I…regard 1984 and what happened in the three days following the assassination of the prime minister as a traumatic moment in the history of our nation. A moment that witnessed the birth of a minority and tore communities apart, in somewhat the same way as Partition had done. The hatred and bloodletting that engulfed the nation in those three days of November 1984 left close to 3000 Sikhs dead in Delhi alone and some 50,000 people were forced to take shelter in relief camps, because their homes had been destroyed.
It is apparent that this would have far-reaching consequences, that things would never be the same. I wonder whether the Sikh community has even now come to grips with the fact of the 1984 killings and how totally unexpected, horrific and intense they were. And it is so much worse because it is a period that has not been talked about enough, not debated enough; the wounds have been plastered over and they still reveal themselves as raw and bleeding each time someone brings up this subject and calls it the Sikh riots.
The Sikhs did not riot; they were massacred. Much like me, many Sikhs draw parallels between 1984 and what happened during the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947. I recall reading somewhere an interview with a survivor, who lost all his sons in 1984, making this very point. His anguish was uncontrollable because he had escaped unharmed along with his entire family when they fled from Lahore in 1947 and now in “free India”, where they should have been safe, his family had been destroyed.
The past, therefore, in many ways, has been recast in the minds of the survivors, and indeed all those who were witness to the carnage of 1984.
Many of the rumours that floated and became gospel in those days were about water tanks being poisoned, about houses being marked, about mobs of rioters being paid to do their pillaging and killing. It was such a time of fear and dread that one did not quite know what to believe.
However, the one thing that is clear is that a very visible, very dominant community of prosperous farmers, landlords, shopkeepers, businessmen, soldiers and policemen was transformed into a minority overnight through concentrated violence and brutality. The realisation of their minority status was brought home to the Sikhs in many ways, including being told repeatedly that they formed a miniscule two percent of the country’s population and as such were entitled to just that much by way of jobs and quotas.
Personally for me this minority status revealed itself in strange ways and there are two instances that I wish to cite here. We left Delhi in 1985 for a two-year stint in Nagpur where my husband’s company had posted him. On our return to Delhi in May 1987, we stayed with my sister while we searched for a flat to rent. That proved to be an impossible task.
People who met us liked us but became suspicious and hesitant to rent their properties to us as soon as they found out that we were Sikhs. It was as though we had grown horns or claws to become some sort of strange animals who could not be allowed into their houses. It was the shaping of a minority consciousness and it came as a shock for me for I’d studied in Delhi and lived there for years, and now it was as if I had been transformed into an alien outsider.
The bitterness and anger that this caused stayed with us and when we went searching for a school for our six-year-old daughter we turned towards a “minority” institution, Guru Harkishan Public School.
I don’t quite know why we did this. Was it the need to stick to “our own people”? Was it a desire to inculcate in our child the principles of Sikhism in which I had not been educated? Or was it just that we knew that this school would welcome our child and not turn us away because we were Sikh?
It is another matter that we decided to take her out of there within a year because she was already picking up on the community’s anger, suspicion and bitterness, which was not something we wanted to burden her with. It seemed like a new language had been coined that was ugly and threatening, and it reflected how these children had already internalised the communal feelings of their parents and other adults.
So many friends talked to us about the daily taunts, humiliations and indignities that they faced when they went to work, of young men blowing smoke in their faces, of being accosted by strangers, of having to explain themselves and their beliefs. So many decided to leave Delhi and make their lives in Punjab. We escaped all of this because of our non-Sikh appearance.
The sense of insecurity faced by the community was compounded by the fact that it felt abandoned by the State. It had withdrawn its protection. It had described the killings as natural and inevitable; it had also refused to call the guilty to book, to punish the killers. Instead, they had been rewarded with plum posts and fancy titles.
Many years later, my daughter, while studying history at JNU, made up her mind to do her dissertation on 1984.
She had heard us talk about “those days” at home and decided that she wanted to see for herself what had happened to the victims and talk to the survivors. As she went to the resettlement colonies and hunted out people to interview, she became silent and withdrawn.
I opened the door to her room one afternoon to find her listening to her tape recorder, the earphones plugged into her ears and tears rolling silently down her cheeks. She was weeping in helpless anger, sitting there by herself and dealing with the hurt and trauma of an entire community. It is a moment I remember with sharp pain. It was as if she, too, had taken on the garb of potential victimhood.
What she said to me when I brought this up much later is also something that has stayed with me. She said, “I was introduced to 1984 as an event and I now feel it is an integral part of me. I may not have lived through it, but I too remember.”
Excerpted with permission from ‘A Question of Identity’, by Preeti Gill, from 1984: In Memory and Imagination, Edited by Vikram Kapur, Amaryllis Books.