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Remembering 1984 Sikh Riots in Bokaro: A Heroic Tale

[Personal Note: Yesterday was the 28th anniversary of the ghastly and shameful 1984 Sikh riots. Besides Delhi and Kanpur, Bokaro (where I spent the first 15 years of my life) was among the worst affected in the riots. Over two years ago, I sent an email on our alumni mailing list desperately seeking answers. The tales started pouring in – survivors close calls, heroism from a classmate’s father, Congress leaders leading mobs, a school becoming an army protected enclave, a classmate’s resolve to join the Army.. As Part 2 of the remembrance series, reproduced below are two first person accounts from my classmates Jayant Chaudhary and Sunil Singh. The accounts relate to the same heroic tale — of Sunil’s father staring down a blood thirsty mob and saving a Sikh family from almost certain death. Part 1 was Jasbinder’s tale.]

Jayant’s recollection…

My recollection of the 1984 riots is quite vivid. We woke up on 1 November, and the air was heavy with foreboding. Having heard about Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination all day the day before, it was clear to everyone that something bad was going to happen. The big shock was to find out it happened in Bokaro, which had not had any communal violence in all the time we had lived there, or that we knew of.

At about 9 am, we began to see smoke rising from several places in the city. My brother and I went up on our roof, and it was obvious things were seriously wrong. From that vantage point, we could see all the way to Cooperative Colony and Chas, and it appeared that new fires were being set even as we watched. These were the first riots we had ever seen, and it hit us then that, near those fires, innocent people were probably being butchered. I don’t want to make it seem like we suffered, because obviously the victims of the violence and the people who really suffered were Sikhs, but it was an extremely scary realization.

About 100 meters from our house was the house of a Sikh family. They had two teenagers, a boy and a girl. Their house was locked up, with a big lock on the front door. They must have been smart and left during the night, we said. It was a relief, because we certainly didn’t want anything to happen to them.

At about 10 am, we saw a crowd gathering in front of their house. One fact became apparent at this time. All of the people in this crowd were unfamiliar, which took some doing in a small place like Bokaro. This lends credence to the theory I have often heard, that political parties brought people in to organize these riots. The other fact that was clear was that these people were probably told they could take what they wanted from Sikh houses without fear, because that is why they had congregated in front of our neighbour’s house.

Some of them banged on the front door. Others milled about on the family’s small lawn. Suddenly, we saw the family’s Standard car, parked outside, burst into flames. Things were rapidly getting very ugly.

Then, a group of them went over to the back door of the house, and began pulling it open. In a few minutes, they had managed to break it open, and about 20 of them disappeared inside. Almost immediately, we heard a female screaming from inside, and we realized with some shock that the family had been hiding inside all this while! I cannot describe how helpless I felt at that moment, because I fully expected all of the members of that family to be killed.

Suddenly, almost everybody who had gone into the back door came running out. We heard a very loud, dull thud, and then the last man stumbled out, and started running like his life depended on it. He was followed very closely by the lady of the family under attack, who had a hockey stick in her hands. She proceeded to whack a couple of other, slower men with the stick – that thud was the sound of the stick hitting their backs – and then stood out there, screaming at them, and guarding her house. I had only heard about how ferocious a ‘Sikhni’ could be, but there she was, a small, slightly overweight woman, standing between the mob and her family like a tigress!

The cowards making up the mob began to regroup, realizing they had just lost face. Every time I think of them, it brings to mind all the TV programs I have ever seen about hyenas, who attack only when they are in a group. The rest of the family had come out as well, and they were standing there, waiting for the worst. In the meantime, some people had started shouting about how they were going to avenge Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by killing everyone in this family. Others started throwing things at the family, and still others began to advance, while the family tried to retreat into their house. It was a nightmare unfolding before our eyes, because all of us realized that this was it. Regardless of how brave the family was, simple numbers dictated that the mob would overpower and kill them within minutes.

You know how, in the movies, when something like this is unwinding, a hero comes and saves the day? Well, something like that happened that day. Sunil Singh’s father, a gentleman if I ever saw one, and easily one of the bravest men I have had the honour of knowing, walked into the mob and told them to stop attacking women and children immediately. Just like that! And the really strange thing was, that was all it took. Yes, some of them shouted back that Mrs. Gandhi was a woman, too, but he shut them. Emboldened by his example, others in the area also approached the mob to intervene. Sunil’s father then asked the family to come to his house, which was only a couple of hundred meters away, and I understand they went there and then to the camp at Xavier’s. After things calmed down, they came back to their house.

