and unauthorised colonies, the sad, spatial, stasis in Outer, West and East Delhi, was suddenly transformed into hundreds of blood-thirsty charged-up mobs, awake and ready to strike, into the nocturnal landscape, shouting “blood for blood”.
Many years later, when I saw the TV adaptation of Bhisham Sahani’s classic Tamas by Govind Nihalani, Amu by Shonali Bose, Mr and Mrs Iyer by Aparna Sen (with an old, sensitive Bhishm Sahni acting in it, picked up by Hindutva fanatics from inside a bus and killed, followed by his devoted Muslim wife, that remarkable actress, Surekha Sikri), Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania and the Gujarat documentaries of Gopal Menon and Rakesh Sharma (Hey Ram: Genocide in the land of Gandhi and Final Solutions), I remembered that slow train journey.
At the Old Delhi railway station, we were trapped. It was still dark, and the entire city was under curfew. Fear and madness hung like a mirror inside the railway platforms. The State seemed to have withered away. On one platform, a row of bodies wrapped in white were lined up on the ground. Inside the waiting room, hundreds of Sikhs were quarantined, with only one cop outside as protection.
We walked from the station to Jawaharlal Nehru University with the first light of morning on empty streets ravaged by mobs with not one policeman or petrol car in sight. We moved from locality to locality, through burning tyres and homes, smoke filling the sky, across helpless faces smeared with fear and soot. I went to my newspaper office, it was shut; dawn had just broken. Delhi was under the siege of barbarians. And the Congress government had allowed the mobs to run amuck. This was open, organised, loot and massacre.
Next day, and the days that followed, eye-witness stories arrived in every by-lane. An old man in a rusted army uniform clung to the nearest lamp-post. The Gurudwara in Trilokpuri was destroyed. One of the granthis from Jhil Mil Colony had been hiding in a drain pipe for three days; I found him days later in a ‘refugee camp’ in Kingsway Camp next to Delhi University. He saw the killings with his own eyes, including one in his family, and, yet, he swore, he had voted for Indira Gandhi.
Limbs and bodies floating in sewage canals. Kerosene and country liquor bottles inside ravaged houses. Scores of women assaulted, brutalised. Lists of families procured from ration shops by local politicians and handed over to the murderers to execute the carnage. Kerosene procured from ration shops while tyres were wrapped around individuals and set on fire. On occasions, the barbarians danced around the fire, amidst screams of despair and death.
Many times, as a reporter who went back again and again to Trilokpuri Block 32, I would encounter men who seemed to have blood on their hands. They would roam around freely, as if Indian democracy and Constitution had given them the fundamental right to murder and burn alive Indian citizens in full public view. As in Gujarat 2002, under State protection, Delhi in 1984 didn’t care a damn. Instead, they flaunted the genocide as an act of faith, valour, pride and machismo.
Those days I would cross the street as if in a daze. As if a death wish had come to stalk me. I would return again to the ravaged homes of the Sikhs of Trilokpuri and elsewhere, also the refugee camps. Hardworking, honest, humble people with neat, simple, sublime homes. On the walls of their modest homes would be framed the burnt-out pictures of a young couple, her eyes full of hope, he, stoic and happy. There would be little things: three birds on the wall, a sewing machine, an old almirah, staring like a black hole of apocalypse now.
That is why the cliché. That is why the cliché that history repeats itself, often as a nightmare and a tragedy, most often as a vicious and infinite cycle of hate politics, and, occasionally, and strategically, as a transparent public spectacle of State-sponsored genocide with no justice on the horizon. Bloody retribution as revenge, an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, limbs for limbs, dead bodies for dead bodies, burnt alive, butchered, chopped into pieces, raped and violated; though, all that is spilled is the dignity and blood of innocents, all citizens of their imagined homeland. Tamas Redux.
Amidst this ravaged landscape of the unanimous, jarring orchestra of the screams of the massacred, like that famous painting reproduced a million times, there are years of hopeless silences which follow. In this endless wait for justice poised on the pendulum of crime and punishment, hope does not float. All that floats is infinite injustice and eternal pain. Angst and anger, in simmering, helpless, choked up symphony.
Plus, utter, abject, acidic, communally polarised hate. Like Newton’s damned third law in anti-clockwise motion, since it was first applied as a public spectacle of State-sponsored mass murder of innocent citizens in Gujarat in 2002, after the gruesome burning of Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express in that crowded, backward town of Godhra. In terms of the frame of reference, and the reproduction of the paradigm, that is exactly what happened in the November 1984 carnage in Delhi and elsewhere, widely perceived to be organised and executed by notorious Congress politicians, protected and patronised by the State apparatus, and executed ruthlessly, repeatedly, round-after-round by identified local goons, criminals, party cadre and musclemen, many of them on the pay-roll of the politicians.
Every reporter worth his salt who covered the horrific killings of November 1984 in Delhi would testify to the inherent barbarism which was unleashed with cold-blooded precision in the isolated blocks of Trilokpuri Block 32 and 36 in East Delhi, and in Jehangirpuri and Sultanpuri in West Delhi, among other scattered zones across South, Central and Lutyens’ Delhi. The return of organised communal violence in Trilokpuri in October 2014 this time using Hindu and Muslim places of worship and metaphorical icons to instigate violence, rekindles those nightmares in these dingy, cloistered, claustrophobic by-lanes, where a large population of hardworking people, men and women, mostly poor migrants, lower middle class or those on the restless margins of the mainstream, struggle everyday to keep their humble fires in their hearth burning.
It’s a tough and resilient life they lead, and the day moves into the night like heady tiredness, never surprised at its rigour or monotony, waiting for yet another day of relentless labour and struggle. The idea of religion and anti-religion, communal polarisation and hate is distant; their occupations and political economy unite them in their daily struggles; their little, modest, brick-homes are resting places with no frills, not even the frills of identity politics. So, if there is already a wave of ‘acche din’, why target them to polarise votes?
Indeed, from Trilokpuri 1984 to Trilokpuri 2014, the cliché seems to have returned with a new vicious language of statecraft. At that time, the Sikhs suffered, and, now, yet another chapter of suffering must re-open. And, with it, unfinished memories of a typical Indian Holocaust; the chronicle of a prophecy foretold.