Any half-baked attempt at telling Sikhs that we have been ‘gifted’ justice is just another insulting consolation.
After years of trying to push the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom out of the public eye, Congress leader Sajjan Kumar’s conviction has suddenly got everyone talking about the murderous rampage. And apparently, everyone’s an expert on the Sikh community’s trauma now.
I’d like to say we know enough about 1984. I’d like to say I know enough about 1984. I don’t.
The only way a memory as brutal and hurtful can be lived through is by forcing oneself to forget it, and that’s what the Sikh community did for the longest time. The shroud of silence the Congress and the BJP laid on 1984 and 2002 respectively wasn’t the only one. As Sikhs, we decided to stay silent too. We raced against our own memories to forget, to absolve. We reintegrated in whatever ways we could. Silence, which meant complicity for the political classes, meant survival for us.
Now, after the Delhi High Court ruling on Sajjan Kumar, the trauma has been thrust into the limelight and politicised – with very little context about what toll the trauma and the forced forgetting of the trauma have taken on the Sikhs.
I was lucky to have this silence peeled back a little sooner than most people. My parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, all wonderful, educated people chose to be candid and honest with my generation while speaking about the 1984 killings. It helped that my immediate family didn’t suffer direct loss. A lot of it was adjacent. They are not the norm. We were at least told of what happened because they were capable of disentangling themselves from the immediacy of loss. The privilege of safety created a space for them to speak to us.
My mother was a college student in New Delhi when the violence broke out, and her father stuck was in Agra. For three days, my grandmother, who was in Delhi, did not know if her husband had survived the carnage. All she knew was that the violence spreading across north India specifically targeted turbaned Sikh men. And that they were being killed brutally.
The favoured method of execution – and I use the word for all its implications of planning and predetermination – was necklacing. Men of all ages, including young boys, were dragged out of their houses, ‘necklaced’ with rubber tyres, doused in kerosene, and set on fire in front of their families. The most haunting image of the aftermath was one my mother told me about – widows sitting on the front steps of their homes, unwashed, with hair uncombed, blood and ash still littering the ground around them, waiting to be seen by politicians ‘visiting’ them for an electoral photo-op.
I didn’t read about this incredibly powerful, grieving form of protest in any recollection article in popular media. It was something my mother, who is an academic working on Sikh urban identity, pulled from one of her readings and corroborated with her lived experiences. That has been the overarching narrative of most of the work done on 1984. It’s either buried under academic jargon, inaccessible for a variety of reasons, or just fragmented, sanitised memories of loss whispered from parent to child.
If you ever ask the generation that survived the violence, you’ll notice how they fumble while trying to verbalise exactly how bad it was. Language itself struggles to cradle the reminiscence of hurt and anguish. Many people, especially the men, struggle with survivor’s guilt and abject helplessness. To quote Veena Das, “…the riots against the Sikhs in 1984, the dominant themes were those of humiliation of men…”. This is the stilted recollection in the oral histories that we, as a community, have archived, and they are fading faster than we can build them.
Authors and journalists like Khushwant Singh, Hartosh Singh Bal, Sanjay Suri, Reema Anand, Veena Das and Amandeep Sandhu have worked hard to create a body of work that tries to salvage these memories. It’s the lack of a common voice that is a jarring reminder of how much we still don’t know. It’s the lack of anger, grief, and loss passed on, because parents were too busy trying to come to terms with their own trauma to try and process it for their children. The power of oral histories cannot be stressed upon enough. They are often the only justice afforded to a disenfranchised community. And we’re possibly going to see that escape us too.
The killings of 1984 were the second othering the Sikh community in India faced. We lost everything in 1947, and whatever we built for ourselves was snatched away. An entire generation of men and women killed, and the one right after lost to grief and drugs. 1984 was a reminder that political parties will target us if it suits their agenda, irrespective of which end of the spectrum they claim to represent. As Hartosh Singh Bal says, “Several commentators argued that the events of 1984 were not in keeping with the Congress’s professed ideology while the violence in 2002 was consistent with what the Bharatiya Janata Party stands for. It is an argument that makes little sense. It suggests the Congress’ use of violence is instrumental and is not constrained in any way by its ideology. This would imply that, depending on the circumstance, any community, anywhere, could be targeted for murder by the party if it suits its political ends.”
Justice, especially where genocide is concerned, is an intangible concept. Yes, it is easy to claim that a conviction is a step towards justice, but what are the principles of this justice? Is it just retributive? Does putting a man already at the end of his life into prison help? Every party that comes to power throws us some kind of piecemeal ‘deal’ and pats itself on the back for buying our silence for a little while longer. Do they not realise this silence is ours by creation? It is a silence we chose because we know it is the only way to keep our future relatively safe. Words that Agha Shahid Ali used for Kashmir, borrowed from Tacitus, come to mind: “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
This is desolation. And any half-baked attempt at telling us that we have been ‘gifted’ justice is one in the long, insulting string of consolations that offer us Sikhs no succour or rest.
The author is a poet.
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