1984: From cultural violence to genocide
The devastating riots that left more than 2,000 Sikhs dead were the culmination of a long-drawn campaign of orchestrated violence against the community
Preetika Nanda Delhi
What does it mean to witness your loved ones being doused in kerosene, garlanded with tyres and burnt alive? To smell the charred flesh? To hear the fearful screams of those set on fire? To have your lanes and homes turn into graveyards? To be raped in front of your children? What does it mean to live with these memories of utter savagery for every passing day for three long decades, with no semblance of justice?
And then, can we even begin to understand what drives this kind of butchery? What does it take to kill nearly 3,000 Sikhs in as many minutes – as happened between November 1 and 3in 1984?
In 1984, Ivan Fera wrote in The Illustrated Weekly of India that violence on such a large scale could not have been effected by the logistics of a cold-blooded coordination alone. It also required a charged climate. So behind this burst of spectacular violence lay the creation of myths and caricatures; figures of evil, which took root in the popular psyche before mobs with a single purpose were born.
In Galtung’s theory of violence, cultural violence entrenches itself in the popular psyche to form the image of the Other. In the process of nation-building, this cultural violence produced through various means such as the state-controlled media, using symbols and labels evoking threat and fear, creates the image of an ostensible ‘enemy’. Even though the product of the process of othering is constantly changing.
Galtung defines ‘cultural violence’ as those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence — exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) — that can be used to justify or legitimise direct or structural violence.
To understand how these formations of the Other — the Sikhs in this case — were entrenched in the public opinion, creating anxiety and apathy, leading ultimately to the legitimising of any means that would make one safe at the expense of total harm to the Other, we need to delve into the use of symbolisms and representations through fixed categories and their dissemination through state-controlled media. This process did not begin after the assassination of Indira Gandhi but was a part of an atmosphere created before and after the infamous Operation Bluestar.
In this period, reportage and commentary in the national print media on Punjab routinely employed the use of certain labels to categorise those Sikhs who were, in some way or another, in opposition to the Congress (I) and the government of India. Various labels such as “moderates,” “extremists” (sometimes “radicals”), “fundamentalists” (sometimes “fanatics”), “terrorists” and “secessionists,” generally prefixed by the word “Sikh”, generated a mental association between ordinary Sikhs and the militant activities of Bhindranwale and his followers and later with the insurgency (Andrew Major, “From Moderates to Secessionists: A Who’s Who of the Punjab Crisis”, Pacific Affairs, 1997, Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 42-5)
The curfew imposed prior to the assault on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs was accompanied by a media blackout isolating the whole of Punjab from the outside world by a rigid press censorship and the presence of an army of occupation. As a consequence, reliable news of developments in Punjab became hard to come by.
AIR, for example, in bulletin after bulletin, kept broadcasting news about search operations and seizure of arms from gurudwaras. There was a complete blackout of any news regarding similar recoveries made from mandirs, where militant Hindu groups such as the Hindu Suraksha Samiti and Hindu Shiv Sena had been collecting arms. Similarly, sly stories about “foreign markings’”on “sophisticated” weapons found inside the Golden Temple, suggesting a Pakistani link, projected a Sikh-Muslim-Pakistan triad.
This exacerbated the anti-Sikh sentiment within state institutions, and served to rouse and consolidate Hindu sentiments, most importantly at a time when there were no private news television channels or radio networks. (Pritam Singh, “1984 AIR and Doordarshan Coverage of Punjab after Army Action”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 36)
A dichotomy of meanings emerged from a single event. The first attached to the Sikhs as an entire community and the second, to the wider public opinion beyond. This binary of meanings was brought about by two simultaneous processes. One being the immediate belongingness to the location of the assault and an intimate association with what the Golden Temple symbolised (to Sikhs living outside Punjab too). The second being its exact opposite, that of detachment and compliance: a result of reliance on official sources of information. The message here was that a band of extremists who had taken over the Golden Temple had been effectively dealt with, with full respect for Sikh religious sentiments.
In the dominant narrative then, the government only took “required steps” with the help of former colonisers, to ostensibly evacuate the Golden Temple complex of “extremists”. In such a narrative, the assassination of the head of that state by her Sikh bodyguards could have only invoked the analogy of “saapon ke bachhe” — or the sons of snakes — who had “bitten back”.
This violence of language and symbols was then easily converted into real violence, as hordes of men facilitated by the police went about hunting down these “snakes”.
Thirty years after the carnage, eminent journalists, academicians and commentators continue to call violence of such magnitude and ferocity “anti-Sikh riots”, when cold facts, testimony after testimony, and the government’s own reports paint a completely different picture. For Galtung, sanitation of language itself is cultural violence; it obscures what happened in the past and negates the meanings people derive from their experiences.
To argue that what happened in Delhi 1984 was a ‘genocide’ would require a detailed study of the genealogy of the word, the socio-political contexts of the geographies that witnessed it, and International Law with its various interpretations of the nuances
One can here only address the confusion, or deliberate denial, of the reality of 1984 couched in the language of “riots”, arising from the ambiguity of various Commissions. Therefore, one needs to probe into what these Commissions are not saying: so as to derive some meaning out of
For the above purposes, the framework of analysis of the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) becomes helpful when read with examples of testimonies.
Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The one-sided massacres of Sikhs through organised majoritarian violence, looting and burning of their property, desecration of articles of Sikh faith were witnessed at least in 16 states across India. In Delhi, the official figures stand at 2,733 deaths, in Bokaro at least 72 Sikhs were killed and in Kanpur, around 127 Sikhs were massacred. In 2011, mass graves of 65 Sikhs in Hondh Chillar village of Haryana, were discovered, along with a mass cremation site at Pataudi in Haryana as well as ruins of Sikh houses and gurudwaras in Gurgaon and West Bengal.
