Almost within sight of the charred remains of his mud-brick home in block 32 of the slum resettlement colony of Trilokpuri, B.S. Dukhiya, a 28-year-old Sikh scooter rickshaw driver, cast his vote in India's parliamentary election today -- with a vengeance.
"Janata Party for me! No Sikhs will vote for Congress (I) today," said Dukhiya, who returned to Trilokpuri for the first time since 18 members of his extended family were slain by rampaging Hindu mobs on Nov. 2. The killings came in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh security guards.
Along with hundreds of other Sikhs who fled during the massacre in Trilokpuri, where more than 100 persons died, Dukhiya returned to the slum neighborhood across the Yamuna River today from a refugee camp about 10 miles away to cast his vote during the first day of balloting in the national election.
For Dukhiya, it was a bittersweet experience, because for years, he said, he had been an enthusiastic worker for the Congress (I) -- the I is for Indira -- Party. In 1977, he said, after Indira Gandhi was voted out of office and harassed by the Janata Party regime, his continued loyalty to her cost him 11 days in the Alwar Central Jail in Rajasthan, northern India's desert state.
There are nearly 1 million Sikhs in New Delhi, and large numbers of them were reported to be turning out to vote today in the heavily Sikh neighborhoods of South Delhi, Karol Bagh and Sadar in apparent response to a campaign to turn out votes against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the slain leader's son.
Voting in the parliamentary elections will continue in some states on Thursday and Friday, with result totals to be announced on Saturday.
Unlike many fervently nationalistic Sikhs in the Punjab, a north Indian state where members of the monotheistic sect predominate, New Delhi Sikhs long have been assimilated into the mainly Hindu society of the Indian capital, and traditionally have voted for the Congress Party.
But since the wave of arson, looting and murder that left at least 1,500 persons, most of them Sikhs, dead after the assassination, many New Delhi Sikhs have been embittered, charging that Hindu Congress (I) block workers led some of the attacking mobs, and that the government delayed sending Army troops to save Sikhs so that the Hindus could vent their outrage over Indira Gandhi's death.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, hero of the 1971 Bangladesh war and now president of the National Sikhs Forum, said Sikh leaders had urged Sikh voters not to boycott the election, but to vote instead for the opposition parties.
"I would imagine they would vote against Congress (I)," said Aurora, whose house in New Friends Colony, a fashionable neighborhood of the capital, was saved from being set afire only because a soldier stood guard outside.
Dukhiya, a member of the Labana Sikh clan that originally came from Sind Province in what is now Pakistan, walked with a reporter through the eerily deserted dirt lane of Trilokpuri's block 32, which became a killing ground for terrified Sikh families Nov. 2. There, Dukhiya said, 18 of his relatives died that night after he and his immediate family slipped away from the howling mob.
As he walked through the burned-out houses, some still strewn with clumps of hair forcibly shorn from the Sikh men before they were doused with kerosene and burned alive, Dukhiya came across the remnants of human bones that had not been removed seven weeks after the massacre. His voice hardened as he attempted in his broken English to explain his feelings upon returning to the ghastly scene for the first time.
"People are looking at me like I'm a man from a circus. I had many friends in the Hindu community, but it is not safe for me now, unless I am with you," Dukhiya said. "No Sikh will ever be coming back here. All the killing, the looting, the raping of our women. They the Hindus said they would come again."
He said that he and the approximately 2,000 other Sikh refugees who are living in a temporary shelter at a police station in Farash Bazar have been begging the government to find them housing outside of Trilokpuri, but that nothing has been done. The refugees obtained a court order enjoining the government from putting them out of the refugee camp before Jan. 21, But they said they do not know what will happen after that.
Since Sikhs account for only about 2 percent of India's 750 million population, their vote is not considered to be a significant factor in the election outcome.
But the Punjab question became a major issue late in the campaign as opposition leaders accused Rajiv Gandhi of exploiting Hindu anger over his mother's assassination and creating an anti-Sikh backlash in order to win votes in the populous "Hindi heartland" that stretches across five northern Indian states.
In the final days of the campaign, Gandhi repeatedly charged that the Janata Party coalition government of 1977 had supported Sikh separatism by granting an entry visa to the London-based extremist Sikh secessionist leader, Jagjit Singh Chauhan.
Following the Indian Army assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, Chauhan publicly said that Sikhs would seek revenge against Indira Gandhi.
The prime minister's allegation was interpreted by many Sikhs as an attempt to win Hindu votes by generating hatred against Sikhs.