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Why India Cannot Afford To Forget The 1984 Riots

09/12/2016 4:13 PM IST | Updated 12/12/2016 3:12 PM IST
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Indian bystanders look on as a building belonging to Sikh merchants burns in Daryaganj, New Delhi, in the wake of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Recently I told a colleague that I was composing a short story for a new anthology on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 entitled 1984: In Memory and Imagination. The colleague, aware of my previous work on the subject, immediately asked, "What is it about those riots? Why do you keep writing on them?"

These are questions that I often ask myself. I am not a Sikh. No one I knew was ever targeted in those riots. The mob came nowhere near my home in Delhi. The enduring memory I have of those three days of rioting is of Doordarshan broadcasting images of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's body lying in state while a host of dignitaries shuffled past, paying their respects. It was only later that I became aware of how unreal those images of dignified mourning were in a Delhi steeped in mayhem.

It is through [the riots] that I got my first inkling of how much more resilient than our love our various hatreds are.

Yet it is in the midst of that madness that I have found a lot of creative inspiration. Those riots represent a rite of passage for me. You never forget the moment where you lose your innocence. Those riots made me aware of how misplaced my adolescent notions of a secular India were; how tenuous the fabric binding Indian society is; how easily it can be ripped apart by the hatred lurking in its midst... It is through them that I got my first inkling of how much more resilient than our love our various hatreds are. Since then, I have not been surprised, leave alone shocked, when any part of India has chosen to go berserk in the name of religion, caste or some other aspect of cultural identity.

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Two monks chant and perform a religious rite next to the body of Indira Gandhi.

A lot happened in 1984; 2,733 Sikh men, women and children were butchered in three days, according to official estimates. A sitting Prime Minister was assassinated for the first time in independent India. Thousands of Sikhs who would, ordinarily, have had nothing to do with the Khalistan movement were radicalised by the riots, paving the way for an insurgency that terrorised Punjab for the next decade and cast a shadow that reached all the way to Delhi. Members of the ruling party participated in the bloodletting while the police, the government and the administrative machinery sat about and did nothing. Rather former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi chose to explain away the violence with the now infamous statement, "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes."

The tragedy of 1984 is not behind us. Just this month there was an attempt to suppress the film 31st October that deals with those tumultuous events. The struggle goes on to deliver justice to the victims of the mass murder following the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. Rather than entering the garbage heap of history, the "corpse" of 1984 continues to show signs of life. It has become a testament to the American author William Faulkner's words: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

When it comes to a passage of history, such as the anti-Sikh riots, remembrance is crucial. The holocaust will never be repeated because the world has not been allowed to forget it.

One of the functions of the written word is to force a culture to remember. It is only through remembrance that the lessons of the past are learnt and a better future secured by not repeating past mistakes. When it comes to a passage of history, such as the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, remembrance is crucial. The Jewish holocaust of World War II will never be repeated because the world has not been allowed to forget it. Silence is hardly the panacea for the grave crimes of history. Silence not only leads to forgetting, but allows the guilty to escape unscathed. Collective amnesia and getting away with murder are a vitriolic mix guaranteed to play out the tragedy all over again.

For a long time, we in India sought to forget 1984 by dropping a stubborn shroud of silence over what happened. Perhaps we believed, naively as events have proved, that the way to recover was to not talk about it. As a consequence, 1984 repeated itself across India in the 90s and beyond. The anti-Sikh pogrom that occurred then was nothing short of the state making war on a section of its citizenry. Various incarnations of that have occurred in India since then.

Perhaps we believed, naively, that the way to recover was to not talk about it. As a consequence, 1984 repeated itself across India in the 90s and beyond.

The celebrated Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, wrote: "Lest we forget:/It is easy to be human, very hard to be humane." The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are, if anything, a testimony to human baseness where the desire for revenge and an obsession with narrow religious identities trumped the egalitarianism on which a democratic, pluralist India rests and without which it cannot succeed. That, however, is not possible unless we rise above the baseness seen in 1984 and embrace the humaneness to which Ghalib refers. Certainly India needs just as generous a dose of that now as it did in 1984.

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