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‘Crime against Humanity’: Remembering the 1984 Anti Sikh Carnage through the Pages Stained with Blood by Indira Goswami

 


‘Crime against Humanity’: Remembering the 1984 Anti Sikh Carnage through the Pages Stained with Blood by Indira Goswami

Prosenjit Ghosh 

Assistant Teacher

Malgaon Malitola F.P. School

Uttar Dinajpur, West Bengal, India

 

Abstract

Human civilisation is clouded with incidents and occurrences since its beginning and the historians played the major part in recording the episodes for the future generations to know. But the litterateurs or fictioneers act as the ‘cultural historians’ and try to document the times in almost approximate realities lest we forget what had been experienced by the common people of a particular period. Thus fiction becomes the consequential interpretation of history. The social injustices, exploitations, and sufferings find vivid expressions in their writings. But perhaps we do not learn from history so it always repeats itself. The assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 shook the country and as a backwash at once brought the communal riot, ethnic violence, and social unrest nationwide and particularly in the city of Delhi. The present paper attempts to look back at the inhuman cruelties and atrocities perpetrated upon the Sikh community residing in Delhi following the regicide of Mrs. Gandhi as witnessed and depicted in Indira Goswami’s novel Pages Stained with Blood.

 

Key words:

Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, Assasination, Delhi, Anti-Sikh, Riot, Communal Violence, Eyewitness, Indira Goswami

 

There is a history in all men's lives

Figuring the natures of the times deceased;

(Shakespeare, 2H4. 3.1. 1498-1499)

 

Literature has been serving the purpose of a mirror to the society since its inception and litterateurs thus work as the cultural historians to document the contextual eras with approximate actuality. The characters in a work of (historical) fiction transport us back to the time and make us stand in the milieu that the writers document in their works. Thus history takes the centre stage of the narrative. The truth which the writers behold around them flying, catch hold of and put it into the frame of writing.

The instantaneous constitution of the Indian Military action named ‘Operation Blue Star’ at the holiest Gurudwara Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab was followed by the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards which eventually led to the sanguineous Sikh pogrom nationwide in the year 1984. Government reported that about 3,350 Sikhs were killed in general and 2,800 were particularly in the city of Delhi whilst independent sources estimated the death toll at about 8,000–17,000. There are sufficient consequential corroborations which prove that the riots were pushed, aided and abetted by some members of the contemporary Indian Government and the Congress party leaders who led groups of rioters shouting khoon ka badla khoon (blood for blood). The Delhi police were reported to have been passive onlookers as the rioters shamelessly slaughtered the Sikhs. Actually the massacres were so organised and regular that without the active backing and help of influential and powerful persons, such swift slaughtering could not have been possible. Amitav Ghosh has remembered the time in one of his writings:

We were confident that the government would soon act to stop the violence. In India, there is a drill associated with civil disturbances: a curfew is declared; paramilitary units are deployed; in extreme cases the army marches to the stricken areas … But in New Delhi – and much of North India – hours followed without a response. Every few minutes we turned to the radio, hoping to hear that the Army had been ordered out. All we heard was mournful music and descriptions of Mrs. Gandhi’s lying in state; of coming and goings of dignitaries, foreign and national. (Ghosh)

 

Later Mrs. Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who eventually became the next Prime Minister, went as far as to justify the genocide by saying that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. The CBI concluded that the riots were the part of a well executed conspiracy. Like any other significant historical event, the 1984 Sikh pogrom has also been the subject of several creations of art and literature. Literary works like Pages Stained with Blood by Indira Goswami, Tragedy of Punjab: Operation Bluestar & After by Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar, Helium by Jaspreet Singh, When a Tree Shook Delhi by H. S. Phoolka etc. depict and describe the events and incidents surrounding the riots.

 

Mamoni Raisom Goswami, widely known as Indira Goswami (1942- 2011), has been one of the India’s most distinguished authors whose writings have defined our contemporary world. An awardee of the most prestigious Sahitya Akademi (1983) and the Jnanpith Award (2001), Goswami originally hailed from the India’s northeast corner state of Assam. Her passion and integrity in writing brought her worldwide acclamation and many of her works have been translated into English and other languages from her native Assamese. She had written about the plights and oppressed lives of the marginalised and peripheral sections of the society and people’s insensitivity towards them. Her writing is like a stifled cry of pain at man's inhumanity to man, which modulates sometimes into quiet bitterness and at times into poignant pathos (Gohain 140). She is indeed, to quote Amrita Pritam, one of those rare souls who have been able to get an insight into the great power which is working behind this universe.

