Ending the silence
VIKRAM KAPUR, Frontline
|Many questions still remain unanswered about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Unless we face them squarely to give the event a sense of an ending, its ghosts will continue to haunt us.
NOVEMBER 2, 1984: A building belonging to Sikhs burning in Daryaganj.
WHY do you write so much on Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots it spawned, I am often asked. Sometimes the question comes with the admonishment: What can such writing possibly do except open old wounds? After all, 28 years have passed. Punjab is peaceful and, moreover, the country has a Sikh Prime Minister. So why don’t you simply move on like everyone else and let all that be? At other times, the question comes accompanied by a genuine concern for my literary well-being. There is nothing to gain by writing about the events of 1984, I am told. No one remembers them outside India; so the chances of finding a foreign publisher are remote. Even in India, 1984 accounts for little more than a historical footnote. Certainly, it is nowhere near as prominent as the destruction of the Babri Masjid or the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. So why write about it?
Over the years, I have put the same question to myself. I am not a Sikh. No one I knew was ever targeted in those riots. The mob came nowhere near my home in South Delhi. All I saw of the actual devastation was a burnt vehicle that had not been removed from the road and a razed gurdwara awaiting kar seva. That too, after the riots abated. My abiding memory of the day of the assassination is a flag I saw flying at half mast in a foreign consulate (I cannot recall which one) while walking home from school. At the time, I had no idea what could possibly make a flag fly at half mast in a foreign consulate. Yet, I distinctly remember my chest tightening with the thought that something was not right. My abiding memory of the three days of rioting that followed is a TV screen showing dignitaries shuffling past the Prime Minister’s body lying in state, the propriety manifest in the scene contrasting sharply with the mayhem playing out elsewhere.
The most telling anecdote I have from those days that involved someone I knew occurred more than a month after the riots subsided. A school friend who happened to be a Sikh visited me at home. After he had left, our chowkidar, an ex-Army havildar from Haryana, told me, “These days you should keep your distance from Sikhs, baba. They are no longer good people.” Those words brought home the extent to which the world can change in a few days. I had known that friend for years. We sat next to each other in school. Now, a wall that we had no role in constructing threatened to come between us.
Yet, despite not being touched by it, it is in that madness that I have found a groundswell of creative inspiration. Writers do not select their material. Their material selects them. Thus goes the old adage. As the Israeli writer Etgar Keret reminds us, stories that matter are those that come from somewhere inside the writer. Anyone can pluck something out of thin air. But for something to have value, it has to come from something. On the basis of that, I can only conclude that even though my involvement was no more than that of a bystander, somehow those events became as much a part of me as my DNA.
Two thousand seven hundred and thirty-three men, women and children were killed in the three days of rioting, according to official estimates. A sitting Prime Minister was assassinated for the first time in Indian history. There was incalculable damage to property and other assets. Furthermore, the riots served to radicalise thousands of Sikhs who otherwise would not have had anything to do with the Khalistan movement, and paved the way for an insurgency that not only terrorised Punjab for most of the next decade but cast a shadow that reached all the way to Delhi. There were also instances of members of a ruling party actively participating in the bloodletting of a section of the citizenry while the government, the police and the administrative machinery sat about doing nothing. Rather, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi attempted to explain away the riots with the now infamous statement: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”
All these years later, however, it is not what happened in 1984 that rankles. It is the fact that the “corpse” of 1984 continues to show enough signs of life to play out, to the letter, what the American novelist William Faulkner said about the past. (Faulkner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1949, said, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”) The recent stabbing of Lieutenant General Brar, who led Operation Bluestar which brought about the Prime Minister’s assassination, is merely the latest indication that 1984 is still alive and kicking.
THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE RIOTS, in which over 2,700 men, women and children were killed, have still not been brought to book. A Sikh woman widowed by the riots, during a protest near Parliament House in New Delhi on October 31, 2002.
A journalist engages with history as it happens. A historian deals with it in retrospect. A biographer concerns himself with the actions of its principal actors. For all three, facts form, or should form, their major stock-in-trade. A literary writer, on the other hand, is more concerned with the heart beating at the core of the body of facts. Like Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, he or she is willing to compromise on accuracy to get at the essence of things by giving that passage of events a recognisable face. Hence, Partition has its Saleem Sinai, the Russian Revolution its Dr Zhivago, the First World War its Paul Baumer, the Victorian age its Pip….
For me, the most compelling face of the 1984 riots emerged more than 20 years after they transpired. In 2005, following a lecture at a Delhi college, I met a 20-year-old Sikh man who would later become the inspiration for a short story. As part of the lecture, I had read an excerpt from my first novel that deals with the 1984 riots. Maybe that was what made the young man come over at the end of the lecture and ask if he could have a word. He waited patiently until I had finished with everyone else. Then we walked over to the college canteen. Over a cup of tea, he shared his story.
Confronting the truth
He said he had been told by his mother that his father was working in the Gulf while he was growing up. As he grew older, he started to wonder why his father never phoned. Then he wondered why his mother was always scrounging to make ends meet. Other families where fathers worked in the Gulf never seemed to want for anything. Finally, one day he brought matters to a head with his mother and demanded to know what had actually happened to his father. His mother broke down in the face of incessant questioning and told him that his father had been murdered in the 1984 riots. She had concocted the story about him working in the Gulf to spare him the heartbreak.
