Towards the end of his book, ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay probes Arpana Caur, the noted artist who hails from the Sikh community, why she did not paint many paintings directly reflecting the carnage that took place in Delhi and elsewhere in 1984, the aftermath of falling of a big tree, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Arpana told Nilanjan: “What was there to paint? Everything was so dismal. Nobody cared.” Her mother, noted Punjabi novelist, Ajeet Caur herself had stopped writing fictions. Essays with a lot of autobiographical inputs were a preferred format for her ever since. Adorno, in the wake of German Holocaust had said, after Auschwitz there cannot be any poetry. Such magnitude of human cruelty, poetry, the essential sap of human imagination and kindness could go dry, that was what Adorno intended while saying his now oft quoted saying. Interestingly, without referring directly to Adorno, Nilanjan makes it clear that after 1984 for the Sikh community in India and elsewhere it was difficult to have poetry in their lives. One particular chapter in this book is entirely devoted to the mapping of creative expressions based the 1984 experience. Those done by the creative people from within the Sikh community, it always took a non-fictional (non-poetic) form proving Adorno right. Even in the feature films, 1984 became an unavoidable subtext; Nilanjan names all those films including Maatchis, Amu, My Mother India and the controversial Delhi 1984, which is still banned in India).
I am an art historian and critic, perhaps that’s why my attention focused largely on the cultural aftermath of the 1984 than the horrific incidents recounted that had taken place since 31st October 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh body guards. Many artists did not come out openly to condemn the government apathy and the silent consent for carnage given to the assailants in the streets by the Delhi police. Structured like a very complex theatrical production, this book gives a new experience and vision about the 1984 carnage. The theatricality which never becomes overtly sentimental must be an outcome of Nilanjan’s theatre background as a playwright and also his ability to weave in disparate narratives into the central thread of the very act of remembering. One of the characters who hold the story of the book together once opines: “We do not visit 1984. It comes to us.” What makes that statement so pertinent in understanding the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and elsewhere in the Northern India, is its iteration that the victims will never forget though they will forgive and reconcile with what had happened to them. Despite their forgiveness and also their ability to go around with their daily lives, and despite all their efforts to ‘forget’, 1984, the very year will not allow them to forget it.
1984 had changed so many lives beyond any kind of retrieval. It had changed the course of history of India; not because Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh body guards but because that incident became the prime cause for a great social rupture that divided a community that had revived itself from the ashes of partition like a Phoenix bird and the mainstream society that took a lot of pride in being Hindu, native and very ‘north Indian’. Nilanjan quotes one of the characters who say that 1984 pogrom pushed the focus from ‘caste identity to class identity’. For the mainstream Hindu native north Indians, led by the Congress leaders (interestingly all handpicked and trained by none other than the truant congress scion late Sanjay Gandhi), Sikhs were a successful and valiant community. Keeping them at their side was the strategy of the Congress leaders since Indira Gandhi’s entry into the Congress politics. She played the game well through divisive tactics in Punjab and initiated Bhindrenwala as factional leader who finally took a militant position within the Punjab politics asking for a separate state Khalistan.
The success of Punjabis and the predominant nature of Punjabiyat in Delhi had not gone down well with the north Indian leaders. The genocide of 1984 shows, as we come across through the narration of NIlanjan, that the attack was not on Sikh just as a caste but as a class that should be effeminized, stripped off of all male virility and destroyed ruthlessly. The native north Indian Hindu wanted the Sikh males to beg for their lives. It was a class war and the attackers wanted their victims to be de-classed by primarily stripping their caste identity, that’s the wearing of turban and making them shave their heads and beards, finally burning them using petrol, kerosene and car tyres hung around their necks. Nilanjan makes a very poignant comparison between the widow burning (Sati) amongst Hindus and using of fire as a predominant mode for annihilating the Sikhs. While other pogroms in India had always used trident, swords, clubs and blunt weapons to kill the victims, in 1984 pogrom we see the use of ‘fire’. It was a definite ethnic cleansing with a very religious connotation and cultural specificity of fire. Nilanjan also says why the atrocities against women folk of the Sikh community was comparatively less in 1984 using the same tool of sociological historiography. When the stripping off of maleness itself becomes a focus of vengeance and thereby effeminizing the victim is achieved and the burning of their effeminized victims seems to satisfy their desire to ‘have’ the opponent’s body, which otherwise in the absence of the males is always used upon their womenfolk by raping and assaulting them.
