THE ORGANISED POGROM AGAINST SIKHS NOVEMBER 1984: MEMORIALIZING THE TRAUMA
Traditionally what we seem to have been doing is that in difficult and trying times we never avoided or shirked away from facing the oppression that the evil was thrusting upon us. We took it on the chin and bore the atrocities with calm fortitude. We did not give up trying that the dissent gets resolved and continued our struggle. Yet we recognized what we thought was heroic or showed a sign of rare humane values or was in the shared interest of righteousness -we not only highlighted it but also accorded a durable place to it in our memories in various manners. The positive in the most traumatic situations was never lost on the Gurus or their Sikhs. Let us take a few examples.
On reading Guru Gobind Singh’s Bachitra Natak one does not fail to notice that he is equally praising of valor whether it is by the enemy or the defenders. Witness the lavish praise for Kirpal Chand, the Kangra Chief as a true, valiant Rajput whose bravery was praised in the nine regions of the world – he was ally of Alif Khan. Likewise the Guru praises Hussain, Jujhar Singh, Gopal and so many others for their bravery. His manner of presentation is such as if he is a witness and not a participant to the conflict.
Another example from that period is the act of Bhai Kanhaiya to fetch water to all the fighters on the battle field including the enemy and tend to their wounds, much to the discomfiture of the Sikhs. The Guru however was appreciative of Bhai Kanhaiya’s explanation when asked at the insistence of Sikhs that he saw the image of the Guru in them all – whether friend or foe. Bhai Kanhaiya continues to be revered as the rarest example of altruistic person.
The martyrdom of Guru Arjun strengthened Sikh resolve rather than weaken it. In Guru Hargobind’s time the bards sang the songs of valor in bir ras as the new symbols of aigrette, canopy, sword and chase nurtured their confidence to carve out their own destiny. They did not cave in and took on the mantle of protectors of universal values.
Sikhs have used various facets of memorializing so that the preserved memory assumes an aura of the sacred and thus turns into a powerful expression of survival, renewal and moral victory in the face of extreme adversity. The following extract from the English version of the text of ardas is an example of the succinct manner in which the Sikh trauma from late 17th century to 1947 partition has been capsule as a memory:
‘Meditating on the achievement of the dear and truthful ones, including the five beloved ones, the four sons of the tenth Guru, forty liberated ones, steadfast ones, constant repeaters of the Divine Name, those given to assiduous devotion, those who repeated the Nam, shared their fare with others, ran free kitchen, wielded the sword and overlooked faults and shortcomings, say “Waheguru”, O Khalsa.
Meditating on the achievement of the male and female members of the Khalsa who laid down their lives in the cause of Dharma (religion and righteousness), got their bodies dismembered bit by bit, got their skulls sawn off, got mounted on spiked wheels, got their bodies sawn, made sacrifices in the service of the shrines (Gurdwaras), did not betray their faith, sustained their adherence to the Sikh faith with unshorn hair uptill their last breath, say “Wondrous Destroyer of darkness”, O Khalsa.
O Immortal Being, eternal helper of Thy panth, benevolent Lord, bestow on the Khalsa the beneficence of unobstructed visit to and free management of Nankana Sahib (Pakistan) and other shrines and places of the Guru from which the Panth has been separated.’
We also have used oral media like phrases, verses, lyrics, stories et al to summarily describe traumatic experiences and in many cases to trivialize or even challenge the oppressors to reinforce courage in the community in extremely trying circumstances. Examples are many – dadhi recitals of vaars relating to several Sikh battles and sacrifices, verses jeering at killings of Sikhs by Manu, deg tegh fateh, saakaa[s] about Akali Lehr and the like. Some incidents are remembered using paintings, calendar art and memorabilia associated with the heroes.
Sikhs established Gurdwaras at various sites associated with their trauma. Gurdwara Shahid Ganj and the preserved well in its premises at Lahore speak of the story of the women and children who suffered tortures and gave their lives there. Memorials have been created or are planned at some of the sites of major Sikh battles. Plans to planting of trees and shrubs that grew at the time of Guru Gobind Singh in Machhiwara area are also afoot. Foundation stone for a 30 x 30 feet three-floor memorial within the Golden Temple complex for those killed during the Army assault in June 1984 was unveiled on 6 June, 2012.
