Since we are turning into a community of memory, it is not out of place to ask ourselves how we should remember this day. As the day of the assassination of Indira Gandhi? Or Sardar Patel’s birthday? Or the day of the beginning of the massacre of Sikhs in India in 1984? How would we like to tell the story of October 31 to those who have not lived it?
The Narendra Modi government has started celebrating October 31 as Ekta Diwas. But this unity refers to the integration of princely states in India after independence from colonial rule. It is about the geography of India. Not about its people. This government wants everyone to remember August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ so that people do not forget the violence of Partition but does not want to remember October 31 as the day of the massacre of the Sikhs. It’s not useful for its brand of memory politics.
I glanced through the newspapers today. On this date, it was not felt necessary to remind readers of this horror. The omission is odd because it is a day which one community in India remembers as the day when it was threatened with elimination. A day of the beginning of genocidal violence against it. Why do we not want to share this memory? The violence was committed by ordinary Hindus against a religious community they had been calling their ‘protector’ for ages. It is not only the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that claims Sikhism to be a branch of Hinduism, but most Hindus have also grown up believing this. Then why the violence against ‘our own people’?
Some Hindus are quick to rationalise violence against Muslims by saying ‘they divided India and created Pakistan, they ruled over us, oppressed us, destroyed our temples’. Such arguments are cited to justify any ‘punishment’ Muslims in India are subjected to from generation to generation. Sadly, many also accept this reason as valid and thus anti-Muslim violence is also accepted as natural. But what is the justification for the mass killing of Sikhs in 1984, and for our collective refusal to hold fast to that memory?
Thirty-eight years ago, I was a student in Patna. The news that Indira Gandhi was killed appeared on news boards outside the offices of the Indian Nation and Aryavarta newspapers and quickly spread throughout the city. The news left us shocked. All of us who were opposed to Indira Gandhi were also left numb. Something was bound to happen. But what? We had no idea. There was an inexplicable apprehension in the air. We knew that the guards who had killed Indira Gandhi were Sikhs.
After some time, a small group was seen on the road with the slogan ‘Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge’ (we will avenge blood with blood). The news came that a liquor shop was being robbed near the Dak Bungalow. Then stories of looting and destruction of shops run by Sikhs started coming from other parts of the city too.
On Ashok Rajpath, opposite Patna Medical College and Patna University, there were some Sikh establishments – a cycle shop, a tent house, etc. These shops were attacked. The locks were broken. People were seen running away with whatever they could grab. Someone was running with what looked like a stack of bowls in his hand, balancing it like a circus juggler. Someone was running with a bundle of bicycle handles. Some with cycle frames. On a rickshaw! Some people were taking a fridge when there was a fight amongst themselves about who would keep it. And then all of them smashed the fridge with stones.
There was a strange gaiety in this marauding mob. It is hard to forget that scene of mass robbery in which everyone’s face could be seen by their fellow robbers. It was cooperative violence. Everyone was cooperating with each other in ‘teaching a lesson’ to the Sikhs. But there was competition for the spoils. In this violence taking place in broad daylight, the police weren’t silent bystanders. They were lending a helping hand to the looters. Since we were activists of a student organisation, we knew the personnel of the local police station. We went and asked them to control and disperse the crowd. We got a warning to move away from the road. We could not intervene.
News of violence had started coming from other cities as well. In Patna, as far as I remember, there was no word of any murder. But accounts of murders started reaching us from Jamshedpur, Dhanbad, Bokaro and above all, Delhi. That Sikhs were being identified and lynched in trains.
In Patna, the violence continued for three days. We need to stress that the police were an accomplice in this violence. The looting stopped when the police wanted it to stop. Three days later, we suddenly heard that the police were conducting raids to recover what had been taken. Then we saw people throwing stolen items in the Ganga, which flowed along the length of Ashok Rajpath.
We did not hear of any arrests. I don’t remember if any criminal case was registered. I can say as an eyewitness that the ‘educated’ section of the city was as involved in this violence as those whom we consider violent because they are ‘uneducated’.
Much later, we learnt that a Sikh teacher at the Patna Science College had to cut his hair to hide his identity. When this wave of violence subsided, we went to the Patna Sahib Gurdwara with relief materials for those who had to take shelter there. I still remember the Sardarji who used to run the canteen of Rajendra Surgical Block sitting there with his gaze fixed on the ground. I couldn’t even greet him. We could not muster the courage to console anyone. This city, Patna, was their city. Today, they were refugees in a gurdwara there. No temple had opened its doors to the ‘protectors’ of Hinduism. The violence was against the Sikhs but the Sikhs did not want to show their faces. It was then that I understood for the first time how violence takes away the self-respect of the community which is its victim. The status of victims is also testimony to their powerlessness. They become an object of pity.
After a week or so, public life in Patna returned to ‘normal’. But the cycle shop in front of Patna College remained closed for a long time. Many other shops remained shut too. There is no evidence that the neighbouring shopkeepers tried to find out about the well-being of their neighbours or did anything to help them. A similar lack of concern would have played out in other cities as well.
Delhi, however, was very different. This was a city which the Sikh refugees had made their own after they were forced to leave their homes in the newly created Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs were brothers at that time. This fraternity was useful then, in violence against Muslims on the Indian side of Punjab and Delhi. All this was forgotten in 1984.
I want to understand how a city can go on living peacefully even after the killing of nearly 3,000 Sikhs. How does it explain the massacre to itself? How many people would it have taken to kill 3,000? All those who were involved in that massacre or knew those who did went on living their lives as if nothing had happened. Even after participating in this mass murder and violence. Some of them would have died natural deaths by now. But imagine a city in which thousands of murderers and their relatives and friends live with the intimacies of their relationships as father, mother, brother, sister and grandparent intact after destroying the possibility of such relationships among their neighbours.
What kind of society is that, what kind of family is that which is a safe haven for murderers? Which society just moves on, as if the mass murder committed by it was a ‘natural accident’? Who gets angry when reminded of this collective injustice?
With the conviction of senior Congressman Sajjan Kumar and others, It is now a firmly established fact that leaders and members of the party were involved in the killings. The unwillingness of the then Congress government to intervene and stop the violence, and punish the guilty, is well recorded. Rajiv Gandhi’s insensitive and tone-deaf statement is rightly remembered. But let us ask this question: didn’t a large part of the city’s Hindu population actively participate in this violence against the Sikhs? Has there been any discussion about it in the Hindu samaj?
This is why I believe October 31 and the day which followed should be a time of introspection for Hindus in India and abroad. A day should come when ordinary Hindus achieve the ability to recognise the reality of this violence and take responsibility for it. That would be a far more important day for the Hindu community – and India – than the consecration of a temple or the celebration of some abstract notion of national unity.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.