Recounting the political nuances that led to the pogrom of 1984 could be very tedious as it has been done in several other works by historians, sociologists and so on. Nilanjan does not get into that, instead through his dramatis personae he weaves the warps and wefts of the political narrative into that of the personal narratives in order to create a tapestry of poignancy and human pathos. What a reader could infer is the kind of political strategies and games the ruthless politicians often play just to be there in power or on the powerful side. Some of the Sikh community members are also not different from this human fallacy. In spite of the tragedy that their community has undergone largely in 1984, some Sikh leaders have joined hands with the Congress as well as BJP. Interestingly, if the native north Indian Hindu in the guise of Congress politics had done all the atrocities against the Sikhs in 1984, then how could they accept the same community with more militant Hindu ideology than the Congress? Ironically, it has been the case in Punjab politics where Akali Dal and BJP share the power in state politics. Though Congress has been decimated in Punjab, in Delhi you see how the leaders from Sikh community work for Congress and vote en masse to the Congress. It was the case till the Aam Aadmi Party came into politics.
Aam Aadmi Party, though not a subject of lengthy discussion in Nilanjan’s book, has learnt its ropes and political games in the north. Arvind Kejriwal by demanding a probe in 1984 genocide and also by declaring compensation for the 1984 victims has made a coup in style. Today, the AAP meetings in Punjab show thousands of people supporting the party. The feeling has already been given out that in 2017 assembly elections the AAP will repeat a Delhi in Punjab. The reason cannot be the ideology of the AAP that stands for Lokpal and transparency in governance. In Punjab, business and agriculture success has a proven record of corruption starting from Panchayat level to the assembly level. The AAP cannot clean it in a single stroke. As a shrewd politician, Arvind Kejriwal also must not be targeting a clean politics in Punjab. What he is looking for is nothing but power. Once in the seat of power, he would bring his cards out. Nilanjan, in the book says it prophetically that the future of the AAP as well as BJP as independent political parties lies mainly in dealing with the ‘Sikh’ and 1984.
Though the 1984 narratives are largely Delhi centric so far, Nilanjan takes time to hit the dusty roads in North and near north eastern part of India. He visits Bokaro, Dhanbad, Kanpur and all those places where the Nehruvian idea of building a modern India through factories and business enterprises had taken the enthusiastic, daring and entrepreneurial Sikhs. He follows the trails of tragedy in those places where Sikhs were killed in hundreds only because they were a successful community. Train to Pakistan is a poignant narrative of the partition by Khushwant Singh. In Nilajan’s book, quite unexpectedly we see a series of train stories where Sikhs were forced out of the trains and killed by faceless mobs who did not know why they were killing them. This book is not voluminous yet it has the content that could run into several volumes. Each life changing experience that has been narrated by him could unroll itself and fill in another book. 1984 had changed the lives of people. One who went to study medicine turned the course and became a clinical psychiatrist. One who is born to non-ritualistic Sikh parents became a staunch believer in Sikhism. Some took the course of social service, some became lawyers only to fight for justice to the Sikhs and some became politicians to seek redressing for the Sikh. For Nilanjan writing this book was things coming to a full circle. He was a young volunteer in those refugee camps set up for the widows and victims of 1984.
Nobody could remain the same after reading the book. In 1984, I was a fifteen year old boy in Kerala. Trains had stood still on 31st October 1984. Buses had gone missing from the streets. We were students stranded in the railway stations. We walked along the railway line for around eight kilometers to reach home. Indira Gandhi was a much revered figure though Emergency had changed the perspective of the intelligentsia in Kerala. At the age of fifteen I was not prepared enough to grapple with what I had seen, read and been told, and to arrive at my own conclusions. Living in Delhi for two decades made me understand the nuances of the city and the Sikh community here. This book has changed me and touched me. I read it with the same edginess that I had felt when I was reading 1984, the fiction by George Orwell.