Kids Corner

1984

The Story of a Pogrom:
Kultar's Mime

SARBPREET SINGH

 

 

 

po·grom - n. An organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group

ri·ot - n. 1) A wild or turbulent disturbance created by a large number of people. 2) A violent disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled for a common purpose.

 

Two words. Both connoting violence yet, profoundly different.

What was it ? A riot? Or a pogrom? Surely it could not have been both!

In the words of Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in the Nazi government, “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

The frenzy of violence that was unleashed upon the Sikhs of Delhi, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in late October, 1984 had ‘P-O-G-R-O-M’ written all over it.

The hundreds of eyewitnesses that placed senior leaders of the Congress Party - the country’s ruling party! -- at the scene of the violence, encouraging and often directing the massacre; the well documented apathy and at times complicity of the Delhi Police; the haughty indifference of Rajiv Gandhi who pithily justified and condoned the carnage by declaring that “when a great tree falls, the earth inevitably shakes”; the well-oiled preparation of the death squads with their identically sized iron rods and official voter’s lists to identify Sikh homes … it was clearly and unequivocally a pogrom.

Yet! Twenty-nine years later, what happened in Delhi is still called a riot! So much so that last week, when The Boston Globe carried a very positive article highlighting the efforts of a company of young artists to stage a play on the pogrom, called Kultar’s Mime, the title referred to the events of 1984 as ‘riots’!

Kultar’s Mime, the play, is based on a poem of the same name that I wrote in the early 90s. It tells the stories of a group of young children from a poor trans-Jamuna locality in Delhi called Tilak Vihar.

I shall leave the reportage on the play to observers more unbiased than I; this article is much more about the poem and how it came about.

In the fall of 1987, I left India for the US. As a young Sikh who had grown up in Sikkim -- a state which borders Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Bengal -- far away from Sikh communities, my connection with Sikhi was tenuous at best.

When the story of Indira Gandhi’s assassination broke, I was in my final year at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science ("BITS"), in Pilani, Rajasthan, which was only a few hours away from Delhi but was far removed from the horrific events that unfolded there.

We did have a few moments of alarm. The campus was invaded by ruffians under the command of local Congress leaders; Sikh students mostly went into hiding in their friends’ rooms for a day or so, as did I. There were a few violent incidents which were soon forgotten.

News of the ‘riot’ in Delhi did trickle through, but I don’t remember being particularly upset. I did look like a Sikh and was one, nominally, but I didn’t think of the residents of the shantytowns of Delhi who had been butchered as ‘my’ people, particularly.

Besides, like most non-Sikhs in the country and many, many Sikhs, particularly outside of The Punjab, I had a sneaking suspicion that we had ‘asked for it’.

In those days, before the Internet and NDTV and Tehelka, the press in India was tightly controlled; sometimes overtly and often voluntarily, in slavish allegiance to the ‘National Interest’ which seemed to be under perpetual attack by troublesome minority groups, who all of a sudden wanted some control over their destinies. In the turbulent years that were the mid-1980s, every Sikh in India had the country’s collective finger pointed at him.

The cycle of violence in The Punjab, which was fuelled much more by cynical political agendas of every stripe, rather than a centralized Sikh insurgent movement, labelled each and every Sikh a villain and a terrorist.

I know this because I experienced this first hand and carried the burden around for several years after I left Pilani and went to work in Bombay and Pune. The shouted insults. The suspicious looks. The muttered epithets. The incessant headlines that screamed out the collective guilt of the Sikhs relentlessly. 

Small wonder then that as a Sikh, I was bereft of self-esteem; bereft of compassion for the innocent victims of the carnage of 1984.

The pogrom was squarely cast as a spontaneous outburst in response to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and in classic Goebbelsian fashion it quickly metamorphosed into a ‘riot‘. The focus rapidly shifted from the murdered, the orphaned and the violated, to the ‘evil’ Sikhs who openly rejoiced at the brutal killing of the nation’s leader. Any twinges of conscience or compassion that might have existed were supplanted by righteous indignation.

The propaganda victory was decisive.

Away from the newspeak of the Indian government, I started discovering little bits and pieces that helped me, for the first time, form my own opinion about what had happened to the Sikhs of Delhi -- and, of course, those living in scores of cities, town and villages across the country.

