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India must remember its history of communal violence

The anniversary of the anti-Sikh riots that engulfed Delhi and many other cities in India after the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards fell a few months ago. On the morning of 31 October 1984, Mrs Gandhi was walking through the garden of her house to the neighbouring building for an interview when she was gunned down by Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, her bodyguards from Delhi Police. Mrs Gandhi was reported to be wearing a pale orange sari.

They killed her because in the summer, she had ordered an Indian military operation inside the Sikhs’ holiest shrine in Amritsar to dislodge extremists who had fortified themselves inside. There are many numbers associated with this series of events; most of these are contested.

  • 200: Number of armed Sikh extremists inside the temple complex.
  • 30: Number of rounds Satwant Singh fired from his automatic gun.
  • 10,000: Number of Sikhs killed in the genocidal violence in the capital.
  • 34: The age of Beant Singh, the first assassin.
  • 39 C: The temperature on 1 June 1984, the first day of ‘Operation Blue Star’ — the code of the Indian military operation in 1984 to remove militant Sikh leaders from inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
  • 9: length of a sari in yards.

There is no memorial for the victims anywhere, the anniversary is not marked by any national events of remembrance. In the public consciousness, the day does not register at all. There is no official negation either or attempts to obliterate it from history. There is nothing. This is not unique for communal riots in India.

There have been thousands of incidences of communal violence since 1984 and before which on the highly scaled violence metrics are usually referred to as ‘disturbances’. Besides these, there have been several cases of large scale and implicitly state sanctioned violence against minority communities such as the one in Gujarat in the winter of 2002. These acts are variously described as riots or more recently pogroms, borrowing from the Russian vocabulary of anti-Semitism.

Unlike many other countries, for a variety of historical and perhaps cultural reasons Indians as a community are not known for marking or commemorating events around death, whether war dead or victims of national calamities or pogroms. The collective sense of bereavement for the loss of human life is fleeting at best but mostly non-existent. At a personal level, death is marked by a series of rituals lasting months after the pyre has been lit. This is not to suggest that rituals are necessarily indicative of grief but it does reveal the very large distance between personal loss and public tragedies. Even as a ritual there is seldom any expression of collective bereavement.

It almost appears that since any kind of justice cannot be expected, a subconscious albeit concerted effort must be made to forget. Closure as far society is concerned is achieved through historical excision. The relatives of the victims, as is the case for 1984 riots, have been battling in courts for over three decades now. But that struggle is very personal and is essentially just another delayed criminal case. This is so starkly at odds with narrative of remembrance of large scale violent crimes in other countries.

The memory of the Jewish holocaust is very actively kept alive in Israel and around the world. Most importantly, the act of remembrance does not coalesce the identity of individuals into one set of victims. The ‘Shoah Victims Names Recovery Project,’ led by ‘Yad Vashem’, The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel, records the name and details of each individual Jew murdered in the holocaust. 4.6 million victims are so far documented in the database.

Remembrance and memorials provide dignity in memory to people who suffered and died horrible deaths in unimaginable fear and despondence. Nothing is known about the thousands of people who have been murdered in India in riots. The deaths are at best marked by officialdom to provide monetary compensation commonly announced as ‘ex-gratia payments,’ using the Latin based legal parlance for payments made out of goodwill. Another standard practice in India is the constitution of a commission of inquiry by the government under a law specifically enacted for this purpose. The commission usually consists of a retired judge with the mandate of investigating the incident and making recommendations for further action. The commission is purely a fact finding body and its recommendations are not binding. The final reports mainly have archival value, as in most cases this is political theatre bereft of any meaning.

In cases where the inquiry has been impartial and thorough, like in the case of Srikrishna Commission on the communal violence in Mumbai in 1994, the findings are not made public. For the 1984 Sikh riots, there have been 10 commissions over three decades. Eight commissions for investigating the perpetrators and the role of the police and other agencies. One commission to recommend measures for rehabilitation of victims, and another to ascertain the total number of Sikhs killed in Delhi. The result of these various investigations and government complicity is another conversation. I mention these as the only possible artefacts of remembrance.

Public memorials are in a sense an acknowledgement of loss, of failures, of the very fragile nature of order and more importantly the capacity of our hate to mercilessly destroy flesh and soul. There is no inherent value in a memorial or a prayer. It ought to suggest at least to some degree our collective pain and sadness. There are many complex reasons for communal violence, there is almost an entire academic discipline dedicated to study such conflicts. But perhaps if we remember these tragedies, there is the slightest chance that some of us will feel the suffering and somewhere, sometime, it may not happen again. Our cultural ethos encodes a profound understanding of death and what follows. But ironically, it does not engender empathy. Individually and collectively, we are creatures of our memories and herein lies the feral force of always remembering the loss of others.

Photo: Vice President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, US Embassy New Delhi/Creative Commons

One thought on “India must remember its history of communal violence

  1. That may be an important reason for lack of fear on the perpetrators as they go Scot free and even progress in their careers. Soon it fades from collective
    memory, the hapless victims are left to fend for themselves.
    Well written.Hope it helps in bringing
    The Change.

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