Nineteen eighty-four By: Mayank Shekhar January 12, 2005 One place on the planet where clearly all wasn’t well in George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 has to be India. Just take a quick pause, and recall — a burning Punjab, Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Indira Gandhi’s assassination… However the one event that I feel should have shaken us up for centuries to come had to be the apparently spontaneous anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Not because riots are uncommon in India. Not because it took place in the nation’s capital. But because, perhaps for the first time in post-Independence India, the myth of a maternal welfare state was eternally shattered. Because, like the bodyguards of Gandhi who pumped bullets on the person they were meant to protect, the slaughterers of Sikhs were none else, but their own state. I was relatively young then. But it must have been a shocking reality-check for some to realise that if an elected Central government — or more likely its cronies — with all the powers we vest on their strong batons, decided to set out and destroy a community, there is nothing anyone, anywhere could do about it. There was no one you could turn to. And there is nowhere that you could go. It’s uncanny that 20 years later, it takes Shonali Bose’s film Amu to make us relive and fear again that reality. My quick commentary on the supremely well-intentioned film, playing in the cinemas, must now remain restricted to its two wonderful lead actors: Konkona Sen-Sharma, whose near-perfect portrayal of a yuppie, post-collegiate NRI definitely harked me back to her well-researched rendition of a Tam-Bram wife in Mr And Mrs Iyer. And activist Brinda Karat, whose charming presence reminded me of a similarly amiable Nafisa Ali. The two aesthetics apart, one needs to overlook dollops of dispensable digressions and distractions as Bose’s film sets up the plot. For it is only in the final 45 minutes when she gets to the point, when she absolutely hits the nail on the head. And to understate, does an incredible job of it. The prime point of the picture of course is, as the female protagonist (Sen-Sharma) explains, “Within three days, over 5,000 people were killed in the Delhi riots.” The death toll in 9/11 was about 3,000. And that changed the course of contemporary world history. The deaths in Pearl Harbour were about 2,400. And that changed the course of how nations revenge their sorrows. Is it a mere, frighteningly thick-skinned Indian indifference that over 25,000 people who perished in Delhi alone in the ’84 massacre (as writer Amitav Ghosh reports) were so soon suppressed and repressed to public memory? Ghosh, in his brilliant, post-dated personal piece on the subject (The Imam And The Indian), recounts, “The Citizen’s Unity Front had formed a team to investigate the riots. A document produced by this team of activists — a slim pamphlet called ‘Who Are The Guilty?’ — has become a classic, searing indictment of the politicians and the police who allowed the rioters to have their way.” Yet, not one human being has been charged for instigating that heinous genocide after two decades! Is that really true? The last I saw, the ‘kale chashme wallah’ (black-spectacled one) referred to in Amu was taking flighty walks at Delhi’s plush-green Nehru Park with black-cat commandoes in tow. Another one of his ilk was this week in Mumbai as the nation’s ‘Pravasi’ minister… The necessary repercussion of this callousness, of unpunished gruesome political offenders, as auteur Bose argues, is a cycle of violence. She does this through the last shot in Amu that shows an erupting riot in Gujarat in 2002, while her movie’s audience has just recalled the horrors of ’84. Her point is valid. In one sense you could liken the Gujarat carnage to the Delhi riots — both were allegedly state-sponsored, and in both cases the supposed perpetrators came back to power. But I think there’s a key difference. One, I believe is that the muted and mutilated minority of the nation’s capital 20 years ago — given their sheer numbers as a voters’ block — did not matter in the larger scheme of national politics. Hence, they were much easily stamped out, and forgotten. That cannot be said of the victims of Vadodara or Ahemdabad. Not sure if that explains fast-track courts to charge those guilty in Gujarat, and none such for Delhi’s riots. But more significant than that is the post-2000 explosion of Indian television news and digital-video camera machinated media that unabashedly beamed live the gruesome images from Gujarat. It makes it far tougher for us now to forget what happened there, so easily, so soon. On a positive note, that, I think, has been this democracy’s greatest achievements in the past decades. Unless I speak too soon, that tremendous development alone, would make Delhi ‘84 impossible to disregard, haunting us for several generations, were it to occur today, in the same magnitude.