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India: Getting a Baptism by Fire

6 minute read
Pico Iyer

An untested new leader tries to quell the flames of hatred

“Indira is India, India is Indira.” That once ubiquitous slogan seemed even truer in death than in life. No less shocking than the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards was the brutality that erupted across India in its wake. Frenzied mobs of young Hindu thugs, thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs out of their homes, cars and trains, then clubbed them to death or set them aflame before raging off in search of other victims. The death toll approached 2,000, and in Delhi, where more than 550 died, four days of madness and murder also left some 20,000 Sikhs crowded into refugee camps. Suddenly a nation that had thought of Indira as its mother seemed rudderless and orphaned. “Over the years, Madame kept us in check,” said a senior Indian journalist. “Once she is gone, we go berserk.”

That orgy of death and disorder pointed up as nothing else the daunting task faced by India’s new Prime Minister, Indira’s son Rajiv, 40, who determinedly assumed a burden for which scarcely three years of political apprenticeship had little prepared him. After ceremoniously igniting his mother’s funeral pyre, Rajiv met with a score of foreign dignitaries who had attended the funeral, including U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.

“Gandhi came through with a sort of quiet strength that I find reassuring,” said Shultz after their meeting. The new leader also met with Pakistan’s President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, whose presence—the first by a Pakistani head of state at the funeral of an Indian Prime Minister—seemed a promising gesture of geod will. That same day, at his first Cabinet meeting, Gandhi disclosed that he would serve as his own Foreign Minister.

After that initial bow to foreign affairs, Rajiv concentrated on restoring order and confidence to Indian life. He lost no time in establishing a commission of inquiry, headed by a Supreme Court justice, to investigate the slaying of his mother. He visited the ravaged, riot-torn areas of his capital in a tour that the pro-Gandhi National Herald declared “had an efficacious and reassuring impact on the morale of the people.” Then, in answer to chilling claims that the police had simply shrugged their shoulders or looked away while the bloodbath continued, the new Prime Minister fired the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, P.G. Gavai, and replaced him with Home Secretary M.M.K. Wali.

Early this week, some semblance of normal life was beginning, ever so tentatively, to return to the capital. Banks opened, residents ventured into the streets again, and vendors reappeared in market areas. But the tranquillity seemed tenuous. While combat troops patrolled the city in olive armed personnel carriers and Jeeps mounted with machine guns, tan-uniformed policemen wielding bamboo sticks stood guard at every street corner. That, however, was no guarantee of law-and-order. Two TIME photographers were attacked by Hindu toughs who smashed the glasses of one and tore two cameras from the neck of the other.

If the authorities were conspicuous by their presence, so were the Sikhs by their absence. Largely gone from the streets were the familiar bearded, turbaned men who have traditionally driven cabs and manned stores all around the capital. Half their cabs had been burned; perhaps 70% of their shops had been devastated. Some of the Sikhs fled to their homeland of Punjab; some still cowered inside the houses of Hindu neighbors. Others, whose homes were destroyed or had to be abandoned, huddled together within makeshift refugee camps.

There they could do nothing except repeat horror stories of the chaos and carnage that had swept through more than 80 cities. In a camp set up in the Gandhi Memorial Higher School in Delhi, one Sikh survivor after another described how friends and loved ones had been murdered. “My three sons were burned alive,” quietly began Amrik Singh, a sad-eyed man whose gray beard had been forcibly shaved to a silver stubble by a mob wielding knives. “They came to my house. They dragged my sons out. They put petrol on them and set them on fire.” Near by, Purani Kaur, 60, leaned against a wall in the dusty school courtyard, her eyelids almost swollen shut. “They came to my house with swords and bricks,” she said as friends reached out to steady her. “All my five sons and my son-in-law were killed.” In a dark corner of a corridor, Amrit Kaur sat with her head swathed in a blood-soaked bandage. “My husband was burned alive. My children were beaten senseless. Then my house was set on fire. My children could not come out, and they were burned inside.” With that she broke down and began to weep.

Off to one side of the courtyard women squatted beside a fire, making bread. “There is no food, no water here supplied by the government,” complained Satpal Singh, a government stenographer. “Now the people who killed us are free.” A 90-year-old man showed the wound across his forehead where gangs of rampaging toughs had ripped off his turban and almost scalped him while cutting the hair that Sikhs must by religion keep unshorn.

“The government, the police did nothing to protect us,” he said. “They turned their backs while Sikhs were slaughtered.”

Amid the shame and shock, however, there were a few reassuring stories. Some Hindus, at great risk to themselves, organized units for defending Sikh dwellings; some gave sanctuary to their Sikh friends; others offered medical aid to the wounded. Moved by such gestures, 13 prominent Sikh writers and intellectuals issued a statement to “put on record our gratitude to our Hindu brethren.” Rajiv also pledged that the government would pay fixed amounts for every Sikh wounded or killed and for every home damaged ordestroyed.

While trying to heal his nation’s wounds, the new Prime Minister had asserted his power skillfully. But he had also, in his first week in office, acquired the problem of wide-scale Sikh homelessness to add to the burning fuse of Sikh restlessness. After all the tributes paid to Indira Gandhi, the finest, he knew, would be a resolution to the Sikh problem that had ended his mother’s life, and that, if unresolved, could end many more. —By Pico Iyer. Reported by Dean Brelis and James Willwerth/New Delhi

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