Rahul Gandhi’s firm and unambiguous rebuke to Sam Pitroda for his flippant observation regarding the violence of 1984 is welcome. But to say it was a “tragedy” which caused pain to “people” is to shy away from calling the violence by its name — that it was a violence targeted against the Sikhs. It was definitely a tragedy but only for the Sikh community. Besides, the hatred this violence unleashed was harnessed for the polls by the Congress campaign managers.
It is ironic but true that such acts of violence generate contempt and hatred for the victim and not sympathy in the perpetrators. There is hardly any repentance and atonement. They feel more empowered by this violence. Any claim for justice by the victims is thus resisted as it may weaken their new-found position of power, since justice would make the victims equal to the perpetrators. Another point we often miss is that in the wake of the violence, when processes of justice and reparation begin, the community of perpetrators starts consolidating. The community which treats the perpetrators as its own, begins to complain that their own are being wrongly and unnecessarily hounded by “victims”, who refuse to come out of their victimhood.
The argument is the original fault lies with the victim who provoked simple, non-violent people and thus, dehumanised them. It was a momentary thing and should be forgotten; people need to move on. It is this attitude which subconsciously leads the system, made of people who identify more with the perpetrators, to create obstacles in the pursuit of justice. That the victims are left alone in the search for justice and mostly resented, explains why the idea of a “people” cannot turn into reality. Without a sincere community of pain, you cannot have a community of justice. In the absence of these, the talk of a nation becomes farcical.
Pitroda must take the flak for the crudeness of his remarks, but it should also be a moment for all of us to reflect on the nature of the violence and our complicity in it. Most of the persons, their numbers must be in the thousands, who participated in the massacre of thousands of Sikhs have not only escaped justice but continue to live with, and within, us respectfully. My mind often goes back to Ashok Rajpath of Patna and the shops of Sikhs being looted with glee by students and government employees. None of them had to face punitive action for the violence they unleashed on the Sikhs.
Non-reflection on the violence stops us from thinking about the implication of letting all the police and executive officers in the services, who were mute spectators of the violence or in many cases collaborators, go scot-free. To expect partners in arson and murder to keep law and order distorts the very concept of rule of law. The lack of a sense of urgency in various organs of the state, including the judiciary, to punish the perpetrators of violence, shows that a desire for justice remains an exception in this country.
It should not be a surprise that the anti-Sikh violence got a mention for the first time in the textbooks only in 2005. Ironically, the books were prepared under the watch of a Congress-led government. Our carelessness towards acts of mass violence and the tendency as a society to be blind towards it has a long history! We, who claim to be traditionally a non-violent people, must be brave enough to face the genocidal tendency inherent in us. There is a substantial body of literature comprising testimonies of the victims, stories of their woes and agony, their struggle for justice. But there is almost nothing available to understand the minds of the murderers and their accomplices.
It is fine to keep the focus on the wronged, but it often makes them look helpless. We need to turn our gaze towards the perpetrators, and name them. It is not difficult to identify the origins of mass violence and reflect on the impact of the violence. We would then be able to see its relations to another episode of violence, committed by state agencies in Punjab in the decade following 1984. The police officers involved in the killings and disappearances, all of them Sikhs, were rewarded by the state.
The deaths were justified as unavoidable to keep the nation intact. In post-War Europe, textbooks, poetry, prose, films etc, help us understand the nature of mass violence. Anti-Semitism is treated as a crime in those lands. Those baying for the blood of Pitroda must also think about the need to remember and reflect on our history of mass violence and our own thoughtlessness towards it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 15, 2019, under the title ‘The banality of hate’. The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University