Book Review: Lest we forget the 1984 Sikh riots

Book Review: Lest we forget the 1984 Sikh riots

By ARUNA CHAKRAVARTI | | 26 December, 2015


Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Westland Ltd, 2015

Pages:  176

Price: Rs 262


After his critically acclaimed best seller Narendra Modi: The Times, The Man, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has come up with another political masterpiece — a compendium of stories entitled Sikhs; The Untold Agony of 1984. This is an eminently readable book that takes the reader through every phase of the October 1984 shocks and aftershocks from which many in Delhi are still left reeling. It is a bold, up front, no holds barred, yet superbly balanced and poignant narration of what was probably one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of Indian democracy. Recent political battles have brought the memory of the horror unleashed at the time back again into the arena of public debate. The rise of the BJP and the decimation of the Congress Party in the 2014 elections have enabled a rethink and dialogue about the horrific events that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984.

“The book was born out of pain and I felt no joy after completing it. Just a sense of relief…”  Nilanjan opens his Authors’ Note with these words. He repeated them on the 28 October this year at the launch of the book at Alliance Francaise before a packed audience with many standing at the back and between the aisles for want of space. The panel of discussants, which included spokespersons from both the BJP and the Congress, was a distinguished one and many aspects of the book were discussed and pertinent questions were raised. Nilanjan himself remained, as he does in his book, the dispassionate observer. But were there any credible answers? Did any of the Sikhs sitting in the audience, and there were many, leave with a sense of closure; with the hope of justice being meted out to their community in the imminent future? Sad to say — no.

To go back to the book, communal disharmony has become a way of life for Indians and the word “riot” a common everyday word. It is used loosely and casually.  But is it an appropriate term to describe the Sikh carnage? Does not the term imply clash and turbulence between two warring groups? Can it, for want of a better referencing word, be applied to a cold-bloodedly planned political agenda that was totally one sided? Where violence and cruelty of the most macabre kind was met by pleas, tears and futile efforts to escape? Where a powerful majority unleashed a deadly pogrom and a tiny minority only suffered the orchestrated violence? “I want sukh (peace) Won’t you give me peace?” a middle aged woman whose home had been torched, her sons killed and she herself brutally violated at the age of sixty five, begged her perpetrators with folded hands. Two days later she committed suicide. Another, an elderly Sikh gentleman, spoke a single sentence in chaste Punjabi. “Please give me a turban. I want nothing else.” A fearless, dignified affirmation of his religion, community and identity.

The book is essentially one of stories — of the victims, their progeny, witnesses and onlookers of the 1984 carnage — remembered and narrated in retrospect. The author, a young journalist at the time, through detailed and painstaking research, culls out these stories from a wide spectrum of people who witnessed and suffered the killings and arson. Travelling in the streets of Delhi he met people in relief camps and colonies, took interviews and collected anecdotes. Over the decades these faces and voices came back to him in new incarnations as life happened or did not happen to them.

Divided into 10 chapters Nilanjan’s book gives the reader a sense of the events that took place from a variety of perspectives. From the accounts of the young girl Harmeet Kaur, born after 1984; Surjit Kaur who lost her husband and three sons; Gurmeet who was named Churasia because she was born that year; Joginder Singh a middle aged ironsmith to Safina Uberoi a film maker, Nilanjan puts together a cluster of narratives that gives a human face to an epoch in human suffering that has been reduced to statistical lists over the last thirty years.

The author also gives the political context that led to the events — the separatist movement in Punjab, the Congress Party’s vile games, the demands of the Akalis and Operation Blue Star. The anti-Sikh wave that inundated a large section of public opinion at the time was the final eruption of a simmering political volcano building up over decades of conflicted Centre-state relations in Punjab. The triggering point, of course, was the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian Army followed by the shooting of the Prime Minister of India by her own trusted Sikh guards. The mayhem let loose after her death was officially announced, was described by her son Rajiv Gandhi, the next Prime Minister, as a natural consequence. “When a big tree falls,” he observed, “the ground beneath it shakes.”

The 1984 massacres were quite unlike the earlier ones of 1947. Hindus and Muslims had lived together with a semblance of unity which had the inbuilt potential for breaking down any moment under political or other pressures. At the best they had agreed to respect each other’s religious beliefs and ways of life. But the line drawn was clear. They would live peaceably but not together. Villages had separate Hindu and Muslim sections and they drew water from separate wells. As long as the line was maintained all was well. Hindus and Sikhs, on the other hand, were closely linked fraternally. Many Hindu families in Punjab followed the Sikh faith, even sent one son to the gurdwara making him a Sikh. They were like blood brothers when fighting the Muslims in 1947. What changed? And when?

And here we come to the crux of the matter. The historical specificity of 1984 has to be remembered and understood in a certain way. How political interests can create divisions. The British did it. The Congress government followed suit. These riots, if we can call them that, were qualitatively different from the Partition riots. The object of hate and humiliation here was the Sikh male and the turban its symbol. Though women are generally considered more vulnerable at such times as their bodies become the site where victories and defeats are brutally played out — the case was different in 1984. Though incidents of rape, brutal rape, were recorded it was the turbaned, easily identifiable Sikh male whose head was primarily sought by the blood hounds.

On the issue of the turban and its significance in culling out victims the author builds a complex tension between those who held on to this symbol of their faith and those who sacrificed it to ensure safety and even those who went on, subsequently, to acquire a more secular identity.

In conclusion one has to admit that Nilanjan’s book creates a new awareness. It acts, not only as a reminder of a period conveniently forgotten by many, but as a warning. At a time when communal conflagration is constantly threatening the tentative peace in which we live, the book is a sensible reminder of the far reaching consequences of riots — the human debris it leaves behind and the futures it marks indelibly. The most important aspect of the book is the fact that it exposes the machinations of state-sponsored violence. Even after decades, justice is still denied, lives have been impaired and futures are forever marked by fear and distrust.

— Aruna Chakravarti

Creative Writer, Translator and Academic


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