But if you lived in my neighbourhood you wouldn’t know it. As I sat on my sofa, the murmuring of the TV in the background, watching a video of a mob breaking down what seemed to be a barricaded steel door, dhols broke the silence outside our house as a baraat left for a wedding. As reports came in of people forced to flee, forced into hiding, forced to fear for their existence, my son stood in the neighbourhood park holding my hand as he watched a middle aged man dance walk with headphones on. As the death toll rose, I, like many others around me, felt safe in my bubble.
What I know is that this too shall pass, that’s what 1984 taught me. But what I also now know is that we, the ones who are seemingly unaffected, shouldn’t let it.
I was born on the 19th of November in 1986 and 26 days later, my parents named me “Avalok”, the one who looks at the world with an even eye. It was their take on Avalokiteshvara the Buddhist God of compassion, but without doubt, it was a very heavy name for quite a small me.
The reason. Forty years earlier, in 1942, on the 19th of November, Indira Gandhi was born and while she went on to become Prime Minister of our nation, my parents saw her as a powerful figure, but one that was divisive and one that met a horrible end, assassinated by her trusted Sikh bodyguards. Fearing the karma of her end, rather than the success of her journey they were sure they needed some form of cosmic course correction for their newborn son.
While her end was violent enough, the aftermath of her assassination shook the nation. In the hours following her death, a politically motivated and backed mob was let loose, going house to house beating, burning, raping and killing members of the Sikh community and on the second day, they came to our house.
I grew up on the stories of the 1984 riots. Stories of how my mother was five months pregnant with my sister, how she sat in the upstairs room of her parents’ home, her sister next to her both holding kitchen knives while my grandmother recited prayers from the Guru Granth Sahib as the growing mob banged on the door. They shouted out, demanding water to revive a member of the mob who had fainted after burning the neighbours’ house. They didn’t know we were part Sikh. They didn’t know that my father and grandfather, both army officers, sat waiting with guns drawn ready to fire as they continued to bang on the door.
My parents would tell me stories of Sikh friends and relatives cutting their hair before being smuggled to safe houses by friends and neighbours. Stories of horrific violence and political involvement. Of injustice and cover ups.
So bizarre were these stories, so hard for me to understand, so disturbing that for some reason I would repeatedly ask my mother to tell them to me again and again. It seemed unreal that over 3000 Sikhs were killed in the national capital, some burnt alive in the very streets we live on today. I’d often sit as she spoke, wondering what I’d do if I’d been there.
But one day it stopped. I stopped asking and they stopped telling me. Maybe it had to do with age. Maybe it had to do with watching two planes crash into the twin towers as I studied for my class nine biology exam, I can’t quite be certain why, but I moved on.
What I am sure of is that the ground reports from Gujarat in 2002 changed the narrative for my generation. There was a new riot, new shocking visuals of death and violence, a new villain and more importantly a new story to be told. But hold that thought, as I circle back.
Fast forward ten years.
As a fledgling conflict journalist, my arrogance multiplying with every byline, I found myself in a dark dingy room in the outskirts of Delhi. The local papers had reported that a mass grave dating back to ‘84 had been unearthed in a village where four Sikh families had once lived. The passive aggressive behaviour of the neighbouring village – who blamed outsiders – and my search of a new, exclusive angle led me 20 minutes away to a tiny house in the heart of Pataudi village where four women, roughly my grandmother’s age sat before me. In their weathered hands, each clutched a dilapidated folder within which they held police reports that never led anywhere, photos of families members they’d lost, photos of their burnt bodies, of another mass grave and horrific memories. The women spoke of the 1984 pogrom almost without emotion, seemingly drained of hope, they spoke of rape, of fear and violence, of desecration, of dead bodies – particularly of a young woman, her body mutilated and urinated on by the violent mob. They spoke of injustice, inaction and hopelessness. They’d lived their lives in silence, holding on to these folders waiting for someone to listen.