Guru Gobind Singh has left us a vivid example of trying to give a chance to the process of reconciliation to resolve interminable cycles of hate and violence to right the injustices and gross violations suffered by Sikhs. Missive called Zafarnama – epistle of victory – that the Guru wrote to Aurangzeb unsparingly memorialized the injustices and treacheries committed by the satraps of the King yet the Guru also offered reconciliation saying: ‘if you were gracious enough to come to the village of Kangar, we could then see each other face to face. On the way there will be no danger to thy life for the whole tribe of Brars accepts my command. Come to me so that we may converse with each other, and I may utter some kind words to thee. I will send thee a horseman like one in a thousand, who will conduct thee, safe to my home.’ [58-61]
We thus see that several approaches have been used by Sikhs to memorialize their history and experienced trauma of persecution, sacrifices made in their struggles and during some of the trying times they lived through.
1984 pogrom should and does inspire a lot of reflection. Yet the memory of the pogrom that has survived is a legacy of fear, humiliation, bitterness and alienation. The best that the most difficult times always bring out in men has stayed obscured by the over-riding need to keep chasing the government inaction and attending the commissions of enquiry and various other charades to mitigate the suffering of the victim families.
A few movies and documentaries dealing with the pogrom such as Amu directed by Shonali Bose and The Widow Colony – India’s Unsettled Settlement directed by Harpreet Kaur have made an attempt at capturing the facets of the trauma that the victims continue to cope with. 1984 Sikhs’ Kristallnacht edited by Parvinder Singh is a powerful documentation of the burning of four Sikhs in Pahar Ganj area of Delhi. Authors of a number of reports and books have documented in detail what transpired undaunted by the enormity of the task and the risk of being marked by the power elite.
These efforts have been commendable. These must be lauded but I am not sure if collectively they can serve the purpose of memorializing in an effective and deserving manner. If we have to think of memorializing this episode, we may have to look a bit far and beyond. Let us look at the US September 11 experience here as an example.
Americans were stunned by the unexpected terror attack on their homeland on September 11, 2001, in which about three thousand people including firefighters, police and rescue workers were killed. It aroused very strong patriotic feelings in the population. The country has waged a terribly expensive and their longest yet military operation in the form of the Global War on Terror and spent billions of dollars to try and ensure that opportunity for launching a similar attack is denied to potential terrorists in the future. The evidence does suggest they have been successful in the latter so far.
To design a fitting memorial to those who died a contest was announced. Victims’ families wanted the winning design to expose more of the tower bedrock and display personal items of the victims while Firefighters and Police wanted names of their fallen comrades set off from others. Both were accommodated in the winning design. It was an open process but significantly the memorial was intended to showcase the shared sense of trauma and the acts of bravery by the Firefighters, Police and other Rescue Personnel in trying to save the others. As will be seen there were two facets to their endeavor – response to offenders and remedies on one part and memorializing the event on the other. Both were linked but had separate sets of objectives and differing methodologies to accomplish the same.
MEMORIALIZE WHAT & HOW
So the question is what kind of memorial do we build? It should be a decision by Sikhs as a community, to the extent possible with the involvement or support of interfaith groups, voluntary agencies who are engaged in promotion of peace and harmony and any receptive media contacts. The best course would be to form a Committee supported by identified volunteer groups for specific tasks and responsibilities. The Committee should be open to receive suggestions and their recommended choices should be looked at by an Advisory Group before being adopted.
Guardians of the memory of November 1984 should primarily be the widows and their kids and their input should be given high consideration. For this purpose they would have to be organized or at least brought together. This responsibility may best be divided between Sikh Forum and Nishkam who have maintained contact with them. The Committee may gather the views and suggestions of the community through meetings or presentations arranged in a few locations. Wider consultations with the community can be accomplished using the electronic media resources.
Our foregoing discussions would possibly trigger some thoughts about what are the types of things that should be memorialized about this episode. We would however offer a few additional comments before we put a suggested listing of what all the memorial could display or provide to serve its purpose of not only becoming a complete and authentic resource on the pogrom, but also recognize all those whose support and co-operation helped the Sikhs at that critical time, identify any sacrifices that must be recognized and highlight any positives that may be attributed to the Sikh conduct during and post the pogrom.
