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For 1984 riot victims, peace is still elusive

Last updated on: November 17, 2009 22:20 IST

Image: The cover of Jarnail Singh's book.
Jarnail Singh
Jarnail Singh, the journalist who hurled a shoe at Home Minister P Chidambaram in April, has written a book on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, I Accuse The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984. We present excerpts from the book with kind permission from its publishers Penguin Books India.

Shanti Kaur was filled with foreboding. Her 22-year-old son Sohan Singh had not come home. There were just 23 days left for his wedding on April 30, 2009. Did he not like his prospective bride in Rajasthan? He had looked happy about it but he hadn't called and none of his friends knew where he was. After two days of worry, she went to the police. They washed their hands off the problem, saying, 'Must be somewhere with his friends.'

Shanti Kaur had seen her father Kirpal Singh and brother Modu Singh being burnt alive at the hands of a mob in 1984. Later, her husband died of throat cancer. She had no father, brother or husband. Would she lose her son as well? She wondered if she should tell the girl's side, but decided it would be too insulting. She decided to wait for a few days.

She had pulled her son Sohan Singh out of the quagmire of drugs after a lot of effort. But the drug traders had killed him for refusing to buy any more. His body was hidden in his house, beneath the bedding. The murderer, Kamal, was so arrogant, that he did not even try to get rid of the body, confident no one would go to the police.

People say Kamal had murdered his brother too. When the body started to smell, the housemaid noticed. The news spread, but the body couldn't be identified as its face had been mutilated. Hearing the news, Shanti Kaur went to the house. She recognised his clothes and his chappals. The long shadows of 1984 had destroyed everything she had.

The police were not ready to register a case of murder. But when the people from the colony surrounded the police station, they rounded up the killers. Shanti Kaur took a loan for the funeral and said prayers for her son and grieved not just for the boy whose future had once momentarily seemed brighter, but for all the others she had lost as well.

'Even today Shanti Kaur hears the cries of her burning father and brother'

Image: A file picture of a victim with a photograph of relatives lost in the 1984 riots.
Photographs: rediff archives
She was living in Block 32 of Trilokpuri with her father Kirpal Singh and brother Modu Singh when the mob burnt 500 men alive as the police stood by. At the time Shanti Kaur was 17 but she could not understand why the mob was bent on killing them.

In front of her eyes her father Kirpal Singh and brother Modu Singh were tied to a charpoy. First their long hair was cut off and then they were set alight as casually as the burning of Ravana's effigy on Dussehra day. Even today Shanti Kaur hears the cries of her burning father and brother.

She had just turned 18 when relatives married her off to Puran Singh. Puran Singh's father had been hacked to death by the mob in Sultanpuri. Even Puran Singh had been slashed with swords and knives and left for dead. He used to earn a living by selling vegetables, but it seemed then that her life was coming together again.

During this period they had three children -- Sohan Singh, Rajni and Gurbachan Singh. However Puran Singh's health was deteriorating. He was becoming weaker day by day and he talked of pain in the neck where he had been slashed by a knife. They did not have enough money for treatment at a good hospital though Shanti Kaur suggested a number of times that he should see a doctor at a good hospital. At this he would say, 'When we have a bit more money then we shall see.' But that day never came.

When he was diagnosed with throat cancer they found that the treatment would cost lakhs. Where could they have got so much money from? Shanti Kaur was helpless. He expired within a month in front of their eyes.

Shanti Kaur did not give up and started working in homes to bring up her children. Since she was not educated her options were very limited. When she started going to work, people engaged in the drug trade pushed Sohan Singh towards the drug habit. He would remain sad and tired all the time.

When Shanti Kaur would ask, 'Son, what has happened?' he wouldn't reply. When she probed his friends, their reply shocked her. Sohan was addicted to smack. When he couldn't get it he would become frantic, thrashing about as if he was going to die. His breathing would slow down, his throat would dry up and his legs would hurt so much that he could not stand. Shanti did not know what to do.

The 15-year-old son would understand his mother's pain and ask her to poison and kill him. But how could she do that? Then he would cry for her to save him. She took him to the gurdwara many times and made him swear that he would not take drugs but when he would have the craving, he would forget everything else.

'When will peace be found in my life?'

Image: The Tilak Vihar area in New Delhi, one of the worst affected in the 1984 riots.
Photographs: rediff archives
Neighbours suggested that she should send him to a de-addiction centre where he could be treated: He went repeatedly to centres at Aman Vihar, Rohini, Paharganj, and Govindpuri. She tried everything to get her son treated. For some time he would lose the habit but later he would again fall in with the same company and the addiction would start again.

In the end he was admitted to the Nihal Vihar Centre. He was kept there for nearly one and a half years and she paid for the expenses by working in homes. Shanti Kaur's smile began to return when her son left drugs completely. After he returned home he stayed away from drugs and the company of the drug addicts. When he started working she was relieved.

