Revisiting the Summer of 1984

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The Golden Temple at Amritsar: the complex was attacked 30 years ago this week Photo: AFP/Getty
The Golden Temple at Amritsar: the complex was attacked 30 years ago this week Photo: AFP/Getty

The events of June 1984 saw more than a rupture between the two communities

VANIT SETHI

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a hot and sultry morning of June 6, 1984, I awoke in a sprawling house in the beautiful campus of IIT Kanpur (my maternal uncle was a professor there) to the almost unbelievable news then that the dreaded Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was no more, having been killed in the Indian army’s assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Hundreds of militants were holed up in the temple complex to escape from the long arms of the law and the police. Unfortunately for them, their heavily armed and fortified refuge gave way that day during Operation Bluestar, one of the most controversial operations of the Indian army on the directions of the then central government of former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

While we read the newspapers that day with a mix of relief and disbelief, it seemed that with the killing of Bhindranwale, terrorism in Punjab would slowly die out. Later unfolding events the very same year – Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots that followed – proved most of us horribly wrong. In that surreal summer of 1984, my sister and I had converged on India’s topmost tech university to meet our cousins and their parents on an extended vacation. I was then studying for my masters in English literature at the Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh, while my sister was pursuing her graduation at a college in Hyderabad, and my parents were beginning to wind up their three-year stint in Kabul (Afghanistan) to come back to India. My father had gone there in 1981 on a Government of India deputation to teach English at the Kabul University (this was during the Soviet occupation – more of the Afghan story in a later article sometime).

Back at IIT Kanpur, I was getting worried over when my MA Final exams would be held in Chandigarh, given the tense situation in Punjab. All the exams of PU had been postponed for two months in April itself, and now they were put off for another two months until August that year. The vacation at IIT campus turned out to be longer than expected. Not that I was bored – there was plenty to do in the American-styled campus. The air-conditioned, multi-storeyed library was fantastic; the shimmering blue swimming pool was a social hub on the weekends, and musical dinner soirees in the houses of various faculty members kept us quite busy. Still, I was tense over the events developing in Punjab. More so, because they threatened to engulf the capital Chandigarh, which had so far remained largely untouched by the state’s nightmare.

In the meantime, my parents returned to Hyderabad from Kabul in the beginning of August that year. After a brief holiday in Hyderabad, I was back in Chandigarh by mid-August to appear for my exams. Having vacated my university hostel, I was staying at a relative’s place in the eastern part of the city. The university campus looked so changed now – deserted and devoid of its usual colour and fun. Not very long back, it was brimming with activity – university festivals, debates, sports, fashion shows, films, parties etc. The campus, and in fact the entire city, was an island of peace in a troubled neighbourhood. It was rather unreal – looking back on it now – but so real to us at that time.

Just before the exams began, I started studying at the university library. The calm and peaceful atmosphere of the huge, five-storeyed library made the study of literature even more interesting and inspiring. Of course, there were other attractions in and around the library – the sight of pretty girls pretending to be serious, and their aashiqs loitering around them.

The spiral-circular Students Centre (called Stu-C in short) near the library was a veritable hub of activity (still is), especially the cafeteria at the top of the structure, which gave a panoramic view of the green campus. It was a good place to hang out with friends and while away time when bored. I used to land up at the library a good ten minutes before 9am (when the library opened) mainly to chat up with a junior girl who came on a scooter with her long hair flying in the breeze (ah, those days of crazy crushes and infatuations!).

And what did me and my friends usually talk of then? Our soft corners, the girls who had stolen our hearts, TS Eliot’s Wasteland, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Shakespeare’s Othello etc. Was York Notes the best, the Casebook series, or those cheaper Ramji Lal guides?

Exhausted by literary criticism, we would then meet at Pakwaan for Rajma Chawal and Channa Bhatura, or at the Coffee House in Stu-C for Masala Dosa and Cold Coffee. And the discussions there centred around IAS exams – the best combinations, new syllabus, and how to crack the Prelims first. Some studious students talked about going to the UK or US for MPhil and PhD. Even after-dinner walks in the campus earlier when we stayed in the hostels centred around the latest Hindi and English movies, and the idiosyncracies of some of our professors.