My conversations with the widows lead me to believe that they certainly did not entertain any thought of revenge at any time. Their consistent view was that though the perpetrators were mostly Hindus, they were incited and led by political agents and also some hoodlums. They again were conscious that those who tried to rescue them were mostly Hindus and members of other faiths as were those who provided them immediate support and succor as they were being moved to the relief camps. As time went by most of the heavy lifting was done by the Sikh community but the initial help by and kindness of volunteer activists from other faiths is etched in their minds.
As they slowly started trudging through the daily routines, their resolve received spiritual and ethical strength from the Gurdwaras and Gurbani. They thought of their responsibilities. They thought of the sacrifices made by the Gurus for the well being of one and all. They thought of the message of acceptance of divine will that the Gurus repeatedly stressed. To them trying to keep their children safe and free of hate became their dharma for this was one sure way they could see them adjust to their trauma and live through their deeply scarred lives.
So even as the widows talked about their hurt and did not want the children to forget about it, they also did not want them to become obsessed with hate and vengeance. This may not have ensured that the kids will sense closure – perhaps they did not, nor did the mothers. The kids may have dropped out of school, drifted into depression, took refuge in use of drugs, some committed suicide but none, not one of them ever committed a hate or violent anti social act or crime. The cycle of hate did lose traction. It stopped.
The story lives on today – almost three decades later. If we ponder over it, here was a unique occurrence that happened. I asked them if it was fear that made you do it. Their response was touching and clear. ‘We lost our husbands, fathers, sons in front of our own eyes. We were dishonored and raped. We were left with nothing. There was hardly a pain and suffering that did not befall us. What more could have been done to us? We were left with the kids, the old and the infirm. They had to be cared for.’ Words are mine, the thoughts were theirs.
Let us build a memorial that is a testimony to the collective contribution to societal peace and harmony by a group of deeply scarred, poor, uneducated Sikh women whom fate had dealt an extremely hard blow. They cried. They died several deaths but struggled on only as a Sikh of the Guru would have, to go on living under divine hukam and endeavor ceaselessly to deliver on the responsibilities that are placed on us. It is the making of such choices by a widow that the Guru perhaps had in mind when he said – Satheeaa Eaehi N Aakheean Jo Marriaa Lag Jalannih Naanak Satheeaa Jaaneeanih J Birehae Chott Marannih – call not them ‘satee’, who burn themselves along with their husbands’ corpses; O Nanak know only those as ‘satees’ who live the death of separation.
Let us build a memorial that honors fortitude; that honors the burden of girhee; that honors so many good people around who in ways, big and small, help us get past our most difficult and trying times; that honors the collective strength and resolve of the weak and vulnerable and that recognizes that honor does not only come through great worldly success but also having lived a life that serves whom nobody will own or tend to if abandoned. This could be as great a contribution to the wellbeing of the society as any.
Let the memorial be a place of peace where the sacred music of all persuasions brings a deep sense of calm to all who visit. Let it recount what happened without shame or rancor but in love that only gushes forth when we let our defenses drop and face the truth and reality of the good and bad that we all are capable of. Let us do it so that not again are so many burnt alive, nor are so many children left without fathers, their lives scarred forever. Let us do it inspired by the prayer of the Guru – jagat jalanda raakh lai apni kirpa dhar – pray, save this burning world through thy kind mercy!
Let the memorial we create be a celebration of life, of the shared quest of all for peace and harmony. Located in Delhi it will add luster to the image that Sikhs have inherited here through the great examples set by Guru Harkrishan, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Mata Sundari, the great Misl leaders like Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Baghel Singh, added to by the builders of the modern New Delhi and the emerging vibrant India.
Let me now do little bit of mechanical detailing for what it is worth – offer some bullets on what the memorial may possibly include:
- A Sikh prayer room
- A Chapel for silent prayer by any faith believer
- Memorial tablet with names of those killed and selected information
- Display of Pogrom: time line, pictures, paintings, books, reports, news clippings, articles, etc – to be digitized later
- Damage to Gurdwaras, loss of property, businesses
- Media reports, articles, pictures from their archives
- Screening room for movies, documentaries, slide shows, power point presentations etc relating to the Pogrom and other activities promoted by the Memorial Committee
- Quest for Justice – commissions, police, CBI, Court Judgments, cases, evidence, affidavits and other materials as judged by those who helped with this effort
- Citizen Help: saving Sikhs by risking ire, citizen enquiries, interviews, affidavits, relief efforts, lobbying with political and administrative authorities
- Display or library of sketches and stories of widows and other survivors who had to take responsibility for family with pictures as possible; data on kids and their growth
- The uniqueness elements: the organized nature of the pogrom, the selection of targets and manner of killing and the peaceful response of widows and the kids
- Memorial a monument to the dead but more a celebration of those who lived on and took the responsibility for their future and those of their dependants. They are the real heroes of this tragic episode.
