ANTI SIKH RIOTS IN 1984: HE PLACED KOLKATA UNDER CURFEW AND HIS PARTY SUPPORTERS PATROLLED SIKH-DOMINATED AREAS TO PREVENT VIOLENCE, SAYS GURPREET SINGH.
‘WE FELT SAFE UNDER HIS RULE’
HE PLACED KOLKATA UNDER CURFEW AND HIS PARTY SUPPORTERS PATROLLED SIKH-DOMINATED AREAS TO PREVENT VIOLENCE, SAYS GURPREET SINGH.
AS the news of Jyoti Basu’s death spread, Comrade Sohan Singh Aittiana received an angry call. The caller was upset that he was not made part of the Sikh delegation that visited the leader a few days before he passed away. Jyoti Basu was undergoing treatment at the city’s AMRI Hospital then, and the delegation had called on him to wish him speedy recovery. Aittiana, who is associated with the CPI(M) and is a well-connected transporter in Kolkata, led the delegation.
The caller’s anger reflected the affection and popularity that Jyoti Basu had among Sikhs living in West Bengal. The community’s leaders remember him as a saviour, who did not let Congress-led goons murder them during the 1984 pogrom.
Violence broke out in States ruled by the Congress following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Indira Gandhi was murdered by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, who were seeking revenge for the controversial Operation Blue Star.
Jyoti Basu, who was in Delhi then, sensed the danger to the Sikh community and rushed to West Bengal to ensure their safety. While Delhi and other parts of India witnessed large-scale murder of Sikhs, he was determined to protect the community in his State.
“He placed Kolkata under curfew, and his party supporters were seen patrolling Sikh-dominated areas to prevent violence,” said Aittiana, adding that Sikhs have always supported Jyoti Basu and his party since then. “It can be described as his legacy. It is a different matter that many Sikhs of the new generation have started identifying themselves with other parties.”
Another Sikh from Kolkata, Surjit Singh Walia, recalled those days when he narrowly escaped a mob attack. “I temporarily migrated to Punjab out of fear. But Basu’s determination brought me back. We always felt safe during his rule,” he said. The curfew and the patrolling by CPI (M) cadres prevented any major devastation except for a few incidents of stone throwing and vandalism. Ten deaths were reported in the State.
“Compared with several thousands in New Delhi, only a few lives were lost in West Bengal,” said Bachan Singh Saral, the leader of the Sikh coordination committee who spearheaded the campaign for justice for the Sikhs murdered during the violence. “The Sikhs were indebted to Basu and they always stood behind his government.”
Akhtiar Singh, former president of the Komagata Marup Shaheed Ganj Gurdwara at Bajbaj near Kolkata, recalled that some Congress workers had tried to engineer violence but Jyoti Basu’s government controlled the situation swiftly. “The new generation Sikhs have not seen what we were through.”
Hardev Singh Grewal, the editor of Navin Parbhat, a Punjabi daily published from Kolkata, said that Jyoti Basu would always be admired and missed by the Sikh community. “Owing to his strong will to protect our community, there was no mass exodus of Sikhs from West Bengal.”
Significantly, the Punjab government declared a holiday to mourn the death of the veteran Communist leader. The Sikhs in Kolkata, who are mainly in the transport business, have roots in the Malwa region of Punjab. A senior Akali leader from Punjab, Kuldeep Singh Wadala, remembers Jyoti Basu as a trusted ally in the Akali agitations, including the one for a Punjabi-speaking State and the protest against the Emergency. Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal travelled to Kolkata to pay his last respects to Jyoti Basu and wrote for The Tribune a piece praising the deceased leader.
Ironically, about 300 communists were murdered in Punjab by the pro-Khalistan separatists in terror incidents. Lakhvir Singh, who drove this writer to different parts of Kolkata, had a big sticker of Bhindranwale pasted on the rear window of his car. Despite this glaring contradiction, he acknowledged the position of Jyoti Basu during 1984. “The Sikhs will always remember him as a saviour,” he said.
Gurpreet Singh is with Radio India Vancouver. He worked with Indian Express and The Tribune before emigrating to Canada in 2001. He was travelling in West Bengal when Jyoti Basu was under treatment.
Volume 27 – Issue 03: Jan. 30-Feb. 12, 2010
INDIA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINE from the publishers of THE HINDU