“Delhi Burning” screamed the headlines of a major newspaper. It was November 2nd 1984, and riots plagued Delhi, after the then Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards. When the news of her assassination broke, mobs of Hindus filled with rage took to the streets in Delhi, seeking vengeance and killing any Sikhs they came across. Two days after her death, most areas of my city were under total curfew as the flames of communal fire erupted in neighborhood after neighborhood. It was found later that the reigning administration had willfully turned a blind eye dragging its feet on re-establishing law and order with the intent to teach the Sikh community “a lesson” leading to the murder of thousands of Sikhs. But we didn’t know that then. All we knew was that there weren’t enough cops to patrol every town effectively. All we saw was the smoke coming off the fire raging in our very own neighborhood; a bus had been set on fire along with its Sikh driver. All we heard were the police sirens and the recorded voice on a Megaphone telling all families to keep a packed bag in case the situation worsened such that we had to evacuate our homes.
I grew up in India in a moderate Hindu family. We lived in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood in an apartment complex with 6 flats in each apartment block. I was just a little girl then but I remember those days clearly – my elder sister glued to the TV for news updates from the one government-controlled TV channel, and my mother navigating the challenge of being the only parent in our home as our father was away on a business trip to the UK. I saw her watch the smoke from our balcony; her face grim as the reality of the danger set in, packing our evacuation bag and spending the nights awake and on-guard yet telling my father when he made an expensive long-distance call from the UK that everything was just fine, protecting him from further anxiety. Everyone alive in Delhi during that time breathed the air of hate and fear with friends and neighbors turning against each other in every neighborhood.
We had a close relationship with all the neighbors on our block- except one. I remember all the neighbors except that one family meeting at our home that evening to discuss the burning bus; our area was no longer safe and if a mob showed up, things could quickly become lethal. The one family not present was a Sikh family. People exchanged their worries – some blaming the Sikhs for being the culprits, others faulting the lack of adequate police protection as the cause of the havoc and yet others shared what they had heard on the grapevine – Sikhs were going to take every chance to kill Hindus in order to take revenge on what was happening to their community. Everyone looked at my mother at this point – she was currently alone with her kids and living directly across “unknown” Sikhs. The day after the assassination on November 1st, a Sikh family had moved into the apartment right across ours. We had barely said “Hi” to each other when the riots erupted and since then that family had not opened their front door.
I saw my mother, who had been mostly listening till this point take a deep breath and say: “If we are feeling so afraid of the one Sikh family living in our block, just imagine how afraid this poor Sikh family must be to be surrounded with five Hindu families.” There was dead silence as people processed her words. And then came a pivotal moment in my life. My mother proposed writing a note signed by all our Hindu neighbors welcoming the Sikh family to the community and telling them that no harm would come to them as any Hindu mob looking for Sikhs would have to first deal with the five Hindu families that would form a human wall. I saw the faces around us soften as her voice of reason, hope and love resonated in each heart. My mother proceeded to pick up one of my notebooks and wrote the note. A few minutes later, I saw that small woman with a large spirit open our front door, walk across to our Sikh neighbor’s flat and slid the note under their door.
It takes courage and a deep sense of conviction in the goodness of others to do what my mother did that day – choosing love and hope over fear and despair. And by doing this, she planted the same seed in me. My mother was, by no means, alone in this. Every single day millions of people around the world make the same choice. Yet we rarely hear those stories; instead our media is rife with stories of hate and division. And since what is oft-repeated becomes the established world-view, too many of us have started to believe that America is full of hate and “the other side” is our enemy. Some of us can smell the burning bus, others are looking for an evacuation route, yet others are stocking up to prepare for an all-out civil war against their own neighbors.
So what can we do? Well, some of us have to take a deep breath and refuse to give in to the madness. Some of us have to decide as my mother did that day in 1984 – to build a human wall of hope and humanity. I joined Crossing Party Lines (CPL) because it is part of that wall. Through workshops and moderated conversations, CPL does the crucial societal task of promoting civic harmony and reducing toxic polarization. When we are in genuine conversations with “the other side”, truly listening to their hopes and fears and sharing our own in a way that doesn’t threaten but promotes curiosity, we are choosing to remember and rediscover our common humanity, we are choosing to trust goodness. We are choosing hope.
YOU can become part of this human wall too. We, at CPL, are launching a video series called “Choose Hope” featuring stories of regular folks sharing a moment from their lives when they / someone they know – like my mother – faced a situation when it was easy to give in to the status quo of fear, hate and despair yet they chose to take the high road of love, hope and goodness. Together we can become part of the wall that stands united and shall stay united as the United States of America.
Cinema Arts Center is proud to be a partner and the Long Island home of Crossing Party Lines. If you feel you have a story that fits this topic, send an email to VMT@CrossingPartyLines.com with the subject “Choose Hope” so the CPL team can guide you about the type of recording they need.
Swati Srivastava is the Director of Visual Media at Crossing Party Lines. More than a filmmaker/storyteller, Swati turns ideas into experience. She is also an environmentalist and a first generation immigrant to the United States. She can be reached via Linkedin and swati@TiredAndBeatup.com
You can join the CPL Meetup Group at https://www.meetup.com/crossing-party-lines-ny-long-island/