Why Number ‘4’ is Ominous for Me

Adding the digits in 1948,1984 and 2002 leaves us with the same number: 4

1984 Anti-Sikh Massacre. Photo courtesy: Caravan Magazine

A number can also tell a story. Yes. A number. A digit. It is immaterial whether the story makes you feel sad or it brings a smile on your lips. But a number can be associated with some names, some places, some details and many other things. And those elements are enough to build a story.

I am going to share with you the story of a number that is permanently etched on my memory. But I am sure it won't make you happy. Knowing that, I still would like to share it with you. It's not that I want to make you feel sad. All I want is to make you think, so that you get offended and angry. Why? I will tell you later. First let me tell you the story. And by the way, it's a story based on real events and not a fiction. 

The number that is on my mind is four. Yes. Number "4"; that reminds me of series of numbers that continue to haunt me.

The very first combination of digits that remind me of number 4 is 1984. How? Very simple. Add them all. 1+9+8+4. That makes it 10+12 = 22. Now add 2 and 2 and you will get 4. Therefore, I associate "4" with 1984, an unforgettable year.

For me number four is not just a reminder of ominous political events but also a key to keep our memory alive to make people in power accountable.

I was fourteen at that time. We lived in Amritsar, the holiest city of the Sikhs. The most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple complex, is in that city. The temple had come under military invasion that year in the month of June. The then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had sent army to the temple to flush out handful of militants who had turned it into a fortress.

They were angry with the government that was not listening to the demands of the Sikhs, who were fighting against discrimination and seeking some rights and privileges. The Hindus felt threatened by the militants who carried out armed insurgency from inside the shrine. While Hindus make 80 percent of the Indian population, they are only 40 percent in Punjab where Sikhs are in the majority. The Sikhs makes only about two percent of the national population. These numbers too explain a lot, but I need to focus on number 4.

Political killings and the mass murders of Hindus resulted in the army invasion on the temple leaving many devotees dead and the buildings inside the complex destroyed. The Sikhs were outraged and there were angry protests across the world. Sikhs felt that the attack was avoidable and was planned to please Hindu majority to win the forthcoming national elections.

After the siege was lifted and people were given access to the Golden Temple, our family also visited the place. The image of destruction inside shook me completely. Since I was born and raised in a Sikh family, as a teenager I could not control my emotions after seeing in front of me bullet marks everywhere. 

In October that year, the news came that Indira Gandhi has been murdered by her Sikh bodyguards who were seeking revenge for the invasion. But the story did not end there. Following her murder, Sikhs outside Punjab came under organized attacks by mobs led by the members of her Congress Party. We were always told that the Congress is a secular party that believes in equality and denounces religious fanaticism. But now, everything seemed to have gone wrong. Sikh men were being burnt alive and their women being raped by goons incited by Congress men. An entire community was being taught a lesson for the murder of Indira Gandhi by just two Sikh men.

We were worried about our relatives outside Punjab. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened to them, but they had to live through fear. They survived mainly because of their Hindu neighbours, who not only ensured their safety but also because they stayed indoors during the violence.

Why was the government doing this to its own citizens? First it invaded their place of worship and now it was targeting ordinary Sikhs everywhere? The mystery was over soon. It was election time and Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi was elected to power with a brute majority. His slogan for "national unity" in the wake of his mother's death paid him the dividends.

The invasion of the Golden Temple was justified in the name of national unity. The Sikh militants were accused of getting support from foreign powers, who the government claimed were bent upon dividing India. Indira Gandhi's assassination was also seen by her supporters as a terrorist act committed under international conspiracy. No evidence was needed to prove that Sikhs were targeted to win the election that followed these horrible events.

Survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy march for justice. Photo credit: Indian Express

Before we move further I want to quickly add here that the year 1984 was also very painful for the people of Bhopal. In December that year, following large-scale repression of Sikhs a month earlier, one of the biggest industrial disasters struck the city. Gas leakage at the Union Carbide plant killed many people and left many blinded and the drinking water contaminated.

The CEO of the company Warren Anderson who was from US was allowed to leave the country. Slowly it became visible to everyone that the plant was constructed at a wrong place despite warnings of a possible accident in future. This could only have happened in exchange of favours given by the owners of the plant to the corrupt leaders of the Congress who ruled both in Delhi and in Madhya Pradesh, the state where Bhopal is located.