Indira Goswami’s Assamese novel Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha was first published in a literary journal Goriyoshi in episodic form in the year 1994. The novel, later translated into English under the title Pages Stained with Blood (2001), depicts the bloodied Sikh slaughter of 1984 occurred in the city of Delhi with stark detailing. It is written as (a narration of) a diary of an anonymous Assamese female writer who taught at the Delhi University and lived in a small flat at Shakti Nagar. The writer- narrator is often identified as Goswami herself who was also a teacher at Delhi University at that time. Moreover she herself in an interview clarified her novel of being written in first person as:

That’s because I wrote exactly what I saw and most of it is true. It was so horrible and shocking that I couldn’t exaggerate anything further. The novel is more of a documentation of what I saw … There is almost no difference between fact and fiction in that book … as I followed the papers in the following days, not much was written on the victims. A lot of facts and a lot of stories never reached the papers. People never got to know all the stories. You can’t imagine how brutal they are… (Goswami)

The unnamed narrator of the novel actually wanted to write a splendiferous book on the majestic history of Delhi and she was thus always ardent to any information available from pages, places and people. She visited many localities to punctiliously know Delhi and took down everything worth she came across. But the abrupt functioning of the ‘Operation Blue Star’ in the month of June and the subsequent homicide of Indira Gandhi on October 31 in the year 1984 brought sudden change to the plot of the book and her writing dived impetuously into the catastrophic calamity perpetrated against the Sikhs particularly in Delhi. At the end her diary fell into the pool of blood of the innocent victims and the pages got stained with it. Thus she lost all her recorded particulars and her long cherished dream to write a book on the historical city of Delhi remained unexecuted and finally what she ended up writing was a painful memoir of the holocaust.

The Sikh community is known for their bravery and generosity. This particular community has been subjected to violence and atrocity since aeons. The narrator represented her immediate Sikh milieu through the characters she had been acquainted and befriended with while living in Shakti Nagar. The Sikh people who had been the integral part of her everyday life were Santokh Singh Ajnabi, Balbir Singh, and Nanak Singh Bhalla alias Sikh Baba. Santokh Singh was a handsome auto rickshaw driver who drove the narrator anywhere she wanted to go, be it to the university or through the by-lanes of old Delhi to collect materials for her dream project. Not only so but he also fostered a strong feeling of secret love for her which the latter was well aware of. The narrator also honestly confessed her mutual admiration for him secretly in her diary:

He turns to look at me as I sit on the rear seat. It could have been the gaze of Mahiwal for Sohni, of Farhad for Shireen, or Pahtab’s famous lover Punnu for Shashi. I feel a kind of sexual desire surging up inside. Ashamed, I restrain it immediately. (Goswami 16)

Balbir Singh was a kabadiwala who used to come every Saturday and Sunday mornings, to buy old newspapers and books by the kilo, as kabadi (13). He was also an ardent reader of the good and valuable books he bought as rubbish and performed his role as the raconteur of the tales about old Delhi to the protagonist:

Bibiji, you take out your notebook. My day’s work is over. I’ll tell you the story of Chandni Chowk … from the account of Chatursen…

I run inside to get my notebook. (18)

Their closeness was so strong that Balbir didn’t even think twice to keep his two wooden boxes full of money to the narrator as the safest custody.

