By Puneet Bedi,
“Kahaan jaa rahe ho Sardarji,?” shouted a young man from the side of the road. I was born in the capital of a ‘Sovereign, Socialistic, Secular, Democratic, Republic’, to a mother born in a Hindu and father a Sikh family. I went to a school run by the ‘Sri Aurobindo Education Trust’. I had the privilege of going to a premier medical school named after one of the most respected Nationalist leader, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and lived in a large cosmopolitan city with people from all faiths and religions and indeed some atheists.
I was brought up in a completely a-religious atmosphere by very liberal parents. I kept long hair and wore a turban more as a family tradition than a religious symbol. I responded to a few nick names, my first name and to ‘Doctor Sahib’, so it took me some time to register that he was asking me this question. I rarely looked at myself in the mirror since I did not even shave back then, so did not realize that I looked like a ‘Sardarji’ to others, even though I did not identify with any particular religion. “Home” I answered, making it clear by my tone that it was none of his business. Where are you coming from? Asked another young boy. By now hoping that the red light would turn green soon, I put my big Royal Enfield Motorcycle in gear, and ignored his question and his existence, but they were persistent. Looking at the ‘red cross’ painted on my motorcycle, a symbol we all used to show off, park anywhere in any hospital we liked, and to tell everyone that we were above the law and could not be fined by police for minor traffic violations, a third asked me if I was a doctor. I said I was almost as rudely as I could. They asked if I was coming from the hospital, I nodded again hoping that would end the inquisition. The light turned green but they did not let me go, and told me that it was best for me that I returned to the hospital Campus as I would be ‘Safe’ there.
It was about 7 PM on the 31st of October 1984 when I discovered I had suddenly become a “Sardarji” from “Doctor Sahib” and Delhi streets were not ‘safe’ for me! “SAFE?” I screamed, in my usual arrogant manner, and laughed at the concept of being unsafe in the city I was born and brought up in, the Home I Knew. I told them to stop wasting my time and let me go home as I was very tired after a long day in the operation theater. ‘Log Sardaaron ko maar rahe hain shahar mein‘ said one of them. By ‘maarnaa’ I thought that Sikhs were being bashed up, not burnt alive which I later discovered was the case. It all started on Safdarjung flyover and at the AIIMS crossing where I was headed on my way home in Hauz Khas. The light changed to green 3 times but these boys did not budge from the front of my motorcycle and in fact one of them switched off the ignition, and refused to let me go, they insisted that I take a ‘U’ turn and Go Back to the Maulana Azad Medical College Campus as it was ‘safe’ for me. I looked around and was surprised to see that I was the only Sikh amongst hundreds of people on the road. I was not fully convinced but the boys looked genuinely concerned. I was too tired and sleepy to argue after a long day in the hospital, and a night duty on the previous night, and took a ‘U’ turn and went to the hostel and literally dropped off to sleep.
It was around 11 PM that I got many messages from home asking me to call back, something that had never happened before. Fearing a medical emergency in the family I rushed to the Labor room, which had a privileged ‘direct’ phone those days, and called home. My father told me that they were relieved to hear my voice as they heard Sikhs were being killed on Delhi roads though the TV is showing nothing. He asked me to stay indoors in the hostel to be on the safe side, knowing we generally go out late night to eat out or for a movie show from the hostel if we knew the next day would be a holiday, as Indira Gandhi’s Funeral would have certainly been.
On the Way to the wards, I heard about fire and arson around town, but when we went to the top of the 8 storied ‘Boys Hostel’ next door to our hostel, and saw smoke rising all around. This is the first time I was genuinely worried, every story of the ‘riots’ during partition our parents had told us seemed to come alive! The rest of the week my parents were sleeping at a neighbor’s house. The phones were working sporadically and I was assured that all my married sisters were ‘safe’.
I will never know who those good Samaritans were who stopped me from driving to my certain death on 31st October around 7 pm at a traffic crossing a few KM before Jor Bag. I am not sure why I went back to the hostel instead of being burnt alive by the ‘mob’ on Safdarjung flyover?
Like me Every ‘Sikh’ in India has a story about those three days in 1984 except the thousands who did not make it. Where was ‘with you for you always’ Police, Our Self congratulatory and our forever claiming saviors, The Secular Army, the Pampered and Pompous Opinionated Civil Servants, The omnipresent Politicians, The NGOs, or indeed the forever tomtoming ‘we saved the Sikhs in 1984’ RSS ! Why was I not Safe?
One of my father’s friend in the home ministry called up to tell him to stay indoors and look after ‘Himself and his Family’ till Monday, and then it would all be OK. How did He know? Indeed all was back to ‘normal’ in Delhi on Monday, the 3rd of November 1984, All except SAFETY for its citizens, TRUST in the Government, and Hope for JUSTICE!
Yesterday, Like every year on 31st October, I Saw big ads in National Newspapers (paid for by the tax payers) in the memory of the ‘Martyred’ Indira Gandhi. It Always Brings a wry smile on my face.
NOW, 29 years later, I do not look like a ‘Sikh’ since I am completely Bald, I am not called a ‘Sardar’, except lovingly by old friends when I say something ‘very stupid’. I wonder if this is what the Indian state does to its citizens like me, the privileged amongst the teeming millions, in the National Capital, what all it must have been doing to the disenfranchised Tribals in the mining hinterland, to the workers in the industrial areas, to the ordinary people in Kashmir and the North East and to the other marginalized communities like the ‘Dalits’ in the country?
These days I often get taunted by Sanghis for ‘siding with the Congress’. In their world-view if you are not a ‘Fan of Hindutva or Modi’ you must be a supporter of congress.
I was a few KM away from being burnt alive on 1984 just because I was wearing a turban which to some looked like the one worn by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Now in 2013, someone please explain to me who should I empathize with?
Please explain to me, in the 2002 pogrom, should I have empathy for those who were burnt alive because of their religion or for those who burnt them alive in the name of religion? After each patakha like Patna patakhas, should I have empathy for ‘the suspected terrorists’ or with Cops. In each case the Cops who cannot find a pen or a pencil on their own desk, were actually actively involved in killings of innocent civilian in 1984 and 2002, within hours find the culprits with ‘incriminating evidence’ like a pressure cooker at home and POSTERS of IM and SIMI (and the most incriminating of course is a Muslim name). And all these suspects provide within minutes all gory details of how they were just about to kill every politician in India, especially our Wannabe PM ? Should I have empathy for the Kashmiris in the Valley, People in the North East or the ‘Indian’ Army? In Madhya Bharat should I be on the side of the Tribals or the Police and Vedanta?
I know I am being seditious but would like some answers.
Puneet Bedi is a Delhi based Gynecologist and work on Medical Ethics and Women’s Health.