Bitter memories are like festering sores. But sometimes, the slate
is wiped clean: the old order is altered, the forbidden becomes the
preferred and hope comes calling in renewed vigour.
Last week, when Lt Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh was named the new army
chief, the first Sikh to hold the position in Indias 57 years
of Independence, the effect on the community was similar. Many Sikhs
nursed an emotional grievance that the turban was discriminated against
when it came to the armys top job.
But the new turn of events has changed all that. As senior Akali leader
Kanwaljit Singh puts it, The development carries the message that
the suspicion on the loyalty of the Sikh community towards the nation
since 1984 has finally been demolished.
This is the Sardars season. Be it governing the nation, handling
its economy or protecting its frontiers the community is enjoying
its finest moment in two decades. So what if he has no political base,
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a Sikh. So is Montek Singh Ahluwalia,
the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. And when J.J. Singh
becomes Indias army chief early next year, the triangle will be
complete. Sitting on his favourite chair in his Sujan Singh Park residence,
writer Khushwant Singh smiles and says, Its a sea change.
I think the period of nightmare is over.
Twenty years ago, the Sikhs were an alienated people. Punjab was ravaged
by militant killings and army bullets. But as the armys attempt
to rid the Golden Temple of militants led to the killing of thousands,
extremism gathered deeper roots. On October 31, 1984, when Indira Gandhi
was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, thousands of Sikhs were massacred.
Says the 90-year-old writer, It was not spontaneous but organised.
It took place only in the Congress-governed states. Then the sense of
alienation became acute.
Slowly over the years, peace has returned to Punjab. And the 20-million-strong
community spread in all corners of India is now making a return journey
to the mainstream. The signs are there for everyone to see. Hindi cinema,
that unfailing barometer of the popular pulse, shows a distinct approval
of the Sikh ways. Who would have imagined a passionate Sardar lover
beard, turban and all in a Hindi film? But Sunny Deol
in the superhit Gadar of 2001 caught the change in the
Over 10 per cent of the dialogues in this years biggest Bollywood
hit, Veer Zaara, is in Punjabi with Amitabh Bachchan playing a Sikh
character. And, though Daler Mehndi doesnt sell a million albums
anymore, Bhangra pop continues to thrive. Rabbi is the new bearded hot
thing in Sufi-pop. The turban, says satirist Jaspal Bhatti,
has gained both acceptance and approval like never before.
The transition was tough. The feeling of alienation had only increased
in the post-1984 years. Many poor and helpless Sikhs were often picked
up by the lawmen for questioning. Whenever there was a Delhi blast,
the police used to harass us. The logic seemed to be: since these guys
survived the riots, they must be working on revenge, says riot
victim Surjit Singh.
Even in 1987, a Sikh was often looked at with suspicion. Playwright
Gursharan Singh recalls fellow passengers discussing his bag during
a train journey from Delhi to Lucknow. Is he carrying bombs, they
were wondering aloud, he recalls.
A communitys return to the mainstream the ebbing away
of alienation is not so much an event as a process. But lawyer
H.S. Phoolka, who is still fighting the cases of 1984 riot victims,
believes that the tide started turning in the early Nineties. For
the first time, during V.P. Singhs tenure as Prime Minister, the
government admitted to wrongs which needed to be rectified. Even during
Chandrashekhars brief regime some cases were reopened, he
says. These were the first hesitant beginnings in a long quest for justice
which continues even today.
But Kanwaljit, who has also served as Punjabs finance minister,
believes that the change came about with the emergence of coalition
politics and by reverting the focus of policy-making to the region;
thereby giving it its due importance.
A minority community often looks out for signals and messages which
underscore a governments intent towards it and which make or break
its collective perceptions. To a greater or lesser degree, depending
on their own personal experiences, most Sikhs are thrilled with the
And the feeling holds good even for the NRI Sikh, many of whom migrated
during the peak of Punjab militancy and who continue to be vocal critics
of the Indian state. During a visit to the US last July after Manmohan
Singh became Prime Minister, Gursharan Singh was surprised at the change
of tenor in most Sikh newspapers published there.
Their usual tone is that the Sikhs are having a bad time in India.
There was a change in that trend this time. Now with J.J. Singh all
set to be the army chief, it is likely to get more positive, he
But Patwant Singh, author of the seminal work, The Sikhs, believes
that wounds cannot heal until the guilty are punished. He has a direct
query: Why has nobody been convicted so far?
It is a question many riot victims are asking as well. For men like
Surjit Singh, who lost 13 family members, forgetting is impossible.
For him, as for those who have been through the worst of the killings,
little has changed.
Yet, undeniably, for most Sikhs the past few months have rung in hope
and promise. Having the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff from
their own community has filled them with a sense of community pride
and given them the feeling of being an integral part of the Indian mainstream.
As literateur Ajeet Cour says, History is full of such wounds.
Life demands that one reconciles. It is important to forgive, even if
one cannot forget. And move on.
And those left out...
Bereft: Women who lost their families in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots;
lawyer H.S. Phoolka; Photos: Prem Singh
The boys of Garhi, a resettlement colony for the 1984 riot victims in
south Delhi, call themselves free. Free is their word for being unemployed.
Those who were barely four years old or less a couple even in
their mothers womb when their grandfathers, fathers and
uncles were slaughtered have grown up to be tall, gawky men.
Most of them dropped out of school early and grew up playing in the
bylanes of these humblest of DDA flats their mothers received after
spending months in the relief camps. But you cant blame the mothers
for their lack of education. Before their lives changed so dramatically
following the anti-Sikh riots, they were homemakers for mechanical engineers,
ex-armymen and shopkeepers.
Suddenly, with every grown-up man in the family dead, they had to go
out on work even though the job wasnt much to be pleased about.
They worked, and still do, as errand women, dais, gardeners and cleaners.
Any job that keeps the home fires burning. At daytime on weekdays, you
will not find any middle-aged woman in the colony.
Young Jagjit Singh knows how he grew up. I grew up standing in
the queue for water, he says. The C-block, where these victims
live, has an acute water problem. Pots and pails lie in dozens outside
every flat; everyone queues up when the water-tanker comes. Like him,
his 24-year-old friend, Gurpreet with a Salman Tere Naam Khan
hairstyle never finished school. A few months ago, he bought
a second-hand Maruti van on loan. But the boys from the bordering mohalla
keep breaking its glass. He doesnt know much about J.J. Singh,
all set to become the first Sikh army chief. But he knows that when
there is a fight, sometimes those boys taunt him with the question,
Bhool gaye kya?
The widows of Garhi are not eagerly waiting for justice, though each
one will welcome it with open arms. They just want to get out of this
endless cycle of misery that circumstance has thrust on them. We
lost our men, says Bakshish Kaur, but today the government
should be thinking about our kids.
One of the boys points out the irony of their existence. Sometimes
they make fun of us and say, you have a Prime Minister but you still
have to stand in queue for water, he