On the 30th anniversary of the 1984 riots, don’t forget, don’t stop asking the right questions.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most ignoble episodes in Indian history- the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots- spread across Delhi, Punjab and beyond, where an entire community suffered from a blood thirsty State’s need for revenge. When we react with horror at Haider, or ignore the testimony from 1984, its because wewant to believe the best of our leaders, of our police, of the entire machinery of law and order that keeps this great democracy chugging along (albeit at a snail’s pace). And it is easy to forget their transgressions in our wilful attempts to preserve the memories of a perfect past.
I was 4 year olds when the riots took place, and sufficiently removed to not have any memories of the time except for the days off from school. But it is imperative that we remember the 8000 deaths, and the callousness of a State which dismissed this episode by saying “When a Big Tree Falls, The Earth Will Shake, not only because the victims have still not received any justice, but also because knowledge protects us from making the same mistakes again!
Also heinous, how perpetrators of another communal riot are using the memories of this riot to prove a political point or two.
Here’s what to read to remind yourself of the facts.
1. Sins of Commission
Hartosh Singh Bal has been waging a one-man investigative crusade against the perpetrators of the riot through his stellar writings in The Caravan. Earlier this year he wrote a searing piece on Operation Blue Star that is absolutely essential reading for every Indian, but for the anniversary of the riots you will do well to begin with his long and detailed account of the many committees that have investigated this riot, and been found wanting. He contends that there is enough evidence to dismiss the hypothesis that these riots were a ‘spontaneous outpouring of grief'; and that they were really pogroms for which both the Delhi Police and several members of the Central Government were culpable. As he scathingly concludes:
The failure of these inquiries, after thirty years and nine commissions, indicates that the Indian state is not institutionally equipped to ensure justice for victims of communal violence. If justice remains impossible for the victims of 1984, when the violence took place in the national capital and where the evidence is so ample, it seems likely that justice will continue to elude the vast majority of such victims anywhere in the country.
2. True Stories
A first person account by someone affected by the riots in Daltonganj, Jharkhand speaks of the the long term impact of these riots on the psyche of a people.
In Daltonganj, countless Sikh men were beaten up. A dozen died. Some houses were stoned; others set ablaze. Some local Sikh who were traveling out of the town were dragged out of trains and killed. The hospital refused to admit the injured, unless men cut their hair. Turban-wearing Sikhs had to make a choice: cut your hair or not get medical care. In the wake of the rampage, several Hindus, too, could not leave their homes.
3.Affidavits from Women
And lastly, the good people at @GenderLog directed us to this chilling piece by Ravinder Kaur which looks at the impact of these riots on Sikh women. Just like any war or riot, women bear the brunt of injustice significantly more than any other sub section of society ; and Ravinder brings voice to their first hand narratives that have been relentlessly ignored by the State.
I want to return here to the widows/victims of the 1984 violence who have been in a state of judicial suspension for the past three decades. The space they occupy within the Indian nation as well as the Sikh community as such is a strange one in relation to what recovery might mean for them. Within the Sikh community, they have been the objects of sympathy, and their widowhood seen as a direct consequence and a constant reminder of the anti-Sikh violence. Thus, they have for long been recipients of small-scale financial help from the community. These small amounts of financial aid, many would assume, facilitates healing as one gets on with the business of everyday life. In the national frame also the widows receive sympathy, yet here too they are also the reminders of a gruesome chapter in India’s contemporary history. Their stories have been told and heard, and their photographs exhibited in public spaces. This exposure in the global circuits of publicity, one might argue, is also a path to recovery.