Author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in his book Sikhs – An Untold Agony of 1984, documents lives that were altered forever. In an interaction with Nikita Lamba, he explains the anxiety Sikh.
Edited Excerpts from an interview.
What prompted you to write a book on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots?
My initiation into 1984 happened when mayhem broke out in the city. I plunged into the citizens’ group that was providing relief and rehabilitation for the victims. which made me even travel to Kanpur. Exposure to violence and its aftermath determined the kind of journalism I pursued. Though I knew since 1984-85 that some day I will write a book on this, the opportunity came now.
As you mentioned in the book, you were present at aiims when Indira Gandhi was declared dead. Following this, was such a massive collective outrage expected?
Though I expected some spontaneous outrage and anger directed at Sikhs I never imagined it would attain such a deadly scale.
Did you develop a sense of association with the Sikhs while narrating the chain of events from their perspective?
Yes, my heart went out to the victims and I could feel whatever they experienced. I did not perceive it as an attack on a community but as an assault on innocent bystanders of manufactured cataclysmic events.
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Being an eyewitness to the atrocities committed against the Sikhs, how difficult was it to stay objective while writing the book?
Evaluation of objectivity is a subjective process. I am nonpartisan in parts of the book where I provide the political backdrop to the anti-Sikh violence. I look at events through the eyes of people whose lives were transformed due to the pogrom. And this goes beyond victims to include middle- class housewives, teachers, even artists and writers whose seminal works hold clues to the 1984 violence.
How did you go about selecting the various places that you visited to research for this book?
While some places called me again, others I discovered during my research. One story led to the other. I used the tools of a journalist to go back to tales I knew and explore new stories.
The people you spoke to betrayed a sense of foreboding since Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. Why do you think the country’s sociopolitical atmosphere was so volatile at that time?
The Indian political situation had turned increasingly ominous from the early 1980s, specially post Operation Blue Star. Indira Gandhi’s assassination was the trigger for growing anti-Sikh sentiment to erupt. But the extent of the fury would not have been viable without political support and state abetment.
Post 1984 riots, a deep resentment permeated the Sikh community, the pulse of which can still be felt. Could you throw light on this?
Sikhs have a deep-rooted sense of hurt and betrayal. There were some who were motivated in their actions by anger and opted for retribution but this was not the choice of the majority. They continue to battle silently for their lost dignity. Since then, the Sikhs have been targeted for a role in a war that was not of their making. They were attacked clearly because they belonged to that particular community.
In the book, you mention that in the refugee camps-turned-schools in Bokaro, the children of other communities were forbidden from speaking to the Sikh children about the carnage. Why do you think society was not willing to have a dialogue?
People did not engage in a dialogue because they were guilty. How could neighbours look into the faces of Sikh families after remaining passive onlookers when the mobs attacked? The majority in society thought that events were little more than a bad dream and would be erased. But this happened only for witnesses or non-Sikhs. For Sikhs, the scars are deep and the events remain a nightmare that they fear may recur.
Do you think the community will ever secure justice, especially now, with dwindling numbers of witnesses?
Justice can only be delivered with the conviction of at least a few important leaders, through a due process of law. Simultaneously, the political system must collectively exhibit shame and not apportion blame to society – that people condoned violence. All politicians must accept their share of the crime and seek pardon not just in words but in action.