One more suggestion comes to mid. The trauma about 1984 happenings, more specifically in Amritsar and Delhi, is deeply etched into the Sikh minds globally. Both stories even though dispersed space and time-wise, are historically linked and in some ways get connected during their recall in Sikh memories. It may therefore be worth considering that when the Memorial as discussed above is taken up for execution, the plans include the possibilities of carving out subsets of exhibits whose digitized versions can be assembled into customized packages that can be used for displays at Conferences, in Exhibitions and Galleries and for organized shows anywhere in the world. This would necessitate that the Memorial Secretariat is equipped to perform library functions in addition to their curator role.
The purpose of memorializing is to honor, commemorate and try not let the memory fade. A pre-requisite to memorializing therefore is to have a collective sense of the various important facets of the memory that we want to preserve.
Sikhs have actually done a pretty good job at memorializing. Ours really is the first faith where the Gurus took care to memorialize the extensive corpus of Gurbani. If you look at the traditions that were then seeking religious space, none has left any authenticated rhyme.
Times have changed. We now live in a world of fast communication and good communications have become a dire necessity for survival, evolution, growth and continued acceptance of any ideology. Cataclysmic events that threaten the very foundation of a people must have a message. Memorialization is giving expression to the collective thoughtful response of the community to the event that leads into a future that they cherish. It therefore is an opportunity that should not be missed but used responsibly.
RECKONING WITH REALITIES
There are some realities that always have to be contended with when we venture into projects of this nature. Many of these relate internally to us and others that are external – both can make the task extremely difficult. We have some sense about these from our recent experiences but I will briefly mention these because these might play out variously in other things that we may think of as we go along.
Events of 1984 should and do inspire a lot of reflection. The trauma did impact all Sikhs. Yet the event, its memory and relevance of this trauma in future positioning of Sikhs is receding in their own minds.
The Sikh intelligentsia seems to view 1984 events as a legacy of fear, humiliation, bitterness and alienation – a distraction better forgotten. They do not want to compromise the trajectory of Sikh revival that is visible.
Our lingering sense of anxiety and willingness to accept the inevitability of the supremacy of the powerful is obviously strong. Yet we are also conflicted by the persuasion to neither cause fear nor to give in to fright. There also are others among us including the influential western Sikh Diaspora that want to set up a memorial that vividly brings out trauma and injustices suffered, absence of an expression of contrition, our continuing insecurities about religion, language and culture along with lack of regional autonomy in a federal polity.
There are some other realities too that we need to be sensitive about. There has been and will continue to be organized opposition to any move for memorializing raising the specter of Sikh militancy, insinuating revival of the separatist movement, most groups holding back on open support.
The Central government may apart from pressing in all its discretionary authority may invoke the Religious Institutions (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1988, that prohibits any act that may promote or attempt to promote disharmony or feeling of enmity, hatred or ill-will in society and provides for imprisonment up to five years and fine, for violating the law.
Sikhs might face increased vulnerability if the media frenzy and stereotyping whips up anti-Sikh hate as it helped to do in 1984.
WHAT DO WE DO?
The process of finding the way will go along with the process of deciding what we do want to accomplish. They go together. I am suggesting some components of the process. These do not essentially flow in a logical or sequential order but provide at least a listing.
Create a Synoptic View
- Rights denied and wrongs suffered
- Trauma inflicted in Punjab and on the global Sikh community
- Sacrifices needed or otherwise forced on Sikhs by the Indian State
- Generation lost and other lasting damages
- Parallels with earlier Sikh experience and other similarly placed peoples
What Kind of Memory do We Want to Create?
- Memory is not an account of cause and effect – continuum of events. That perhaps may be better termed as history. Memory is selective remembrance. If we do not select, it will happen any way and other versions will prevail and subsume the parts that were felt by us to be important at the time and caused us to take positions and actions that we did. Trying to identify the important components of memory to be preserved is an important first step in the process.
- Truth as we know it – it is our version. We have to tell it because others will not unless it has something in it for their version.
