July 28, 2021
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31 October, 1984

31 October, 1984

AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia Presentation, 2010

After 28 years and nine commissions, the perpetrators of 1984 Delhi Sikh massacre remain at large.

From the archives: 

Ramachandra Guha:

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, gunned down Indira Gandhi as she walked from her home to her office on the morning of October 31, 1984... The impact of the assassination was magnified many times by the directed pogrom that followed. For two whole days, mobs led by Congressmen ran riot in the Sikh colonies of Delhi, burning, looting, raping, murdering. Sikhs in other towns and cities of northern India were also targeted. The home minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was paralysed by inaction, giving us a foretaste of how he was to behave when the Babri Masjid was demolished eight years later. Meanwhile, the new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, merely commented that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.

Amitav Ghosh recalled the significance of the day in 1995 in an essay for the New Yorker:

Protected by certain politicians, "organizers" were zooming around the city, assembling the mobs and transporting them to Sikh-owned houses and shops.

Apparently, the transportation was provided free. A civil-rights report published shortly afterward stated that this phase of violence "began with the arrival of groups of armed people in tempo vans, scooters, motorcycles or trucks," and went on to say,

With cans of petrol they went around the localities and systematically set fire to Sikh-houses, shops and Gurdwaras...the targets were primarily young Sikhs. They were dragged out, beaten up and then burned alive...In all the affected spots, a calculated attempt to terrorize the people was evident in the common tendency among the assailants to burn alive Sikhs on public roads.

Fire was everywhere; it was the day's motif. Throughout the city, Sikh houses were being looted and then set on fire, often with their occupants still inside.

A survivor— a woman who lost her husband and three sons— offered the following account to Veena Das, a Delhi sociologist:

Some people, the neighbours, one of my relatives, said it would be better if we hid in an abandoned house nearby. So my husband took our three sons and hid there. We locked the house from outside, but there was treachery in people’s hearts. Someone must have told the crowd. They baited him to come out. Then they poured kerosene on that house. They burnt them alive. When I went there that night, the bodies of my sons were on the loft— huddled together.

Over the next few days, some 2,500 people died in Delhi alone. Thousands more died in other cities. The total death toll will never be known. The dead were overwhelmingly Sikh men. Entire neighbourhoods were gutted; tens of thousands of people were left homeless.

Mukul Kesavan:

The pogrom of 1984 brought home to metropolitan middle-class people like me a truth that had long been understood in provincial towns: that one of the uses of the Indian state was the organisation of large-scale civil violence. The general election that followed the pogrom demonstrated that violence of this sort could be electorally useful: the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi won its largest majority ever. It won it on the back of an advertising campaign that used unsubtly coded messages to encourage Hindus to vote for the Congress. One advertisement asked people made nervous by their taxi-drivers (who in many cities in India were largely Sikh) to vote for strong Congress rule. And they did. No one who was old enough to think in 1984 will be surprised by Narendra Modi’s election victories after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002.

In India we bank on time and forgetfulness to paper over the great rents in our history. They help but they can’t do the job by themselves. As I write this, the courts are still struggling with cases about 1984 lodged 20 and more years ago. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the point that there can be no peace without the acknowledgement of guilt and public contrition. Unpunished pogroms license murderers to order up more of the same. 1984 led to 1992 just as certainly as 1992 cleared the ground for the killings in Gujarat 10 years later. 1984 and its misbegotten children taught us a life-defining truth: no country can tend to its living without accounting for its dead.

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