Performing Kirtan Over Indira’s Body


Activist Advocate H S Phoolka’s book has taken us by our little finger and made us trudge through the sad parts of our memories. The anti-Sikh pogroms do not find much mention except on the anniversary every year . Come every election and we see a motley group of 1984 affected widows trying to corner a Congress candidate or hold dharnas giving a bad name to a particular political party. Once in a while, a kindly soul like Harpreet Kaur makes a movie like The Widow Colony to jolt our memory and conscience out of a stupor and forces us to look into the lives of these widows.

But the official India’s single most popular image, evoked time and again by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and now by his widow Sonia Gandhi, is very very different. Talk of the family’s sacrifice is paramount in any speech of Sonia Gandhi at any session of the All India Congress Committee. The Indian nation is told repeatedly about how much ‘balidaan’ has been made by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi for the sake of India.

Virtually an establishment voice, India’s leading weekly India Today, recently came out with its anniversary editions, and also celebrated Indian Independence, but while depicting the killing of Indira Gandhi, the image it used was of an Indira lying in state. This is the image that the official India likes and wants others to remember. A great leader slain by some “traitors” and the body of the leader lying in state, inspiring the entire nation to keep voting the family into power again and again in recognition of the great sacrifices it has made. Forgotten is Operation Bluestar, no need to use the pictures of the anti-Sikh pogroms on the streets of Delhi, and gloss over the way the Indian establishment has run roughshod over minorities and disadvantaged groups. A simple linear picture is always more appealing than a complex multi-layered reality.

AIIMS Crossing photograph by Ashok Vahie

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AIIMS Crossing photograph by Ashok Vahie

It was this that finally goaded the editors at the WSN to look deeply into this picture of an Indira Gandhi lying in state. Recall the time. On the roads of Delhi, the massacre of the Sikhs is on. Tyres are in abundant supply, so is kerosene and petrol. It is just that the Sikhs are in short supply. Hindutva’s secular-communal monster dancing on the roads of Delhi not far from where the body of the slain leader lay in state. But nation-states always need a picture for the great national album; so it was necessary to have a Sarv Dharam Prarthna Sabha for Indira Gandhi. The problem was that in a situation where the number of burning tyres available was already more than the number of Sikhs available for burning, where does one find a Raagi Jatha to perform kirtan for Indira Gandhi, for the national picture album?

Jaswant Deed was in charge of Punjabi Programs at the All India Radio in Delhi. On October 31, 1984, he had finished recording the translation of Khushwant Singh’s piece on Manas Ki Jaat Sabhe Aike Pehchanbo. When he came out, he saw people in groups and whispering to each other. A woman announcer came rushing towards him and asked him to quickly get inside. He was informed that Indira Gandhi has been killed, that too by her body guards. Sikh body guards. (How was the decision taken to let the world immediately know how a Prime Minister was killed? And by whom, including their religious affiliation? After all she was not killed in a public place, and Intelligence agencies would not have let the news get out without proper deliberations.)

Deed quickly came back to his office room. Soon the entire Akashwani campus seemed empty. Everyone had rushed home. Producers got closeted in rooms. Directors were continuously on the phones. Deed was at the gate of the Akashwani soon, listening to the mobs’ cries through the huge iron gates. Right before his eyes he saw the mob catching hold of a Sikh and putting a burning tyre around his neck. The Sikh ran towards the Akashwani gate. Everyone hid. The chowkidar too. Deed too rushed inside. Hell on the road is a scary sight. The woman announcer repeatedly looked at Deed’s karra. Deed saw the fear in her eyes. “Throw it away,” she shrieked. Deed did. Immediately. By evening, Delhi was like a city looted. Looted by its own. Six hours after the shootout, Akashwani confirmed. Indira Gandhi has been killed. It did not forget to add that she was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards.

The AIR put Jaswant Deed on duty at Teen Murti Bhawan where Indira Gandhi’s body was lying in state. Sarv Dharam Shok Sangeet was to be organized. Deed was tasked with getting a Raagi Jatha and reach in the wee hours for the recording. Delhi was awash in fear and mob violence. Getting a Raagi Jatha in the circumstances was a difficult task. At least getting a Raagi Jatha alive was. In the end, Deed passed on the buck to Driver Harbhajan Singh Rattan. Deed was clean shaven. But the mob did check his antecedents on the way when he was returning home.

Past midnight the driver called Deed. He had found Raagis. Alive. But there was a problem. They were not approved by the AIR. “Approved nu maaro goli. Tusi tayar rehna. I am coming,” Deed told Rattan.

At 3:30 am, the alarm clock rang. Deed got up. A different driver reached in time. Deed sat in the jeep, headed for Rattan’s home in Patel Nagar. Rattan was waiting, all ready. He sat in the jeep and the vehicle started speeding towards Jangpura. The Raagis that Rattan had zeroed in on lived here. There was deathly silence all around. Much of the pogrom had already happened. Much was still to happen. Tell tale signs were everywhere. Rattan got down at the Gurdwara road. Deed too. Rattan looked towards his left, then to his right. He was sure he was at the right place. It is just that the gurdwara was not there. “It was here only,” Rattan was trying to explain, looking around as if he was looking for the eye of a needle. Suddenly he exclaimed, “It is this only.” The building had just changed colour from pristine white to soot black. The gurdwara had been burnt. Some bits broken, vandalized. Among these was the word Kalgidharlying in a heap of malba.

