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The Trauma Of 1984 Didn’t Die With The Victims, It Continues To Live Through Its Survivors

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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”.

candle vigil

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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