Discrepancy haunts the question of violence in modern India. The very first page of Mallika Kaur’s remarkable new book, Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, reveals a glimpse into this predicament. Between 1975 and 1995, she writes, “Punjab saw anywhere from 25,000 (according to the police estimates) to 250,000 (according to civil society estimates) killings”.

No doubt there are other similarly conflicted tallies – from the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 to the subcontinent’s partition in 1947, to lesser-known killings in Marichjhapi (1979), Nellie (1983) and Bhagalpur (1989), among far too many others. How do we make sense of such vast differences in the seemingly simple act of counting the dead? On the other hand, what is ignored by fixating on numbers alone? And what does such imprecision, and indeed opacity, tell us about minority politics in modern India?

Novel structure

It is questions such as these that Kaur implicitly pursues through an innovative yet intimate narrative of the events leading up to the Indian government’s 1984 attack on the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar and the sprawling insurgency and severe repression that followed. Her book traces the lives of exceptional as well as ordinary people both caught up in and confronting multiple forms of violence.

This was a period in Punjab where “rumors, misinformation, broken promises, and blood now ran through its defining rivers”. The main protagonists are a trio of indefatigable activists: Balbir Kaur, Inderjit Singh Jaijee and the recently-deceased Justice Ajit Singh Bains. Under severe constraints, they set about documenting various police abuses, demanding government inquiries and redress, securing the release of thousands unlawfully detained and garnering international attention by publishing reports and speaking at human rights’ conferences.

In emphasising stories of those “who decided to challenge the status quo that paralysed most others” (p. xii), Kaur provides a sensitive account of a conflict that is at once oversimplified, poorly understood and largely ignored.

The novelty of the book lies foremost in its structure. Rather than proceeding chronologically, it simultaneously moves backward from 1995 and forward from 1839, to converge at the pivotal year of 1984. Each of the ten chapters also repeatedly switches from the high drama of Punjab and Sikh politics to the individual struggles against police terror and bureaucratic impunity.

In chapter three, we learn about Kulbir Kaur Dhami, a young woman with purported ties to militants tortured for months by the police in the 1990s, amid the Nankana Sahib, Guru-ka-Bagh and Jaito movements under colonial rule in the early twentieth century. Or, in chapter four, Kaur juxtaposes the intrigue behind a crucial marriage in the Patiala royal family in 1938 with the police kidnapping and killing of a vegetable vender’s son named Gulshan Lal in 1993.

Chapter eight places the Shiromani Akali Dal’s principled opposition to Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” (1975-77) alongside the plight of Kuldip Kaur, whose son Ginnu was murdered by a right-wing Hindu mob in Bidar, Karnataka, in 1988. Stories of common people puncture large sweeps of history and the elite personalities that inhabit it.

Grim pattern of state violence

Such jarring contrasts mean the book stands apart from conventional genres of writing. It is neither entirely academic, nor journalistic, nor a straightforward popular account. Instead, Kaur creatively uses archives, secondary literature, film and audio recordings, interviews and her own memories and insights to bring to life the experience of uncertainty, tragedy and antipathy. This is especially significant because of how a prominent foundation casually dismissed an early version of the project.

Kaur reveals that the chairperson – a man of South Asian heritage are the only details shared – said her proposal to study gendered violence in Punjab not only failed “dispassionate assessment” but was nearly impossible to verify, and therefore did not warrant interest or support. According to him, she was the wrong person to research a non-existent topic.

This exchange underscores not only continuing misperceptions about the Punjab conflict, but how the authority to determine worthiness remains awash in sexism and indifference.

Indeed, this rejection of false impartiality prompted Kaur to focus squarely on a grim pattern of state violence. At one level, she tracks the ways unchecked police power incentivised the brazen kidnapping and torture of individuals with scant legal justification.

For example, Gurdev Singh Kaunke, a prominent Sikh leader with a large following, was taken away in December 1992, while Balwant Singh Multani, a relatively unknown young man, was picked up in December 1991. Both would be killed, the latter in a ubiquitous “fake encounter” while the former’s unrecovered body was presumably thrown into the Sutlej River.