After he had finished, I did not know what to say. Everything he had told me was as far away from my childhood as you could possibly get. For me, Dad had been a given while growing up; it was inconceivable to imagine growing up without him. For that young man, his father had existed in a lie. In order to sustain the lie, his mother would have concocted other lies. She would have authored letters and told him they came from his father. She would have bought presents and passed them off the same way. She would have built expectation by conjuring dates when the father was due to come home only to dash it later by saying he could not for some reason…. For the ruse to work for any length of time, members of the extended family had to be in on it. Were so many people participating in a lie in order to save their little one from heartbreak? Or was it part of their own desire to keep their loved one alive, if only in fiction?
Whatever else it did, such a childhood had clearly marked him. If he had not told me he was 20, I would have put his age closer to 30. I was reminded of the passage in the German author Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War classic All Quiet on the Western Front where the battle-scarred narrator, Paul Baumer, says about himself and his mates: “Young? None of us is more than twenty. But young? Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.”
In the end, I asked him how finding out the truth about his father felt. He told me it was hard at first. While he had sensed his mother was lying to him, he was unprepared for the brutal nature of the truth. (His father was set on fire and burned to death.) With the passage of time, however, he had come to terms with it. The truth helped give the matter closure. He no longer had to live wondering about his father.
THE HINDU ARCHIVES
A SIKH MAN who cut his hair and shaved his beard to hide his religious identity during the riots shows his identity card.
Closure is what the events of 1984 have lacked. Following the stabbing of Lieutenant General Brar, the airwaves have been rife with speculation about the ghosts of 1984 rising. Recently, a cache of arms was seized in Punjab. There have been claims that money is being collected in gurdwaras abroad to create mayhem in India, and jobless Sikh youth are being radicalised through incendiary rhetoric and doctored films. An Operation Bluestar memorial, which has raised the hackles of a number of Army veterans, is planned in Amritsar.
Will the ghosts of 1984 rise? I sincerely hope not. However, at the moment, that entire period resembles an erratic narrative meandering in the absence of inspiration. There is no telling where something so rudderless might go. If civil society and people of conscience continue to relinquish its stewardship, then its authorship may very well fall into the hands of those who wish to push it into retro mode, and we could find ourselves facing a tragic déjà vu.
As a nation, we prefer to use silence to deal with our historical mistakes. Hence, our ghosts hang around. In the immediate aftermath, silence has its uses. Then memories are too raw and wounds too fresh for a constructive dialogue. After a suitable amount of time has passed, however, silence is counterproductive. By letting the unresolved linger, silence allows resentment to fester. The events of 1984 have lacked the kind of rigorous reflection and self-examination that would give them closure. Many of the questions remain to be answered. Responsibility has not been affixed for the crimes. The decisions taken at the time have not been dissected in any great detail for their veracity. For instance, how and why were things allowed to deteriorate to the point where it became necessary for the army to enter the Golden Temple? That was, after all, the event that set the whole tragic cycle in motion. It demands to be placed under a microscope.
In part, all of that is the direct result of political expediency. Just like the Gujarat riots of 2002, what happened in 1984 was politically motivated and the political fraternity is understandably hesitant to examine or prosecute itself. The Bharatiya Janata Party has dragged its feet over the Gujarat riots. In the same way, the Congress has been reluctant to revisit 1984. It was 2010 before the Central Bureau of Investigation framed charges against the senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for his role in organising the riots. There are others who have escaped prosecution altogether.
When it comes to righting historical mistakes, we would do well to take our cue from others. The fact that there is no chance that the Holocaust will ever be reprised is not because what happened then is shrouded in secrecy. Rather, it is because it has been shouted so loudly from the rooftops that we are sick to the gut. By the same token, one big reason why Germany has been able to move on from the monstrosity that was Nazism and the crimes of the Holocaust is that it was willing to stare them in the face. (The Germans had no wish to repeat their mistake following the First World War, where they refused to take responsibility for their defeat and opened the way for Hitler to seduce them by blaming the entire debacle on the Jewish minority.) Hence, guilt was fixed where it needed to be fixed. In a number of cases, it was admitted with genuine remorse. Those guilty of the most heinous crimes were punished. The necessary apologies were made….
South Africa has attempted to do something similar with apartheid. While it has not been entirely successful, it has managed to emerge as a functioning multiracial democracy, a far cry from its troubled neighbour Zimbabwe. Even our much-maligned neighbour Pakistan came clean by making the Justice Hamoodur Rehman Commission of Inquiry report into their military failure of 1971 public. The same, however, cannot be said about the Henderson Brooks report dealing with our military failure in the 1962 India-China war. Even though 50 years have passed since the event, it remains classified.
The silence surrounding the events of 1984 has guaranteed that they have generated little reflection and practically no self-examination. A lot happened in 1984. Just the fact that a sitting Prime Minister was assassinated for the first time in Indian history is enough cause for discussion. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, President Lincoln almost a hundred years earlier. To this day, the American press and intelligentsia debate those events. By comparison, the focus on Indira Gandhi’s assassination has been minuscule. In fact, the entire epoch seems to have leapfrogged the stage of reflection and stock-taking altogether and looks ready to enter the realm of contested history. The religious leadership of the Sikhs is hell-bent on declaring those who died for the Khalistan cause martyrs. Others view such attempts with a mixture of revulsion and shock.
After the beginning, possibly the most important thing in a story is its ending. A satisfying ending can salvage a mediocre story by making it memorable. If anything, the recent rumblings in Punjab should tell us the last thing we need with regard to the events of 1984 is more silence. By steadfastly remaining topical, that passage of history continues to prove how insufficient the sense of an ending we have provided for it is. Like the young Sikh man I met in 2005, it needs the kind of irrevocable closure that cannot be supplied by silence. The sooner we realise that and move to resolve the things that keep it topical, the earlier we will put it to rest.
Vikram Kapur is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. His website is www.vikramkapur.com