The anti-Sikh riots in 1984 shattered a collective illusion. Till then we had believed in the notion of an all-powerful State, a super-efficient bureaucracy, and a professional police force. In the end, it has taken a toll on our capacity to sort out differences and disputes, reflects HARISH KHARE.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Collective loss as establishments, places of worship, localities and houses were the targets of mobs.
OCTOBER 31, 1984. No.1, Safdurjung Road. The early hours of the morning. Indira Gandhi is shot dead in her own house. The Prime Minister of India is assassinated. The killers are two security guards, both Sikhs, trained and trusted to protect her. But the killers' loyalty and professional conscience is suborned by those who traffic in un-religious ideas in the name of religion.
She had committed a sacrilege, according to them. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was to be punished for daring to offend the Sikhs' most sacred religious symbol, the Golden Temple in Amritsar when she sent in troops to flush out the Khalistani-secessionist, "Sant" Bhindranwale who had converted the gurudwara into a terrorists' base camp and was out to declare "independence" from the holy sanctum sanctorum. Indira Gandhi had to die for "Operation Bluestar". She was made to pay the price for performing her duty to defend the country's integrity and unity.
Indira Gandhi died on the spot. Even before a stunned nation could recover its breath, there were sporadic reports of a few Sikhs breaking out in celebrations. The collective nerves, dangerously strained over the last few years on account of Khalistani terror activities, were itching to find an outlet.
By evening, anti-Sikh violence broke out. For the next 72 hours, the capital was a possessed city. Blood-thirsty. Ugly. Violent. Unreasonable and unyielding in this unreasonableness. The Sikhs' establishments, places of worship, localities and houses were targeted by mobs. The violence did not begin to abate till the new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the sacking of the Lt. Governor of Delhi, P.S. Gavai on the night of November 3. The Union Home Secretary, Madan Mohan Kishan Wali, was made the new Lt. Governor. The Army had to be called in to restore order as the Delhi Police was a disgrace with its incompetence, cowardice and complicity in the violence.
At last the madness subsided. The ritual of revenge was over. And the city began to comprehend to its shame the extent of its madness. Over 2,000 Sikh men, women and children had been killed. Mangolpuri, Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Shakarpur, Janakpuri the localities of gruesome butchery became names that continue to trouble the city's collective conscience.
The mob violence against innocent Sikhs created its own set of consequences. Bhindranwale was dead but he had now the satisfaction of creating enmity between the Sikhs and the rest of India, a schism cynically exploited by foreign powers. The Khalistan movement, with its various self-styled commanders almost all of them financed by foreign money and agencies continued to spill blood for a decade after Indira Gandhi's assassination.
Now, two decades later, how do we look at that fateful morning of October 31, 1984? We have not come to terms with a defining moment in our post-Independence history.
As a society, India is not stranger to bloodshed on a mass scale. Before and after Independence there had been instances of communal violence. Yet 1984 was the first case of collective frenzy of a kind that the nation had never witnessed before. A murderous assault on the Prime Minister, symbol of the Indian State, became the provocation for the dormant ugliness to break out in bloody glory. This was the first time that a section of society unconsciously elevated itself as a partisan of the State and felt it had the licence to punish those who sought to challenge the Indian State.
Shattering the myths
The violence and its extent took us by surprise. The anti-Sikh riots shattered a collective illusion. Till then we had believed in the notion of an all-powerful State, a super-efficient bureaucracy, and a professional police force; these assumptions were unconsciously reinforced by the post-Independence political leadership that promised to cure us of our each and every ailment. Indira Gandhi in particular had sought to elevate herself to the status of an omnipresent and omnipotent ruler. Her earlier experiment with "Internal emergency" was precisely for her as well as the public an essay in unlimited and unrestricted powers of the Union government. She had come back to power on the slogan of providing the country a "government that works".
These pretensions came to haunt her as the government could not cope with the challenge posed by Bhindranwale. So dominant was her image of a superb politician that she was suspected of playing footsie with the extremist Bhindranwale in a cunning stratagem to outplay the Akalis, who had declared a dharmayudha. No one wanted to believe that the Bhindranwale issue was stoked by unfriendly foreign powers; Pakistan's complicity was obvious, but not too obvious was the traditional meddling by Western powers.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Demanding justice in Delhi.
