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Lessons of 1984

The violence must not be divorced from the larger context of that time.

Written by Surinder S Jodhka |
November 10, 2014 1:07:15 am
An investigation conducted by Cobrapost - Chapter 84 - claimed to have confessions of officers of Delhi Police most of whom have admitted in the sting to their "failure" as a force to take action against the culprits. Though the anger and hurt have not gone away, the community has moved on.

For many in India, 1984 has come to be identified with the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi and several other cities after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. This is particularly so for Sikhs living in Delhi and elsewhere.

As we have seen over the past week, the wounds have not healed. The story of the organised violence that killed or wounded thousands of innocent Sikhs, the burning of their properties, the transformation of a proud community into a “hapless mass of people” has been told many times over. This is not how the Sikhs would ever want to be talked about. They have never been particularly excited about being listed as a “minority”. They had never seen themselves as less Indian than others. Even the brutality of 1984 has not changed that. Though the anger and hurt have not gone away, the community has moved on. The near complete absence of “justice”, despite persistent efforts, does breed a sense of anxiety. But that has not taken away their sense of dignity or their claim of being normal citizens of the country.

But the larger context of 1984 also needs to be remembered and revisited. It raises questions specific to the Sikhs and Punjab as well as about the relationship of contemporary nation-states with their communities. Unlike in 19th century Europe, nation-states today are no longer founded on a single ethnicity. This is particularly so for countries with a degree of openness and democratic political systems.
Today, even demographically small countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland are becoming culturally and ethnically diverse. Unlike earlier, there is no sign of the ethnic homogenisation or assimilation of diverse “migrant communities” into a single national culture.

The old discourse of secularism that propagated complete indifference of the state towards religious/ ethnic identities is being replaced by the discourse of citizenship. Besides cultural differences and ethnic identities, new challenges posed by the gender question and other differences within a community or a household make it important for the state to engage with communities in a language of “rights”. India is no different.

How does remembering 1984 make sense in such a discourse? What could be the critical lessons that it teaches us so that it does not return to haunt? The obvious starting point would be the condemnable murder of the then prime minister by her two bodyguards, who happened to be Sikh and were presumably angry about the military action in the Golden Temple. Interestingly, they were no terrorists. Nor was there any evidence of their sympathy for the Khalistan movement. That secessionist movement was not a popular movement of the Sikh masses.
The Sikhs of Delhi had traditionally been Congress supporters. Even in Punjab, support for the idea of Khalistan was limited. It was only after Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh violence outside Punjab that Sikh militancy gained strength. In any case, the Khalistan movement never had the resources or strength to match the Indian state. So why was it perceived as a threat to the unity and integrity of the country? How did it come to acquire the strength it did? How did militants come to control the Golden Temple? All these questions have been raised many times. Though some point to local conditions that enabled militants to recruit young men willing to pick up the gun, the overwhelming evidence points to the complete mismanagement by the state and manipulative compliance of important members of the political establishment. Had the establishment not meddled in religious affairs and treated the local situation with a clearer political perspective, Sikh militancy could have easily been engaged with. But the movement was allowed to reach a stage where confrontation was inevitable.

The violence of 1984 must not be divorced from this larger context. The underlying script in Delhi was not very different from that in Punjab before and after 1984. And the story does not end with 1984 or with the Khalistan movement. Nor did it begin in the 1980s. It goes back to Partition and to the dominant colonial discourses on South Asian societies, according to which they were organised solely on religious lines, with political hostility presumed inevitable.

How do we overcome this? Beginning with innovative initiatives imbibed in its Constitution, and later schemes like the Sachar committee, the democratic Indian state has attempted to move away from the notion of religious identities frozen in time to a more dynamic perspective of citizenship. This perspective requires the state to be an enabling agency that promotes inclusion and also ensures citizenship rights to individuals within the framework of a constitutional democracy. Cultural differences are bound to persist but emotive mobilisations around religious identities often produce violence, which does not serve any cause or help any concern. India today is promising, and everyone wants to participate in its story with equal enthusiasm, hope and aspiration.

The writer is professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University , New Delhi
express@expressindia.com

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