Friday, June 3, 2011

Pot’s blacker than the kettle Shekhar Gupta ( April 06, 2002 )

Pot's blacker than the kettle
Shekhar Gupta Posted: Apr 06, 2002 at 0000 hrs IST null
In their defence of the indefensible some BJP spokesmen have used one touching argument: that the Congress had no business complaining about Gujarat given its own role in the pogrom of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. This shuts up the Congress loudmouths, and deservingly so. But if you were around as a reporter to cover the 1984 riots, you wouldn't accept this as complete truth.

I, unfortunately, no longer get to go out and cover any riots. On Gujarat, therefore, I have to rely upon the accounts of the formidable team of Indian Express reporters in Gujarat who have done such an effective job in trying circumstances. But when 1984 happened, I was there, along with so many other reporters, witnessing a massacre of the type none of us had seen although those were more violent times.

In Nellie, earlier, more people died in a single day (3,300) than in any riot after Partition. But the police were not helping along the murderers. It happened in a distant, hidden patch of dry Brahmaputra bed in a dark corner of Assam, and while the police and the state government were guilty of ignoring early warnings they were not participating in the killings and loot. I reached Nellie when killings and hackings were still on and the wounded were crying, crawling, carrying their dismembered limbs, trying to push back entrails hanging out of stab holes in their children's bellies. There was just half a platoon of the CRPF there, led by a very honourable head constable called H.B.N. Appa who was crying bitterly that he did not have enough people or firepower to stop the killings. He was by no means egging the killers on. He must have still saved a few thousand lives. He resurfaced in my reporting life a year later, in Amritsar during Operation Bluestar, at the head of a CRPF patrol, his lonely heroism at Nellie having earned him the reward of the single pip of a sub-inspector which he flaunted at me and asked: "So what did you get for reaching there ahead of the others?" And then he talked about how many lives he could have saved if only he had a full platoon.

One of my abiding memories of Nellie is the bitterly dejected, forlorn face of the then DIG of Nowgong district, under whose charge the village fell, the day after the massacre. "If only we were here a few hours earlier... if only we were here a few hours earlier," he kept on mumbling. That pain returns to his face even today when I sometimes cruelly pull his leg by reminding him I beat him and his police to the Nellie story. You can check with the gentleman if I am speaking the truth. He is P.C. Sharma, the current director of the CBI. Or you can check with his then boss, K.P.S. Gill, who had to answer so many difficult questions when Indira Gandhi flew in, ashen-faced, the following morning.

To even those of us inured to killings on that scale, the pogroms following Mrs Gandhi's assassination were a tragedy of entirely different dimensions. Columns of smoke rose all over Delhi, mobs — actually just bands of thugs — moved from one locality to another looking for Sikhs, looting and killing. It is then that the tactic of burning people to death was first used so clinically. This was no mass upsurge. There never was a Hindu versus Sikh confrontation. Just bands of lumpen with knives, swords, sticks in their hands, greed, hate and sadistic joy in their eyes, searching for quarry that was so easily identifiable.

In 1984, there was shame, there was decency. In 2002, there's ModiEven if you had been a reporter in the city for some time, and knew how to get from point A to point B by the shortest route on your motorbike, it took a couple of days for the extent of the tragedy to really sink in. It was on the second day that the complicity of the police became clear. At Trilokpuri (where the largest massacres took place) a police patrol egged the mobs on: "Here, here, three sardars were fleeing in that street... catch the... b...s." Or a straightforward taunt: "What are you doing there with these useless weapons? Go get some real swords... these won't kill a bakra." That these killings were not mass riots but orchestrated reprisals is borne out by the fact that the moment the army appeared on the streets the riots died. The first armoured personnel carriers arrived in Trilokpuri and thereafter not one Sikh was harmed. The army did not even have to fire one shot. The police, obviously, were back in the barracks. Sulking.

So what's the point, you might ask. The point is, the difference between Delhi of 1984 and Gujarat of now. First of all, the ordinary mass of the Hindus in Delhi never got involved in the riots — many of us put on crash helmets, picked up hockey sticks and cricket bats, wickets, anything at night to run vigils in our streets so no "outsiders" could harm our Sikh neighbours. How many such stories have we heard from Gujarat? Second, once the government got its act together (within 72 hours) all rioting stopped, as if someone had blown the whistle and called off a game or a movie show. Third, and this is the most important distinction, there was shame, embarrassment, contrition, even fear on the faces of the top civil servants, police officers, Congressmen. They knew something terrible had happened. Rajiv Gandhi may have made his insensitive "when a tree falls earth shakes..." statement to rationalise the killings, but damage control started immediately.

The Sikhs would still complain, and I would too, that so many among the big fish have not yet been convicted. But even as the riots were dying out on November 3 (Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated on October 30) Delhi's Lieutenant-Governor, P.G. Gavai, was fired. The responsibility went to the then serving Union home secretary, M.M.K. Wali, and not to some 85-year-old political reject being put to pasture. The SHO of Trilokpuri was removed on November 2. The police commissioner, Subhash Tandon, was replaced on November 12. So were DCP (east), under whose jurisdiction Trilokpuri fell, additional police commissioner (range), and DCP (south). Within a month or so they were all facing departmental inquiries. Contrast this with what happened in Gujarat. Did any policeman get removed or punished for non-performance or complicity? Narendra Modi, on the other hand, moved out mainly those who had been effective, true and loyal to the uniform. So the SP of Kutch got removed after three weeks of peace. Murder visited Anjar shortly thereafter.

The Congressmen whose names surfaced or were even popularly mentioned in connection with the killings all paid the price. Political careers of H.K.L Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar never recovered from the taint of 1984 although nobody was ever convicted. Two others (Lalit Maken and Arjun Dass) were assassinated by Sikh militants. Even the Congress slowly distanced itself from these leaders. Isn't it a bit different now when leading lights of the BJP go around talking of "Hindu consolidation", of Modi having become a "Hindutva hero" or the likely electoral dividend of the killings?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was both a witness and a victim of that unusual winter of 1984. I too was witness to his sad, and entirely undeserved, defeat at the hands of Madhavrao Scindia two months later in Gwalior in what all of us promptly called a Raja aur Rank election. All of us heard stories of how he, a very poor but equally brilliant schoolboy, had been educated on a scholarship given by Madhavrao's father, we visited his very modest native house and in that king versus the commoner contest we all knew which side we were on even if we ended up on the losing side. It happened because the Congress exploited the anti-Khalistani mood, the sympathy for Rajiv and very little else.

Vajpayee is too seasoned a politician not to know that nothing of that sort is going to come his party's way after Godhra and the revenge of the Gujarati. He also knows exploiting mass murder for cynical political gain is not rajdharma. He also knows, then, what his rajdharma enjoins upon him to do. Whether he does that before it is too late, as it was with Nityanand Swamy in Uttaranchal and Ram Prakash Gupta in Uttar Pradesh, or while there is till time, would determine the future of his party. And the fate of his own, now very imperilled, political legacy.


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