On 11 January 2017, I was part of a panel discussion focusing on a new anthology of writing on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 called 1984: In Memory and Imagination at the World Book Fair in New Delhi. During the discussion, it was pointed out how 1984 becomes an issue when elections are held in Punjab. For instance, it was announced that the current Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr Parkash Singh Badal, and the Deputy Chief Minister, Mr Sukhbir Singh Badal, will inaugurate the Wall of Truth, a memorial constructed to commemorate the victims of 1984 at the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj in central Delhi. Other BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal politicians were also invited to the event on 15 January. Ultimately, better sense prevailed and not a single politician came to the event. However, the attempt to lend a political colour to even this solemn occasion is evident, with the Punjab elections round the corner.
It is ironic that what happened in 1984 continues to become an issue whenever Punjab goes to the polls. The Sikhs of Punjab did not suffer in those so-called riots.
More than 32 years later, it is ironic that what happened in 1984 continues to become an issue whenever Punjab goes to the polls. The Sikhs of Punjab did not suffer in those so-called riots. I say "so-called" because they were not actually riots. For something to be a riot there have to be at least two warring factions. The Sikhs were not rioting—not in Delhi, not in Kanpur, not even in Punjab where they made up the numerical majority and could have wreaked real havoc. The mob was made up of goons collected by members of the ruling party in Delhi and unleashed on a hapless Sikh citizenry. The most potent weapon they possessed was voters' lists that allowed them to pinpoint every Sikh home in the neighbourhoods they chose to attack. Hence, it would be more accurate to dub those riots a well-orchestrated pogrom put together with a specific purpose in mind. Because a pogrom can only be instituted against a minority, it bypassed Punjab altogether. The killing and looting went on unabated over the three days following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984 and claimed almost 3000 lives.
Fittingly, the Wall of Truth also displays the names of the pogrom's non-Sikh victims. These were men and women who were not targets of the mob and could have stood aside and watched the mayhem going on all round them from the safety of their homes. Yet they chose to get involved in a bid to save their Sikh neighbours and paid with their lives.
Such humanitarian sacrifice acquires particular significance in an India where one's membership in a certain caste or religious group tends to override one's membership in the human race. For a long time I have been asked why I, a non-Sikh who doesn't even come from a minority community, should choose to write so much on the anti-Sikh riots. At one time, I was appalled by the question. In the current political and cultural climate, I find it perfectly understandable which is scary.
You don't have to be a Jew to be disgusted by the Holocaust; you don't have to be a Cambodian to be repulsed by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 70s; you don't have to be a Bosnian Muslim to be revolted by the genocide of several thousand Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995... In the same way, you shouldn't have to be a Sikh to be sickened by the events of 1984. All sides bear some of the blame for a riot. In a pogrom, however, the brutality is as one-sided as the haplessness. Moreover, a riot is a law and order problem. A pogrom is a crime against humanity. The fact that it happened in our country should cause our heads to sink in shame, irrespective of whether we belong to the community of the victim or not.
A riot is a law and order problem. A pogrom is a crime against humanity... Now, more than ever, it pays to remember such events.
Now, more than ever, it pays to remember such events. We live in an age where liberal democracy is on the run and parochialism is asserting itself all over the world. Our country is not immune to this trend. What happened in India in 1984 should serve as a telling reminder as to what happens when human decency takes a backseat to parochialism running rampant in the garb of nationalism. For a long time the victims of 1984 were talked about in the same breath as Sikh secessionists, and any act expressing solidarity with them or criticising the state for allowing the mayhem to take place was tantamount to supporting the secessionist cause and, therefore, anti-national. Hence, the guilty of 1984 were allowed to get away scot free. Many of them went on to prosper in their political careers and remain at large to this day. Others have died and can no longer be made to pay for their crimes.
If 1984 has any heroes, it is people like the non-Sikhs on the Wall of Truth. Many of us were appalled by what was going on at the time. Yet we remained far too sequestered in our fear or self-interest to do anything about it. These people chose to rise above their fear and did not get bogged down by their self-interest. For that reason alone we would do well to remember their sacrifice.