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To Forget Is Fatal
A few committed men keep the fight alive to bring the culprits to book


Gurcharan Kaur's trophies are displayed on a high shelf in her two-roomed home in East Delhi's Trilokpuri: four daughters in their bridal finery with their grooms. But for the 55-year-old widow who has single-handedly raised seven children with a measly pension of Rs 375 and the earnings from a teashop she opened in her verandah, supplemented now and then by free rations from the gurudwara, the best trophy so far is her youngest daughter. Ravinder, 20, is working her way through college and will soon be the family's first graduate. Gurcharan waits for the smiling young girl to leave the room before recounting the events of November 1, 1984, when her husband, Naik Teja Singh, was butchered and torched by a mob outside their newly-built home. "It's OK for me to remember," she says stoically, pulling out her husband's photograph from behind a curtained enclosure, "but I don't want my children to be affected."

This motherly urge to shield her children from the horrors of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms sometimes has the spokesmen for the Sikh community fretting. "The younger generation of Sikhs scarcely know (or want to know) the events that culminated in 1984," says an editorial in The Sikh Review, a community journal. "It's spineless to forget what happened," agrees Patwant Singh, best-selling author of The Sikhs. "The Jews haven't forgotten till now, why should we? Even some gurudwara functionaries ask the victims to lay off (filing complaints against the killers)."

But it's simply not fair, as advocate Harinder Singh Phoolka points out, to shift the entire burden of bringing the guilty to book onto the widows and children of the riot victims. "How can you expect a poor widow from a small colony to give evidence against the culprits? She has enough on her hands trying to earn a living for herself and her children without having to pursue court cases and face intimidation by policemen and politicians. There is a difference between forgetting and helplessness. If they are helpless, it is not their failure but society's."

Twenty years later, the collective 'forgetfulness' is leading to new inequities: while the Sikhs have risen to be India's richest community, the families of the estimated 2,733 pogrom victims in Delhi are almost all below the poverty line. The reason: most of the Sikhs butchered during the pogroms were the only bread-winners in the family, leaving behind widows and children who fell—are still falling—through the cracks. Phoolka's 25-year-old employee, his driver Gurpal Singh, is one example. At five, Gurpal watched his father and two uncles being slaughtered by mobs. With his mother receiving only Rs 10,000 from the government in compensation, Gurpal couldn't afford to go to school. Even the gurudwara committees, which used to give scholarships and rations to the victims' families, stopped helping after a few years, forcing Gurpal to take a job as soon as he was able. "Delhi's gurudwara committee employs a staff of some 2,000 but even they prefer to give jobs to relatives rather than the children of the pogrom victims," says Phoolka, who is fighting a case for a pogrom orphan who has been refused a job in the gurudwara committee's many institutions.

Phoolka is among the few who refuse to forget. As secretary of the now-disbanded umbrella organisation of human rights activists, Citizens Justice Committee, the senior advocate in the Supreme Court has been fighting ceaselessly to nail the culprits of the 1984 pogroms. "At that time," he recalls, "I thought it would take no more than four or five years. The kind of material we were getting I had no doubt that the killers would be brought to justice." Years and countless probes later, Phoolka has still not lost faith—relentlessly pursuing cases, encouraging the demoralised, and reassuring the intimidated.

"I am not doing it for the Sikhs—our turn is over and won't come again for at least another 50 years. I am doing it to uphold the rule of law, to make sure that there won't be another Gujarat or Jhajjar."

After the release of the useless Nanavati report- Sikhs held peaceful protests but the State was keen to stamp those out as well- yet more proof that after decades of Injustice Ethnic minorities in India can expect more of the same in the future...