By Ravleen Kaur:
Mounting protests in Punjab, unknown number of arrests, the disruption of daily life, and calls against a media “blackout”, has been highlighted the world over in the last few weeks. Some Sikhs have even explained that the replay of such a blackout, especially around this time of the year – leading up to this week’s anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence – is extremely re-traumatizing. Many others explain that such blackouts are just part of life in Punjab, where all protests by Sikhs are painted with a “single story”.
History has shown us the insidious danger of such ‘blackouts’: by shutting out the narratives of the people experiencing a situation, we allow a stilted, singular version of the event, manipulated to benefit political actors, to take the place of ground reality. Over time, the diluted, manufactured narrative becomes the official one – and we’ve lost the full spectrum of the truth. That’s what happened three decades ago, in November 1984.
Approaching the 31st anniversary of the November 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, Sikhs recognize that the narrative of victim-survivors was hijacked by the media’s government-fed, myopic version of events. This only amplified the kind of violence that Sikhs faced – a kind of violence that dismantled the ability of the living to speak and of the dead to be spoken about – and thus let a “single story” fill in the forced vacuum.
The “single story”, is a phenomenon that, novelist Chimamanda Adichie, in her viral 2009 TED Talk explains, predictably erodes multifaceted people and histories, over time, into having a singular character in how they are spoken about. “[T]o create a single story,” she says, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
What has the story of 1984 become?
A story of a few well-known but low-level politicians leading enraged Hindu mobs against poor Sikhs in a few areas in New Delhi, leading to around 3,000 deaths—regrettable but almost unavoidable as the “big tree” of Indira Gandhi fell.
10 government Commissions later, “only 30 people, mostly low-ranking Congress Party supporters, have been convicted for the attacks that resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries. No police officer has been convicted, and there were no prosecutions for rape, highlighting a comprehensive failure of the justice system.”
Unlike the June 1984 massacres, which were summarily swept under the rug, some media and governmental bodies do tend to recognize that something unconscionable happened in November 1984. But the way in which it is reported reduces the scope of the tragedy to a couple thousand deaths subsumed in the fog of communal violence, even “mob violence”, in New Delhi alone. Even well-meaning parties often suggest that the violence was self-limited, that justice for the victims, while crucial, is more a symbolic gesture for past troubles, rather than a necessary measure to target injustices embedded in today’s social and political schema.
What emerges when you ask several hundred Sikhs in India and across the diaspora is a simple question: What did you experience in November 1984? A far more fraught and forceful picture of the violence and its repercussions.
The violence was not limited to Delhi, but was unleashed everywhere: Indore, Ranchi, Pune, Dehradun, Goa, Karnal. It was not a spontaneous burst of anger from the masses, but a systematic operation, with politicians, from the future Prime Minister down the hierarchy, not only setting a tone that exonerated the violence, but first allowing time, space and materials for the murderous groups to organize themselves.
The November 1984 anti-Sikh massacres were systematic in how they extinguished life with flame. The fire was meant to terrorize, but also to burn clean and reduce to death Sikh agency and identity, to make Sikhs afraid to step out or speak out.
“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person,” Adichie says in her talk. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”
1984 did not die with the victims who lost their lives. It continues to live and manifest itself through the lives of its survivors.
Survivors like the woman from Mumbai who had to raise her six children on her own, with no support from her in-laws, after her husband was murdered by a mob. Survivors like the school children of 1984 who grew up facing taunts like “your dad killed Indira Gandhi” from classmates who parroted their elders, with teachers turning a blind eye. Survivors like the man who hid under the train seats while his wife begged the mob in Agra to spare him.
The trauma of 1984 remains deeply in the Sikh psyche. And what remains most under-reported is the continued resilience of the survivors. Their resilience does not mean they’ve obeyed the social command to “get over it”. Hundreds of Sikhs across the world have risen up and contributed their voices. If the killers are systematic and organized in how they destroy, Sikhs will be systematic in how they rebuild. For every iron rod, for every bucket of kerosene, Sikhs will capture another story, reach out to another city.
So this month, Sikhs aren’t just holding up candles to commemorate the massacres of 1984. They are holding up their cameras. The 1984 Living History Project is crowd-sourcing 1984 testimonies from Sikh survivors around the world, from all walks of life, to build an open-access online archive that counters the single story with the power of many voices.
In this, they are reclaiming their agency. By crowd sourcing stories into the archive, we are trying to democratize the way a community deals with the aftermath of terror. We are building a history that doesn’t – as history usually does – erode with time into having a singular character. Instead, we are building a history that grows more complex and rich and multi-faceted every year.