Draconian legislation such as the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities [Prevention] Act) ensured police immunity and suspended civil rights. “An alphabet soup of laws,” explains Kaur, “had normalised prolonged detentions and expedient disposals”

At the same time, she profiles how families of the abducted desperately sought procedural intervention. Paramjit Kaur, wife of the esteemed Jaswant Singh Khalra, scrambled in the wake of his kidnapping in September 1995. She rushed to police stations, sent urgent telegrams to the Chief Minister and the SGPC, met with the Delhi-based National Human Rights Commission and filed a petition with the Supreme Court. Despite these efforts, however, Khalra was ultimately tortured and killed by police.

‘Murderless murders’

Finally, Kaur marks the frustrating callousness of the broader legal system that was supposed to deliver justice to victims and survivors. Tarlochan Singh Sidhu, father of a young man named Kulwinder Singh “Kid,” spent six years fighting for an inquiry merely to force the police to admit they had in fact taken his son into custody and secretly cremated him in July 1989. It would be another three years before a CBI investigation concluded, and then many more for a trial that saw eyewitnesses recant their testimonies under pressure.

In May 2012 – a full twenty-three years after the incident – the six accused police officers were acquitted, and the deceased Kid was once again proclaimed “missing.” The heartbroken father managed to file an appeal before dying of a heart attack a few months later.

Kaur provides scores of additional examples: thirteen Sikhs massacred by Hindu mobs in Jammu in 1989, eleven Sikh travellers killed in staged shootouts with police in UP’s Pilibhit in 1991, the mysterious murder of MP Jagdev Singh Khudian in 1989, twenty to eighty Sikhs killed by the army in Patiala’s Dukh Nivaran gurdwara in June 1984. Even Justice Bains was spuriously arrested and held in detention for nearly six months in 1992.

In each of these cases, the judiciary was almost always unable or unwilling to take strong and timely action. “When policemen become perpetrators,” Kaur points out, “victims of human rights abuses had little recourse.”

These are but a glimpse into the range of state-orchestrated crimes and ensuing complicity that Kaur terms “murdererless murders”. The phrase captures a unique layering to the victimisation: Sorrow from the disappearance or death of a loved one was accompanied by a struggle to have it acknowledged by the authorities, along with largely futile efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Yet her emphasis on government machinery might raise the charge of neglecting violence perpetrated by militant groups. Tellingly, this is not a new reproach, as the activists Kaur profiles faced similar questions at the time. Their responses remain instructive: there can be no equivalence between state and non-state actors, especially in a context where the police have been thoroughly corrupted, and many national institutions – from the courts and civil administration to the medical staff and media – had become overtly prejudiced against Sikhs.

Moreover, Bains gravely reminds Kaur, regardless of allegations “the law prohibits eliminating people after kidnapping and hiding and torturing them”. A state that systematically violates the very principles from which it draws its own legitimacy is in a much deeper crisis.

Humiliate and eliminate

To read The Wheat Fields Still Whisper today is therefore disturbingly prescient. The rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism and its targeting of minorities and the marginalised have ignited rousing conversations in progressive circles about how to restore Indian democracy. What is often overlooked in such exercises, however, is precisely the longer history of majoritarian bigotry prior to the latest saffron wave against mainly Muslims, Dalits and Christians.

Kaur demonstrates how nearly every feature of Hindutva – the determined yet dispersed use of material and ideological authority to humiliate, provoke, divide, subordinate and eliminate a specific community – has its antecedents in the treatment of Sikhs in the 1970-90s. A fact-finding report from 1988 could not be more explicit: The Congress is “the main fascist force in the country today”. (Emphasis added.) Such a claim might seem an exaggeration or, worse, a distraction, but unless there is willingness to confront the history that Kaur presents, efforts at mere restoration remain mired in an unforgivable amnesia.

Perhaps this disjuncture can illuminate the real meaning behind differing death tolls. In this context, Khalra’s wife Paramjit Kaur offers a crucial if off-hand observation. She mentions that while mostly educated urban people pursued legal cases on behalf of missing and killed loved ones, many in the rural areas “just internalised their men’s deaths as martyrdoms”. Official government statistics thus cannot fully align with minority community narratives nor capture the quality of collective suffering. The refusal of the dead to be counted is an incalculable discrepancy.

Navyug Gill is a historian of modern South Asia and global history. His research explores questions of agrarian change, caste politics and global capitalism in colonial Panjab. His writings have appeared in venues such as The Journal of Asian Studies, Economic and Political Weekly, Past and Present, Outlook and Al Jazeera. He teaches at William Paterson University.

Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, Mallika Kaur, Palgrave Macmillan.