Indira Gandhi’s killing inspired courage as well as savagery

 

One Christian woman risked all to shelter Sikh neighbors from a murderous mob.

By John Dayal:
New Delhi:My aunt and godmother, Sophie Joseph, had numerous stories to tell of heroism and greed during the communal violence that accompanied the Partition of India in 1947.

She lived near the University of Delhi. During that murderous time, many Hindus saved lives — in return for all the cash they could carry, or for rights over the houses that would soon be vacated.

Others saved their neighbors out of love. Many lived to cross the borders not because soldiers protected them but because benevolent neighbors risked their lives to save them from marauding ones.

Sophie — then in her teens — remembered all of this. She was no heroine then, and her lower middle-class family was not the stuff of which role models are made, but they were happy that they connived in the saving of lives.

That lives could be saved by the courage of one’s convictions was a lesson she learned well, and one that would come in handy almost thirty five years later, when the opportunity came again to save the lives of neighbors in desperate need.

She was then living in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) colony in Lawrence Road, recently re-christened Kesavapuram. She was the only Christian in Block A-1.

Ironically, almost all her neighbors were refugees from Pakistan, who had come to the city in 1947 and 1948 — their lives shattered and their souls wounded — to try to rebuild a comfortable life for themselves.

For years, Sophie thought she was the only member of a minority community on the block. Her neighbors also thought she was the only minority member. When she decorated her home for Christmas, children from other blocks would come to see the nativity tableau.

One day the block woke up to the realization that there was another minority community living among them.

On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead.

Within hours, Delhi was on fire; or rather, Sikh shops were on fire. In another hour, 3,500 Sikhs — young and old, but mostly men — were dragged out of busses, pushed off motorcycles and scooters, doused with gasoline and set ablaze.

In Lawrence Road, the frenzy was intense. Rumors flew as thick as the smoke from the people being burned alive.

In Block A-1, a young boy named Bobby was unaware of the momentous event that had shaken India yet again. As he played in Sophie’s house, he heard noises outside the block. A mob from nearby Block A-2, or possibly also from the nearby slums of Trinagar, were looking for Sikh families to burn.

These were the days before they built the steel barricades in colonies. The mob was already inside A-1 when Bobby’s father, HS Chadha, realized he was the only Sikh in the block, and the crowds were after him.

Chadha had a corner apartment on the third floor. It was a coveted apartment, with extra space that the DDA brochure called a “Lucky House”. Chadha had paid a little more than Sophie for his apartment, but he was suddenly glad he was on the same floor, just across the landing of the staircase from the Christian apartment.

Sophie came out and called Bobby’s mother. “Come in,” she said. And so the Chadha clan trooped in, crying and afraid, mumbling prayers.

Sophie calmed them down and took them to her own bedroom. She tried to instill in them a bit of courage. Her husband was a former army officer. Her nephew knew all the big shots in Delhi, particularly the police commissioner. They were safe, Sophie said, reassuring Chadha that she would guard his family with her life.

And she did. She scolded the mob and remained silent about those whom she was sheltering in her home — the Chadhas as well as other families from the neighborhood — all of them safe from the mob as long as Sophie lived.

The crowds looked at her and turned away, not daring her any further, not daring to test if she meant what she said and not entering her home.

Her courage infused a sense of community in the block. They were bound to a conspiracy of silence at the very least.

A group of police jawans (junior soldiers) came to her block a day later and intermittently stood guard.

It was days before Bobby and his parents could return to their home. No thanks were needed. No formal thanks were said. The eyes said it all.

Years passed, and Bobby grew into a handsome Sikh man with a curly beard. He now stood in tears on the rooftop terrace of Block A-1. He and a group of other mourners had gathered to honor the memory of Sophie, who had died the previous day and had been buried that evening.

As the prayers hummed low, someone spoke of Sophie — a witness to the horrors of 1947 and a heroine of the bloody violence of 1984.

They remembered the old Christian nurse who bravely stood down the mob at her front door, and they gave her a new name — Mother Courage.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

Source: ucanews.com

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