While Bhindranwale and the killing fields of Punjab did make news, it still seemed distant. What had that got to do with us? We were more concerned about finding jobs and making our careers. Of course, there were students from rural Punjab in the hostels who would narrate tales of horror, and the atmosphere would then become surcharged. But by and large, a majority of students preferred to stay away from the machinations of the militants who were ruling the nights in Punjab’s green countryside. And we were convinced in the belief that our university campus and the City Beautiful were well-guarded and protected from ‘outside elements’.

To a large extent, we were. Chandigarh, being a union territory and the capital of two states, was sufficiently fortified and garrisoned. In this cocooned space, we lived like normal students elsewhere – dreaming of girls, good food, and a rosy future. Campus life was exciting – something or the other was always happening. And in the hostels at night, there were animated discussions on just about everything. Somehow, we avoided the politics of Punjab – maybe afraid of venturing into dangerous territory. But also because it seemed not to affect us at that time – at least before the summer of 1984.

But June 1984 changed all of that – and how? Before June 1984, Punjab was ‘that state’ from where most students came to Chandigarh. There were troubles happening there, and frequent killings. Unfortunately, ordinary innocent people were also getting killed. Most of those targeted by the terrorists were Hindus, especially those on buses in the countryside at nights.

But many of the victims were also Sikhs, especially those who stood out boldly against terrorists, their fanatical agendas, and the distortion of their religion (which was actually meant to protect Hindus against marauding Muslim warriors in the middle ages). The build-up to June 1984 was happening at a rapid pace, as the holiest shrine of the Sikhs was being used by Bhindranwale and his killer gangs to flee from the police after committing deadly terror attacks. But then, students in the campus, across faiths, were mostly unanimous in the condemnation of their acts. Sometimes, peace marches – largely symbolic and ineffective – were also organised.

However, many of us – rather naively – believed that the dark days would end soon. We had no idea how that would happen, and neither had we thought of any solutions then. We just felt that since there are many mixed Hindu-Sikh families in Punjab, and there is no history of animosity between the two communities, things would eventually sort themselves out. Little did we know that the night was actually getting darker, and a tense atmosphere was building up in the villages and cities of Punjab.

Chandigarh, however, seemed different…. very different. This was a cosmopolitan city where people had settled from not just Punjab and the neighboring states, but from many parts of India. In addition, the university campus had a large chunk of foreign students from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Thailand, Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria, etc etc. Even the PU annual festival ‘Jhankar’ regularly concluded with a very colorful and vibrant International Nite, with songs and dances from students of different countries. It was a rich experience interacting with these foreign students.

So, though the events of Punjab were shocking and very saddening, we convinced ourselves that Chandigarh would remain unaffected. It did, to a large extent. Many of the students who were not from Punjab also failed to fathom the gravity of the problem – and there was a large percentage of them. Then, when Operation Blue Star happened, it was like a bolt from the blue. Somehow, though we were aware that things were really bad in Punjab, we did not see this coming. I wonder if anyone in Punjab and elsewhere saw it either.

June 1984 saw a rupture between the two communities, and Chandigarh did not remain unaffected. Even our haven – the PU campus – was struck by that communal virus. I could not help noticing that things were not the same when I came to write my MA Final exams in the campus in August that year. It was like that old beautiful world was dying, and an ugly new one was coming up in its place. It seemed like such a ‘Gone With The Wind’ situation.

Thankfully, I was through with my post-graduation, and I had to return to Hyderabad with my parents. I was relieved to go back to Hyderabad after six years and pursue a course in Communication Studies from the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (now, The English and Foreign Languages University), where my father was a professor in Phonetics.

Meanwhile, things kept worsening in Punjab for another decade until the mid-90s before they started improving, with the elimination of terrorism by that braveheart top cop KPS Gill. But 1984 will perhaps remain the darkest year in Indian post-independence history, as subsequent events like Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi made India slip into an abyss. The Bhopal gas tragedy in December of the same year completed the dismal picture.

But as they say, ‘the darkest hour precedes the dawn’. With Rajiv Gandhi taking up the mantle of India’s prime ministership in the nation’s and his own ‘darkest hour’, the country – especially the youth – looked at the future with renewed hope and optimism. And the ‘cusp of the 21st century’ was born, with him at the helm.

 

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