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Healing the wounds of 1984

  • Thirty-five years since the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, a writer pays homage to the victims and survivors
  • Four commissions, nine committees and two special investigation teams later, only two convictions have been made

A 2014 photograph of Sikhs gathered near Downing Street in London, prior to delivering a petition demanding an inquiry into British involvement in the 1984 massacre.
A 2014 photograph of Sikhs gathered near Downing Street in London, prior to delivering a petition demanding an inquiry into British involvement in the 1984 massacre. (Photo: Alamy)

On 31 October 1984, I cycled to college as usual, cutting through the fog that the Sutlej river and paddy fields exhaled nightly over our town. But that day, lessons were suspended, and students advised to return home. Violence was expected, we were told.

This wasn’t an unusual scenario. Newspapers routinely described Ferozepur, my hometown on the India-Pakistan border, as a “militant hotbed", and my state Punjab as being “rife with Sikh separatists". Then prime minister Indira Gandhi had galvanized an obscure Sikh preacher against the Akali party in an attempt to divide Sikh votes. As his fame spread, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the Frankenstein who threatened the very existence of India with his demand for a separate Sikh state. His men, in an atavistic harking, started killing Hindus in public. They did not spare Sikhs who opposed Bhindranwale’s vision.

During Partition in 1947, Punjab was bifurcated and the western part went to newly-formed Pakistan, state of the pure. Bhindranwale was agitating for eastern Punjab to be made a separate nation of Khalistan, another state of the pure, where only Sikhs would reside. He believed that if he terrorized Hindus to quit, he would get his state. Terror was everywhere as police brutalized young men under the guise of the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.

That June, under Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army had stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Bhindranwale was holed up. The state, simmering for years, caught fire. Indira Gandhi was blamed for the despoilation of the holiest Sikh shrine. The air stayed heavy with sullen regurgitations of how previous such offenders had been dealt with.

Back home, our colony buzzed with rumours. All India Radio had suspended all other programming for mournful music. We turned to BBC Radio, which soon announced that Gandhi had been shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards. Mist and police patrols invaded our town.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, the dusk air clouded with increasingly pernicious rumours: Sikhs were celebrating by distributing sweets; Sikhs had poisoned the water supply; and, in an evocation of the bloody legacy of Partition, trains full of Hindu corpses were arriving from Punjab. Goons armed with lathis, knives, chains were stopping buses to enquire about Sikh passengers. Violence was palpable.

In Punjab, I stayed safe but the violence never left me. It made me a writer. Searching for a way to tell the stories of 1984, I scoured documentation, gathered testimonies, and filled up countless diaries. It took me 20 long years but my fifth novel, The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns, puts 1984 at the heart of its narrative.

November dawned bright. However, in the west Delhi locality of Sultanpuri, the air was thick with smoke and slogans. Sultanpuri’s mixed population of Hindus and Sikhs comprised residents removed from slums during the Emergency. The Sikhs were Labanas, who had migrated from Sindh in 1947, many didn’t speak Punjabi and had nothing to do with Punjab politics. Framed images of Indira Gandhi hung from many pucca house walls. In one such home, the extended family had gathered for the wedding of young Maina Kaur. Her mother Padmi Kaur (who gave affidavits to the Ranganath Misra Commission and Justice G.T. Nanavati Commission, which investigated the anti-Sikh violence in 1984) was making tea when commotion broke out in the colony.

Soon police announced that all Sikhs were to stay in their homes for their safety. Frightened, the family was huddled together when a rampaging mob broke down their door. Hooligans grabbed the bride-to-be, clawing at her clothes. Maina fought back, her father begged them to let her go. The mob attacked the males with lathis, doused them with kerosene and set them afire. Breaking Maina’s hands and feet, they abducted her.

As Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka write in their book When A Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage And Its Aftermath, such scenes were playing out with well-orchestrated efficiency across the resettlement colonies and other parts of Delhi. Heavily armed mobs, allegedly led by local leaders of the Congress, equipped with ration and voter lists, were identifying houses of Sikhs and burning them down. In the burgeoning fog of smoke and ash, as charred houses and corpses filled the streets, it was abundantly clear that the police were on holiday, the law on vacation. In the capital city of the world’s largest democracy, an orderly massacre was under way.

Meanwhile, in Punjab, night curfew had been clamped, rail services suspended, and heavily-armed troops patrolled the countryside. The state was tense but no rioting took place.

In Delhi, belatedly, on 2 November, the army arrived but was not authorized to fire. Local police would not cooperate with it. By then, almost 4,000 Sikhs had been killed (the official figure of 2,733 dead is disputed by human rights organizations). On 3 November, Mrs Gandhi was given a state funeral. By late evening, police seemed to recover somewhat from its abandonment of duty but did not file first information reports.

Witness affidavits state that in Sultanpuri, as survivors were herded for evacuation, a police station head brought a barber to shave the Sikhs. Men who had lost everything had to shell out 21 each to get themselves shaved. It was that or their life. The barber made a tidy sum of 500. On 4 November, after three days of being kidnapped and sexually assaulted by goons, Maina Kaur returned. Eight men of her family were killed. Her wedding was called off, she was damaged goods. The trauma she suffered rendered her “a mad girl", in her mother’s words.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the anti-Sikh violence. Besides Delhi, the army had to restore order in Kolkata, Bhopal, Jabalpur, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Ranchi and Varanasi. Four commissions, nine committees and two special investigation teams later, there have been only two milestone convictions. Women who lost male family members live in cramped conditions in west Delhi in what is called “Widow’s Colony". Most of the survivors are yet to receive any semblance of justice but they have received a handy moniker from fellow Indians: “chaurasiye", 84-er.

We must ask ourselves: Why were people so ready to believe the worst of their neighbours? In The Intimate Enemy, psychologist and social scientist Ashis Nandy suggests that in close communities, people will latch on to minor differences to feel distinct and superior to others when, paradoxically, the “other" is more similar to their own selves.

Does the unresolved trauma of our society, arising from the communal violence of 1947—which, according to scholars like G.D. Khosla (also a former chief justice of the Punjab high court), a terrified people referenced as the pralaya (end of the world) foretold by the Mahabharat—haunt our psyche as it manifests in the spiral of violence in 1984, 1992, 2002…? Must we not address this past? South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Rwanda, Morocco have all made attempts to arrive at truth and reconciliation to heal themselves.

A first step in that direction would be to call the violence of 1984 by its name. The survivors are adamant it was not “dange" (riots) but “qatl-e-aam" (mass massacre). A riot presumes random violence between parties. Thirty-five years later, we must begin the process of our collective healing by naming the pogrom for what it is.

A central tenet of the Mahabharat says all wars are fraternal. The battle for dharma (righteous duty) counsels us to focus on dharma, not on the battle. It is time the state fulfils its dharma by escalating the process of accountability for all our sakes—and by making reparations to the survivors of 1984.

The author’s latest book, The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns, was published by HarperCollins India earlier this year.

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