“What’s the point of continuing with this charade? Why keep pounding the grain when it’s already crushed to dust? To hell with this Unity Council of yours and to hell with its great members! Thousands of our brothers are being slaughtered like goats and sheep; countless sisters being stripped naked, paraded in public and molested in broad daylight. You ought to drown in shame each time you call out for this ‘Unity’ of yours. I don’t know if you lot are weirdly self-obsessed or … or … just plain impotent! If there’s any blood in your biceps, will it only stir when these Muslims enter your own homes, and your mothers and sisters are vio –”

The young man’s face was flushed, each sentence exploding from his lips like molten lava from a volcanic eruption, his words crashing into the audience with the seismic force of tectonic plates. There was a stunned silence in the room, followed soon by a flicker of resentment. The speaker was a young man of about 22 or 23, possibly a college student if one went by his attire.

They were inside a nondescript house located approximately midway between the Putlighar crossing and Khalsa College on the Grand Trunk Road as it traversed through Amritsar. A dozen young men sat around a table in a largish room in that house – six were Sikh, four Hindu, and two Muslim.

It was an evening in early March. The festival of Holi was around the corner, meaning that the winds had strengthened over the last couple of days, enveloping people in the streets and bazaars in clouds of dust. The young men who were sitting around the table had set up their Unity Council a couple of months back. The Council had started off with a fair bit of enthusiasm. Its first couple of meetings were attended by almost a hundred members, but those numbers had dwindled rapidly to the dozen present this evening. And if the fireworks on display today were any indication, it wouldn’t be long before the Council’s last rites were performed without much fanfare.

The young man’s fiery discourse had left the others speechless, their faces reflecting a curious array of expressions ranging from fear and guilt to anger and indignation. Emotions were rising around the table as he continued his diatribe when a young Sikh, who was sitting next to the speaker, quickly rose from his chair. In a flash, his right hand moved to cover the speaker’s mouth and prevent him from causing further damage

“Sudharshan!” the Sikh fumed. “Have you lost your senses? You forget that we are members of the Unity Council who’ve pledged to dowse the communal fire, not fan its flames through tirades like these. The terrible things that you’ve pointed out may well be true. But does that mean that we should also allow ourselves to be swept into this flood of communal hatred instead of trying to save others, as we had once –”

Cutting him off mid-sentence, Sudarshan continued in the same blistering voice, “You’d better understand, Satnam, that the lofty purpose that brought us together is now a mirage. You won’t reach your goal even if you keep trying till the end of time. Mark my words, Satnam. We’ve reached a stage where we must fight fire with fire. I’ve heard the blood-curdling accounts of refugees fleeing the Frontier Province and my heart bleeds from a thousand cuts. I’ve taken a solemn vow that I’ll avenge the death of each one of my fellows by killing at least four of theirs. I haven’t come here today to attend this council of yours. I’ve come to get rid of its membership for good. Here you go!” And, so saying, he reached inside his jacket to withdraw a piece of folded paper and flung it at Satnam.

Satnam picked up the resignation letter and put it on the table without reading it. At the moment, he was more worried that today’s meeting would end in bloodshed. The two Muslim members sat across the table from him, their heads were lowered in anxiety even as they sensed the pointed gaze of the Hindus and Sikhs upon them.

Satnam picked up the resignation letter and put it on the table without reading it. At the moment, he was more worried that today’s meeting would end in bloodshed. The two Muslim members sat across the table from him, their heads were lowered in anxiety even as they sensed the pointed gaze of the Hindus and Sikhs upon them.

A young Hindu who was seated beside them piped up, “Sardar Satnam Singh ji, forgive me, but you can’t entirely dismiss Sudarshan’s comments. We need to reflect deeply on what he has said. Frankly, I also feel that this Unity Council has become a bit of a farce. The disease of communal hatred has now spread throughout our body; the patient is in critical condition and the prescriptions coming out of this Unity Council will do nothing to cure him. Let’s be honest for a moment. Over the last couple of months, we’ve shouted ourselves hoarse calling for communal amity, printed and distributed thousands of pamphlets, published articles in major newspapers, stuck giant posters and given speeches – but has any of it resulted in something tangible? Have our efforts reduced the level of communal hatred? Not at all. If anything, it continues to increase with each passing day. And you are also aware of another grim reality. We are all at the mercy of Amritsar’s Muslim-dominated police force – the same people who are inciting their Muslim brethren to launch a jihad against their Hindu and Sikh neighbours?”

“And remember this,” chimed in another young Hindu, his Western attire topped up with a very English-looking cap. “You can keep trying till the end of time, but there is absolutely no chance that your prescription will work. This council has now been around for over two months. Is there a single achievement that we can highlight, apart from wasting people’s time with these pointless meetings at one location or another? From the reports that I read in the newspapers, it is quite clear that the forbearance of Hindus and Sikhs is being exploited by the Muslims and they are becoming more aggressive by the day. The destruction wrought in Hazara and Pothohar is a living example of this trend.”

“But Mr Kumar!” Satnam turned around to address him. “In your opinion, what is the reason for this?” Kumar leaned forward towards Satnam as he spoke, “The reason is that right now, the fanaticism of the Muslims has crossed all limits. You can pull out the press clippings for the last one month and read about the violence in Hazara and Pothohar. I am sure that after reading them, you’ll also agree that this Unity Council of yours is utterly pointless. The other side is hurling bricks at you and you want to respond by throwing flowers at them? The sheer absurdity of your ideals!”

“So, does this mean that…” the Muslim named Ishaaq who was sitting three chairs away from Kumar interjected, ‘it must be an eye for an eye, that each action must be followed by a stronger reaction? If you think that approach is going to help our city or our nation, then I have to agree that this council of ours can offer no solution.”

“Well, if I can be honest…” Tarlochan Singh spoke from the seat on Satnam’s left. “The fact is that this council has automatically ceased to exist because of the lack of quorum in the last few meetings. A membership of around a hundred and the record shows attendance of barely a dozen!”

Excerpted with permission from A Game of Fire, Nanak Singh, translated from the Punjabi by Navdeep Suri, HarperCollins India.