The lonely Sikh Baba was a refugee of 1947 from the village of Dera Ismail, Pakistan. The narrator used to see him standing like a statue almost always in front of her housing near the gol chakkar. He always remained silent and seldom murmured something as a reply to the narrator’s greetings. Later she was stunned to know the reason for Baba’s silence from Balbir:

‘The Baba dealt in spices and dry fruit … When he left Pakistan … in 1947 … At a certain check post … his daughter Kuldip Kaur vanished … Kuldip’s dead body was found a week later in a wheat field ... He was taken to the field to identify the body. She had no clothes on. Her breasts had been cut off and hung on a peepal tree … Baba has not spoken since that day.’ (24 -25)

Thus Goswami has depicted the gruesome picture of violence perpetrated particularly against the (Sikh) women at the time of British India’s partition. Besides these three important people in the narrator’s life, there were also other Sikhs like Brigadier Ratan Man Singh and her personal physician Dr. Monga whom she also shared good friendship with and mainly due to these immediate relationships the victimisation of the Sikhs in 1984 carnage drastically distressed her. With the starting of the ‘Operation Blue Star’ in Punjab, the situation in Delhi began to get worsened steadily:

It is impossible to go through the newspapers. They reek of blood and gunfire. They are filled with snapshots of … dismembered limbs, ugly pictures. The genteel ambience of Delhi seems to be disappearing into some dark cavern. (47)

There were aggressive checkouts on the Sikhs. The police were on prowl and Sikhs under stringent superintendence. Many innocent Sikhs left Delhi out of fear of the police. The narrator saw anxiety on the faces of the Sikhs when she visited the Seeshganj Gurudwara where, she remembered, the ninth Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur was publicly decapitated by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The words on the walls of the Jama Masjid, the University and Delhi Gate draw a clear picture of these times (101). Finally the holiest Akhal Takht being destroyed, great dissatisfaction permeated among the Sikhs:

        

The shadow of the Golden Temple loomed large over Delhi. The police used tear gas to disperse a violent crowd near the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara … Most Sikhs had closed their shops in Delhi and the neighbouring areas in protest … Killing and marauding! For a whole week, my notebook recorded tales of death and killing alone. (110)

 

The narrator described that in the localities like Nagia Park all the Sikh shops be it small or reputed had downed their shutters. Even Dr. Monga’s clinic was also closed. Some Sikh taxi drivers sat huddled silently as if struck by lightning. The bullets fired at the Golden Temple pierced every Sikh heart as much so that a Sikh professor even gave his resignation from the University. In the mean time some misunderstandings had created a communication gap between the narrator and Santokh Singh but amidst such calamitous hour she grew anxious of his present whereabouts and when he suddenly knocked her door she felt somewhat relieved to see him:

 

‘Look Santokh Singh … three Sikhs- you, Balbir Singh, and the Sikh Baba have somehow become a part of my family. I feel really sorry and can understand your feelings, especially since the Akal Takht has been destroyed.’ (113)

 

Being offered a cup of tea Santokh Singh despairingly negated her:

 

‘… No one offers a Sikh three-wheeler driver a chair or asks him for tea … we do not even get water to drink, unless we ask for it with folded hands. Things have become worse now…’

‘These days, commuters avoid three-wheelers driven by Sikhs. They suspect us. My vehicle came empty from Minto Bridge.’ (114)

At last came the ultimate response to the seething resentment for the ‘Operation Blue Star’ and India witnessed one of the fateful events in history since her independence:

 

Then suddenly, I hear an outcry from below, ‘They’ve killed Indira Gandhi!’

‘Indira Gandhi murdered?’ (130)

 

The very next moment everything seemed to be standstill. The narrator without any delay started for her flat from the University and she found the main road empty. There was so much silence all around that it appeared ominous and disturbing. Actually the silence was nothing but the calm before the storm. Soon the unfortunate assassination of Mrs. Gandhi let loose the horror of carnage and massacre of the innocent Sikhs all over the city of Delhi. As the narrator reached near the bus stop:

 

… suddenly a turban rolls onto the road. Someone pushes a Sikh gentleman out of the bus, making him trip and fall near the footpath …

One passenger … starts shouting ‘Police, Police!’ There is no response from the police post … I see two more turbans on the road at the Shakti Nagar crossing and stains of blood … All the Sikh drivers are gone. (131-132)

 

The narrator’s human heart cried for the unknown fate of Santokh Singh, Balbir, and Sikh Baba as she grew fearful for them. She witnessed from her balcony a political leader yelling in front of a group of people:

 

‘Dead bodies are lying in your houses. Has your blood turned white? Why don’t you do something …?’ (133)

And the next moment she saw that the people had set a Sikh man aflame who had come cycling by. She heard the bursting sounds of the skull going up in blazes and a harrowing shriek tearing up the sky. She again noticed the political leader inciting a new group of people and soon

 

We can see flames rising from the Anand Parbat Punjabi Basti … the slum nearby, but occasionally we hear a few heart-rending cries. There’s also the occasional cruel shout of triumph.