I felt sick, physically sick. I felt scared, unsure of where to look and what to say, I felt as I did when my mother spoke, pointing to the window from where she saw the mob and as they spoke I was taken crashing back to the time when I asked the questions we should all keep asking – how can people do this this to each other? What causes such anger, such disdain, such monstrous acts done not by monsters but by everyday people, by neighbours? Why did my family stop talking about it? Why did the reporters stop asking questions, especially when as a reporter you feel your stories, you remember the faces, the emotion, the anger. How did we move on?
In search of answers I reached out to journalists who had witnessed and reported on the 1984 violence. Sitting in their houses, they told me stories of eerie silence and a waiting mob, walking through a tiny lane, trying not to step on the dead, the smell of blood and burnt flesh, of rooms filled with stacked bodies, of trauma, anger and injustice. They felt these stories, they carried them. So why did they stop telling them?
“To understand why, you need to go back to the late 1970s.”
They explained; The Khalistan movement was on the rise and unlike Kashmir, which seemed distant, the Sikh militancy in Punjab had Delhi scared. It was too close for comfort. Over a period of time, misinformation mixed with actual instances was systematically used to paint the Sikh as someone to be feared, as the real enemy of a nation on its way forward. And when Indira was killed by her trusted Sikh bodyguards, the system, masked by a mob, turned on its enemy. The police and party in power, the INC, through acts of omission and commission enabled the violence, delayed the Armed Forces and then prevented justice, protecting the those at the top while sacrificing a handful of foot soldiers.
But what allowed everyone to move on was not the lack of investigation – several fact finding missions have put forward detailed accounts of the violence – but the idea that they, the Sikhs, had it coming, that they needed to be put in their place. Those affected, now living in fear, tried to rebuild some semblance of their old lives, demanding justice and closure, but more often than not, were failed by our systems of justice after long drawn out court battles.
That’s the pattern for you. Through fake information possibly built around isolated incidents you build a narrative of hate, fear and disconnect. You create an ‘other’ out of a section of society, paint them as the enemy, a homogeneous group, all of whom equally bear the burden of your distrust, fear, anger and hate. And then, you unleash the mob, under the guarantee of impunity, because if you’ve done your background work and the followed the pattern, you know, post the violence people will think ‘they had it coming’.
Yes, there will be news reports, they will be inquiries, judges and citizens will ask questions, but this too shall pass as did the 1983 Nellie Massacre (in Assam where 2191 were killed in six hours), the 1984 Pogrom (3000 killed in three days), the 2002 Riots (over 2000 killed), the 2013 Muzaffarnagar Riots (62 deaths) and almost every time, riots result in electoral victories.
Today, what happened in the late 1970s has been replicated at a national level. There is a new enemy, the Sikh has been replaced by the Muslim. The fear, anger, disdain – the othering – is not only palpable, but visible and audible. It’s on our TV screens, in our family WhatsApp groups, on our screen corners, our taxi drivers, our neighbours and the pattern which has been used to stoke fear for electoral gains, is now being harnessed to determine the idea of the nation state. What’s at the stake is the idea of India itself; what is India & what makes one Indian
What makes this divide harder to bridge is this era of post truth, because social media algorithms create echo chambers where based on what you like, say and engage with, the information you are shown changes. It’s designed to show you what you want to see and furthers your belief and it does the same for me. So your vision of what’s happening and mine can be completely different.
It’s your truth vs my truth, your facts vs my facts. To you I’m an idiot not worth engaging with as you are to me. Our stands have hardened and there seems to be no scope for debate, for change, for an alternate thought, you are with us or against us, on all sides and it is absolute.
However, let history be the lesson. See the pattern, if you are privileged enough, engage with those you disagree with, break the walls of distrust and disconnect, unlearn and relearn, be patient and force dialogue, because if you can’t break the majority or form one, and we remain a first past the post system, you can’t change Governments and therefore, you can’t change the policy.
All I know is, that what happened in Delhi will soon pass, but trust me when I tell you, don’t let it!