“My father used to say, ‘I will continue to live where my sons were massacred’,” says Kawaljeet Singh, explaining why his family still lives in Delhi’s Trilokpuri. It was one of the worst hit areas in the three day long anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Thousands of Sikhs lived in the area back then. Today, only two families that were affected by the riots remain in the block. Kawaljeet’s family is one of them.
Kawaljeet was 18 when the riots broke out, the only Sikh in a bus trying to get home. The driver stopped the bus at Shakarpur and refused to go any further. Ahead, mobs were stopping vehicles to look for Sikhs. The driver took the boy home.
When Kawaljeet reached Trilokpuri he found his lane besieged. He was caught by a mob that was lynching Sikhs indiscriminately. They attacked him with a dagger and were about to slaughter him when they spotted two older Sikhs and tried to grab them as well. In the struggle that ensued, Kawaljeet escaped. He ran until he reached Block 36 where a Muslim family took him in and hid him for three days.
Back at Kawaljeet’s own home, all three of his older brothers were missing, and his father and five sisters were hiding in the storeroom. His mother, the only one not in hiding, let in a young Hindu man, a stranger who guarded their home for the next three days. He would turn away rioters by saying this was his home, a Hindu household. He had removed images of the Gurus from the walls, but left those of ‘Mata Rani’ in place. Kawaljeet does not remember the man’s name but keeps repeating “may God bless him” every couple of minutes, as if he was there just a few days ago, protecting his mother from the assailants.
This sense of immediacy pervades Kawaljeet’s entire narrative – his loopy, terrifying, sometimes incoherent narrative of what happened in those three days. There is something disturbingly child-like about him. It is as if he could turn a corner and find himself back in 1984 in a heartbeat. The beatings left him broken, mentally and physically. He could not finish school and was unable to do physically strenuous work. As a result, he has never been able to find permanent employment.
His wife Simranjeet Kaur sits next to him, finishing his sentences and reminding him of details he seems to forget. One would imagine she was with Kawaljeet through it all, though she only came to live in Trilokpuri after her marriage in 1992. In 1984 she was a seven-year-old child living in Shahdara. Her parents’ home was also attacked, but she does not offer her own story until prodded. “They looted everything. Then they put a tyre around my Dadaji and burnt him. When my chachaji tried to intervene, they burnt him too.” Her voice trails off as she tears up. Her quiet resignation is in sharp contrast to her husband’s disquieting anger.
The Singhs live in a narrow lane off a road that leads into Block 30 from Medina Masjid. The doors to most houses here are open. Their eight-year-old son Sarbjeet is playing outside with other children from the locality. Women walk in and out of each others’ homes, running errands, chatting. It is hard to imagine the pogrom Kawaljeet speaks of playing out in a neighbourhood like this. And yet it did.
The attackers “were all from around here. Nobody was an outsider,” Simranjeet says. Muslims, Hindus, Gujjars, Jatavs, Valmiks – all from around here. “The police came and asked us to deposit our kirpans in the Gurudwara for safekeeping. Then they gave the same kirpans to the rioters. They made announcements inciting violence, offering to distribute alcohol and weapons. I have heard it with my own ears. I cannot forget it.”
Kawaljeet still seems astonished at the complicity of the police. He keeps repeating himself, telling me how they refused to protect them, as if he were saying it for the first time. They even refused to file a missing persons report when his father first went to the police station after the riots, he says.
Kawaljeet found one of his brothers in a heap of dead bodies near a public toilet. His brother was alive, but had severe brain injuries, injuries that he finally succumbed to after months of suffering from chronic seizures. The other two brothers’ bodies were never found, but an old woman who lived nearby, saw them being killed. “We told them to cut off their hair but they refused. That was the only thing that could have saved them,” she told Kawaljeet’s mother.
“Indira Gandhi’s own bodyguards killed her. What did we do?” Kawaljeet asks me, like I might actually have an answer. “It is now clear who did it,” he says. “Rajiv Gandhi said in an interview that some Congressmen were involved. God made him say it.”
Kawaljeet is speaking about Rahul Gandhi, but he keeps referring to the Congress vice president by his father’s name – Rajiv Gandhi. Because he tells his story in a stream of consciousness, it is hard to tell when he is speaking about the father and when about the son. “Rajiv Gandhi said bara per girta hai to... Wasn’t he a bara per too? Why didn’t they kill Tamil people when he got himself blown to pieces? Now his children say his killers should be forgiven. Why were we massacred then?”
I suggest it might be a good thing that his children have spoken out against the death penalty for Rajiv’s assassins, but he is in no mood for concessions. “Why does he keep rolling his sleeves and talking about his grandmother’s death? Our mothers and sisters were molested, they were killed...” I remind him Rahul Gandhi was only a child in 1984. “I was also a child,” he shoots back. There is no reasoning with grief.
Many of the rioters from this area have been convicted. Many of the victims have been compensated. But those who survived the riots cannot help but focus on what remains to be done: the Congress leaders who went unpunished, the compensation money that is still due, the jobs that were promised but never delivered.
Nothing explains this sentiment better than an incident that occurred in this area in 2009. When survivors were identifying rioters, a doctor called Babulal Kashyap allegedly paid off witnesses and managed to evade arrest. A 10-year-old boy who had seen the doctor molest women and kill his father stopped him near the local Gurudwara and told him he would come after him when he grew up. Over two decades later, the boy came back to Trilokpuri and stabbed the doctor to death in broad daylight. It was 31st October, the anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Politicians understand the continuity of this sentiment. Every election, across party lines, they bring up 1984. “Parkash Singh Badal’s people had come here. They gave some compensation on their own to some of the victims and told us to vote for the BJP,” Kawaljeet tells me. “Tab se kamal pe hi mohar laga rahein hain.” But the BJP has done nothing for them. “Nothing at all. They only use it to attack the Congress during elections, then forget about it,” he says.