Obviously, Anderson was given a safe exit as part of cover up. A similar cover up was used to hide the complicity of the government in the massacre of Sikhs. Both the poor slum dwellers who lost their lives in Bhopal and the Sikhs who were systematically murdered became numbers that remain irrelevant for the privileged society and the ruling classes of India whose constitution guarantees social and economic equality.

In his first public reaction to the criticism of violence against Sikhs, Rajiv Gandhi shortly after assuming the post of the Prime Minister had remarked, “When a big tree falls, earth around it shakes a bit.” The statement itself was a part of the cover up. Gandhi tried to make everyone believe that it was a reaction of people over the death of their beloved leader. Clearly, he did not want to acknowledge the complicity of the state machinery in the massacre.

His big lie could not cover another historic reality.

Photo credit: The Hindu

The year 1948 again reminds me of number 4, a much bigger tree had fallen, but the earth did not shake at all.

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Marathi Hindu extremist. That Gandhi, like it or not, was much more respected than Indira and Rajiv. Yet, Marathi Hindus did not become target of such madness. For that matter when Rajiv Gandhi was killed by Tamil separatists in 1991, Tamil Hindus were not punished by the mobs belonging to his Congress party.

Both the Sikhs and the sufferers of Bhopal tragedy continue to await justice. No senior Congress leader has been convicted until now. HKL Bhagat, one of the top-notch leaders involved in the carnage, died after illness while others continue to move around freely. Anderson too remained unpunished.

The precedent of dividing people, letting big shots involved in deaths of civilians go scot free and allowing impunity for crimes was already set by the year 2002. You read it right; 2002 that also equals 4.

Photo credit: Firstpost

I had moved to Canada by then. The current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat back in that time.

The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi – who was opposed to Hindu theocracy and was murdered for this reason – went up into flames. Muslims became target of violence by the supporters of Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that believes in Hindu theocracy. Not surprisingly, some of its hawkish leaders consider Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi as their hero. The BJP happens to be the political wing of the ultra-Hindu supremacist group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that was banned after Mahatma Gandhi’s death. Godse was an RSS man.

In 2002, the 1984 technique that was applied on the Sikhs to avenge the assassination of the then prime minister was repeated to terrorise Muslims.

The massacre followed the burning of a train bringing Hindu pilgrims from the disputed site of Ayodhya. The Hindus believe that it is the birthplace of their revered god, Lord Rama. The BJP supporters claim that the original temple built there was demolished by Babar – a Muslim emperor long ago to build a mosque. The BJP has always desired to build a grand Ram temple at the exact location [Editors’ note: The Ram temple became an issue for the BJP only in mid-1980s]. In 1992, they gathered there and razed the Babari mosque. Since then the place remains a point of conflict.

The Hindu pilgrims were returning from Ayodhya after performing prayers at a make shift Rama temple in February 2002. Some of the supporters of BJP had harassed Muslim passengers and vendors at railway stations along the route. Under these circumstances, a compartment of the Sabarmati Express caught fire leaving over 50 passengers dead. Though one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident, the Modi government blamed Muslim extremists allegedly supported by Pakistan.

Hell broke out on Muslims throughout Gujarat after the mobs were given free hand to kill and loot with the help of police.  

Modi won another round of Assembly election for the BJP in the aftermath of the massacre with a huge mandate. He also fought the election on the plank of threat to national security from Pakistan-based terrorists. Much like Rajiv Gandhi, he also tried to rationalise the bloodshed and violence by saying that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In a way, he was using a similar argument with some variation to cover up the complicity of the state in crimes against humanity.

The events of 2002 are the culmination of politics of hate started much earlier. Down the road I won’t be surprised to come across more such connections.  

I have not shared these details to promote numerology or suggest that number four is unlucky. This is just my story. Because I associate the number with these gory incidents it does not mean that number four should be considered ominous by all. You may have some sweet memories associated with the number four. Likewise, for others some other numbers might bring worse memories than the ones I shared.

For the oppressed groups, like Dalits or so-called untouchables, the LGBT, the tribals, the indigenous peoples, women and the disabled every day is an ugly reminder of structural violence and injustice. For them my version of number four or the events related to the years, 1948, 1984 or 2002 might not mean anything. From their perspective, much worse incidents might have occurred between 1948 and 2002 and continue even now.

This is not to suggest either that the incidents I have listed were the only tragedies that happened during those years. The story I have shared is more to do with keeping our memories alive however painful they might be, because those in power want us to forget. They want to erase these memories to deny us justice. For me number four is not just a reminder of ominous political events but also a key to keep our memory alive to make people in power accountable.



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