Put a Rubber Tyre Around His Neck

A recent collection edited by Vikram Kapur reminds us of the horrors of the 1984 riots. But can we learn from the past?

1984: In Memory and Imagination is a profoundly disturbing book about a time in Indian history when the state, entrusted with the protection of life and property, betrayed its citizens in a manner that is chilling in retrospect.

Calling it a breakdown of law and order would be too mild a description of what was essentially a case of the police, the government and the judiciary going rogue in a perfectly coordinated manner to encourage, aid and cover up the murder of almost 3000 citizens in Delhi. Women were raped, men were burnt alive, shops were looted, and homes set on fire.

Edited by Vikram Kapur, and published by Amaryllis, this book is divided into two sections offering a collection of seven personal essays and seven short stories respectively that capture the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. The genres complement each other, giving equal emphasis to facts and feelings. This balance works well for a volume that aims to remember in the hope that history would not repeat itself if only people would learn from the horrors of the past.

The Prime Minister was killed by her own bodyguards, two Sikh men, who were infuriated with her for desecrating the holy shrine of Harmandir Sahib by sending in the Indian army to crack down on militants hiding there and hatching a plan to carve out a separate homeland for the Sikhs that would be called Khalistan.

Kirpal Dhillon’s essay ‘1984: An Overview’ gives a solid account of the connections between the rising popularity of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Operation Blue Star, the October assassination, and the “carnage” against Sikhs, which was “ruthless and well-planned, with Congress leaders directing the rampaging mobs.”

Dhillon goes on to narrate how Sikh households in mixed colonies were identified using electoral rolls, drawing parallels with the manner in which Jews were systematically targeted and eliminated by the Nazis in Germany.

Ajeet Cour’s essay ‘November 1984’, translated from Punjabi by Satjit Wadva, makes the same comparison. Describing a makeshift camp set up in a school building, with Sikh families cooped up like chickens in a basket, she recalls the suffering of Jews who had sought shelter in underground sewage pipes and deserted attics.

In his essay ‘When Steel Entered My Soul’, Rana Chhina recounts how mobs led by Congressmen stopped buses on flyovers, and dragged all the Sikh passengers out. They placed rubber tyres around the necks of Sikhs, and set them ablaze.

It is here that one misses the voices of Vrinda Grover, Lalita Ramdas and Amandeep Sandhu who have written and spoken about the then government’s role in this violence, and whose contributions would have certainly made this a richer book.

For a reader not familiar with this period of Indian history, the complicity of the Congress party in the genocide can be shocking because this party takes the credit for inserting the word ‘secular’ in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution via the 42nd Amendment. The lowest of lows was Rajiv Gandhi, son of the slain Prime Minister, justifying this bloodshed by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”

During this pre-liberalization era, India did not have private television channels providing 24/7 coverage of events. As Preeti Gill mentions in her essay, ‘A Question of Identity’, the citizens had to rely on the state-owned television channel Doordarshan and the state-controlled All India Radio for news.

Even media houses that were not dependent on state funding chose to be biased in their reporting. Hartosh Singh Bal’s essay ‘A House of Lies’ provides a close reading of articles published in India Today, an news publication in the country in 1984. Bal calls into question the magazine’s attempts to shield Rajiv from any accountability for the violence that unfolded during his watch.

Apart from Bal and Gill, Humra Quraishi’s essay ‘Why Not A Collective Cry For Justice!’ also points out flaws in the judicial enquiries and administrative probes that that were a hogwash. Justice was not served. Political leaders from the ruling party walked free. Those who supported the cover-up were suitably rewarded.

Dhillon ventures so far as to say that Rajiv won a landmark majority in the next general elections by portraying the Sikhs as “a treacherous and anti-national community that had taken to terrorist violence against the Indian people.” This kind of demonization caused irreparable damage. Sikhs continued to experience indignity and humiliation much after the massacre had ended.

Should the state alone take responsibility for what happened? Could individuals not think rationally? In Pratyaksha’s story ‘Dried Apricots Smell Like Dead Fish’, the narrator poignantly describes how many of the Sikhs were murdered in the neighbourhoods they were born in, by people they had been friends with. In his story ‘Karma’, Aditya Sharma writes about neighbours stealing furniture, utensils and electric gadgets from homes of Sikhs. Why did people behave in the way they did?

Satto, one of the characters in Mridula Garg’s story ‘The Morning After’ has an answer. She says:

One lighted match is all it needs to ignite a dump of charcoal. Once a crowd gathers, it soon becomes a mob. A mob out to celebrate or annihilate. A man in a mob is not a man.

This idea of a collective madness that had engulfed the people of the time does reappear in the book. It is an idea that holds emotional appeal but it does not account for the structural violence that minorities are vulnerable to in culturally diverse societies.

The book does have shining examples of courage and compassion amidst what Kapur calls “the tornado of violence.” When the state failed to uphold rule of law, individuals did step in to provide food, clothing and shelter. Some of them did so by putting their own lives in danger. They were not Sikhs but they were fellow human beings and fellow citizens who cared.

As Kapur indicates in his introduction to the book, he is invested in the project of a democratic, pluralist India, that would embrace humaneness. He did not lose what the Sikhs did in 1984 but he experienced something else that changed his world overnight. He used to live in Seattle, USA, when the World Center in New York was attacked on September 11, 2011. Though the terrorists were identified as “Islamic militants,” everyone who was brown was suddenly perceived as a potential threat.

The open and inclusive environment that Kapur was accustomed to on liberal university campuses turned hostile. His white American girlfriend ended their relationship. He stopped going out at night, fearing that he might be exposed to hate crimes. This is not unlike the experience of Gill who had lived in Delhi for years but suddenly became an outsider owing to her Sikh identity after the Prime Minister was assassinated. People would refuse to rent her a flat, “as though we had grown horns or claws to become some sort of strange animals who could not be allowed into their houses.”

The strangest animal here is perhaps the state itself. It has grown monstrous because we have allowed it to not only enter our homes but also reign over our minds. We have surrendered our freedoms on a platter, and volunteered to be held captive. Ours is the silence that allows mobs to lynch, dictate food choices, and tell us who we are forbidden to love.