Thud, thud, thud!

Finish them, Kill them all!

We hear anguished cries.

Wahe Guru! Wahe Guru!  (135)

 

Indira Goswami was a humanist writer. Amitav Ghosh once said that she is one of those rare figures whose achievements as a writer are closely paralleled by their accomplishments as a social and political activist. She always tried to find the silver lining among the darkest clouds. In Pages Stained with Blood also, she depicted a few characters like Madan Bhaisahab, the landlord of the narrator, who did not forget his foremost duty as a human in the time of crisis. His character reminds us to offer our hands of help to the fellow human beings in times of need which we often fail to do. He, jeopardizing his own life, saved some badly injured Sikh taxi drivers caught in the hysteria of bloody mayhem from the Nagia Park and brought them to his house. The narrator saw their turbans were torn and clothes were reduced to rags. The malicious mischief makers sensing the wounded Sikhs’ presence inside the room threw bricks and stones from outside and shouted:

 

‘Khoon ka badla khoon se …’

‘… Indira Gandhi Zindabad.’

‘Bring out the traitors …’ (138)

 

The unyielding Madan Bhaisahab tackled the hooligans and drove them away. Shortly after the narrator heard huge explosions nearby and easily guessed that Dr. Monga’s hospital has been reduced to rubble which he built with great care and sacrifice. After the first aid, Madan Bhaisahab took the injured Sikhs to the hospital with the help of his two Nepali chowkidars. The narrator took a bucket of water and a mop to clean the blood flooded floor and found her notebook had fallen from the table and was soused in blood. But she felt that in times of such crisis, people rise to their full potential and regain courage and will (140). The next morning she came onto the road and saw a heap of long hair and beard, wrenched from the heads and faces of the Sikhs, a half burnt human jaw and a lump of human flesh (141). There continued the plundering and sharing of the loot among the people openly in public without any policeman or the army nearby. The ‘dance of death’ continues for three days without any intervention of the Government or the administration. The narrator recorded:

 

From Block No 32 of the Resettlement Colony at Trilokpuri, four truckloads of skulls, bones and ashes have been brought out. Soon after, fifteen more bodies are discovered.

The corpses of Sikhs fill the mortuary at Tees Hazari. Ultimately, they have had to be heaped on the road, blocking the footpaths … some twenty four Sikhs have tyres put round their necks and are burnt to death in broad daylight. (143-144)

 

She saw corpses were lying about in roads and gutters, smouldering trucks at a few steps away from her apartment. When later she stood in front of the local Gurudwara she tearfully beheld that the gurudwara has been reduced to ashes. The granthi pierced with a trident and the half burnt copy of the Granth Sahib lies in a corner (145). The vivid descriptions of the mayhem throughout the pages show the extremity of the carnage Delhi witnessed at that time. Amidst the havoc the narrator’s mind grew more anxious for Balbir Singh and Santokh Singh as the two have been radically vanished beyond any trace. After eleven days of the royal assassination the narrator took the wooden boxes of Balbir and headed toward the relief camps with a kindling hope to find them there. On the way she stopped at Jahangirpuri to find one of her Sikh acquaintances whose son had been the riot victim. There she surprisingly discovered that though all the houses in that block were destroyed, the house of the local MLA stands amidst the charred and blackened remains like a white crow in the middle of a flock of black crows (148). She also saw two such houses where every member had got slaughtered. Then she left for the relief camps but did not find her friends there amidst the wailing crowds of the widows, children and the riot survivors. After two days the narrator came to the Ludlow Castle Relief Camp and fortunately found the wife and son of Balbir there from whom she came to know that he had been missing since the riot. But when she handed over the two boxes to his wife, the latter refused to take them as she was unaware of it. The narrator wanted to confirm her position by pointing towards Balbir’s sleeping son Sonnu who had been to her house many times with his father. But the very next moment she cried out in disbelief as she saw that both of Sonnu’s eyes are bandaged … His eyes were pierced with a sword (152). The narrator silently returned to her house. Some days later one morning she ran to her balcony hearing a racket outside and found out that ‘There’s a dead body. At the gol chakkar. It’s a horrible sight. It’s been cut into pieces with a sword’ (155). No sooner had she gone down with an apprehensive mind than suddenly a yell pierces my heart like a trident. ‘This is the corpse of Santokh Singh’ (156). After some days the narrator came across a ‘black book’ that contained the names and addresses of leaders, bosses, merchants, goondas and butchers, who were responsible for the carnage, but very surprisingly in no time the book was seized from bookshops … and then it disappeared altogether (158). Having witnessed such havoc being wrecked on the innocent people, the narrator became distressed to such an extent that nothing could motivate her to stay in Delhi any longer and she left

