1984: When death paid me a visit

Guest Post by Vishavjit Singh

I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's cartoonist Vishavjit Singh.

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth." - Voltaire

Death is one of the few constants in life. It waits for every one of us. We find ways to ignore it, battle it, make attempts to prolong its arrival but come it does. We grudgingly accept its inevitability but there are times that death makes it appearance in ways for us to hold its couriers in contempt. Times when a few of our species sink into the depths of darkness to orchestrate, execute plans of the most sinister kind to snatch innocent lives. This death haunts us with its memories long after its departure.

Death of this kind paid a visit thirty-one years ago in the first few days of November to my family home. I was far away from Washington DC, the city of my birth residing with my family in a two bedroom apartment in one of oldest capitals in the world, Delhi in India.

It all started on Halloween, October 31st a celebration at the time not known or observed in India. At school I heard about the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the iron lady of India whom our disgraced President Nixon once referred to as an 'old witch.' The assailants were two of her bodyguards.

The ethnic background of these two men would take center stage in the events to unfold in the coming days. They were Sikh sporting turban and beard. Their motivation became clear in the coming hours. They were avenging the fatal decision by the Prime Minister to send in army into the holiest of Sikh shrines in June of that year to flush out armed men who were locked in a battle with the state. The choice of that attack to coincide with the crush of pilgrims would lead to a major collateral loss of innocent lives. It was an attack that sent shock waves through Sikh psyche around the world.

Barely an hour after the assassination I was on a bus back home. I was a student at a private school managed by a Sikh religious institution. For reasons at the time unknown to me, the school administration feared for our lives.

Once home we waited for our father who arrived with the first news of trouble brewing in parts of the city. Next morning my parents placed us in a self imposed curfew with curtains pulled to cover every open crevice. The first sound of activity outside led us to peak outside from our bedroom window. Policemen with rifles took aim in the distance. I felt a sense of safety.

That was short lived. An hour later I heard sounds of an army of footsteps like a muted version of march of Orcs in the Lord of the Rings. We delicately peeled away enough of the curtain to view an army of men as far as the eye can see armed with rods heading somewhere. They passed inches within a few feet of our apartment. Their orderly march was managed by none other than the policemen I had seen earlier. That is when my barely teenage faculties became aware of outlines of the deadly script about to unfold.

The men disappeared. As if things could not feel more like a twilight zone, my friends who happened to be members of the majority ethnic demographic Hindus, stepped out to play a game of cricket in the field facing our building. They knew not to invite me and my brother.

Hours later men started to trickle in the opposite direction returning from their loot apparently. Just about all had hands full of sacks, cans mostly edible items. They looked satisfied and harmless to my father who took this as his cue to step out of the balcony to take a better look. I followed along with my brother in bare buns on top of our heads. That was enough for an empty handed man in the distance to spot us. He yelled, "Lets get these mother fucking Sikhs."

We ran in and it took no time for a mob to surround our home yelling for us to be dragged down. My father huddled us into a circle to say a prayer from the first pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, the words that serve as a living guide to Sikhs. That was the first time in my life I felt the warm breath of death waiting on our doorstep.

The sounds of the mob became mixed in with my friends voices. I strained to hear as my father recited prayers. My friends were making the case to the mob that to get their hands on us would require them to break the doors of a building owned by the government, which was true. Somehow destroying property owned by government served as deterrent and mob dispersed. The irony of this reality would expose itself in the next few days.

Death for now moved on to a different door.

The next few days as the nation mourned our source of news was the only channel owned and operated by the government along with newspapers. Thousands passed by the body of the slain leader with sounds of, "With blood we shall avenge blood" filling the rooms across the nation listening to this never ending broadcast.

The newspapers were reporting headlines of a "riot" claiming hundreds of lives. When I could first step out of the house days later, I picked up a copy of a news magazine titled "Surya,"literally meaning sunshine. Its cover had photos of three charred bodies that looked like really well done pieces of steak. I did not have any money to purchase a copy. By the time I went back to buy a copy the entire issue was taken off the racks.

I could make out this carnage was not a spontaneous reaction. There were so many telltale signs of a genocide fast forwarded into a few days although I did not know the existence of this word at the time. The political machinery, local security forces for a few days allowed Sikh men to be hunted down to be roasted alive. The most common means was to pour gasoline on Sikh boys and men to light them on fire. Some had tires forced down their torso and then set on fire. This made news. What did not make news was the extent of the killings, the real planners of this manufactured death orgy, the rape, gang rape of countless Sikh women.

If anyone held a delusional notion of no government complicity that was cleared in the first national speech by the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi the son of the late leader. He summarized the entire episode in one iconic line, "When a big tree falls, the earth obviously shakes."

The earth did shake consuming the lives of thousands of Sikh men across many cities in India. What happened next was the epitome of Machiavellian machinations on part of the Indian political apparatus extending to media and the judiciary.

This carnage was officially a mere "riot." The official count of the dead was placed just under 3000 by the state in the capital city. Those killed beyond the capital somehow got lost in the public relations of managing this act of genocidal violence in the most populous democracy in the world.

Such wanton brutality is only to be framed in a fascist or theocratic or dictatorial geography. So the world's most populous democracy went into one of the most polished public relations coup ever undertaken in modern human history.

In December the ruling party came to power in the one of the biggest mandates in independent India. The blood of a slain party leader was worth way more than those of thousands burnt out of existence at the polling booths.

Just about every political leader who orchestrated the carnage got promoted, police officers went on to serve their political masters and thousands of terrorists unleashed by the state went back living their lives under the cool shadow of judicial umbrellas protecting them from the searing heat of justice.

My parents contemplated leaving the capital city for safer confines of their native state of Punjab in the northwest. But they finally decided to cast a vote for the first time in their lives as a mark of protest to the only opposition party. That party, BJP would have to wait for a very long time to come to power. Today under the auspices of the Prime Narendra Modi who has been feted at the White House, Facebook headquarters among other American institutions, India flirts with bouts of fascism at the hands of ultra right-wing religious groups making attempts to take India back to its golden age devoid of minority ethnic communities.

Despite all the death life always moves on. Sikhs picked up the pieces of their lives. Some would leave their native cities for safer confines. Few made it to the UK, Canada and the US.

I raced to finish high school and made my way back to United States.

1984 faded into distant memory aided by dearth of remembrances, vigils, monuments, widespread outcry for justice. There are a few that have fought for justice amid the demographic juggernaut of silent bystanders.

Today the struggle is defined in the words of George Orwell from 1984: "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."

It is no accident that this story is news to many residing in the west and even many in India born after the carnage. Managing death sometimes is a lot easier than the aftermath of spinning tales, creating narratives, writing histories, distorting truth, creating consent.

All lives should matter equally but they don't.

We have to find ways to weave a thread of truth in the noise of our existence not just because it matters but it is the only tangible thing we can give to the dead.

Click here to see my 30th anniversary editorial cartoon essay to commemorate the 1984 genocide.

Vishavjit Singh is the nation's first and only turbaned/bearded editorial cartoonist. He got his spark for cartooning following the upheaval-filled days after 9/11. He is also a writer and costume player. He channels his anger into turbanful works that can be seen at Sikhtoons.com. You can reach him at vsingh@sikhtoons.com and follow him on Twitter @sikhtoons.


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