The 1984 anti-Sikh carnage that shook society

When Delhi went up in flames.

When Delhi went up in flames.

Amandeep Sandhu goes looking for literature and films that documented civil society’s response to the anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

There is no doubt that the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 was a watershed event in India’s secular consciousness. Over the last three decades, those events in Delhi and elsewhere have also showed up the lacunae in our legal systems and the nefarious tie-ups between the political class, the police and the mob leaders that result in denial of justice to the victims. They also show how the state manufactured and perfected the tool of violence against a defenceless citizenry.

Through the period of the denial of justice to the victims, journalists across the media have relentlessly probed and told the stories with a deep sense of responsibility and maturity. Before the 1980s, the non-fictional essay was a dominant form in Punjabi literature but that form has almost disappeared. As writer and critic Nirupama Dutt says, “Journalism has done all that non-fiction essays could have done. Some of that reportage should count as literature of the times.” In Punjabi, the gap does not extend merely to the essay but also to the novel. Surjit Singh, Associate Professor, Punjabi University points out, “In the 1980s, the Punjabi novel saw the narrative structure taking a back seat and novels being written in the form of discussions or documentation referencing the anti-Sikh violence.”

It could be because stalwarts like Amrita Pritam and Kartar Singh Duggal were too close to the violence to write about it and Punjab-based writers Gurdial Singh, Jaswant Singh Kanwal and Dileep Kaur Tiwana were too far removed from the violence to write from experiential knowledge. In any case the gap remained; their silence a black hole in the living room of Punjabi language and literature.

Ninder Gill’s Punjab 84, set in a university campus, is a novel of ideologies while Dehshat de Dinan Wich deals with the Punjab problem but references the violence through discussions between its characters. Ajit Rahi’s Nadarshah di Wapsi uses historical symbolism to talk about the violence. Buta Singh Shaad’s Tera Kiya Mitha Lage tells the story of one family that was victimised twice; once during the Partition in 1947 and then again in 1984. Darshan Singh’s Gallery Shaheedan deals with the violence through the character of a widow whose cot maker husband dies at the hands of a mob. Jaswant Deed’s memoir Sheher, Main Ja Reha Haan and Manmohan Bawa’s Oh Kaun San? provide an intimate account of the violence.

A few long short stories that also represent that time are Ram Saroop Ankhi’s ‘Jinsir Sohan Pattiyan’, Waryam Sandhu’s ‘Bhajiyaan Baahin’ and Maninder Singh Kang’s ‘Kutti Wehda’. But For a depiction of the violence and its aftermath, one must turn to Gulzar Sandhu’s ‘Murge de Panje’, Ajeet Cour’s ‘Kutte’ and ‘Mainu Na Maro’, Mohammad Goriya’s ‘Junction’.

In Hindi, some of the best novels on the violence were Tejinder’s Wah Mera Chehra, Tarsem Gujral’s Jalta Hua Gulab and Gurbachan Singh’s Sabe Ghat Ram Bole. Neelakshi Singh’s novel Parinde Ke Intezar Sa Kuch links the 1984 pogrom to Babri Masjid. Surender Tiwari compiled a collection of short stories called Kala November. Hindi linked Punjab with the rest of India by locating the protagonist in the migrant worker in Arun Prakash’s ‘Bhaiya Express’, Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Jhut Puta’ and ‘Amritsar Aa Gaya Hai’. The language also caught the nation’s pain in poems like Kumar Vikalp’s ‘Pehchan’ and Khatra, Dhiren Dhalwal’s ‘Ram Singh’, Uday Prakash’s ‘Sucha Singh Driver’, Gorak Pandey’s ‘Yeh Khooni Panja Kiska Hai’, Harminder Singh’s ‘Vishnu Nagar’, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s ‘Punjab Ke Kisi Bhi Gaon Mein’, Rajesh Joshi’s ‘Meerut’ and K. Satchidanandan’s Malayalam poem ‘Oru Maranam, Niravadhi Maranangal’ translated by the poet as ‘One Death, Many Deaths’.

In English, the riots have evoked more non-fiction and some recent fiction. An immediate account based on witness testimonials Who Are The Guilty? by PUDR-PUCL is one of the best reports on the violence, while The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation edited by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar is a more elaborate book of personal accounts. Along with journalist Manoj Mitta, H.S. Phoolka depicts his three-decade-long struggle for justice in When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath. A more recent book is journalist Jarnail Singh’s I Accuse: The Anti-Sikh Violence of ‘84.

While William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns opens with the violence, Rana Dasgupta’s new book Capital provides instances of the anti-Sikh violence to show the ruptures in the Delhi society. Amitav Ghosh’s essay ‘The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi’ in The New Yorker is excellent response. More importantly the violence was a trigger to The Shadow Lines and to Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence. Khushwant Singh connected the situation in Punjab and the violence in Tragedy of Punjab: Operation Bluestar & After. Another essay on the victims is Yasmeen Arif’s ‘The Delhi Carnage of 1984: Afterlives of Loss and Grief’.

In fiction the subject has been the focus of Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, which links the violence and the Kanishka bombing. One of the three novellas in Sudeep Chakravarti’s Avenue of Kings depicts the mob frenzy. Roll of Honour by this author is on the split loyalties of a Sikh adolescent and Helium by Jaspreet Singh is from the point of view of the son of the police officer who was supposed to maintain law and order. Interestingly, Indira Goswami wrote about the violence in Assamese in her Pages Stained with Blood and Lakshmi Kannan in Tamil in Going Home.

In films, Gulzar’s Machhis refers to the violence and Shonali Bose’s Amu looks at the violence from the perspective of the next generation. Kaya Taran by Shashi Kumar is based on N.S. Madhavan’s Malayalam short story ‘When Big Trees Fall’ and looks at not only the violence in Delhi but also in post-Godhra Gujarat but does not refer to them explicitly. Safina Uberoi’s documentary My Mother India starts as a bemused look at the quirky mixed marriage of her famous sociologist parents J.P.S Uberoi and Patricia Uberoi but turns serious when it deals with the violence and its effect on her family.

Punjabi literature shows how violence can shock a community into silence. Punjab remains locked in an impasse because of the other monster — a denial of its own violent situation in the 1980s and 1990s, which is linked to the anti-Sikh violence. As documentary film-maker Daljit Ami says, “One talks about Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the pogrom in one breath.” The literature in Hindi, English and other languages has begun to lead the way out of that impasse.

At the same time, in a year of national elections, the pogrom remains alive in political discourse. We watch the spectacle of the Sikh community’s victimhood and its pain appropriated by vested interests. In order to heal, Punjab needs to drop the cloak of silence and engage with the double-edged violence: the violence of the anti-Sikh pogrom and its own burning fields through the years of militancy when the Hindu community was at the receiving end.

What is also needed is an archive on the reportage and the need to employ digital technology to save the existing works across languages from going out of print. Memory is, after all, the only legacy of the next generation.

Source: The Hindu