Somewhat to my surprise, my university library yielded a treasure house of articles written from an independent perspective, almost completely by non-Sikhs.

When I had visited Delhi in December of 1984, I had heard whispers about the ‘The Black Book’ within Sikh circles, which purported to tell the true story of what happened in the wake of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination.

'The Black Book’ was a booklet titled ‘Who Are The Guilty’, a report on the pogrom put together by two Indian civil rights organizations, The People’s Union for Civil Liberties ("PUCL"), led by Mr. Rajni Kothari and The People’s Union for Democratic Rights.

In great detail, it documented what had happened in the neighborhoods of Delhi, based on eyewitness accounts. It fearlessly named names. High ranking Congress politicians and ministers; local Congress functionaries; local troublemakers and toughs, who seized upon an unprecedented opportunity to rape and pillage, and ordinary citizens who inexplicably turned against Sikh neighbors, by whose side they had lived amicably for years.

The booklet was promptly banned by the Congress government and was unavailable in Delhi.

Three years later, in the US, I was able to get my hands on a copy.

Another piece of writing which I discovered was the fearless reporting by Ms. Madhu Kishwar in Manushi.

A word about Manushi: it was termed a ‘women’s magazine’ and had a small readership, but in reality was a rare independent and progressive voice in the India of the mid-eighties.

Ms. Kishwar’s article detailed the pogrom as starkly and honestly as the PUCL report.

The dark mutterings I had heard in Delhi were true! All of it had indeed happened. The capital of the ‘largest democracy in the world’ had indeed turned into a killing field where innocent Sikhs had been butchered with impunity by the very forces that were sworn to keep the peace in the land.

The third piece that had a profound impact on me was a paper by Dr. Veena Das, an anthropologist, published in the journal Dædalus.

Based on interviews and field research in some of the poorest and hardest hit neighborhoods of Delhi, Dr. Das told the stories of several children who had been targets of violence during the pogrom.

One of the most poignant stories in her paper was about a deaf mute boy called Avtar Singh, whose father had been hanged by a lynching mob during the pogrom. Unable to articulate his pain in any other way, the child could only mime his father’s gruesome end.

The writings of these fearless and principled men and women helped me shed my share of the collective guilt that many young Sikhs of my generation carried around after the events of 1984. It created in my heart empathy for the victims, the children in particular.

Kultar’s Mime’, the poem was a cry of impotent rage. A lament. A plea for justice. An anguished rant that urgently wanted to be heard, lest the stories of these innocent children be forgotten, untold.

This is how the story of the children begins:

1

He's a little Sikh boy; his name's Kultar
Lives in a place they call `Jamuna Paar'
Smiling cherubic face; he looks so cute
You can hardly tell, he's deaf and mute
Just your average child from a poor home
Is what on first glance I'm wont to say
I see him busy with his friends at play
When the streets of Tilakvihar I roam
What is it here that I do hope to find
In these dusty alleys forbidding unkind

2

Little Billoo an elfin nine year old
Plays hide and seek with our hero young
She's full of life boisterous and bold
But sensitive too, quick to be stung
Angad is much older than both of them
A street urchin now (used to be a gem)
Two years ago he stopped going to school
He's into petty theft and plays the fool
Wants to grow up tough be a macho man
Does boast one day people near and far
Will know of Angad Singh of Tilakvihar
Under bluster and bravado, hide he can
But those of you who've heard his screams
Do know for sure of his fearful dreams

3

Sweet Rano so fair is a demure nineteen
Lucky; she lives in her uncle's house
There was a time she was calm and serene
Now she's jumpier than a little mouse
She's a lovely little lady; a trifle sad
(Rumour has it that she might even be mad)
She's always lost in her private thoughts
She winds her way through the rickety cots
Of the local hospital's dingy mental wards
She was finally able to find some work
Soothing and chasing the demons that lurk
In the minds of the infant mental retards
Her body is young; eyes are old and wise
Sudden sound makes them widen in surprise

4

You may well ask; what's all this about
What's so unique `bout this motley bunch
The deaf mute boy little girl young lout
By now my friends you must have a hunch
A story I have to tell; indeed its true
Tilak Vihar must have given you some clue
Clusters of houses little shanty town
In dull shades of grey and dirty brown
Blister in the face of that cruel land
Like many others of its colour and kind
Destitution poverty and the daily grind
Rub faces and dreams deep into the sand
Oh and what a story do I have to tell
Burning passion blind hate sanity's knell

*   *   *   *   *

It was with profoundly mixed feelings that I took my place in the audience two week‘s ago, almost twenty five years after Kultar’s Mime had been written.

