Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Westland Limited, Delhi, 2015, pp. 192, Rs. 399.00


A Mosaic of Pain and Suffering

The wounds may have healed to an extent but the suffering is relived and borne again and again by the affected families and through them, by their younger generations. The Sikhs who faced the terror and shame of the 1984 riots have found a voice in this book which Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a well-known journalist and political commentator, has written almost three decades after the horrifying event.

This is no fiction! Even the people whose stories he narrates have not been given any fictional names. Their real names and stories have been revealed with deep sympathy. The Sikhs who were not directly affected have also been spoken to and the agony is felt no less by them.

The author describes the 1984 episode as ‘one of the darkest subplots in contemporary Indian history.’ His presence as the narrator can be felt strongly throughout the work, gathering pieces of narratives and creating a mosaic of pain and suffering.

The book brings out the fear psychosis, sense of panic and the utter humiliation that gripped the Sikhs and from which many of them have not been able to emerge. The attack, says the author, was on their identity and scarred it. It was a bid to annihilate the Sikh identity.

In order to show us how, Mukhopadhyay walks us through one of the most shameful episodes of violence in post Independent India and highlights the apathy of subsequent governments toward Sikhs. The various stories told by him are woven together beautifully in a pattern out of which emerge the emotions of pain, anger, revenge, shame and helplessness. He culled these personal histories, poignant, raw and macabre, over a period of more than two years and tells us how, even after three decades, a community continues to battle for justice in its own country.

During his research, he was helped by unknown people as well as some people known to him who came back in a new avatar to share their memories with him. The survivors, says the author, opened up to him ‘like never before.’ Each had a sackful of sad memories. The characters in the account ‘are all linked by an experience which altered their lives indelibly,’ he writes. The book is no doubt a living, breathing document of trauma and terror. It is not just a collection of facts and figures.

This is flesh and blood talking, weeping, suffering.people he tells us about include Harmeet Kaur , a middle class Delhi girl born several years after 1984, Swaranpreet Singh, a post graduate medical student in Delhi in 1984, H.S. Phoolka , a lawyer in his 20s in 1984 who spearheaded the legal struggles for the survivors of 1984, Kulbir Singh , a human rights activist since 1984, Prabhsahay Kaur , daughter of H.S. Phoolka born a few months after October 1984, Chandrima Ray, a school teacher in Bokaro , social activist jaya Jaitley, Joginder Singh Johal, son of Darbara Singh, former chief minister of Punjab and several others.

The suffering of the 1984 widows and their children is vividly brought out by the author and also of those children who were born later but live in the shadow of the tragedy. What happened to unsuspecting people who were on their way home or were at home on that October day is narrated with an immediacy that conveys the horror of the time strongly to even those readers who were in no way related to it.

For those readers who experienced the nightmare, the book brings it all back-the pain, the panic, the terror, the unfairness of it all! Mukhopadhyay was a young journalist in those days and witnessed the happenings in Delhi. His own feelings and views come across clearly to the reader. “Suddenly, 1947 seemed real and with it the partition. It wasn’t a distant year in the calendar anymore.”

There is an entire chapter titled “The Lost Turban” which is devoted to how the identity of the Sikhs was attacked by removing and burning their turbans. The author describes this act as a “symbolic obliteration of Sikh identity.” The manner in which the Sikhs attacked had to do away with their hair and turbans, both symbols of the Khalsa, has been described at length by the book, intensifying the agony caused by the episode which the author has mostly referred to as “pogrom.”

The story of the ageing Sikh who met Wing Commander Randhir Singh Chhatwal at a relief camp and cried inconsolably asking for a turban says it all. “Please give me a turban. I want nothing else,” he kept pleading.

The issue of a lost identity and humiliation lies at the heart of this story of the helpless old man. Since that year, Sikhs have been making efforts to regain that identity .Some decided to do away with their hair even after the episode was over. There were others who retained the symbols of their religion. However, all have lived through the trauma or heard gruesome stories from their elders. Many left the cities they lived in and moved to Punjab to make a new beginning. Some succeeded, other did not.

In the Epilogue, the author gives us the essence of the book when he writes,” Whether they suffered grave personal losses or escaped due to divine providence, almost every Sikh family kept the memories of 1984 alive by passing it on to the next generation.

Even after three decades of the horrendous episode, there is intense grieving for those who died on the streets with tires around their necks or were hunted down and trapped to be murdered. The eerie rants of murderous mobs are evoked each time there is a passing reference, an accurate recollection of hysteria every time the nation mourns the death of a prime minister.”

In the words of Mahesh Bhatt, this book is “a must read for every reader who desires for a nation to never repeat the horrific events of 1984.”

(This review was first published in TBR)

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