Thursday, May 12, 2011


I was very young, perhaps no more than 10-years-old. It was a dark moonless night but the house was lit up like a new bride. I was running down the stairs with my younger cousin to see the fireworks that we heard crackle near by when we saw my uncle rush in through the gate. He ran up the stairs towards us and told us to turn back and run indoors that very instant. He was wearing a white silk kurta and his ‘special day’ gold buttons and… and then I saw it. That splash of deep red that had soaked the left side of his kurta. There was too much of it to be betel juice. This was blood…

Once he had herded us inside on the first floor, he told my parents and his wife to not let us out. But they weren’t listening. My aunt was screaming hysterically at the sight of all that blood on him and my parents rushed to his side. It was only then that he seemed to realise the condition his clothes were in… “No, no… this isn’t mine. Aamar na… It’s Madhob Babu… (our neighbour in Chittaranjan Park, the capital’s Bengali ghetto)”. His words were coming out in spurts, just like the crackling of what I now know must have been automatic weapons, in the lane outside. “They shot at him and sped away on a scooter… he stumbled towards me and I held him and helped him walk all the way to his house. He was alive… but he was bleeding a lot.”

It was the night before Diwali. Chittaranjan Park was like one big fair ground. Every park and lane and square was celebrating Kali Pujo and the inky blackness of the night was punctuated with the sights and sounds of crackers and sparklers heralding the day that celebrates the victory of good over evil. Devotees, families, boys and girls, and the children, they had all congregated in these pandals spread out across blocks, immersed in prayers, passions and play when a bunch of Sikh terrorists armed with assault rifles rode in on a scooter like the very arms of Hell and snuff ed out lives and homes with the casual flick of a trigger. While screams of shock and agony rent the now still night, the killers disappeared into the darkness, leaving in their wake scores and more dead and dying. Some lay on the streets, some in ditches where they fell while they tried to escape while others had been shot even as they tried to run into their homes. I still remember my parents recounting a sight from that night of a little girl bleeding and wailing in her festive finery, as she lay by the side of the road in the cold and dead arms of her parents. These weren’t strangers. These were kids I would meet at the bus stand. These were people I would greet on the streets. Amongst the dead was an elderly man who would distribute chocolates to every kid he would meet on his way back with his dog from the milk booth every morning. Who could hope to gain from such a terrible crime? It could not be the work of a soul even remotely human. These killers were inhuman devilish fiends without a trace of humanity in their beings. They and their ilk deserved nothing more than complete annihilation and extermination!

So I heard in the aftermath of that night, and so I believed.

Then, about two years ago, I met a senior photo journalist who happened to work for a while with the magazine you now hold in your hands. He was a battle scarred veteran. In the last three decades, whenever some momentous shit managed to hit the fan in this country, you could bet your last film roll on the possibility that this man was right under it, getting the world an eyeful of the action. While traveling for stories, especially on those long dull drives back from wherever we had wandered, he would recount stories from his days covering every moment that mattered – The Babri Masjid incident, Operation Blue Star, the assassinations, explosions and immolations, the Mandal agitations and so on… On one such occasion, he told me of this time when he was working in Amritsar. It was during the time when insurgency in Punjab was at its strident worst.

A large number of militants were holed up inside a building and the Punjab police commandoes had surrounded the area. In his capacity as a media photographer, our raconteur enjoyed some sort of a ‘media immunity’ which allowed him close access to such situations. While this life and death struggle was playing itself out, he and two of his colleagues wriggled their way into the house. The militants didn’t mind the publicity I guess, or perhaps he knew them since two of them were renegade policemen, but whatever the reason, our man was allowed to take all the photos he wanted as long as he stayed out of their ‘sights’. As bullets rained down from both ends, the photographers ducked and duck-walked their way around the rooms till one of them stumbled over something. The others looked at the bullet riddled walls, the broken windows and their fallen colleague who was now trying to check if he had damaged his camera. And then their eyes fell on what he had stumbled over – a corpse.

They rolled it over and saw a young Sikh man. He must’ve been in his 30s. It was winter but his body was still warm… and riddled with bullet holes. “They got him this morning” said one of the terrorists even as he kept firing at the cops. “He would sit up nights and cry…” continued the militant between rounds. “He just couldn’t get over all the kids he killed one crazy night in Delhi. It was the Bengali colony massacre… our elders had told him not to go that day. But he was a mad man those days. He and his accomplices killed anything that moved that night… it was chhoti Diwali I think. But it was the children that haunted him. The elders rebuked him for killing the children but he just wanted revenge.”

The police commandoes had stopped firing. Maybe they were considering other maneuvers or waiting for reinforcements. One of the photographers prodded the militant and asked “Revenge? Revenge for what?”. The militant scanned the fields outside and then said “Pinta (the dead terrorist) used to stay in Kalkaji, right next to the Bengali colony. He was a regular guy who went to college, played hockey, and watched movies. But during the anti-Sikh riots, a horde of blood thirsty fiends, surrounded his house and set fire to it. He never told me what happened to the women of the house but he would talk about how he saw his father, uncle, brothers and even his old grandfather being pulled out of their home by their hair and beard. Those b@#...rds put car tyres around their necks and set their beards on fire. His elders ran around in circles as they went up in flames, screaming in mortal pain and those Hindus just stood around and cursed them even more.

Pinta was at his neighbour’s place when this happened. They stopped him when he tried to run to his family’s rescue, thus saving his life. But he saw it all. His world was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. But Pinta had recognised some of the rioters. They were from the neighbouring Bengali colony. And since that day he burnt for revenge. When he came to us for training, this was all he wanted to do. He was discouraged by the elders here but he would have none of it. But killing the kids that night really aff ected him… he couldn’t get over that.”

The siege ended when cops killed a few of the militants and the rest surrendered. The photographers had their pictures and that was that as far as the story went. But for me it was an epiphany. Th at nameless fiend from all those years ago suddenly had grown a face and a family and a lot of hurt and anger. So it wasn’t just black and white after all…

Last week when I heard that the ‘world’s most dangerous man’ had got his comeuppance in Abbottabad, I was a little taken aback with the jubilation that followed his death.

Perhaps here too, we were missing the wood for the trees.

I wanted to know the truth. What is it that drives a usually sane and normal person into a frenzy of bloodletting? Why should anyone want to blow himself up as well as a whole lot of strangers he has never met? I had to ask someone who would know and I knew just the man. A friend of mine happens to call one of the country’s top investigative brains father. This man had dealt with militants, separatists and bombers of all hues and hurts, and succeeded and he had answers that left me stunned…

So until next week, judge if you must but judge with care, lest you judge someone unfair…


1 comment:

  1. I am not really sure, how can all the battles, all the wars can be stopped. Spreading Love message all over the owrld is not a good solution, is not practical solution, I feel. I don't know the solution, if there are any solution even!!!