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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom Delhi pogrom heralded dog-whistle politics


Jun 1, 2004
In the November 19, 1984, speech, Rajiv did not say a word about the bereaved families, much less about those conscientious non-Sikhs who had tried to save the Sikhs or believed that the violence had been politically engineered. Such deliberate errors of omission and commission set the tone for the cover-up of the massacre.

In the 35 years since the Delhi pogrom, this is the first anniversary in which the victim community has the solace of the first-ever conviction of a leader of the party accountable for it. The inordinate delay in securing the life sentence for former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar in December 2018 is yet another reflection on the state of the rule of law in India. If the Delhi pogrom has acquired a fresh resonance lately, it is for more than just its unparalleled scale of the violence in which 2,733 Sikhs were officially acknowledged to have been killed in the first three days of November 1984.

Beyond the issue of impunity, the current significance of the Delhi pogrom lies in the ultranationalism and dog-whistle politics heralded by it. The most notorious example of such corrosion of India’s democracy and pluralism was Rajiv Gandhi’s attempt to justify the violence caused by the mobs seeking to avenge his mother's murder. He likened the violence targeting a minority community to the reverberations caused by the impact of a fallen tree. Rajiv did so while addressing his first public meeting as Prime Minister within a fortnight of the carnage and in the very city in which it had taken place. The official translation of his Hindi speech, at the meeting commemorating Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, put it as follows: “But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”

While paying tributes to his mother, Rajiv desisted from condemning the horrendous reprisal to her murder, let alone promising to take any action against the guilty. The closest he came to expressing any reservations about the mass violence was for its strategic repercussions to the nation, rather than any human rights concerns. Empathising with the krodh (intense anger) of the mobs, Rajiv cautioned: “Any action taken in anger can cause harm to the country. Sometimes, by acting in anger, we only help those who want to break up the country.”

In his entire speech delivered on November 19, 1984, Rajiv did not say a word about the bereaved families, much less about those conscientious non-Sikhs who had tried to save the Sikhs or believed that the violence had been politically engineered. Such deliberate errors of omission and commission by Rajiv set the tone for the cover-up of the massacre as well as the Congress party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha election held a month later.

Referring to the backdrop of insurgency in Punjab, one of the Congress’ advertisements screamed, “Will the country’s border finally be moved to your doorstep?” Without a trace of irony, it attacked Opposition parties saying: “They sow hatred and grow barbed-wire fences, watered with human blood. But it’s you who step out and bump into the fences and bleed while they cash your vote to buy their ticket to power.” As if that was not provocative enough, the advertisement proceeded to ask: “Why should you smile uneasily at your next-door neighbour just because he belongs to another community or speaks another language? Why should you feel uncomfortable riding in a taxi driven by a taxi driver who belongs to another state?” In keeping with Rajiv’s projection of himself as the sole guarantor of territorial integrity, the tagline of the advertisement said: “India could be your vote away from unity or separatism.”

The conflation of ultranationalism and dog- whistle politics proved so effective that, with the tally crossing the 400 mark, Rajiv secured more seats than even his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru ever did. In the government he had formed after that landslide victory, Rajiv promoted HKL Bhagat to the Cabinet minister rank although (or perhaps because) his East Delhi constituency had been the worst affected. Another violence-tainted minister, Jagdish Tytler, became a minister for the first time.

When the Parliament session began on January 17, 1985, the two Houses passed a common resolution condoling Indira’s death. Though it said that she “loved India and the Indian people with a passion so sublime that it will live among us for long ages,” the resolution expressed no regret about a section of the same Indian people being subjected to all sorts of violence in her name.

The silence on the pogrom became all the more glaring four days later when Parliament took due cognisance of another major disaster that had afflicted India in 1984, the Bhopal gas tragedy, and the government responded by promising to take necessary civil and criminal action against its perpetrators.

In this watershed election in which the Congress party had whipped up a majoritarian frenzy like never before, the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vapjayee managed to win only two seats. In 1997, when he wrote a retrospective on the 50 years of Independence, Vajpayee dwelt on the 1984 election in which he had himself been defeated. He said that the events in Punjab and Delhi had “unleashed a momentary madness that was harnessed by the Congress to create a sympathy wave.” Significantly, he added: “I can still vividly recall the Congress’ election campaign of that year in which every Sikh was portrayed as a dangerous anti-national to be watched out for….My party, I also proudly recall, refused to exploit shamelessly the insanity that had gripped India in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. We stood by our cherished principle of unity — ekta. Yes, we lost to the Congress. But there are no regrets because our defeat was honourable while the Congress’ thumping victory was tainted by the blood of innocent men, women and children.”

In view of the BJP’s dramatic growth since then, the conventional wisdom is that the 1984 election was its low point. But, in retrospect, it was so only in terms of seats. On the other hand, that fateful election demonstrated the immense potential of appealing to negative sentiments such as hate, fear, anger and prejudice, amid sanctimonious rhetoric about security and development. For its long-term political ramifications, the Delhi pogrom is an unacknowledged benchmark.

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