After 34 years and numerous commissions of inquiry, one of the key players in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Sajjan Kumar’s jail term will bring some measure of bleak comfort to the families of the riot victims whose doggedness reminds us that while memory is a sense of loss, it also sustains us through unbearable agony. But what about those spaces where cataclysmic and arbitrary losses were experienced as if neighbourliness was an aberration and friendship a mirage? How does trauma affect cities that are — at the best of times — brittle networks of cooperation and sociability? In the wake of the riots, Delhi has carried the burden of that time, its spaces filling up with people but its senses bereft of how they might relate to each other.
Over the years, the riots have become enshrined in public memory through various means, including news reports, commissions of inquiry, academic writings, reports by human rights organisations and films. However, notwithstanding the publicness of the carnage, what is most striking are memories of violence that are about a deeply personal shock. This is the astonishment of misrecognition: Narrative after narrative relates how intimate friends and life-long neighbours turned tormentors and murderers. Across the city — in slums, resettlement colonies and well-off suburbs — bonds of locality were cannibalised through a seemingly atavistic flick of the switch. But atavism is no natural phenomenon and requires careful orchestration. While Delhi has not experienced violence on the scale that characterised the events of 1984, the city is now even more deeply fragmented. It is as if we have learnt nothing about how little it takes to consign the urban social fabric to flame.
In the wake of the massacres, the most significant impact on the patterns of living was in the forceful homogenisation of certain localities that otherwise contained mixed populations. And, perhaps most importantly, localities where poor Sikhs shared spaces with those of other communities were “cleansed” of Sikh populations. Resettlement colonies such as Sultanpuri and Trilokpuri and slum clusters such as Mangolpuri contained significant Sikh populations that were bled out of these settlements. The burnt and scythed remains of human bodies resembled the mutilation of spaces of urban sociality.
The city that was produced through neighbourly genocide fashioned its own topographies of terror. So, in west Delhi an entire locality where many Sikh widows were provided alternative housing came to be known as Tilak Vihar Widow Colony. Sikh men were specifically picked out for slaughter and Tilak Vihar represents the bloodied calligraphy of the post-1984 urban imagery.
The personal loss of the residents of Tilak Vihar turned out to be a civic tragedy in a city, whose character as a collective of migrants had meant that trust among strangers was the only substitute for organic connections. The solitariness and uncertainty of migrant lives is relived and remade through trust among strangers. 1984 reduced Delhi’s delicate certainty of urban neighbourliness to a state of fearful tentativeness. A 1984 report by the People’s Union of Democratic Rights and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties recorded a statement that captures the bafflement at the sudden distance between neighbours when suffering becomes a spectator sport. “People stood on their rooftops watching our houses burning,” a group of Sikhs noted, “just, as they do when observing the Republic Day Parade.”
The macabre normality of the violence — the well-off took part in plunder as gleefully as the poor — had another significant effect. Even after the peak period of the violence had passed, it produced a population that, though visible, became simultaneously invisibilised. A city that was home to Sikh business people, places of worship, the Punjabi language and cuisine and the president of the Republic, now imagined this section of the population, the Sikhs, as existentially culpable for the assassination. This was a silent aggression that expressed itself well beyond the actual days of the riots. In places of public interaction — buses, street corners, cinema halls and restaurants — Delhi’s Sikh population became the object of a quiet but palpable hostility. It became a second-class public.
Cities are a hopeful collection of people, offering an escape for the most marginalised from the nastiest forms of oppression that rural life presents. Even at their worst, they hold out prospects for a better life through loosening the hold of traditional structures of power and control. However, because cities also encourage competition among strangers, their social life can be extremely fragile. The flip side of the promise of a new life is that it is easy to convince one group that this can best be fulfilled through taking down another. The most liveable cities are those where both physical and social infrastructure are robust: Where multiple means of transport sit alongside a thriving multiplicity of identities.
The 1984 riots changed Delhi — where its impact was the largest — as it applied a blow-torch to the most delicate of adhesives that bind people in our cities: Trust, neighbourliness and an acceptance of social diversity. It also produced a lost generation whose life chances were affected through the inability to access education and other sources of social and economic mobility. They were consumed by the after-effects of the trauma they had experienced.
Have we, however, learnt anything from the events of 1984? Not much if the current state of our cities is anything to go by. It seems just as easy to incite people to violence and urban spaces are increasingly ghettoised and homogenised. In terms of physical infrastructure, Indian cities have changed dramatically since 1984. Flyovers, expressways, malls and theme parks speak of an urban newness. However, in many of our cities there is little attention to social lives. Mostly, the promise of the urban as a space of diversity (which is also the condition for material well-being for the largest number) lies in ruins. Sajjan Kumar’s life term may provide uncertain closure to the victims of 1984, but their suffering should offer lessons for the life of cities and their residents. It is important to plan for flyovers, but just as important to agitate for a city whose streets do not become dystopic spaces.