By Anita Krishan
Though I haven’t watched the recently released film ‘31st October’, yet the date immediately brought to my mind some personal experiences of the time that have surely gone down in the Indian history as another dark period.
Chandigarh – The epicenter of terror
I lived in Chandigarh with my family in the early eighties when terrorism in Punjab was its the peak. Militancy which was taking over the state of Punjab was causing serious harm to the communal harmony. It was shattering the peace and concord that had existed here for centuries. This was to eventually affect the entire nation.
Chandigarh, a beautiful city, was in a way, also at the heart of the commotion. One of the demands of the militants was for the inclusion of Chandigarh solely in Punjab. It had always been a union territory as well as shared seat of Punjab and Haryana administrations. As people began to die in bomb blasts and shootouts, this beautiful and modern city designed by Corbusier was slowly wrapped in a formidable cloak of death.
We had Sikh tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Inderjeet Singh, who lived on the upper floor of our house. A well educated middle aged couple, they were also very good friends. We would regularly have barbecues together with discussions naturally drifting towards the ongoing political scenario of the state. The educated urban Sikhs, including our tenants, were vocally against the uncalled for attacks on the Hindu community. “We have lived together like brothers and sisters forever. Now why is this rift being created?” they would express.
Altering everyday life
Hindus traveling in buses and trains were regularly being targetted. Even personal transport wasn’t safe. Many private vehicles had been stopped and the occupants shot at point blank range. Consequently, my father in law’s cousin brother became the target of the terrorists. They barged into his house in Ludhiana and shot dead the entire family including his children. It left us shocked, pained and on tenterhooks for a long time.
With the increasing militancy and such personal attacks on the innocent Hindus, the uncertainty of life became even more blatant. We reduced our evening outings to the minimal. We went out to the market only if absolutely necessary. When and where would the terrorists strike next would be the perpetual question on everybody’s mind. Fortunately, our relations with our gentle tenants remained as cordial as ever.
We lived next to the famous Rose Garden, and a few houses away from the residence of the then director General of the Punjab Police, Julio Robeiro. It was both expedient and detrimental. The area was under high security, as well as under high threat from the militants.
Up, Close and Personal
One morning I was in my garden with my little children when I heard a sudden uproar, and then the sound of rifle shots. I gathered my children in my arms and dashed right indoors but not before I had a glimpse of a few uniformed men rushing past our house, chased by a few more men in uniform. The evening news reported killing of two militants in the Rose Garden. They had come donning police uniforms to target the VIP house.
Such a close encounter increased my nervousness. “What if the terrorists had barged into our house through the open gate and taken us hostages?” My mind deliberated. “Killing people is no way of getting the demands met! This is downright meanness.” The individual, who had the biggest hand in bringing the situation in Punjab to such a brink, naturally earned my revulsion.
The head of the Damdami Taksal, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, now also the self-promoted militant leader had become the most common household name those days, revered by some and loathed by the others. His demand for a separate Sikh nation ‘Khalistan’ had become strident, though all factions of the Sikhs did not support him. With assistance from Pakistan, he had been successful in swaying the young Sikhs. Many were picking up arms to became militants while receiving training in Pakistan organized camps. Butchering became the way of getting their voice heard. Murders of high government officials, policemen, army personnel, media persons and innocent commoners had become quite common.
Hostile Takeover of the Golden Temple
The Punjab Police alone was not enough to tackle the rising militancy in the state. Hence, Army help became mandatory. When the pressure from the security forces became intense on the militants, Bhindranwale decided to convert the holiest of Sikh shrines, The Golden Temple at Amritsar, into a militant hub. To enter the holy place in anything made of leather is a sacrilege making it the safest sanctuary for the terrorists. The militants fortified the temple with heavy machine-guns and sophisticated self-loading rifles.
Among all that fear phobia and tense atmosphere, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a decision to storm the Golden Temple to evict the militants. As a result, on 3rd June 1984, the Indian Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar, undertook Operation Bluestar.
Among all that fear phobia and tense atmosphere, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a decision to storm the Golden Temple to evict the militants. As a result, on 3rd June 1984, the Indian Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar, undertook Operation Bluestar. The army men entered the shrine without shoes and belts. The battle that finally ensued resulted in many casualties on both the sides, including the death of the militant leader, Bindranwale. A few months later, on 31st October 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by the very people she trusted her life with; her own bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.
The demise of the Prime Minister of the country sent shockwaves throughout the nation. It soon began to turn into anger. Early November was uncannily quiet in Chandigarh. However, it felt as if a storm was brewing up here and would burst forth any moment. My husband was in Delhi and the news from there was frightening. Rioting had erupted in the entire city. Mobs were hunting and killing Sikhs as a reprisal. Curfew had been imposed, and Arvind was stuck there till the situation would cool down.
Recounting tales of horror
One evening at about ten, my father in law received a phone call from his friend related to the Commissioner of the Union Territory. He cautioned him of the impending danger. Sikhs were collecting in the Gurudwaras in large numbers and were likely to attack Hindu homes.
Consequently, a deep fear overtook all my rationality. The stories I had heard of the fearsome days of partition from both sets of my parents began to play in my mind. I strongly noted our vulnerability; the large glass doors of the house didn’t even have grills. Perhaps we would have to run to save our lives. I was worried stiff for my children, too small and helpless. I secretly stuffed a bag with nonperishable eatables; dry fruits, biscuits, milk powder tins etc for them. The tension was unbearable.
After about an hour our doorbell rang. My heart skipped many beats. My father-in-law bravely went to answer and found Mr. and Mrs. Inderjeet Singh at our doorsteps. Worry was apparent on their faces. “Do you know that Hindu mobs have collected in large numbers and are going to attack us Sikhs. I just received a phone call from a friend,” Mr. Singh said with trepidation. “Can we spend the night in your house?”
“But we have a different news . . . just the opposite,” he was told.
“If that is the case, you don’t have to worry! We are there to protect you.” After some thinking, Mr. Singh proposed, “I think we’ll be the safest if we stayed together.”
Throughout the night we sat together huddled, awake, fearful, and vouching for each others’ safety.
A call to mankind
No mob attack ensued that night or ever after in Chandigarh. The city remained uneasy but peaceful. And we realized that such are the times that stipulate true test of character and integrity. At such times, common people like us, without any personal security, can only rely on human kindness that breaks the shallow walls of differences; whether religious or ethnic.
Terrorism has continued to create a mess in the entire world. Its roots are becoming deeper and viciously deadly. Eradicating it will be a Herculean task. It will only happen if there is a change in the mindset of the people drenched in radicalism; when there will be realization, awakening, veneration and a desire to preserve the beauty of our planet and its life.
The rational people all over the world want this madness to end. Will it? When? In my lifetime?
Anita Krishan (India) is an author. Her published works include ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’.
Featured Image Credits: Financial Times