They were burning him as if playing a normal street game. A few kept him pinned down to the ground while others poured petrol on him. After kicking him to the content of their hearts they torched him. With a burning body, he ran here and there. Someone brought a burning tire and with the help of a long rod and put it around his neck, receiving a great round of applause. They clapped and they chatted. There was no sound coming from him. He just ran like a giant flame, aimlessly flailing his arms in order to capture something in the air. They playfully avoided him, giggling, joking. Then he fell on the ground, giving up the fight against the unknown demons. Some just danced around without purpose, clapping each others’ backs. None looked angry. None of them looked familiar. I watched this from my window. I knew that it was just a matter of someone pointing to our house. With bated breath I waited. Every second was like an hour. I knew they would move on looking for the next victim to kill, the next house or shop to loot and burn, but when? Would they discover our house before that? This thought redefined the way I think of home. This was the same road that used to look so friendly, brimming with neighbors and tens of familiar faces. Now, at a grey dusk, it looked like the shadow of hell, with strange, unknown monsters wandering around as if they owned the world. In my right hand I held my crutch, and in my left hand I held a cricket bat. My legs trembled with fear and excitement while I remembered my grandfather saying, “If we have to die, Veera (brother), let’s make sure we take one of them with us.” I knew I couldn’t even raise the heavy bat but it was kind of reassuring to hold it. My sisters had already been sent upstairs to our Hindu neighbors. I had refused to go, and my mother had silently accepted that if we were attacked, I was to be the first one to confront the mob because whenever loud noises seemed to be approaching, she would say, “Pali uth, crutches pale!” (Pali, get up and put on your crutches!)
My grandfather had been taken to the backside of the house by my mother and grandmother on some pretext, as he wanted to go out and challenge the crowd, the mob.
Long after the riots, in the school bus when I sat near the window, boys would tease me from their balconies. When I travelled in the auto with my mother people from the nearby vehicles jeered at us while my mother constantly cautioned me not to say anything. A classmate of mine was told by his parents not to talk to me because I was a Sardar (of course his parents were summoned and the principal gave them a piece of her mind that they would remember for a long time). It was not hatred, but a sinister pleasure: Look Sardar, we can humiliate you and you cannot do anything about this, you cannot even dare to utter a sound, because soon a mob will gather, we’ll first cut your hair and then burn you alive.
Now that I’m grown up, I can feel through what the Jews had to go in the Nazi Germany. I hated Hindus then — not all, but the ones who had taken parts in the killings and lootings. I wanted to take some sort of revenge. When my cousin visited our place and told me that they were collecting iron rods to create make-shift weapons in case there was another attack on the community, I gladly gave him the TV antenna pole that lay behind our door. We used to talk for long hours making strategies to make sure we were not caught off guard the next time. We knew the equal fight was not possible, but half of the mob wouldn’t go back even if they attacked a couple of Sikh guys, because not all stories were hopeless. At many places single individuals had put up fight and chased away crowds of twenty people. A friend of ours, with his two brothers, had saved the local gurudwara from being burned down; they had a gun and a few swords. Wherever a few armed Sikhs could gather, they chased away the approaching mobs.
Like me, many people have first person accounts to remember. They all know that 1984 riots were not a spontaneous action (Narender Modi’s famous action-reaction — kriya-pratikriya thing). They were organized; they were incited in full connivance with the administration. We saw the army tank rolling in our colony well after 3-4 days. This was the level of speed with which the government acted. I don’t want to get into who should be punished and who not, but it was so horrifying that now, at this time when I’m writing this, it’s hard to believe we went through those days when the sounds of death were echoing everywhere. It was like living in the enemy territory. All our neighbors were nice but what would they do if a mob of 50 people descended upon us? In total there must had been 350 houses in our colony, and 10-15 belonged to Sikh families. It was as if we were living in a dark, dismal dread.
Although punishment acts as a deterrent, I’m not pretty much concerned about the current debate on the Nanavati Commission’s findings and the PM’s consequent apology. The PM need not be apologetic about the pogrom as he was not an active politician at that time. But he should be apologetic for belonging to a political party (Congress I) that propagated the pogrom. Punishments and apologies are technicalities basically; the clock cannot be turned back. Those who died horrible deaths cannot be brought back; those who went through horrific experiences cannot wash them off. I saw the kind of violence I would never like my child to witness.
People who took part in rioting should bear at least some consequences, if for nothing else, just to show the future generations that a semblance of law exists in the country. Those who were children in 1984 have grown up now as the citizens of the country. They should not have to live with an impression that in this country if you are given a free hand, you can perpetrate any kind of brutality without incurring the wrath of the law.