“This time we thought we will give new people a chance,” Simranjeet tells me. They voted for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Assembly elections. “So many of their people had come. They said they would get us justice. But they ran away as soon as they were elected,” says Kawaljeet. “They had also promised to reduce electricity and water bills. Our water bill was Rs 11,000. They asked us not to pay. They said, “Tear it and throw it away, we will take care of it”. Then they ran away. Now the bill is Rs 17,000 with late fines. We don’t know what to do,” adds Simranjeet. This is the first time I have heard either of them talk about an issue other than 1984, though it is apparent the family has a hard time making ends meet.
Within minutes Kawaljeet is back to talking about 1984. “Whatever we have got is because of people like you who keep writing about the riots,” he says. “Someone made a music video also. I was in it.” He doesn’t remember who it was. The video is on his oldest son’s mobile phone.
The Singhs have three children. Their youngest is still playing outside. The other two are not home. “Show her their photographs,” Kawaljeet instructs his wife. He tells me all three of his children are studying. He seems proud of them. But he does not smile while talking about them. He does not smile at anything.
I return on a Sunday to meet the children – Ranbeer and Komal. The street outside is red with the blood of chickens that have been freshly slaughtered. Somebody in the lane is leaving for Mecca to perform Hajj. Eunuchs are dancing. Dholis have been called to play for the occasion and the sound of their drums is deafening. Ranbeer apologises for the noise as we settle down to talk in the same room where I had spoken to his father.
He is confident but polite and has a ready, infectious smile. He has been working at a call centre in the sales department for the last two years and makes Rs 12,000 a month. The job is helping him pay for his Political Honours course in Delhi University. He wanted to take English Honours but that is “a tough course”. It would have required him to attend classes, which he cannot do because he needs to work during the day to support his family. He can “manage” Political Honours with the tuitions he goes for after work. He tells me this matter of factly.
Ranbeer does not complain about anything. His mother tells me drug-peddling and sale of illicit liquor is rampant in the area. But it does not concern him. “It doesn’t affect us,” he shrugs. He is 21 and will be voting for the first time tomorrow. I ask him if he has thought about who he wants to vote for. “Modi,” he replies very quickly, smiling and looking at me expectantly, as if he were giving me a high-five. He does not know who the local BJP candidate is. He does not care either. His vote is for the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Ranbeer admits the Congress government did its bit for East Delhi. “When Commonwealth Games happened, Papa got a job also,” he says. “But this time we want to defeat them and bring Modi.”
His parents had said no one from the families of those who were attacked in 1984 would ever vote for the Congress, but Ranbeer says the riots are not an election issue for him. “Of course we feel bad when we hear, but in the future I may vote for the Congress. But only if the BJP does not do a good job. If they do a good job we only want the BJP,” he clarifies. His enthusiasm for Modi is seemingly boundless. He wants him to come to power “because he will take care of inflation and corruption and ensure development and women’s safety. Haven’t you seen the ads?” he asks me.
I ask him several more questions but cannot quite piece together what ‘development’ means to him. He is happy with his job and his studies. He has no personal experience of having had to pay a bribe. Nor does he fear for the safety of women from his family or friend circle. In five years he wants to be rich and have a “lifestyle”. “Modi can make it happen. I think so,” he says.
Ranbeer’s sister Komal is 18 and will also be voting for the first time these elections. She is very excited about the process but hasn’t thought about who she will vote for. “The BJP, only maybe,” she says. But not because her brother wants her to. “I decide for myself,” she insists. “Who else can I vote for?” she asks. “The AAP ran away and the Congress, I don’t like.” She does not say why.
Komal has done a beautician’s course and wants to open her own beauty parlour in a “posh area like Mayur Vihar, as soon as possible. Tomorrow, if I can”. I ask her if she feels unsafe in Delhi. “No,” she says monosyllabically. She is not very interested in talking about anything other than the parlour she wants to set up. “I can only think about other things if I start earning my own money,” she explains.
Kawaljeet is not around today. He is laid up in bed sick. I ask both Ranbeer and Komal what they wish for their father. Only Ranbeer replies. “I wish he gets a good lifestyle.” The children tell me they don’t really think about 1984. “When dadi used to tell us about it we used to feel bad but otherwise we don’t talk about it. In election time it keeps coming up when they question Modi about 2002,” says Ranbeer. Is he concerned about Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots? Ranbeeris unusually hesitant to reply, “It must have been bad for them like it was bad for our parents.”
His mother has come in with tea. She interjects to tell me that her neighbours have been saying there will be riots if Modi becomes PM. She is concerned. There is a large population of Muslims in the area. Ranbeer interrupts her impatiently. “There will not be riots,” he says. How does he know? “I am not thinking of all that. I just want Modi to come to power. As do all my friends.”
Do his Muslims friends also want Modi to come to power? “If they think of development, they should,” he says with a grin. How are you so sure he will bring development, I ask him. What if he ‘runs away’ like the AAP? “Haven’t you seen the way he displays himself? On TV and hoardings? If he is displaying himself like that, he will do it,” he says. His mother interjects again, more gentle this time, less certain. “But what if there are riots again in Trilokpuri? There are hardly any Sikh families left...”
I think of what Kawaljeet had said to me. “The Sikh community has been born to be butchered. From the time of the Mughals, we have always been attacked.” But Ranbeer does not think of himself as belonging to a minority. “I don’t think we are minority. I have never felt it. They are minority.” He is pointing to his neighbours who are all Muslims.