History indeed repeats itself, if one sees the stark resemblances between the 1984 Sikh carnage and the 1947 Partition. People were murdered on the basis of religion. Lives were altered forever. Homes were razed to the ground. Communities were wrecked, neighbourliness forgotten.
Sikhs – The Untold Agony of 1984 has meticulously and powerfully documented the horror that unfolded in New Delhi from 1 November 1984 as news spread of Indira Gandhi’s assassination spread. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s eyewitness account comes to today’s readers with a deeper understanding of behind-the scenes manipulations.
The journalist-turned author writes of his initial struggle with nomenclature: ‘riot’ did not fit well. Indeed not, since riots involve violence from both the sides caught in the havoc. Pogrom is the right word to describe the organised subjugation of one side whereas the other roams free and merciless. The author has intelligently recorded the struggles that people from various economic backgrounds faced within the Sikh community. For some, the financial losses were such that they were reduced to hawkers from businessmen, whereas some were affluent enough to recover the losses incurred.
Still others took to active protests, as in the case of Harmeet Kaur. Her saga of pain begins with her exposure to the ubiquitous violence –described as ‘an ironical keepsake of merciless times!’ Her family belonged to the middle class, where normally girls’ participation in protests was not encouraged Was Harmeet’s family liberal or did they encourage her because they survived the carnage ‘unscathed’. For the young girl, it was atonement of sorts for the fact that her family were not victims.
Several others, whose lives were altered, keep the human element in unwavering focus. Among them is Dr Swaranpreet Singh, who was training to be a surgeon at the time of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. After convincing a friend to accompany him on the third day of unrest, he went to Trilokpuri, Delhi and found a young teenage girl who had been repeatedly raped. The girl died in his arms en route to the hospital. This experience led him to change his field to psychiatry, with specialisation in post-traumatic stress.
Apart from deadly attacks on the Sikhs, there were assaults on their honour. Sikh males were forced to cut their hair, a symbol of their faith, pride and identity. Their turbans were pulled off and burnt. A community that under Guru Gobind Singh rose to be the bravest clan of warriors was sent scurrying for life.
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The author pulls the reader into the street in front of aiims, besides settlements like Trilokpuri and Bokaro. The social implications of 1984 have been seamlessly merged with political decisions that had a huge role to play with the carnage. A salient feature of this work is that the political complexities are put forward in a very simplistic manner, which gives the average Indian citizen a detailed insight into the administrative action, or lack of it. There was hardly any documentation with government records about what transpired in Kanpur. The Mishra Commission that was set up to investigate the riots, operated almost as a puppet of the state that orchestrated the violence in the first place.
What is rather curious is that this book also brings to prominence the fact that after the 1984 carnage the artists and writers became nostalgic about the Partition. Works on the Partition emerged almost as a means of escape from contemporary issues. Perhaps the country was not ready for a dialogue. Children of other religions in schools were asked not to speak to the Sikh children about the events that were probably the reason for the nightmares that haunted them regularly. Perhaps, the social guilt was such that it led to complete disregard for the horrors. Perhaps justice was just a statue with blindfolds.