 

… for Guwahati on 20 November, 1984, my desire to write the book on Delhi, painting in broad swaths of colour the days and lives of the Moghuls and the British Raj, remaining unfulfilled and the two wooden boxes of Balbir still with me, a small, steady hope in a corner of my heart – maybe he still will come back one day. (8)

 

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, once said that India’s failure to prosecute those most responsible for the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 has not only denied justice to Sikhs, but has made all Indians more vulnerable to communal violence. The authorities repeatedly blocked investigations to protect the perpetrators of atrocities against Sikhs, deepening public distrust in India’s justice system. Indeed, even after more than three decades, the carnage survivors have yet to receive any semblance of justice. Most of the criminals are yet to be charged and many of the riot stricken families continue to live in impoverishment and disenfranchisement till date.

 

Through the last seven decades since freedom we have sailed lakhs of nautical miles past. Still the departure from disintegration has not yet been set out. Communal riots till date dilapidate the roofs of millions and squash their lives under its heavy wheels. Even the nugatory incitement reddens the sky of communal amity. Smoke billows out dimming the indigo welkin. Whose flag of conquest is hoisted in this battle, that lies in the dark domain but humanity ceases to breath because of its pervasive toxicity. Indira Goswami’s novel Pages Stained with Blood keeps reminding us to scrutinize our morality time and again lest it lampoons us of being the best yet fabricated creation of nature.

Works Cited

 

Goswami, Indira. Pages Stained with Blood. 2nd ed. Trans. Pradip Acharya. Katha, 2016.

 

Ghosh, Amitav. “The ghosts of Mrs Gandhi: Amitav Ghosh looks back at the 1984 massacre of Sikhs.” Scroll.in. 20 Dec. 2018, scroll.in/article/906350/the-ghosts-of-mrs-gandhi-amitav-ghosh-looks-back-at-the-1984-massacre-of-sikhs.

 

Gohain, Hiren. “Ineffable Mystery.” Indian Literature, vol. 33, no.1, 1990, pp. 139-145. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23339149.

 

Goswami, Indira. “Stained with Blood: An Interview with Indira Goswami.” Interview by Aruni Kashyap. PRATILIPI: A Bilingual Literary Journal, Freedom Special, no. 13, N.d., pratilipi.in/2009/03/02/stained-with-blood-an-interview-with-indira-goswami/

 

“India: No Justice for 1984 Anti- Sikh Bloodshed.” Human Rights Watch. 29 Oct. 2014, www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/29/india-no-justice-1984-anti-sikh-bloodshed

 

“When a big tree falls, the earth shakes: How Rajiv Gandhi justified 1984 anti- Sikh riots.” DNA. 17 Dec. 2018, www.dnaindia.com/india/report-when-a-big-tree-falls-the-earth-shakes-how-rajiv-gandhi-justified-1984-anti-sikh-riots-2697259

 

Web Links:

 

en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mamoni_Raisom_Goswami&oldid=946969353

 

en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Operation_Blue_Star&oldid=951761610

 

en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pages_Stained_with_Blood&oldid=927968646

 

en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1984_anti-Sikh_riots&oldid=950601460

 

internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/2H4_M/scene/3.1/

 

www.arunikashyap.com/the-bronze-sword-of-thengphakhri-tehsildar-by-indira-goswami