April 12: Each time the glare is back on the anti-Sikh riots, Avantika, now 33 and with three children, gets tense. So she was on Wednesday, when a Delhi court ordered re-opening of the riots case against Congress leader Jagdish Tytler.
On July 31, 1985, nine months after Indira Gandhi’s assassination that sparked the riots, Avantika, then six, had just finished eating a boiled egg when she heard what sounded like crackers bursting outside her Kirti Nagar home.
“Maa, didn’t you say Diwali is three months away?” Avantika, the granddaughter of former President Shankar Dayal Sharma, asked as she ran outside to check what was happening.
To her horror, she saw her mother Geetanjali — the former President’s daughter — bleeding and breathing heavily, and muttering: “Tell someone to take Lalit to hospital.…”
As Avantika turned, she saw her father Lalit Maken, then MP from South Delhi, lying still in a pool of blood next to a security guard, who was also motionless. Terrified and confused, she ran back to her mother, crying and screaming. But by then, Geetanjali’s face too had become calm and still.
Avantika’s first brush with death was way back in 1985 when she saw her parents killed by people who suspected her father had a role in the anti-Sikh riots. Then, in 2008, she had a brush with destiny when she came face-to-face with Ranjit Singh Gill alias Kukki, who was sentenced for life for the murder of her parents.
Kukki was out on bail and a third party had arranged a meeting between them at a hotel. They wanted her to support his mercy petition. “I was reluctant to forgive him but my uncle and other Congress leaders wanted me to do so,” Avantika said.
They convinced her that she and Kukki alike were victims of the political events of 1984. Avantika also met Kukki’s family and realised that though her parents would never return, she could save another family by pardoning Kukki.
“I found him a sensible and educated man. After meeting his parents and sister, I asked myself why should I make another family suffer?” she said.
Avantika pardoned Kukki and did not object to the Delhi government’s decision to commute his life sentence. He is an active blogger and a basketball coach in Ludhiana.
Avantika, married to Sirsa Congress MP Ashok Tanwar, was cautious when asked about the Tytler case. “What I can say? He is a senior Congress leader. How would my view change anything?” Avantika told The Telegraph.
“I don’t think my father was involved in the anti-Sikh pogrom. He was named in a document released by an independent civil rights group that tried to expose people responsible for the carnage. That’s why some people considered him a participant in the riots.”
Avantika claimed her father was secular. “If he or his family was like that (fanatic), I am sure I would have been like that too and I wouldn’t have pardoned Kukki….
“I think as a society we need closure. There are too many festering, open wounds,” she said.
“Each time my mother’s birthday comes, my granny makes gulab jamun because my mother used to like it. Each time my husband flies out, I remain tense till his flight lands and he calls. Every time my children step out, I keep calling them till they return... it is very difficult to come to terms with wanton killing.”
Kukki said he and his wife Sarabjot Kaur were grateful to Avantika. “I am over 50 now. I think I have suffered enough for the crime I committed 27 years ago. It was an offshoot of the frustration among Punjabis in 1984. I want to restore my dignity now,” he said.