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From Godhra to Shaheen Bagh, there are many 1984s: Sarbpreet Singh

The author of a new collection of stories based on the anti-Sikh pogrom speaks about violence, memory and healing traumas

Protesters demanding justice for the victims of 1984.
Protesters demanding justice for the victims of 1984.

On 31 October 1984, as the Tinsukhia Mail was about to reach Kanpur station, the news of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards reached the passengers aboard the train. It’s not hard to imagine the consternation the rumours must have caused, but in Sarbpreet Singh’s story “The Survivor”, included in his new collection Night Of The Restless Spirits, we glimpse the human face of the tragedy vividly—first, through a haze of bitter irony, followed by a pall of horrific violence.

In the story, a family of Sikhs, settled in Darjeeling for several generations, is travelling by the train. Some of them are upset by the news of the prime minister’s death; others are still smarting in the aftermath of the Operation Bluestar she had ordered in June that year. In the ensuing operation, the Indian Army had stormed into the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers. In the process, the Akal Takht, one of the chief seats of authority in Sikhism, had been badly damaged, enraging millions of Sikhs worldwide.

On the train, though, the mood is sombre, but far from volatile. As rumours of attacks on Sikhs across India trickle in, the co-passengers begin to urge the Sikh family to take precautions, especially for the sake of the women and children. It is at this point that one of the men cries out in disbelief. “Lalaji, we have Hindu-Muslim riots, even Sikh-Muslim riots,” he tells a concerned man, “but have you ever heard of Hindu-Sikh riots?”

The massacre of Sikhs that unfolded, in the story and in real life, was in shocking contrast to this innocent incredulity—but the latter wasn’t an uncommon reaction at the time. Singh himself was susceptible to it. “I was in my fourth year at BITS Pilani in 1984,” he says on the phone from the US, where he lives. “In those days, before the free flow of information on the internet, most of us believed the media narrative—that a beloved prime minister had been assassinated, that Sikhs were involved in it, and that there were sporadic incidents of violence, mostly against poor Sikhs.”

As later books by Manoj Mitta and Sanjay Suri have shown among others, the news of these attacks were highly under-reported in the Indian media at the time. The extent of the atrocities, along with the careful planning that went into executing them (such as using electoral lists to target Sikh households), came out later in the reports submitted by various fact-finding commissions. The mood at the time, though, was summarised by the prevailing sentiment that whatever happened to the Sikhs in Delhi was bad, but they asked for it.

For Singh, who moved to the US to attend graduate school in 1987, most of the revelations came via all the reports he encountered in the foreign press, where the massacre wasn’t glossed over. The truth was also captured in some of the underground literature published by human-rights groups like People’s Union for Civil Liberties and People’s Union for Democratic Rights. In 1984, Madhu Kishwar had written an article in the feminist journal Manushi (“Gangster Rule”), reporting the killing of Sikhs in detail. Ethnographic research by the anthropologist Veena Das with the children of survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder led to more epiphanies. In fact, the latter is the inspiration for Singh’s long narrative poem “Kultar’s Mime”, subsequently dramatized by his daughter and included in the book.

Author Sarbpreet Singh.
Author Sarbpreet Singh.

“We had modest expectations of the dramatic rendition of the poem,” Singh says. “But in the end, we performed it over 90 times in six countries, including at the 30th anniversary of the attacks in Delhi.” In each instance, he adds, there was an outpouring of compassion, an intense moment of catharsis—among Sikh and non-Sikh audiences alike, whether in Delhi, Chennai or Kuala Lumpur.

In the interaction sessions following the performance, members of the audience in the diaspora and in India stood up to share their experiences and memories, sometimes for the first time ever in public. “In one instance, a gentleman in Ottawa, Cananda, spoke about his trauma, as his 20-something son sat next to him, listening to his father recount it for the first time,” Singh says. Another man in Vancouver spoke through his sobs about the granthi from their local gurdwara, who had banged on their door seeking shelter from the mob. The terrified father of the family did not answer his calls—“Who would blame the poor man for trying to protect his family?” says Singh—and later the granthi was found dead.

In several other stories in the collection, though written over a span of 30 years, the freshness of the tragedy and a mounting sense of grief are still palpable. In “Phaji”, the opening story, for instance, the charm of high-school romance is blighted by a living nightmare as a Kashmiri Pandit family gives refuge to a Sikh family during the pogrom. Questions of legality and right conduct get deviously entangled in “The Court Martial”, chronicling an inquiry into a “mutiny” by Sikh soldiers in the Indian Army. The final blow comes in the concluding paragraphs, where the nefarious workings of the system dilute the prerogative to deliver justice to the accused.

The cover of 'Night of the Restless Spirits', published by Penguin Random House India.
The cover of 'Night of the Restless Spirits', published by Penguin Random House India.

In spite of the grounding in real events, the stories in Night Of The Restless Spirits are shadowed by the legacies of three great novels—Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass—Singh says. “I was particularly drawn by the depiction of the massacre of the Banana Company in One Hundred Years Of Solitude,” he adds. Based on a real event in 1928, when a workers’ strike at a banana plantation was ruthlessly quelled in Colombia, the incident is narrated by Garcia Marquez crisply, before the narrative gallops on to other matters. In the systematic erasure of public memory that follows, the survivors refuse to believe that such a tragedy ever happened.

“Erasure of memory is as massive a tragedy as the incident itself,” Singh says, referring to the 1984 pogrom and its aftermath, not only for Sikhs but also for generations of Indians. The incident is, for instance, not part of history texts in Indian schools. In his quest to recover the truth of the attacks and keep it alive in public memory, Singh got absorbed into the long and illustrious history of the Sikhs—the result of which is a widely popular podcast and several books. In all his work, there is an abiding sense of continuity—the anger and discontent of the present becomes illuminated by acts of injustice rooted in the past.

In the title story, for instance, the persistence of the history of violence among Sikhs is drawn out through the fate of a man who survived the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in 1919 as a child, only to fall victim to the hatred against Sikhs 65 years later. “From the 18th century, Sikhs have prided themselves as being the protector of innocents,” Singh says. “That image of a brave and heroic people was shattered in 1984.” It was only through fiction, he felt, that the shame buried deep within the community could be exorcised, the multiple heroes (Sikh and non-Sikh) celebrated, and the villains condemned. “The quest for justice is fundamental to the Sikh ethos, but revenge never was.”

More than 30 years after the tragedy, the victims and survivors of 1984 still await justice, while the accused (such as Congress politician Jagdish Tytler) are yet to be convicted. But the conversation around the massacre, as Singh says, needs to be an Indian one—it isn't about the Sikhs alone, or about the Hindus attacking Sikhs, which is a gross oversimplification of what actually transpired.

“There is not just one 1984,” he says, “There are many 1984s, from Godhra (in 2002) to Shaheen Bagh (in 2020).” Bringing the conversation around 1984 into the mainstream will be cathartic for all Indians.

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