- This version has to be credible. If it is seen as purely self serving it will be left only for our internal use. That area is already highly cluttered in Sikh lore. The memory therefore preferably should be able to stand reasonable scrutiny and even some prejudicial sniping to be able to be put in the public domain
- It is possible but not judicious to create two versions – one for internal purposes and one for external use. In this age of leaks and disclosures, nothing can be treated as internal – least of all a memorial.
- The memory should inspire reflection not only on issues of righteousness, justice, peace, dignity, but also to not shy away from shubh karman. At the same time it must keep in mind that shahidis and sacrifices must not be lightly made.
- We have also to co-opt those who will likely endorse our view of events. They are important to enhance credibility of our story and also bring us readership and research interest. If our version is discarded by others or treated as purely of sectarian value, its value and worth as a memorial is severely constrained.
How do We Select Memory?
- Memory should guide, not preach.
- Memory should arouse empathy, not revulsion.
- Memory should be capable of being envisioned.
- Memory should resonate with most people.
- Memory should need little explanation. It should speak for itself. Some examples are pictures of destruction caused to Gurdwaras, Sikhs being burnt alive, piled up dead bodies, fear writ on faces of widows/kids, khoon ka badla khoon images and thousands of such graphic scenes
- We should pick what we want to memorialize from the religious and justice domains. Pre Pogrom events may be more in the political domain.
- Create folk lore, lyrics, limericks, playlets, mime, paintings, graphics, power point type presentations, short videos, models etc.
What Kind of Research do We Need?
- Historical accounts with good references and credible sources of events leading up to the Pogrom, the Pogrom in detail, the aftermath and the re-rising of Sikhs. The account should cover global Sikh community and its role.
- Split the accounts into categories like Gurdwaras, the planned pogrom features, complicity of Police, Beurocracy and political elite, human rights, political and economic rights, a generation lost etc.
- We should also look into and reflect on the response by the Government.
- We should also candidly acknowledge mistakes made. Ability to accept failings would be more cathartic than any memorial built on wrong premise.
Are There Any Positives that We Can Memorialize?
- We had become a politically insignificant group. Our politics had to change and it is going through a very different evolution from what we envisioned for 150+ years.
- We have rediscovered the value of social amity
- We have been able to take our minds off Punjab as the end all of our existence. This will in time help us to renew our institutions.
- Our parchar has shifted to sikligars, vanjara Sikhs etc. This could change our numbers.
- Sikh philanthropy has taken off in several socially relevant new directions and it is being taken note of by more people.
- Weaknesses of SGPC/Akali combine have become more evident – SGPC and Akal Takht both have suffered some loss of support and centrality in Sikh affairs
Engaging Diaspora and Distant Sangats
- Encourage global Sikh community to create simple, easy to maintain, symbolic memorial to the Sikh ghallughaaraa in Gurdwara premises or in public space, if locally support of the mainstream can be secured. Jewish holocaust models can provide guidance.
- Get them involved in the process of collecting information, preparing part exhibits – contacts best established through DSGMC/SGPC/Akal Takht links.
ENVISIONING A MEMORIAL PRESENTATION
Let the memorial presentation be prefaced by the sacred music of all persuasions bringing a deep sense of calm to all present. Let it recount what happened without shame or rancor but in love that only gushes forth when we let our defenses drop and face the truth and reality of the good and bad that we all are capable of.
Let the memorial narrative be a celebration of life, of the shared Sikh quest for peace and good of one and all. Presented in places where Sikhs live and pray, it will add luster to the image that Sikhs would have cultivated. It should burnish the spirit of chardi kala of ordinary Sikhs who bore the brunt in the attack, lived through the trauma, rebuilt their lives and who continue to revere the Guru ever more. They and the widows are the real heroes of this tragic episode.
Let the memorial inspire interest in Sikhs, Sikhi and Sikh causes. Let it become a catalyst for introduction of Research projects and Courses in Universities and narratives in school books so that the future generations are informed of the travails of Sikhs during this difficult period.
Let us do it so that not again are so many of its own people are killed by the state using brute and pliant officials and police force, burnt alive, nor are so many children left without fathers, their lives scarred forever. Let us do it inspired by the prayer of the Guru – jagat jalanda raakh lai apni kirpa dhar – pray, save this burning world through thy kind mercy!
*The note was used by the author for his presentation at the Memorial Meeting convened by Sikh Forum on 1 June, 2013.
Camp New Delhi
29 May, 2013