One would certainly want to forget the memories of the three days when the nation was cantilevered on a slope. But time, this time, has not played its usual lenitive role and healed old wounds. The victims of the massacre following Mrs. Gandhi’s death may have now reconciled themselves to not seeing a loved face, or hearing a familiar voice, or feeling that reassuring presence but there is no numbness there; instead there is mounting anger and humiliation. Three years have passed since those three days: years which could have given fresh hope and shored up the nation’s foundations. The nation is still cantilevered and the architects don’t care. Chakravarti and Haksar have reproduced in this book 30 first-hand interviews with a cross-section of Delhi’s population on the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. The major focus in this book is on those three days, but in most cases there is some before and some after which contextualizes those days and nights of terror. It is revealing how the experience of the massacres triggers off in the minds of the respondents other experiences, other thoughts and other memories.
In this process unexamined prejudices are also created, and hitherto irrelevant details suddenly become salient and vivacious. In short, the past and the future are riveted to the experience of the present. Though this happens all the time it is only in moments of high tension that one realizes that memory essentially functions backwards.
The first chapter of the book, ‘The Making of a Minority’, makes this point. The fact that a new minority was made post-1980 also demonstrates how capricious is the act of minoritizing. Whereas it is in one’s gross self-interest to desist from ethnicizing political issues for who knows when one will be hoist on one’s own petard; yet this impulse to ethnically marginalize a population is being celebrated on a national scale. True, the ethnicized victim relieves us of our collective guilt—pollution, too—but if history is any table of possibilities then the violator replete with his swagger is potentially ripe for violation.
The voices reproduced in this book thus carry, three years later, a social anguish undiminished by any political attempt to assuage private sorrows. Ask any victim of the massacre of 1984, like the interviewers did for this book, and you will realize that the violators are not anonymous figures that have slinked away into the dark recesses they came from. The violators are known and identified, and what is worse they are very much around, swagger and all. It is not by infinite regress that one identifies the culprits in these cases. It is not hearsay, not rumour, but direct observed evidence that steadies the accusing finger. And outside of this book we also know how these faces returned, from time to time, to threaten and terrorize with an insouciance cultivated by executive inaction. In this sense this book, three years later, is a reminder that the nation is still precariously perched.
On an earlier occasion I h’d said that Sikh communalism is not the mirror image of Hindu communalism. If it had been a mirror image then Khalistan (and worse) in essence was won, and the dismemberment of the nation was not far away. But in fact ‘Sikh’ activism has made the ‘Hindu’ government, not the Indian state, its major enemy. There is only a small minority that is committed to the idea of Khalistan, and it is only this fraction that is mirroring the hegemonic effulgence of Hindu communalism. It is for this reason I find the title of this book offensive in the extreme. To call the massacres riots is a cruel and thoughtless misnomer which over and above being completely inapposite also functions to justify the term ‘Hindu backlash’. As several interviews document, the opinion in favour of Khalistan even after the massacre is hardly favourable. In one or two cases one finds an endorsement of Khalistan, but not because it is a cherished ideal, but rather as a haven and a refuge against majority communalism. As a matter of fact, as this book reveals, many victims in Sultanpuri were not even from Punjab. They were Sikhs from Alwar who spoke a language of that region and were thus even more remote from the idea of Khalistan as a homeland.
As Chakravarti and Haksar have reproduced their interviews verbatim, in the raw, so to say, they obviously hope that this book will also act as a kind of data base, and as an inspirational pool, for further research. There is little doubt that the book has the potential to succeed on this front as well. But this does not mean that the reproduction of interviews should be all that raw, and that irrelevant details and well known facts of Punjab history ought to be reproduced just for effect. The editors should have done some editing for this would not only have made the book more focussed but it would have also made it cheaper. At Rs. 300 it is far too exorbitant to reach the kind of readership this book should reach. Naturally when one is paying Rs.300 one does not expect the interviewers’ sympathetic ‘acchas’ to take up so much space, nor suffer one word and line interjections like ‘Mummy’. Some may find this style of presentation fetching, but I only found it irritating.
Having said this there is little doubt that this book will at least succeed in telling the story of anguish, and how private losses have transformed a public consciousness. It also helps many of us empathize with those who, as individuals, are pinned and wriggling under the incubus of majority communalism. Every interviewer was quite taken aback by the vehemence of the attack against the Sikhs. This led them, without exception to look again at themselves, and at their interactions with other communities. It is also telling how several Sikhs were forced to recognize that the ‘baniya’ stereotype they had of the Hindu was completely inaccurate for this timid ‘baniya’ was, as events unfolded, really red in tooth and claw. It is nuggets such as these which are of pure gold and I would cherish having read this book only for these. Its faults notwithstanding this book rises above the spate of ghoulish publications which rode on the crest of the massacre. This book conveys a certain empathetic affectivity which is bound to leave the reader deeply moved and very angry.
Dipankar Gupta is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; author of Native in a Metropolis: The Shiv Sena in Bombay (1982).