I am thankful that things ended well for that family because of the bravery of Sunil’s father. I don’t know if he was ever recognized formally for what he did, but he should have been. In today’s TV-dominated age, he would have been on every TV program as a hero, and justifiably so.

Jayant

From Sunil’s vantage point..

Jayant,
Thanks for remembering my dad’s small contribution. It was indeed a sad day in the history of India.

Vishy,
thank you for bringing this to the forum.

Jasbinder and all my Sikh friends,
Before I write about this incident , I need to tell you that , I have always thought why even after 25 years , the Indian government has not apologized to the Sikhs. They should.  It has always been at the back of my mind and I sincerely apologize on behalf of all of us.

The memory of everything that happened is still with me and haunts me once in a while. I will tell you why …

It was around 10 in the morning and little cloudy. Schools were closed and the news was coming in about the riots breaking in Bokaro. My uncle was DSP Bokaro area and he stopped at our place to warn us  not to venture out. Remember my house at that time had no TV so we depended on our small Panasonic radio for the news. We started to see black smoke coming out of different parts of Bokaro, specially the Chas area. Then around 11 am we heard curfew has been imposed in some areas of Bokaro. Scared of getting caught by police 😉 , I stayed inside , but my two adventurous brothers went to the rooftop and came down running  around noon saying they could see the smoke close by in other areas.

I stayed indoor as we had dad’s friend come in and I was helping mom get lunch ready to serve . Dad was in the house talking to his friend and we were listening to the news . Sujit my younger brother was still outside. Around 1:00 pm he came running in and told my dad that “Sardar Uncle’s” house is being attacked.

My dad in his typical Dhoti and Ganji got off the couch and walked outside. I was behind him and we could see the crowd and Gill Uncle’s car on fire. Mrs Roy , our math teacher who lived above on the third floor ,was pouring water but couple of buckets were no match to the flames as high as 10-15 ft.  There were about 100 plus people in the crowd. I followed my dad scared about his life and thinking I have the strength to save him. Thinking back , I would say it was god’s will and strength that we never looked back and thought twice about what would happen to us.

As we reached closer we could see the crowd breaking window panes and setting fire to inside of the house. There was a loud noise coming from behind the house as if someone is trying to break the back door .
My dad walked into the crowd and he confronted this young kid who was leading the crowd and told him to stop doing it. He used all the filthy words he had in his dictionary including the mother #$@…. word. My dad listened and warned him not to do it and walked away. I was behind my dad and whenever I remember this , I am unable to sleep.

While all this was happening we could see people break into the house from the back door and start coming out of utensils and other household stuff. The house was on fire but we thought it does not matter as we were sure there is no one inside since the house was locked from outside. Then all of a sudden we saw Gill Aunty come out of the back door with a sword in her hand and screaming at the top of her voice as if this is her last chance to save her family. She came running out and  chased away some of the attackers and then headed towards me as I was close to the back fence. My dad and I shouted and made her aware of our presence and told her to get inside. My dad dragged her inside but we could hear the crowd chanting “maro maro”. My dad stood with brave face outside between the crowd and the house.

Five minutes later the cops showed up and people started running. My dad handed over the family to the cops and we left…….. ..

Army did flag march and months passed and thing became normal. Gill Uncle one day came to our house and thanked my dad.We became family friends. Tasted flavor of Punjab. All of you know how good it is. Aunty stood by our side and made sure we tasted everything she had specially made for us …I guess her only way to thank us.

My dad would have got bravery award for what he did , but something we got that no award can match…..

It was Rakhi and someone showed at our door……. Sorry! Jaineet  I don’t know where you are , but hope you are safe and living without fear.

Jai Hind

Sunil

After reading Sunil’s and Jayant’s accounts, Jasbinder has more to add…

Sunil–What do I say and where do I start. I do remember Gill aunty talking about this incident with my mom in the camp. Sobbing uncontrollably she said  ‘Ouh insaan nahin si, Rabb si’, loosely translated ‘he was not a person, he was God’.  Till yesterday I did not know that the God she was refering to was your dad. So ‘ThankYou Vishi’, for starting this thread.
Most of us live our lives waiting for a chance to be a hero and ‘do something’ for someone. Your dad lived that moment. God Bless his Soul. Wherever the Gill family is today, I am sure they will be remembering uncle in their prayers. Someday when I talk to my kids about this incident, I will be talking to them about you and your dad. About how an ordinary man did an extraordinary deed.
Next story in this series – Priti’s story.

 

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