Forgotten and Buried: The Anti-Sikh Jammu Riots of 1989
"It was a week after Indira Gandhi's assassins, Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, were executed. It was the eve of Gurupurab but along with Guru Gobind Singh, the photos of both assassins were included in the religious procession. Tension hung heavy in the air," 74-year-old Amarjeet Singh recalls the minutes preceding six straight hours of communal violence that unfolded on 13 January 1989 in Jammu.
It’s been three decades since the photographs of Indira Gandhi's assassins stoked tension, black flags were waved, slogans were heard and misheard. Soon word went around that Sikhs would attack Hindus, and the consequences were catastrophic. A mob attacked the procession. Thirteen Sikhs were murdered and hundreds were injured. Around 140 vehicles were torched and hundreds of shops, most that belonged to Sikhs like Amarjeet, were burnt down.
Touching the charred and broken door of his shop that has not been replaced yet, Amarjeet who continues to run his shop in Jammu's Purani Mandi tells The Quint. "The Hindus and Sikhs have lived happily before and after. I wonder what went down that day." He is left wanting answers and he is not the only one.
Sikhs Seek Answers
A one-member commission of Justice A Ansari was sent to examine why the riot went unabated for six hours and to establish culpability. The report was submitted within a year, but was not made public even after 30 years. Those days, National Conference ran the government with Farooq Abdullah as chief minister.
Several committees have over the years held relentless press conferences to demand the report be made public, but in vain. The official stand is that the publication of the report might stoke tension between the Hindu and Sikh community, but the people do not believe that. They believe that the administration could have done much more to curb the riots.
The riot also unfolded in a particularly volatile time, considering that Indira Gandhi's assassins were executed a week before. As noted by Madhu Kishwar and Smitu Kothari in a EPW published paper called 'Violence in Gurupurab in Jammu and its Aftermath," The Shiv Sena leader Ashok Gupta said he had warned the administration of Hindu resistance if undesirable slogans" were raised.
Not only could the administration have done more, but people who witnessed the riot believe the publication of the report will expose senior police and government involvement.
Vimal Gupta who was President of Purani Mandi market then and now, says he saw the loot first hand. "I felt responsible for what was going to come. There were rumours that swords sickles were being collected. About ten minutes before the procession crossed the market we loudly announced everyone should shut shutters and stay indoors," he recalls. Pointing towards an area which used to have makeshift shops, he says, "There was total and complete government failure. For six hours my market burnt and no one did anything. It is like they were allowing the plunder to continue unchecked for hours. Phones were jammed too."
He says he met Farooq Abdullah in the aftermath in the chief minister's home, "I told them what I saw. The police was there, they sheltered the procession, they themselves set shops on fire. I saw it," he owns a clothes store called Lucky stores now. His allegations remain allegations in the absence of Ansari's report being made public.
Local Hindus Helped Sikhs
While people's livelihoods were being burnt in front of them, there were also stories of members of both communities helping each other. As noted by Madhu Kishwar and Smitu Kothari in the aforementioned EPW published paper, the situation in Jammu was different compared to other anti-Sikh riots. "Hindus here reacted spontaneously by coming to the rescue of beleaguered Sikhs," she writes. Harinder, whose shop was rampaged by Hindus, couldn't agree more.
"My brother Mohinder Singh was not home and we were petrified we had lost him. There is a Rajput Sabha down the line, the Hindus saw him in distress and sheltered him for the entire day there. They insisted he stayed and Mohinder didn't bat an eyelid to trust them," Harinder says adding that Mohinder was not the only Sikh who was sheltered by them.
The Hindus and Sikhs alike insist that relations between the Hindus and Sikhs are as strong as ever. "All we would want is the Ansari report to be out, but thirty years down I think it is pointless to open those wounds again. I was 44 then, today I can live with not knowing," Amarjeet says. Vimal Gupta adds, "All our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. We have to forget what has happened as the government which is responsible for us has. What choice do we have?"