Gunjeet Sra recounts her memories of heading out with her grandfather as a child to join the village in a celebration at the spot where a Khalistani separatist had been gunned down
One winter morning, my house was abuzz with excitement. Since I was the youngest in the joint family, I knew that no one would bother to fill me in on what was happening. My age barred me from the truth and I would often be fed fantastical versions of what had actually transpired by my father’s teenage brothers. I went in search of them. They were nowhere to be found, which was strange because they otherwise spent most of their time at home or on the farm. My grandmother and mother were also missing. The only person to keep me company at home was my great-grandmother and she was no fun because she didn’t know anything.
While I sat sulking, contemplating whether I should check out the hen house to see if there were any fresh eggs or gather my army of farm children for mission decode, my grandfather appeared.
My grandfather’s only obsessions for as long as I can remember have been his farm, his guns and flashlights (he has one in every shape, colour and size). And somehow, he has managed to combine all three interests: he wakes up in the dead of the night, goes to the roof and conducts regular checks on the farm with his gun in hand. He was a kind and brave man, and was the only person who would reveal things to me in all their ugliness. So it was no surprise when he walked up to me and asked if I would like to see a terrorist. I was ecstatic and told him that I would love to. I was seven years old then.
This was in December 1993, by which time terrorism had invaded our lives. There was no escaping it. It was in the newspapers, on the television, in the movie Roja—which had me so scared that I vowed never to go to Kashmir—and, worst of all, in our homes. Ours was a family of farmers in a village in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh bordering Nepal. Surrounded by jungles, our only link to civilisation was the tiny town of Palia Kalan. And our only hope in those uneasy years was our conviction that we were stronger than terrorists and would not bend to them.
The terrorists, though, were no strangers; they were fellow brothers, friends of friends, people we knew of. The last of the ‘Khalistanis’ who were too poor to flee the country and had instead come to the Terai for refuge in the homes of people they hoped were like them, those who might sympathise with their separationist ideology and help them secure homes in these areas or give them a place to hide; people eager to be revolutionaries, youngsters looking to add meaning to what seemed like a pointless life.
The people of Palia, though, fought them hard with a little help from the law. Sleeping with guns under pillows became a regular phenomenon. There were shootouts on farms between farmers and infiltrators. There was constant fear of their turning up, and the occasional violence.
To a child’s mind, this was all quite incomprehensible and exciting, a great big adventure. Until a few days before this particular incident, I did not fully understand the phenomenon and I didn’t particularly fear it. Then something happened that evoked such deep-set insecurities in me that I still struggle with them. News came to us one morning that a family friend and his wife had been burnt alive in front of their barely teenage children.
The terrorists, who had come in search of food, first ate in their home and then set it on fire, leaving the two children as witnesses to the horrific death of their parents. This was done to incite fear and to tell the world what would happen to those who did not—or merely appeared to—cooperate. For a long time after that and sometimes even today, I dream of my family being massacred and me being the sole survivor.
This insecurity is inexplicable, but its roots can be found in those years of being a passive observer to a violent time. Perhaps it was this particular fear and the hope that I would be able to vanquish it once I saw the body of a dead terrorist that made my grandfather approach me. I had often tried to imagine what a terrorist might look like. I wondered if he would be handsome, but dismissed the thought as I firmly believed as a child that no one beautiful could be capable of anything so heinous. I was pretty convinced that he would be a manifestation of all the horror that he had induced. An ugly pock-marked face with maybe horns—I remember being particularly satisfied with my last addition. I wondered what he would be doing alone out in the fields at night. And from where he got the courage. Was he not scared to be in the middle of nowhere, hiding from the police? There were a lot of questions in my head, but most of all I wondered how many bullets it would take to kill him.
As my grandfather’s jeep moved away from our driveway and onto the dirt road leading up to my friend’s farm where the ‘encounter’ had taken place, he told me that almost everyone we knew would be there to see the spectacle, including my grandmother and mother, two of my least favourite people that day because they had left me alone. I decided I wouldn’t talk to them and hung on hard to my seat as the Mahindra jeep bounced through the apology of a road, maintaining a brave face but scared that my heart would give way as it was thundering loudly in my rib cage.
I looked at my grandfather, but he gave me no reassuring smile; he was lost in thought. I wondered what he was thinking about. I thought of my great-grandmother at home: did she know where we were going? What if there were more terrorists waiting to ambush us? I remembered an instance of a few days earlier when an entire busload of travellers had been hauled up on their way to Palia and each passenger made to stand in line, before they were all shot, one by one, every single one of them.
When we finally reached the spot where the terrorist lay dead, my grandfather told me that the end of a menace required a certain degree of fanfare and celebration. This was the explanation for the number of people gathered in the area. I got off the car in trepidation, not knowing what would greet me. I thought I would hide behind my grandfather’s leg to catch a glimpse of the person who was the subject of such excitement on this cold winter day. I was confounded by the celebration of someone’s death. It seemed so perverse, but my curiosity led me on and I followed my grandfather, prepared to finally confront my fear.
However, I had nothing to see. We were too late, they told us. His body had been wrapped up and taken for post-mortem. All that remained were a few bullet shells, the mark of where the body lay, some dried blood and satisfied onlookers who were bursting with details.
My friend who had seen the evidence told me pompously that there were so many bullet marks that the entire chest had holes in it. I tried to imagine a man with holes and was terrified with what my mind conjured. I never did get that image out of my mind.
That and the image of the dead boy’s mother, head hanging in shame at what her son had turned out to be, muttering inexplicably to herself as her neck swung to and fro. He was just 27, they said.