The Annual Exhumation

Why is it so necessary to narrate and re-narrate the same stories in painful details every year? As far as I know, it isn't helping the cause of justice.

The Annual Exhumation

On October 31 this year, which happened to be the 30th anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, I visited Trilokpuri, an area which has witnessed some of the worst episodes of the anti-Sikh riots. I was accompanying a friend who is working on the riots as a part of her PhD thesis.

The days leading up to the anniversary had been tense. There were reports of communal upheavals, brawls and stone pelting which had just started after Diwali and the police had imposed a curfew which was lifted for about six hours every day. So it didn't come as a surprise when we found a large number of cops parked outside the gurudwara in Block 31. Contrary to our expectations, they let us through without even asking for ID cards.

As we made our way across the gurudwara's courtyard, my friend told me how in 1984, hundreds who were trying to hide in the gurudwara premises from the massacre on the streets, had been locked inside and set afire. The sanctum sanctorum was being renovated, in preparation for the three-day long remembrance ceremony or Shaheedi Diwas as they call it. This year, of course, it has been postponed to late November because of the prohibitory orders that are in place as the Sevadar's son informed us.

The first thing the Sevadar wanted to know was which media house we were from. My friend told him that she was only a student and wanted to know about the remembrance ceremony and when it would be held. We sat in a corner and the Sevadar told us what happens during the Shaheedi diwas. He spoke about his life before the riots and where exactly he was on that fateful day when the rioters gathered outside his house, how his uncle cut his hair and his neighbours saved his life and how afraid he was to even go to work days after the riots were over. He spoke of all those who had lost their lives and property and homes and the inhumanities unleashed. It is one thing to read about it in books and another to hear a first-hand account from a living person of flesh and blood and bone.

We told him that we knew how hard it must be to talk about such brutalities that one has lived through and that we had absolutely no intentions of making him relive painful memories. My friend wanted to know how they were getting on and the kind of help the government was providing. But he seemed intent on telling us more stories from the past. We were shown family photographs over cups of chai and given more details about burning tyres, charred bodies and orphaned children. When we were about to leave, he asked us again which media house we were from. He said that he was simply asking because a lot of journalists visited the gurudwara around this time of the year, wanting to hear stories from when it all happened, wanting to click photographs of him, wanting more details to furnish their 1984 special articles. Apparently right before us, some journalists had come and he had told them exactly all the things that he had told us.

I have always maintained that Ghalib has an appropriate couplet for everything and he certainly has one for this occasion:

"jalaa hai jism jahaan dil bhi jal gayaa hogaa
kuredatey ho jo ab raakh justaaju kya hai

(Where the body has burned, the heart too must have,
Raking the ashes, what do you search for now?)

Every year, for the last 30 years, the media has been doing exactly this — going back to Trilokpuri or Tilak Vihar, looking for human tragedy and loss among the survivors of the 1984 riots. The stories of the survivors and the families of the victims need to be heard and justice needs to be served but if they have a right to justice, they also have a right to move on. Talking to the Sevadar in the gurudwara made me realise how they have constructed this narrative which they repeat to the media year after year after year, so much so that if they are ever asked a question that is beyond that narrative, they wouldn't know what to say and would insist on telling you exactly what they have been telling the media for the last 30 years of their lives. It is almost as if this annual recalling of memories has been thrust upon them.

In fact, Kamal Arora, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, who is working on structural violence, gendered religious practice, and everyday affect and memory in the space of the Widow's Colony in Delhi says that she has noticed women, widows of the victims of the 1984 riots, mourn in a more dramatised fashion when the cameras are turned on them during the coverage of the Shaheedi Diwas. This is not to say that their sorrow or pain isn't real but it does appear that they know exactly what the media is looking for and they react accordingly. There is this unspoken conditioning that exists reinforced by 30 years of the media asking the same questions, wanting to know the same things. 

One could argue that it is because of these annual, ritualistic visits and coverage, the governments and political parties, for various vested and electoral interests of their own perhaps, get galvanized into doing something at least. But maybe it is about time that the coverage becomes less about the gory details of 1984 and more about the issues faced by the survivors in real time, which entails much more than just having to live with the memories of a horrific past. If government action and justice is the media's real motive, then the campaign needs to be a more focused one and not just timed around the anniversary.

Why is it so necessary to narrate and re-narrate the same stories in painful details every year? As far as I know, it isn't helping the cause of justice. It isn't simple imparting of information either because if someone wants to read up, they have reams of literature to fall back on. What are we, the media wallahs, really digging for when we go looking at fading photographs and asking the same old questions, demanding that people relive what perhaps has been the worst time of their lives, again and again? Is it just a charade to make us feel like we have done something about it? Or is it to make us feel like we are evolved human beings who have come a long way and are now capable of compassion and sympathy? Or are we simply trying to exploit a tragedy because that's what sells? And if that is the case, then what does that say about us?

Special thanks to Sharanya, PhD Candidate with the University of Exeter, for helping out with the Kamal Arora link.