On the eve of the anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, we present here an excerpt of pages from Dr Shah Alam Khan’s recent novel, Man With the White Beard (Published by LiFi Books). It is a story which strings together the victims of India’s three main communal riots, namely the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the anti-Christian riots of Khandamal. The excerpts here are from November 1984 in Delhi, which saw one of the worst massacres of Sikhs in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

By late afternoon, small skirmishes were reported from different parts of the city. The ‘excitement’ of the assassination of the topmost leader of the country was thick in the air! The nation was in a state of shock and badly wanted to avenge the murder. There was a human cost of this assassination, which, however heavy, had to be extracted.

The deep voiced All India Radio newsreader described the situation as tense but under control. To Kulwanti, it sounded like ‘dying but not dead!’

Just as Beeji was laying the table, there was a loud explosion somewhere in the lane. The startlingblast shook the kids, and they looked at each other, confused. They ran into the kitchen. Kulwanti hugged Beeji around her waist. Even before they could think of what to do next, the air was shattered by a second blast – more powerful, and accompanied by a tiny cloud of grey, soft, fluffy smoke which disintegrated into the air as soon as it went up. The echo of the second blast hadn’t yet died when the air was rent with screams. Amidst the screams were more ‘organized’ voices – planned noise; the sounds of a mob.

There is something peculiar about the sounds of a mob. They are deliberate, rhythmic, less meaningful and slow like waves of an ocean heard from a far-off distance. Mobs on the kill move slowly, as if giving a fair chance to their victims to escape. The law of the jungle!

“Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge,” The mob sounded very angry.

The four stood in a huddle in the small courtyard of the house. Daljeet, acting on instinct and against Beeji’s loud whispers of admonition, scrambled onto the front wall, raising himself up to have a look at what was going on outside. His maroon turban came up followed by a brown forehead and then two very alarmed eyes. He saw a crowd of seventy odd people with open swords, knives, and daggers in their hands.

Curiously some also carried car and truck tyres.

They had just finished setting alight Jaspreet’s house, the three inmates included. The rejoicing crowd had some prominent faces from the local administrative bodies –people whom Daljeet had greeted many times on the street. And then there were those who had grown up with Daljeet, those with whom he was supposed to play cricket that morning, boys as old as him but with a different God!

The mob was celebrating its kill. Like many of their vagaries, mobs have an uncanny tendency of celebrating. They celebrate victories in cricket matches as well as setting ablaze a helpless woman and children…all with the same zeal! The very fact that mobs can celebrate show that they have brains and hearts. And today one such mob, with brain and heart, had decided to avenge the murder of Indira Gandhi from the Sikh inmates of Trans-Yamuna Colony. The grey smoke coming from Jaspreet’s house rose high up in the sky and mingled with the darker smoke coming from lane number nine. The seven houses in the lane burnt bright. There was panic as the angry mob made its way through the lanes of the Colony.

Confused street dogs ran hither and yon, people hurried into the safety of their homes, most collected on roof tops overlooking the narrow lanes, some pelting stones on Sikhs trying to make an escape from their burning abodes. The mob grew in strength, as it gathered more determined souls on its way, all pained by the killing of Indira Gandhi.

Daljeet quickly descended and relayed the scene to Beeji with a tremor in his voice! The options were limited. To either wait within the flimsy security of the house or to run out and seek refuge with friendly neighbours.

Friendly neighbours? Daljeet had seen Pawanji, a prominent occupant of their lane, pouring kerosene on Jaspreet’s burning house. His young son was part of the mob, which was celebrating the deaths! Being the man of the house for the moment, Daljeet decided to attempt an escape.

They decided to run through the lane and reach the main street. They hoped that the main street would be safer, as if safety was the unseen angel of hope that would take them tenderly under her wings!

As Daljeet opened the door into their lane, the loud sounds became louder and clearer – screams of children, women, and even men. Furious and frustrated screams…screams demanding mercy and screams asking for help, all filled their ears.

Daljeet was holding on to Kulwanti, followed by Harkeerat and Beeji. As the four sneaked into the lane, someone from the ‘heart and brain’ crowd pointed towards them,

“More pigs! Kill the bastards. Maro, maro, maro, maro!”

The painful hearts and angry brains were now speeding towards them, “Maro, maro, maro,” it shouted mercilessly as each member of the mob transformed it into an efficient, flawless hate machine.

The four started running. Daljeet suddenly realized that to run for life was so much different than to run for a medal.

The four were pacing like a rocket, circumventing people who stood outside their houses watching the proceedings with excitement, after all Indira Gandhi was a popular leader and excitement on her death was so much indispensable! None of the friendly neighbours tried to stop or block them. After all, in India, neighbours are an extended family. But then no one from amongst the friendly neighbours tried to inject sanity into the wild, malignant mob which was following them closely.

Man With the White Beard
Shah Alam Khan
LiFi Books, New Delhi