I watched the audience enter the Hopkinton High School auditorium in Boston, taking their seats after viewing several original paintings inspired the poem in an ‘art gallery’ on the stage, with the PUCL Black Book as the backdrop.

Would they get it? Would they care? Would they understand what had happened and how horrible it had been for the forgotten children of the pogrom?

I need not have worried.

Gasps. Tears. Stunned silence. As the young actors made Kultar and Angad and Biloo and Rano their own and each face and body turned into a stage on which, the drama of death played, relentlessly demanding to be seen and heard.

When Mehr Kaur came to me a year ago and expressed her determination to adapt Kultar’s Mime into a play and stage it with young actors, I wasn’t quite sure if it was the best way to introduce the material to the world. After all, it was a poem filled with emotion, which -- it seemed -- would defy being staged.

But as the packed auditorium erupted in applause and the audience rose in a standing ovation, I remember thinking: an important milestone in Avtar’s journey had been reached. His story had been told by the actors with passion, grace and finesse. Through the efforts of Mehr Kaur, Cody Johnson, Will Blanchette, Aidan Connelly, Evelyn Oliver, Leah Raczynski, Ali Weinstein, Evanleigh Davis, Nicole McLaughlin and Amandeep Singh.

Perhaps this would be a small step forward in the quest for justice.

It's been twenty-nine long years ...

 

[The author, based in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA, is a writer, commentator, playwright and an executive in the technology industry. In 2012, he was a finalist of The Boston Globe's Bostonian of the Year award for organizing an interfaith service in Boston, where 1,500 people gathered to show support for the victims of the attack on the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. https://twitter.com/sarbpreetsingh

July 6, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 06, 2013, 2:13 PM.

This is the most chilling account of the 1984 pogrom. An addition to 'The Black Book'. The 'Mill of God' seems to be turning slowly but certainly.

2: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), July 06, 2013, 9:28 PM.

Our Gurus have taught us that to live happily on this planet we must never fear death brought about by different forces at different point of time. The Mughals and the British, for example have come ... and gone. So will the current oppressors in New Delhi. But Sikhs and Sikhi will survive ... and continue to flourish.

3: Manbir Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), July 06, 2013, 10:22 PM.

Well done, Sarbpreet Singh. My family and i still remember the horrors of those seven days in November 1984, experienced first hand. It only reinforced our faith in Waheguru and proved the fact that both Good and Bad exist in this World.

4: GC Singh (USA), July 07, 2013, 12:23 PM.

India and Hindutva - enslaved and oppressed under foreign occupation for almost 1000 years -- were freed by unparalleled sacrifices of our Gurus and countless Sikhs starting with Baba Banda Singh Bahadar, who despite insurmountable odds, stood up against the tyranny but never gave in. But the same Hindutava establishment today considers the attack and destruction on Darbar Sahib as its crowning glory,and the genocide of hundreds of thousands of innocent Sikhs over the course of a decade as its most righteous accomplishment. This is exemplified by two very interesting events that happened this week. CBI framed charges of a fake encounter against Gujarat police officers for the murder of Ishrat Jahan, and the Indian media and the Home Minister was all over the story 24/7. Not that they love the Muslim Ishrat or her death matters at all, but because the Congress Government wanted to nail their political opponent Modi before the coming elections. In the same week, a Punjab police Inspector Surjit Singh admitted that he killed between 200 to 300 Sikhs who were already in police custody in 83 fake encounters at the orders of superior officers whom he has identified. One of them is presently Inspector General of Police. But the Hindu establishment and their entire propaganda media has totally blacked out the news as if the killings of Sikhs -- a community they envy for its honesty, integrity and independence -- is something of a noble cause and is just a routine matter not to be bothered with.

5: N Singh (Canada), July 07, 2013, 6:41 PM.

@GC Singh: Don't worry, GC Singh ji, the news is out. This is the break we have been waiting for. Finally the chapter on the enforced disappearances will begin and like the 1984 pogroms we will not rest until the whole world hears our story. It is only a matter of time now.

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Kultar's Mime"









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