Shaheen Bagh to Rakabganj

The year 2020 has been our annus horribilis.

The phrase, elegant in Latin but sounding foul in English even when not punned, became pop in modern times after Elizabeth Regina II used it for describing 1992. That was the year in which her elder son’s affairs became public knowledge, her second son separated from his wife, her daughter divorced, a daughter-in-law was snapped topless and getting her toe kissed, her nephew killed himself, and one of her many palaces caught fire.

Those were mostly the Queen’s personal tragedies. For the public, those who read about these in British tabloids, 1992 was annus comicus.

Now Narendra Modi too has had his horrible year. Look at 2020 from head to toe, or January to December. It started with street protests over the citizenship law, and is ending with protests over farm laws. In between we have had riots in Delhi, a sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, a pandemic which is still on the rage, a social lockdown, an economic slowdown, town workers fleeing, Sushant Rajput dead, Donald Trump in Delhi, Babri accused acquitted, two typhoons, two assembly elections, one flood, a few fires, the Chinese in Galwan and a lot more to mourn over. No cinemas, no fat weddings, no dining out, no foreign tours—not even for our most frequent flier.

Not that it was all mourning and melancholy. There were moments of mirth too. We watched Mickey Mouse and Donald Trump on home TV, banged plates and tumblers to remove viruses, listened to Rahul urging youth to dream of unemployment, and nodded our heads when told that the Chinese hadn’t broken in.

But those moments of mirth were short-lived. We relapsed into melancholy most of the year, washing hands, tying masks, scrubbing surfaces and physically distancing. But the virus stayed on and spread to more, and is now mutating into a more virulent avatar.

No wonder Modi has sought divine benediction. Without police escort, he went to pray at Gurdwara Rakabganj “where the pious body of Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Ji was cremated,” and tweeted that he “felt extremely blessed.”

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Critics would carp that he chose a gurdwara for prayer to mollify the farmers. Most of the protesting farmers are Sikhs, and they think that Modi’s new farm laws will let the Ambanis and Adanis reap their harvests.

Anyway, the ruse, if it was one, hasn’t worked. Like the gritty guru before Aurangzeb, the farmers are sticking to their stance and sitting on a siege of Delhi, come winter cold, coronavirus or being called Khalistanis.

Let’s hope better sense will prevail on both sides, and next year, during which the 400th Parkash Parv of Guru Teg Bahadur will be celebrated, will be an annus mirabilis.

Tailpiece: Ninth guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 in Chandni Chowk on the orders of Aurangzeb who also forbade his cremation. However, the guru’s disciple Lakhi Shah Vanjara stole the body and cremated it by burning his house in Rakabganj village which had got its name from the local market of horse tack (rakab) patronised by Mughal noblemen. The severed head was taken to Anandpur Sahib by another disciple, Bhai Jaita, and cremated.

The shrines built later at the spot of the execution in Chandni Chowk and cremation of the head in Anandpur Sahib are known as Gurdwara Sisganj (sis means head). The British had planned to demolish Gurdwara Rakabganj during the building of New Delhi so as to straighten the road to North Block. They even demolished its boundary wall, but gave up the idea in return for the Sikhs’ valuable service in World War I.