The Nanavati Commission recorded that the mobs “either came armed with weapons and inflammable materials like kerosene, petrol and some white powder or were supplied with such materials soon after they were taken to the localities where the Sikhs were to be attacked”, clearly pointing out the intent to kill rather than injure. Moreover, the incitement to kill, slogans such as “khoon ka badla khoon se” by influential personalities (Amitabh Bachchan) and leaders in power were continuously aired on state-owned television. Speaking at the Iqbal Ansari Memorial lecture on the occasion of 30 years of the 1984 violence, Supreme Court advocate HS Phoolka pointed out that many activists had been baffled by the precision of the attacks. The mobs were moving with lists of houses where Sikhs resided. It was impossible to glean this information from voters’ list as the suffix “Singh” is not exclusive to this particular community alone. Only later did they realise that these were voters lists’ of elections to the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee. These lists were either in the gurudwaras or with the government.
The fact that the police actively collaborated with the mobs, directly or indirectly aiding them, was recorded by the Nanavati Commission:
“…There is enough material on record to show that at many places the police had taken away their (Sikhs) arms or other articles with which they could have defended themselves against the attacks by mobs. After they were persuaded to go inside their houses on assurances that they would be well protected, attacks on them had started. All this could not have happened if it was merely a spontaneous reaction of the angry public. The systematic manner in which the Sikhs were thus killed indicates that the attacks on them
In addition to the above, there are reports that Sikh police officers were removed from active duty. As noted by the Sikh Organisation for Prisoners Welfare (SOPW): “The only exception to the police indifference occurred at the Sabzi Mandi Police station, where two senior policemen co-ordinated the arrest of ninety rioters. Both the arresting officers were Sikhs and they had requested clearance for more aggressive action in order to stop the rioters. Permission was not granted. What they did get was a visit from a senior officer of the second highest rung of the police hierarchy in Delhi. With immediate effect, both Sikh policemen were taken off duty for making the arrests and attempting to stop the rioting, while those who stood by idly, remained on duty throughout the bloody days that followed.”
This reiterates that these were organised massacres or pogroms that are defined as the organised killing of many helpless people usually because of their race or religion. This brings us to the point of the Framework Analysis referred to earlier. There are eight categories of factors that the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) uses to determine whether there may be a risk of genocide. The sixth category of factors lists “pogroms” as a “genocidal act”. However, since we are required to make sense of the nature of violence so as to be able to name it appropriately, I will deal in detail with the seventh factor which explains how evidence of intent “to destroy in whole or in part …” needs to be analysed. This will be helpful with the following points of analysis it brings to the table.
• The specific means used to achieve “ethnic cleansing” [or pogroms] which may underscore that the perpetration of the acts is designed to reach the foundations of the group or what is considered as such by the
• The nature of the atrocities, e.g., dismemberment of those already killed that reveal a level of dehumanisation of the group or euphoria at having total control over another human being, or the systematic rape of women which may be intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child or to cause humiliation and terror in order to fragment the group;
• The destruction of or attacks on cultural and religious property and symbols of the targetted group that may be designed to annihilate the historic presence of the group or groups;
The Nanavati Commission recorded that: “Male members of the Sikh community were taken out of their houses. They were beaten first and then burnt alive in a systematic manner. In some cases, tyres were put around the necks and then were set on fire by pouring kerosene or petrol over them. In some cases, white inflammable powder was thrown on them which immediately caught fire thereafter. This was a common pattern which was followed by the big mobs which had played havoc in certain areas.”
The pattern and characteristics of killings point to the deliberate stripping of the distinct identity of the Sikhs by cutting of hair (the very foundation that sets them apart, the inherently essential aspect of being Sikh).
Along with the gurudwaras — of which 131 were reportedly repaired by the Delhi Development Authority, the mobs defiled the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib by urinating on it or by setting it on fire with cigarettes. As is evidenced through Balwant Singh’s testimony, the Granthi of the Gurudwara of BC Block in Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi, recorded by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar:
“We don’t mind so much for ourselves. I could have been martyred…I don’t mind the fact that my house was looted. After all it was the Parmatma [God] who gave it to me. But what I could not bear was that [H]e who had given everything to me should himself be trampled upon by the looters, that [H]e should be insulted and defiled with urine.”
The sexual violence, rape and abduction inflicted during the mass violence in 1984 is the most under-reported aspect of the tragedy. One of the rare testimonies of sexual violence recorded is that of Gurdip Kaur, a survivor of the massacre in Trilokpuri. The mob killed Gurdip’s husband and three sons. They raped her in front of her youngest son and then, after he had witnessed the devastation of his mother, they killed him. According to Gurdip, most of the Sikh women in Trilokpuri suffered gangrape, from nine and 10-year-old girls to 80-year-old women. In several cases, elderly women were raped in front of their families. The rapists then either took the women home with them, or left them naked in the streets. (Jaskaran Kaur, Ensaaf, 2006.)
Therefore, it becomes clear that the most prominent aspects of the anti-Sikh pogroms were genocidal in nature. On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, Khushwant Singh wrote in Outlook about the cultural violence embedded in the media, which entrenched impunity for the perpetrators: “Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, rationalised the violence: the Hindu cup of patience, he wrote, had become full to the brim. NC Menon, who succeeded me as editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote of how Sikhs had ‘clawed their way to prosperity’ and well-nigh had it coming to them.”
Today, while there may be no shameless justification for these atrocities inflicted on an entire community, our headlines need to stop calling these horrors “anti-Sikh riots”. Denial of such crimes sows the seeds of recurrence, which it did, strengthening forces whose enemies have been perpetually defined. It entrenches the trend of orchestrating genocidal pogroms to perversely seek democratic legitimacy while hollowing out the very foundational basis of a democracy.