Goodbye, Friend. Do you still accuse?

My friend and former colleague Jarnail Singh died of Covid this morning in a hospital in Delhi. He was younger than me.

Jarnail Singh.

Jarnail was a journalist on the defence beat before he threw a shoe at the then Union home minister P Chidambaram at a press conference in 2009. It earned him notoriety.

Months before that, a journalist had hurled a shoe at then US President George W. Bush Jr. to protest against the invasion of Iraq.

Jarnail was deeply anguished that the Congress party heading the UPA government at the Centre at the time had given electoral tickets to alleged perpetrators of the 1984 killings of Sikhs that followed then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The evening of the shoe-throwing incident, Sandeep Dikshit of The Hindu and I went to meet him at the police station where he was in a lock-up. I also wrote a report for The Telegraph, clear in my mind that Jarnail had abused a journalistic privilege. He himself was atoning for it. His career as a journalist was finished.

But the Congress had to withdraw the tickets to Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar after the shoe-throwing incident.

Jarnail Singh throwing a shoe at then Union home minister P Chidambaram at a press conference in 2009.

A few weeks later I helped him put together a manuscript that was later published as a book entitled, “I Accuse: The anti-Sikh violence of 1984” by Penguin India. We did have a tiff because the book had wrongly cited one of my articles.

The tiff was resolved after the citation was corrected in the subsequent edition of the book.

In course of time, Jarnail went on to join politics. He was elected an MLA for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi.

But we – correspondents of the defence beat – who would meet every day at work in military headquarters and who indeed had travelled the length and breadth of the country in noisy transport aircraft – recall a gentle, soft-spoken and incorruptible Sardar.

Time was when we used to play tennis ball cricket on the India Gate lawns on winter weekends. Jarnail had a good arm and could throw into the wickets from the deep. When batting, he used to refuse being declared out till he was bowled. He used to refuse being declared out.

This is what I wrote for The Telegraph on the day of the shoe-throwing incident:

This is Jarnail, who was then with the Dainik Jagran, I and Rajat Pandit of The Times of India at Ross Island in the Andamans on a defence beat visit to a military establishment. Photo courtesy of Rajat Pandit.

This is what I have to write today:

When we count our dead,

When we finally, finally count our dead,

We will be grateful.

Grateful that we can still count

Grateful that they can be counted.

When we count our dead,

Their images of life will flit this way and that,

holding, touching, laughing, crying, taunting, abusing,

threatening, joking, angering.

Angering even after they are dead.

Many will have died not so much of the disease;

Many will have died of denied care, in hospital,

at home, choking for want of oxygen.

Yet, we will be grateful

For we may recall their names,

their eccentricities,

their lies, their make-beliefs,

their truths, their greyness.

We will be grateful they were not among the bodies 

that float from Varanasi to Buxar, from Allahabad and Unnao,

and we will retain the anger.

And the angering.

For each of them could laugh and cry,

and play and be played with.

They were not like what we have to contend with – their rulers;

a deceptive bunch

when it is not dead,

dead in the water.

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