She felt as if her sacrifices were bringing results. When I was listening to her tell her story, I could not imagine a sadness greater than this. Shanti Kaur's daughter Rajni is 16 years old now. When she started going to houses to work, the people around started saying all sorts of things. The younger son has left his studies and works in a clothing shop but she is worried about her daughter's marriage. She asks, 'When will peace be found in my life?'

This is not an uncommon story. Far too many of the children of the victims of 1984 are addicted to drugs. After the death of their fathers, their mothers were compelled to go out to work and there was no one to take care of the kids.

Gopi Kaur said bitterly in an interview to this author that the accused in the cases of violence deliberately got the children of the widows' colony addicted to drugs so that their whole generation would be destroyed and there would be no one left to raise a voice about 1984. This is the position held by Jagdish Singh, president of the Sikh Riot Victims' Action Committee, and all the widows are of the same view.

The despair of the widows

Image: Sikhs shout slogans in Amritsar against Jagdish Tytler, accused of leading anti-Sikh rioters.
Photographs: Munish Sharma/Reuters
But the despair of the widows is understandable. After losing seven people including her husband in the massacre, Gopi Kaur's hopes were centred on her son, Gurmeet Singh. But when he was 22 years old, Gurmeet fell into the drug habit, became addicted to smack, and died of his addiction.

Her younger brother-in-law, Chandu Singh, is so emotionally scarred from his experiences in 1984, he can't go out of the house. He is so scared of the sight of a khaki uniform that he starts running when he sees a police officer. He just sits, staring blankly in front of him all day.

Gopi is one of the 70 unfortunate women who received compensation as victims of 1984, but unscrupulous people robbed her of even that. A bogus company called the Oriental Housing Society came into being and lured the uneducated, vulnerable widows into depositing their money into this scheme, promising higher returns.

In six months this organisation vanished. The widows curse them till today and a case of fraud is being fought in the courts. However, there is little hope of getting the money back.

Two of Barfi Kaur's nephews lost their lives in the prime of their youth by taking drugs. The terrible events of 1984 cast their long shadow, blighting even the lives of young people, who grew up in an atmosphere of the despair and bitterness of their families who had lost everything.

Many of the widows feel the people responsible for their husband's deaths are also to blame for all that has befallen them since. The same people have blocked the course of justice and continue to protect the perpetrators.

Barfi Kaur and the other widows who got together in Jagdish Singh's house to talk to me said that in the widows' colony, more than 200 young men have lost their lives to drugs.

She recalls that when she and the other widows of the colony used to go out for work, which they were compelled to do as their husbands, the family wage earners, had been killed, kids in the age group of ten to 15 years were targeted and lured into the drug habit by unscrupulous pushers who preyed on unsupervised young boys.

There are few households in the colony where the scourge of these intoxicants is not felt. The desperation among the addicts is such that they will even take drugs meant for animals to satisfy their cravings. Young children sniff whitener after pouring it on a handkerchief. Sniffing petrol and other substances it quite common. They can finish a whole strip of Proxyvon-1 tablets in a day. There are frequent thefts to pay for the habit.

They sell anything, from the neighbour's motor pumps to household clothes and utensils. If families refuse them money, the atmosphere in the house degenerates into abuses and fights.

'Why aren't the police taking any action?'

Image: Victims of the 1984 Sikh riots clashing with police in New Delhi on August 10, 2005.
Photographs: Ranjan Basu/Saab Pictures
The widows' hopes were centred on their children. They hoped their sons would do well, but for many households in the widows' colony, this hope too has dwindled. A tearful Gopi says, 'I lost seven men from my house in the riots but not I cannot tolerate the pain of losing my young son.'

Jagdish Singh alleges that there is a well-thought-out conspiracy behind the spread of drug addiction in the widows' colony perpetrated by those powers that are against the riot victims. He says, 'If this was not true then a least the police would have been with us. We have requested help from various police sources, but not one is prepared to listen.

The drugs are being sold openly in the form of medicines and injections but there is no one to stop them. They are tired of complaining but the police does not take any action. Proxyvon and other drugs are freely available at chemist shops but there is no stopping them. Why is it so?' The situation is such that the day Jagdish Singh complained about the drug business to the police, his house was burgled the same night. Perhaps it was a warning.

Jagdish Singh says that ever since the riot-hit families have recovered a bit and started asking for justice, the drug dealers have one by one started giving away the drugs free of cost. Whether this is a conspiracy or not is difficult to say, but as the people in the area ask constantly, why aren't the police taking any action?

With the colony in the throes of the drug habit, the women are forced to consider all possible ways of earning a living. With fathers dead in riots, brothers lost to the drug habit and helpless mothers, some girls have been forced to take to prostitution. These innocent girls are being taken advantage of. Jagdish Singh admits that he knows that five to ten girls from their colony are fully into this trade and there are probably at least 50 to 60 more.

These consequences of the massacre are heart-rending. Jagdish Singh says, 'If we have something in hand only then can we advise them. If somebody gives them a job or if we can offer a means of earning, only then can we counsel them.'

The fallout of the violence of 1984 is still destroying the families of the victims.

Excerpted from I Accuse... The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984, by Jarnail Singh, Penguin India, with the publisher's kind permission.