Indira Gandhi's assassination by her own security guards not only mocked her pretensions of an omnipotent ruler. It also constituted the ultimate breakdown of the Indian State and its presumed pervasiveness; yet most Indians clung to the notion that even in that grave hour, the "system" should have "performed" and that the "law and order" machinery should have automatically displayed its professional nerves of steel. We refused to come to terms with the fact that the "law and order" machinery could have its limits. Instead, we preferred to believe that somehow the political leadership of the day was cold-blooded enough to allow the violence to go on for days. We chose to believe that our rulers politicians and bureaucrats had available to them infinite wisdom, flawless and complete information, as well as the tools and instruments of control, and all that was needed was for them to indicate that they wanted the situation to be controlled.
In particular, we assumed that if the "leadership" wanted to bring out the Army it could have done so within a few hours; no one wanted to know or concede even now that since Independence, the civilian leadership had seen to it that only a very token Army presence was maintained in the capital. The civilian-army relationship had come under strain only a couple of years earlier during the Asian Games when Army columns had moved into the capital much over the sanctioned strength. At the best of times, the civilian establishment was systematically allergic to the idea "calling in the army".
The violence shattered another myth. We thought we were a civilised society; schooled in Nehruvian decency and softened by our religious pieties; especially the Hindu collective mind-set that sees the community as genetically incapable of inflicting violence. But here we were demonstrating ourselves as being prepared, mentally and emotionally, to indulge in mass scale butchery and brutality and be blood-thirsty.
It was as if we had been transported back to the medieval ages; Hindu men, women and children came out to see gurudwaras go up in flames as a matter of public spectacle. Till then we had never cared to take note of the creeping element of lumpenisation and insensitivity that had blunted our collective thinking.
We were traumatised as a society; we coped with these two great disillusions by going into denial. We blamed insistently that Congress leaders had instigated and sustained anti-Sikh frenzy. This view had since congealed into an irrefutable mythology. Goon-like Congress leaders made the perfect fall guys. Our collective indignation, anger, shame, resentment, embarrassment over the mass outbreak of violence got neatly packaged into a politically correct `Congress-is-to-be-blamed-for-the-anti-Sikh- riots" attitude. Civil liberty groups rushed in with hasty indictments to confirm the first judgment. The young prime minister and his sophomoric advisers added insult to injury with their arrogant "you-asked-for-it, man" body-language. The Congress party's massive victory in the Lok Sabha two months later only added to the myth of culpability.
The terrible fallout
The catechism of guilt and blame fuelled Sikh anger and sustained the Khalistani movement for nearly a decade. It also deflected attention away from the root cause of the Punjab problem: the Akali Dal's unstated, but openly practised, demand for monopolistic political supremacy in Punjab because it claims (a la the Hurriyat leadership in Kashmir) to be sole custodian of the best interests of the Sikh community. Every time this undemocratic demand gets checkmated by other political parties through democratic means, the Akalis reserve the right to revert back to quasi-secessionist sentiment. The Akalis remain uncured of this claim, despite their decade long political association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party of self-proclaimed nationalists.
A victim after Delhi went up in flames.
The violence of 1984 and the majority's community capacity for hatred and antagonism were eye-openers for the Hindu right wing in the country. The Hindutva brigade realised that the Hindu was not a coward and that the Hindu "masses" were ready for a "renaissance" ; unapologetically the Hindutva mob decided to feed the Hindus' collective itch for settling a few scores. The BJP has not looked back since then.
"1984" was a moment of crisis for the Indian State, which precipitated a crisis of liberal India and deepened the Hindu community's sense of dis-empowerment. It took a toll on our capacity to sort out differences and disputes, and we continue to pay a price in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in the North-East. October 31 led to December 6, 1992, and Gujarat 2002.
We have not yet dared to draw the requisite conclusions. Sometimes it seems Indira Gandhi died in vain.
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