Baba Kharak Singh Marg photograph by Ashok Vahie

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Baba Kharak Singh Marg photograph by Ashok Vahie

Someone sauntered over, telling them that Jangpura witnessed massacres the previous day. Houses were burnt, so was the gurdwara. Raagi Singhs jumped from the rear wall, trying to save their lives. Entire families of the Raagi Singhs who used to live in a residential quarter of the gurdwara had taken shelter in a nearby house of a kind soul. The Raagis’ quarters were burnt. Smoke was still billowing out from the burnt remnants.

Rattan Singh was thinking. “Come, let’s go,” he said to Deed. “And the Raagis?” Deed asked. “Sir, hun eh thorra hee jaan ge apne naal Indira Gandhi layee kirtan karn,” Rattan was saying something that did not require Deed’s intelligence to understand. “Should they go hang themselves too?” the driver was now getting angry. Rage is a human feeling. It is a very humane feeling also. Woebegone the man whose sense of outrage deserts him at such a point.

Finally they caught up with the place where the Raagis were. “Bhai Sahib! Bhayee Saahib!!” Rattan was shouting. “Kaun Hai?” came the answer. “Main Rattan, Bhai Sahib!” Two men in white kurtas and blue dastaarscame out of the premises. One was a Raagi, the other his assistant. The Raagi started explaining what had happened: “We cried Bhai Sahib! We begged! When the mob still advanced towards us, I ran and asked my family to run. I told them to jump from the stairs.” He was crying, tears flowing down his eyes.

Satyanaas ho giya ji iss mulak da. Chalo hun tusi kise theek jagah te luk jaavo,” Deed was advising them.“Shukar karo tuhaanu Parmatma ne hath de ke rakh liya hai,” Rattan was also trying to console as they prepared to leave.

The Raagi Singhs understood. “Kaka Ji, We are the Singhs of the Guru. I had given you my word yesterday. Till then our house was not burnt and the Gurdwara Sahib was not burnt. What do you think? Now we will not go to perform kirtan for a dead one even after we have given our word?”

Deed cracked. He cried loudly now. If the mobs were there now, they would have recognized him, even without his karra. Rattan too was crying. Four Sikhs by the side of a burnt out gurdwara were crying because a Raagi Jatha was refusing to go back on its word to perform kirtan for a dead Indira Gandhi who had ordered army attack on Sri Harimandir Sahib and Sri Akal Takht Sahib and scores of other gurdwaras and killed thousands of innocents and whose own families were rendered refugees in the heart of Delhi because of Indira-loving mobs.

The four once again looked at the Gurdwara Sahib. The Raagi Singh brought out a Tabla and a Harmonium and sat in the jeep. His two more assistants also sat in the jeep as it raced towards Teen Murti Bhawan.

Indira Gandhi was lying in state. The Indian State was lying in a coma.

The AIR’s recording team took positions. Ramayan, Koran, Geeta, then the Holy Bible, then Shabads from Gurbani. Giani Zail Singh stood by the body. Rajiv Gandhi too. Amitabh Bachhan was standing next to him. A few more known names. Indira’s body lay wrapped in a tricolor. It was soon 5 in the morning. Raagi Singhs were singing, “Sajjan Mainde Raangle…”

Burning Cannought Place

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Burning Cannought Place

Some slogans were being heard. “Indira Gandhi Amar Rahe” and “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon Se Lenge” were clearly being heard. Raagi Singhs continued with their kirtan. Recording was on. Soon mobs were getting restive. Many voices were being raised. Fingers were being pointed. It seemed things will go out of hand right here. Soon Giani Zail Singh and Buta Singh disappeared from the stage. Everyone now feared for the safety of the Raagi Singhs. They were asked to quickly wind up the kirtan. Deed called up the radio station. He was duly updated. Delhi was on fire. Sikhs were being burnt with a ferociousness not seen in decades. Homes and shops were being looted.

By this time someone whispered in his ear. “Aap Akashwani se hain?” “Yes”. “Raagi aap ke saath hain?” “Yes,” Deed said. “You must return immediately,” he was told. Deed waived to the Raagis who understood immediately.Kirtan was wound up fast. Slogans were getting louder.

The Raagis and Deed came out and were asked to sit in a huge military truck. The driver of the truck lifted one of the seats revealing a huge box underneath. “Get inside this and keep your head down. Do not say a word,” he said. The Raagis jumped into the pit. The lid was put back. The Raagis who had had a close brush with death and left behind their pogrom-hit families to perform kirtan for a dead Indira were being taken home packed in a box like sardines from the place where the Prime Minister of India had called them.

Many nations have gone through periods of shame, and learnt their lessons. That is why they look the beast in the eye when they go to the museums that display what was done to the Jews. They look the beast in the eye so that the beast never gets a chance again to lunge at them. India too was shamed. It is just that its capacity to live with the shame is unfathomable. Can it be otherwise if its leader talks of big trees falling and earth shaking?

(Jaswant Deed, was soon transferred to All India Radio, Jalandhar. His description of the episode about picking up the Raagi Singhs for performing Kirtan is in his book in Punjabi Dharti Hor Pare.Deed is a well known poet.)

Courtesy: This article has been edited for the Sikh Foundation to make it current. It was first published by the World Sikh News on 5 December, 2007.


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