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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom Barefoot: A Sense Of Betrayal


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

When communal pogroms are unleashed, all members of the community, irrespective of whether they were personally affected or not, internalise the suffering and the pain, and feel betrayed…

In any communal carnage, there are direct victims: those whose properties are looted or destroyed, whose bodies suffer assault, or whose loved ones are attacked or killed. But sectarian conflict is also vicariously an assault on that entire community. Therefore, the entire targeted community are also vicarious victims of the communal pogrom. Even though they do not actually suffer any personal loss, of assaults on body or property, or the death of people they loved or even personally knew — and may well be protected by various levels of privilege from any realistic probability of such a direct attack in the future — they also suffer. They suffer because the attack was to avenge, shame or break the spirit of the entire community.

Many similarities

Even though these were separated by 18 years of history, there is, tragically, a great deal in common between the communal massacres that played out on the streets of Delhi in 1984, and in settlements and by-lanes across Gujarat in 2002. There is considerable consensus among credible and independent observers of both these massacres that these were not spontaneous conflicts between people of different religious identities; they were pogroms systematically and cynically enabled by acts of commission and omission of public agencies at all levels, including those in positions of command authority. State officials similarly stood by in both episodes, as mobs were allowed and even actively encouraged to loot and torch properties, desecrate places of worship, and gruesomely murder, often by burning alive, people of specified minority faiths: Sikh in one case and Muslim in another. In both instances, communal organisations and political leaders worked openly in tandem to stir and stoke communal hatred, and to organise the logistics of the slaughter, efficiently transporting men, weapons and inflammables to settlements and commercial establishments of the communities marked out for slaughter.

Both brutal pogroms against religious minorities were sought — by the political leadership and in wide sections of popular perceptions in the community of majority faith — to be rationalised as ‘ justified' or even ‘righteous' violence, because entire communities were deemed to be guilty merely by their shared identities with alleged killers. The attacks in both pogroms were on communities and not individuals; they built upon and further consolidated large and persisting social hostility prevailing at the time of the massacres against the communities. The two massacres also had in common the role of communal organisations in manufacturing and sustaining hatred; and underlying agendas of political power, riding on waves of engineered hatred. Ruling governments in both massacres reaped rich, even unprecedented, electoral harvests in elections that followed in the wake of the slaughters. Both massacres also share a common history of impunity, with the majority of the killers and marauders and all those in command positions of authority in government and the civil administration still unpunished.

Source of anguish

For the entire Sikh community, including those who were born after 1984, in India and anywhere in the world, the 1984 pogrom in Delhi and other parts of India endures in memory as a source of intense anguish and loss; it also fuels a dormant anger and alienation, even as the community typically prospers, and many of its members excel variously in business, politics, sports, the armed forces, the letters and the arts. Both anguish and anger were far more visible in the years immediately after the carnage, but these gradually subsided, even as suspicion and hate against Sikhs by members of the majority Hindu community dwindled.

Today, over 26 years after the carnage, there are few signs of actively perceived victimhood in the collective psyche of the Sikh community in most parts of India. The abject failures to bring to justice those who led and organised the crimes of 1984 still rankle most Sikhs. There is anger still against what is perceived by them to be the imperious insensitivity of Indira Gandhi in using brute military might in the Operation Bluestar, to crush insurgents who took refuge in the Golden Temple, because it desecrated this most revered place of worship of the Sikh people. But for the greater part, they seem to have pushed the trauma behind them.

I observe greater community anger in Sikh majority Punjab, but here the rage is not just for the crimes of 1984 or even for Operation Bluestar, but for the enormous human rights abuses and mass killings by security forces who felled thousands of Sikh militant youth during the late 80s and 90s. By contrast, a shrill and vastly exaggerated sense of victimhood is still actively fostered in non-resident Sikh settlements, such as in Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

A similar sense of victimhood was experienced by Indian Muslims world-wide after the 2002 Gujarat carnage. The brutal assaults on Muslim men, women and children after 58 people tragically lost their lives in the train fire at Godhra on February 27, 2002 was intended as a punishment and a warning to the entire Indian Muslim community. More than at any moment in independent Indian history, Indian Muslims across India and even those who had taken citizenship in countries of the North or the Gulf, felt personally, intensely devastated by the violence. I have interacted with many gatherings of Muslim people — in cities, towns and villages across India and in many countries in the world after 2002 — and each time I have been struck by the extent to which they have internalised the suffering of the direct victims as if it was their own. The meta-narrative of the pregnant woman whose womb was slit open and the foetus set aflame is repeated and recalled as though it was experienced by a known loved one, as are numerous gruesome stories of rape, arson and murder. Each grieves with a personal sense of loss, each time a new mass grave is discovered, or when a Muslim is killed by the police in a faked encounter. I have met non-resident Indian Muslims who have not returned to India for years, but who slipped into clinical depression after the Gujarat carnage. Many weep and hold my hands, even years later, like people unable to come to terms with an enormous personal tragedy.

Intensely personal

More than anything else, I encounter in the hearts and minds of Indian Muslims after 2002, the anguish of intense betrayal. Each recounts his or her personal memories of childhood and youth, peopled by close Hindu friends, who they believed loved them without chauvinism: with whom they comfortably shared the spaces of home, play and school, and who were an intrinsic presence in moments of joy, celebration and sadness. But today they are variously wounded, by the open support of their childhood comrades for Hindutva ideologies, or by their rankling silences, their failures to condemn the injustice of holding them culpable only because of their separate religious identity. They wonder what has changed between them and the Hindu friends of their childhood, and agonise whether they were only fooling themselves that their bonds were untainted by prejudice.

The sense of personal betrayal is matched by the State's open partisanship. State authorities have been known to be biased against minorities in all communal riots, but the Indian Muslim still encounters an entirely new low when a government unrepentantly becomes complicit in abetting the most brutal mass assault on women and children in recent history, and yet is unpunished. Instead it is emphatically voted back to power, not once but twice, and the person perceived to be the chief architect of the slaughter is projected as a realistic contender for the position of Prime Minister of the country in the not-too-distant future, cheered on by most of the country's leading industrial leaders.

They wonder if the solemn pledge of the Constitution — that no person in this country is the child of a lesser god — was in the end a sham.



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